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Flexible mindset needed for high school re-design

By: Tim Cusack

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Dec 04, 2013 06:00 am

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In our competitive world, high school learners now, more than ever, are under tremendous pressure to achieve at a level that gains them admission to post-secondary programming. Entrance criteria are more demanding and students feel the pressure to perform in very tangible ways. Add part-time jobs, extra-curricular commitments and responsibilities at home into the mix and these pressures often manifest in feelings of anxiety, stress and uncertainty about the future. How do I know this? My students have told me as much.

At Louis St. Laurent Catholic Junior and Senior High School, where I serve as principal, a survey was used to ask students to share their views on learner engagement, teaching and assessment practice, and the day-to-day constraints and concerns impacting their learning. The provincial government’s Inspired Education document recognizes that the skills, qualities and attributes required in the modern workforce are fundamentally different now. Learning is no longer rote and regurgitation, it is skill based, and seeks to engage and enhance digital fluencies and critical thinking. It seeks to support “engaged thinkers, ethical citizens and entrepreneurial spirit.”

The misgivings about flex time and mark inflation in a Nov. 27 article in the Edmonton Journal by David Staples do not fairly nor accurately reflect the intentions of the high school re-design project that is currently underway in more than 90 Alberta high schools, including Bellerose Composite. The re-design initiative, of which flexible learning environments is only one of numerous dimensions, is not an overnight process. Rather, it is data driven, and involves the dialogue and collaboration of all community stakeholders in transforming processes for the betterment of education. We should, accordingly, not be so dismissive and quick to judge this initiative as Mr. Staples has done on what could be deemed scant or hearsay evidence.

Students know how they learn best. We are now encouraging them to tell us. I am delighted to hear the voice of students who, for far too long, have not been partners in the conversation. We as educators, parents and community partners, need to trust that the input given by students has value and needs to be acknowledged.

When students informed my staff of the amount of volunteerism, part-time work commitments and other involvements they have outside of school, we responded by providing additional learning time during the day when students have access to instruction and supports that they otherwise might not get in the evening. Removal of the 25-hour Carnegie unit has enabled our school to provide flexibility in empowering all stakeholders to work smarter, not necessarily harder. Students also realize that there must be maturity, responsibility and accountability in making informed educational choices.

Educational reform is here. It seeks to guide us to a hopeful and hope-filled future. Please know that great strides in examining assessment practice, enhancing mastery learning within the framework of relevant and rigorous outcomes, personalizing learning, and professional development for all stakeholders are integral to the re-design.

Aversion to change is a normal response. The re-design is not simply something that is a fad or a trend. It is transformative and will draw similar reactions akin to the move from inkwells to ballpoints and chalkboards to Smartboards. Moreover, we may see the removal of diploma exams in favour of different means that better reflect what learners know thus muting the unfair claim that “most high schools inflate school awarded marks.”

We will see different approaches to how and when learning transpires. We will learn from trial and error. We will monitor and adjust accordingly based on informed opinion. We just need to be flexible in our mindset.

Tim Cusack is an educator, writer, and serving member of the naval reserve.


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