For years, many of us have been wondering aloud about the efficacy of the current BC Graduation Program for students in grades 10-12. Our questions about whether or not and how the current system is serving young people and society in this day and age have been echoed by countless voices from the world of research. People who study systems, and in particular education systems, and who do so for a living, continue to write books, peer reviewed articles, and op-ed pieces about the need for change. “Secondary renewal” has been a call to action since I began in the profession 35 years ago.
At some level, this is a rhetorical call for change, and properly so. We are supposed to ask big questions, with assumed big answers. Too often, though, those rhetorical questions are inadvertently demeaning to the practitioners who do the real work. We wonder about when learning will become modern and relevant, when technology will be properly embedded in teaching and learning, when assessment practices will become authentic in relation to what we know about learning, and when teachers and others will finally break out of an industrial model of education. We do so as if those things are not happening. As if we are somehow derelict in our duty, devoid of innovation. But that could not be further from the truth.
This is a good news story. We are doing ALL of those things in public education in BC. Pundits who are the most critical of the current system are often those who have the least immediate connection to that same system. I am in schools all the time, and since we are talking about secondary schools I can tell you that what I see is rapidly changing pedagogy with increasingly relevant and meaningful experiences for young learners. Students are routinely engaged in interdisciplinary, community-connected, technology-supported, inquiry-based and relevant learning. They are engaged, and even as they explore their passions they are covering necessary content, acquiring appropriate knowledge, and reinforcing what we commonly call the basics.
And there is even better news. The Ministry of Education is building from its emerging successes in transforming curriculum and assessment in kindergarten through grade 9, and is working with partners from across the spectrum, most importantly teachers, to design a new program for grades 10-12. The new grade 10-12 program will build on the progress that has already been made in K-9 where there is a purposeful shift toward core competencies (beyond but including the 3Rs), big ideas, learning standards and less content. Gone for K-9 and soon 10-12 will be the days of mastering hundreds of discrete and often disconnected bits of learning. That old model will be replaced by slimmed down core content being at the foundation of deep learning based on inquiry about things that matter.
As we move to a new model, we need to attend to two tremendously important issues, the elephants in the room if you will.
First, we must not, in our quest to modernize, lose what is working. If we move to more interdisciplinary (multi-subject) learning with fewer and broader learning outcomes and students pursuing their interests, we must not lose the value that comes from studying certain subjects in cohorts, and from gaining core knowledge and insights collectively. It may be that the best way to learn certain big concepts is through self-directed projects, but that the best way to learn senior chemistry (as an example) is to work together through heavy content at roughly the same pace, relying on the teacher as subject expert. My point is that we have to guard against being overzealous in our efforts to reform. Put another way, we should only reform that which needs reforming.
Second, we must also have the courage, in our quest for modernity, to abandon some parts of our system that we are used to, but that may have outlived their utility. It may be hard to believe for those who see government as reticent to change, but the senior leaders at the Ministry of Education are working with teachers and other partners from across the system to wonder about . .
- Why have grades 10, 11 and 12 at all? Perhaps students can enter the graduation program the year they turn 15, and leave when they are done.
- Why have courses? During their time in the graduation program students could work through a series of learning activities and events, perhaps some courses of the kind we are familiar with now, a wide range of teacher-supported learning activities in the community, and a number of inquiry-based larger projects. All of this would be with a teacher mentor supporting the journey and documenting progress in relation to learning outcomes and standards.
- Why have tests and traditional assessments? At a time when we know more about high quality authentic assessment, we ought to be able to embrace and document constant progress in relation to multiple learning domains. We can also store those assessment data electronically for ready access by students, teachers and parents.
- Why have report cards? If students, parents and teachers are aware of progress all the time, and are accessing the electronic warehouse of assessment data to better understand progress against learning outcomes and standards, maybe we don’t need to stop three or four times a year and produce a piece of paper that tells us what we already know.
- What about percentages? One of the secrets of reporting (okay, it’s not a secret, it’s more like a bluff) is that percentages are terribly misleading in terms of purporting accuracy. Students demonstrate learning in far bigger chunks than can be measured on a hundred point scale, or heaven forbid if one uses decimal places a thousand point scale. Yet we take comfort in the perceived accuracy of 83.4% because it looks so . . . well, accurate. In fact it is just what comes out when we ask a spreadsheet to add up numbers and divide. Sure, we weight the numbers in the spreadsheet, and we have been doing good evaluation all the way along to get those weighted numbers, but to sum it all up as a percent? That doesn’t fit learning theory. We need to examine ways to describe authentically and holistically what is in reality a set of authentic and holistic experiences for our students. Why do we wait for students to be in graduate school to evaluate learning as A, B and not yet?
- Do we need a timetable and a bell schedule? Why do we expect Math learning to occur every Monday to Friday from September 6th to January 29th from 10:07 to 11:10 am? It is such a shame that powerful and engaged learning can be interrupted by a bell just so that students can head off to the next time-limited event of learning a discrete subject. Our structures need to be changed to better reflect the way learning occurs, and that is not in 63 minute blocks of time. Thankfully, we are already remedying this with bigger blocks of time, learning beyond the bells, and more.
- And that begs the question of why have subjects at all? We may need to retain certain discrete subjects, but if our new model provides for more opportunity for interdisciplinary learning then it may be that we find ourselves less and less reliant on subjects as delineators of learning. It is time to challenge our assumptions, build on the great work being done all across BC by innovative teachers, administrators and system leaders, and get on with creating and implementing a new Graduation Program. We will never have everyone on side, but the directions we need to take have never been clearer.