Thursday, February 2, 2012

What is the Right Amount of Choice?

As we move along the continuum towards personalizing learning in British Columbia, we find ourselves considering new options and also having to rethink some old ones. Prior to really investigating what true student-centered learning would look like, we have already made many changes in our small school to the way we do business. We have opened up many opportunities (as I mentioned in this previous post) as a means to better engage students and keep them moving forward in their learning, but this semester change week many new questions are surfacing that are stretching our thinking even further. A few examples:

·      Should a student who has 48% in English 11 be allowed to take English 12?  Most of us can see how and why we would do that. Okay, how about 44%?  Yes? Okay, how about 40%? That probably has a few of you thinking. How about a student who came from alternate or home schooling or some other situation, is able to demonstrate reasonable skills, but can provide no evidence of actual English 11? Hmmm.

·      Should a student in grade 9 who is currently enrolled in Science 9 be able to take Science 10 concurrently? This question is complicated further as this course is one of the "big five" that comes with a Ministry exam attached to it. 

·      Should senior students be able to opt out of an elective block to take a distributed learning (DL) class?  Okay, what about junior students? What about junior students opting out of a core class to do a DL course?  Is there a cut-off for these choices and should there be one?

Traditionally, school has been a pretty "lock-step" operation. Courses were offered inside the regular instructional day only, spare blocks were either not allowed or were available just for grade 12's, and there were no other real choices available for most students. Those who failed a course, in most if not all schools, would have had to repeat the entire course before even being allowed to enter the course that naturally followed it. This common misperception quietly remains intact in many places, even though the concept of a "pre-requisite", meaning the course that you would need to pass in order to take the next one, essentially does not exist at the Ministry level. The schools still choosing to enforce this idea are doing so at some risk, because in BC, a student can enroll in a distance learning school of their choice and register in any course that is available. This means that if we are too strict in what we allow at our school, we may end up losing our students to the "competition" that allows students to enroll in any course they want. 

So far I am pleased with the way the additional options have helped our students. I see far less harm than good to date, and students have often shown compelling success when given an opportunity. I am also very aware of the fact that freedom is only helpful to a point, and having too much too soon can be counterproductive for adolescents. Our job then, as educators, is to make sure students and parents fully understand the implications of the choices they make, and counsel them to enroll in classes that will best meet their learning needs, and away from classes they are not ready for or that we are sure will not work for them. As a person who really believes in the power of great instruction, I also want kids in enrolling classes connecting and engaging with teachers as often as possible, especially in the core areas that are mandatory for graduation. DL can be a poor alternative to real enrolling class time, especially when not well-supported, and the low completion rates speak to that. 

We are walking a bit of a tight rope here as the system changes from the 2004 Graduation Program to whatever comes next. Changes in expectations, the nature of our clientele, and the progress and ubiquity of technology and educational choice all mean that we must continue to adapt what we do within the old rules, or face the fact that we are not meeting our students' needs. We do not want our learners bypassing the system that we are working so hard to improve.

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