Reinventing High School Takes Grass Roots Grit
The Entrenched Culture of School
High School teachers are hired and placed according to their qualifications. In secondary schools in Ontario, teachers must begin by having at least two teachable subjects — presumably the subjects they chose to study while attending university. High schools post positions as subject vacancies. While there are some ‘protected’ courses that must be taught by a subject specialist (e.g. French, Music, Woodworking, Vehicle Maintenance), most grade 9–12 courses can be taught by anyone with Intermediate/Senior qualifications. After years of post-secondary education, beginning teachers see themselves as content experts who naturally want to impart their expertise. However, seniority rules dictated by collective agreements place new teachers on the bottom of the list when assigning timetables. It is not uncommon for new teachers to end up with timetables that have been pieced together with a variety of leftover sections — those courses which are not ‘protected’ and which could not be absorbed by qualified teachers with more seniority. As years of experience accumulate and seniority increases, a teacher feels more assured that his/her preferences will be protected. In fact, the privilege to teach one’s subject specialization is considered a rite of passage akin to tenure. Timetabling is indeed the most contentious, political, and divisive managerial duty an administrator undertakes because the timetable is what rules the lives of staff and students for an entire school year. Secondary timetables are notoriously complex and inflexible, adhering to a mandated number of instructional minutes that must be managed to abide by the terms of local and provincial collective agreements. At my school, the timetable consists of five 75 minute periods where teachers are required to teach three periods a day. Teachers can also be assigned a fixed number of additional half period duties per year, but not more than one of these duties per day. Most students take four courses each semester or eight courses per year so that they have one 75 minute lunch period per day. These inherent practices and their corresponding mindsets are part of what has become the culture of schooling.
An Admission of Guilt
Not surprisingly, my passion to advance the tenets of Modern Learning has been pummeled by the realities of this entrenched school culture. Ironically, I realize how I have both benefited from and perpetuated it. It is the culture in which I was raised and experienced success, so my respect for it is ingrained. Why wouldn’t I uphold the integrity of an institution that served me so well and that I have chosen to work in? Admittedly, I am not familiar with models of schooling except for the one I have experienced. As a teacher, it is hard not to replicate what I have observed in classrooms from the time I started kindergarten to the day I graduated from university. As a school employee, the existing culture serves my adult interests and lifestyle while honoring my qualifications and degrees. I perpetuate the current industrial model of schooling, often with the support of parents who grew up in the same model, by rewarding those students who figure out how to be successful within it the way I was. I see it as my duty to prepare students for my perception of post-secondary schooling, and I want to believe that what I am providing is essential, rigorous, and beneficial. Whenever my colleagues and I have seen that the traditional model of schooling is not quite aligned with the ‘real world’ or ‘digital world,’ we have made slight adjustments, but these tweaks continue to feel like endless add-ons to the core structure which, essentially, has not changed.
How Disruption Leads to Innovation
Some teachers may worry that to advocate for systemic change in education is dangerous since any such change could diminish the number of teachers or demand they work longer hours, thus threatening their current standard of living and altering those expectations to which they have grown accustomed. The current system is comfortable, familiar, predictable, and any change is seen as frightening, arduous, or an attempt to subvert teacher federations. Indeed, schooling has been criticized for fostering a culture where the mistakes of students and teachers must be reprimanded or penalized. And the fear of penalties promotes compliance — the enemy of innovation.
Alas, innovation is the current buzz word in education that is under attack. It is seen as cliché, the latest fad, or worst of all, a misnomer for school reform — a clever ruse designed to veil a ministry or board hidden agenda. In fact, it is a movement grounded in what I believe to be the best intentions of those conscientious educators who are realizing that the current industrial model of schooling is perpetuating ritualistic compliance, fear, and anxiety rather than fostering student passion, creativity, and empowerment. These same educators are asking themselves a series of relevant questions: Are marks and awards promoting competition and hurting self-esteem? Shouldn’t we be rewarding process, effort, ingenuity, empathy, and resilience? Are we assessing a student’s ability to imitate a model rather than to think critically and independently? Are the tasks in our teacher-designed programs outmoded or culturally biased? Are we letting students make decisions, or are we forcing them to engage in our content and to accept our choices? Are tests an accurate measure of learning or a means of stigmatizing and weeding out those whose intelligences we do not recognize? Are schools functioning to accommodate the preferences of the adults who work in them rather than serve the needs of the students who learn in them?
If you are familiar with the initiative to modernize schooling, you are likely also familiar with the concept of disruption — the deliberate alteration of routine protocols to incite positive change. The cult of presenting is a good example. You’ll notice that teachers are often presented to at meetings, conferences, and professional development sessions. Teachers often stand at the front of their classrooms and present to students. Students are often required to present to their peers for marks. Our multi-media presentations take time to produce and we are hurt or angry when audiences are inattentive. Yet, what can we expect when our presentations consist of rules, instructions, facts, statistics, and research? Most informational presentations elicit boredom, especially when audience members can access information whenever they want using whatever device they have on hand. However, the act of presenting is not necessarily the problem. Presenting is a worthwhile skill, especially when it requires both oratory and digital sub-skills. What we’re presenting, why we’re presenting, and for how long we’re presenting are the real problems. The most popular TED Talk presenters are successful because they are able to share a new, challenging idea in a limited amount of time. TED Talks are about new ways of seeing and doing. TED talk presenters attempt to disrupt our thought patterns, routines, beliefs, and values. The difference between worthwhile presentations and futile ones is the speaker’s ability to disrupt. But even the intent to disrupt can be futile if after the presentation the audience has no opportunity to talk back, discuss, debate, invent, co-construct, and reflect.
The First Step: Reinventing Ourselves
So how do we disrupt the current culture of schooling in order to innovate? I believe this begins by looking at ourselves as secondary teachers and admitting that we need to change for the benefit of our students since they are the reason why our profession exists in the first place. We need to become more flexible and adaptable given that the evolution of technology has transformed our role from being disseminators of specialized subject matter to being co-learners and model inquisitors of interdisciplinary online content. Environments outside of school are not compartments. They are fluid spaces requiring a variety of interconnected skills and knowledge. We cannot expect students to transfer skills from one discrete class period to the next when we teachers do not share access to our courses through co-teaching and ongoing cross-curricular discourse. If teachers do not perceive the relationship among subjects, then neither will students. In other words, our high schools need to operate with more fluidity and freedom. We need to view curriculum as a place from which to launch rather than a place to land. We need to bring specific curricular expectations to students as they need them instead of pushing students through a pre-designed, concept-driven, content-laden program. Many secondary timetables are not designed to allow students to carry out self-directed, interdisciplinary, inquiry-, process-, problem-, and project-based work. If we want to foster student empowerment, we need a less rigid timetable, less testing, more maker-spaces, and more experiential learning. As teachers, we have to be willing to go beyond the safe and familiar confines of our subject matter and oversee cross-curricular student projects without knowing exactly where they will lead. We have to emerge from our subject silos and collaborate. Teachers of different disciplines need to mingle their skills and knowledge while learning alongside students every day.
Practical Solutions that Address Common Objections
Can such a vision be achieved in secondary school without a contravention of our current collective agreements and ministry directives? I believe it can. And we can start by learning from our elementary colleagues. According to the current culture of schooling, there is very limited, if any, interaction between elementary and secondary teachers. When there is the opportunity for cross-panel dialogue, secondary teachers tend to dictate what elementary students should know and be able to do before they get to high school. The significant headway we need to make might happen if we secondary teachers were to shadow elementary teachers to understand how they interconnect curricula on a daily basis. They say that elementary teachers teach students while secondary teachers teach subjects, and I have to agree. Granted, the current secondary school model can only reinforce this adage, unless we start to make it more flexible.
While we may not be able to completely ‘unschedule’ what is a highly scheduled environment, we can compromise. For example, we could start by reducing each class period by 15 minutes or another agreed upon length of time (e.g. 75 minute classes could be reduced to 60 minutes). The time saved from each period could be combined and used at the end of each day to allow students, individually or in groups, to work on their personally designed, interdisciplinary projects involving community outreach, social justice, well-being, app or product design, marketing, custom woodworking, coding, performing arts and so much more. Teachers, who are now spending fewer minutes on direct instruction earlier in the day would fill their remaining instructional time mentoring and learning with an assigned, destreamed group of student doers/makers at the end of the day. Coverages and supervisions could still be managed as the total number of instructional minutes per day would remain the same — they would simply be allocated into smaller portions. Teachers could be assigned to a specific doer/maker group for the semester or they could rotate among these groups to check-in on the students from their classes. In these doer/maker sessions, the onus would be on the students to demonstrate how they are consolidating the knowledge and skills from their core classes. Throughout and/or toward the end of each semester, instead of subject specific culminating tasks and exams, students could interactively showcase their cross-curricular projects for a variety of audiences. The doer/maker time at the end of each day could also be borrowed for a multitude of events that normally interrupt class time including assemblies, guest speakers, mental health and wellness sessions, course selection, individual pathway planning, and student voice forums. How about using this time to simulate a real-world catastrophe whose staging would require the participation and collaboration of a variety of students from different grades and subjects?
Some teachers will immediately object to the reduction in class time, arguing that there would not be enough time for them to ‘cover’ their content. That’s the point. Teachers should not be focused on ‘coverage’ of ministry expectations; instead, students should be focused on applying ministry expectations in personal, practical, creative, meaningful, and memorable real world contexts. I would also argue that reducing class time would alleviate student boredom, distractions, and misbehavior. Students need to spend less time sitting and absorbing. They need to spend more time problem finding, problem solving, inventing, and experiencing. Some teachers will also argue that there will not be enough time for tests, and again I would counter by questioning the validity and purpose of testing. Do we want to induce anxiety? Do we want students to regurgitate what they memorize and then forget it? Couldn’t students demonstrate their learning in other more practical ways? If testing must happen, could tests be shorter or parsed over several days? Remember that students will always learn whatever interests them. Learning is not confined to a classroom. Learning happens anywhere and anytime, especially in the digital age and especially through experience.
If altering the timetable seems altogether too drastic or politically volatile, you have alternatives. This past year, for example, teachers at my school partnered with other teachers in the same period to work on joint projects. A grade 12 Computer class partnered with a grade 9 Geography class. The grade twelves developed software that enabled the grade nines to retrieve up-to-date climate data. This project simulated a customer service model whereby the grade twelves had to create a product according to the specifications of their grade 9 colleagues. In another case, a senior English class was paired with a senior Business class. Both groups began by performing research on corporate scandals. Then, students formed mixed course groups and gave themselves company names. Each group performed in role as both a company and the paparazzi. As a journalist group, students brought forth damaging evidence that threatened a company group’s stock value. Then, as a company group, students had to strategically plan and present ways to best mitigate the allegations brought against them. After each company group responded to allegations and made its defense, each student, using a personal allotment of chips, privately invested in the companies he/she felt were still the most investment worthy. Teachers evaluated the performance of each company group with a rubric that did not use levels or grades. Groups that were highly successful at mitigating damage retained more of their stock value. Assigned teacher stock values were combined with private student investments to jointly determine an overall company winner. In yet another case, two courses attended a joint field trip. A French class joined a Geography class on a trip to a large urban market where students participated in a scavenger hunt to learn about local, French-Canadian, and world cuisine. Cross-pollination of skills and knowledge occurred when French students had to translate clues for their Geography peers and when Geography students had to explain food production, consumption, and sustainability to their French peers. Keep in mind that all course partnerships can be flexible and do not have to last a full semester or occur on a daily basis. Classes can be combined for a 2–3 week stint or meet once a week on an ongoing basis.
I will make yet another suggestion for those schools wary of altering the schedules of all students in all classes. High schools could offer course packages by grouping together a full complement of courses that a student would be enrolled in for an entire semester or year. These packages would be designed to ensure that students were meeting ministry credit requirements. Thus, students would not be selecting 8 individual courses. Instead, they would select one course package containing 8 courses. This option is an effective way to pilot change. Course packages allow an autonomous group of teachers to work with the same group of students for an entire day without worrying about fixed time rotary and macro timetable coordination. The teachers could creatively integrate their curricula to meet student needs and interests. Students, in turn, would have more autonomy and more time to engage in project-based learning.
Modernization of secondary schools cannot happen without more flexibility, more teacher autonomy, and more student agency. While some districts openly acknowledge the need for flexible structures in order to achieve a vision of modern learning, working models of such structures are scarce and the degree of flexibility that schools may exercise remains ambiguous. Encouraging grass roots projects that can demonstrate the successful use of flexible structures is likely the best way to spur systemic change since these projects provide a working model that other schools can emulate and adapt. This process of scaling works far better than top-down directives since teachers are more apt to adopt change when it is led by their peers. Thus, it’s in every board’s interest to support school level innovation teams. However, these grass roots projects require more than grit. They require ingenuity, patience, leeway, release time, and trust. In order to innovate, teachers need to take risks as they act in good faith. They will be unwilling to attempt even the smallest of changes if they are afraid of repercussions. Teachers and administrators need to see each other as collaborators, consultants, and partners who are working toward the same goals. If educators remain averse to risk, insular, or apathetic, the culture of schooling is unlikely to evolve.