The beginning of the 2013-14 school year next week marks a watershed moment in the evolution of public-school education in the Sea to Sky Corridor, district administrators say.
Last year, after the B.C. Ministry of Education signaled a desire to relax prescriptive guidelines for learning outcomes in favour of a more collaborative, project-based learning model, Sea to Sky School District (District 48) officials undertook extensive consultation with teachers, parents and others to draw up a new Strategic Plan to help guide learning in the district for the next three to five years.
The plan, which is now in final draft form, is to be implemented when the school year gets underway in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton on Tuesday (Sept. 3). While its aims are based on a growing body of research showing the efficacy of more student-centered, collaborative learning as opposed to a more top-down education model, on the ground it’s expected to represent the continuation of an evolution rather than a one-time revolution.
At a one-day symposium on Aug. 27 at Whistler Secondary School, educators were to get a primer on the plan and the educational strategies that arise from it, district officials said.
Local teachers, they said, played a big role in its development and many had previously helped lead the way in implementing projected-based, collaborative elements into their classrooms.
Seventeen teachers took part directly in the development of the plan, Lisa McCullough, District 48 superintendent, said during a gathering at the school board office on Aug. 23.
“Because of the high level of teacher involvement — which shows that this is the work that they would like to do — we think and hope that will mean we’ll see the change faster and with greater effectiveness,” she said.
“This is also where the research is telling us we need to go. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a lot of cognitive dissonance between the various interests and visions. There was broad agreement between the groups that this is where we need to go.”
In an interview about the overall educational concepts last fall, Sea to Sky Teachers’ Association President Carl Walker voiced general support for a more student-centered, cooperative-learning model, but said he was concerned that it was being brought in while province-wide, cash-strapped districts are cutting educational staff.
Rick Price, District 48 board chair, said the more traditional classroom and the teaching of basic literacy and numeracy skills aren’t disappearing completely.
“We have had provincial outcomes in which 80 per cent of the time, teachers were teaching to those competencies,” Price said. “I think now we’re going to try and flip that so that 80 per cent of the time we’re going to teach this higher-order stuff and 20 per cent you’re going to focus on basic literacy and numeracy.”
McCullough said that in formulating the strategic plan and an education plan to meet its objectives, local educators concluded that while “higher-order” skills such as cooperation and inquiry are increasingly important, “there’s also still some need to focus on those core skills.”
Said Peter Jory, the district’s director of instruction for technology and innovation, “We may go about teaching them in different ways, but those competencies still need to be taught and honoured.”
As part of their effort to ensure a balanced approach, the educators who drew up the strategic plan chose to us an Aboriginal medicine wheel. The four outer spokes of the wheel include the words “Create & Innovate,” “Collaborate,” “Think Critically,” and “Contribute.” At the centre of the wheel is the word, “Learn.”
“Our local Aboriginal representatives, who were there, supported the medicine wheel as a way of checking ourselves,” McCullough said.
Over time, the objective is for more and more classrooms in the Sea to Sky to include students sitting at tables doing cooperative, inquiry-based work in which they seek out the answers and fewer sitting at rows of desks with a teacher at the front. As well, teachers are being encouraged to visit others’ classrooms and share experiences with their colleagues.
“A defining characteristic of my teaching career was you did your job in isolation — you closed the door to the classroom and taught the best way you knew how,” said Price, a career educator. “This is kind of turning that on its head.”
The plan, though, is a work in progress. It’s expected that the old letter grades, which most educators feel is an inadequate way to assess and report student learning, will eventually disappear for students in Grades 4 through 7. This year, though, they will still be used as teachers and administrators huddle to formulate an assessment plan that better reflects the outcomes being sought under the new approach.
While there’s a new plan in place, by their very nature, these sorts of educational initiatives tend to be quite fluid, Price said.
“You don’t just issue a memo on Sept. 1 and all of a sudden a switch is flipped,” he said.
Added Jory, “It is a journey.”