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The One Stop Shop

The pilot programs proposed here represent Step 1 of a series of steps leading to a fully developed system of integrated community learning resource centres where each centre is the hub of its community. The more radical a change is, the fewer will be the number of people willing to participate in it, consequently the steps are kept small, with each new step being a logical progression to the one before it. People voluntarily take each step as they feel ready to avoid rushing the process and thereby jeopardizing it.

There is no defined order to the steps. A second step might be to include more students and teachers in the program. It might be to give students more control over what they learn. For example, students could be invited to design one of their courses to give them the opportunity to explore one or more of their interests. The experience gained through designing it could help them assume more responsibility for themselves and further develop the skills needed for life-long learning. The second might instead involve expanding the age-mix to include younger children. Some groups might decide to focus Step 2 on harnessing the internet and real world resources that become more available with the elimination of timetabling. Some programs, especially ones where you may have a history teacher involved, may decide to introduce democratic governance where students are given more control over decisions affecting the whole group. This step could involve all sorts of learning opportunities related to the advance of democracy, human rights, current events, responsible citizenship, and judicial systems. Depending on how much learning is to be involved, authorities might agree to provide a course credit for students who undertake to run their program democratically. It might come under the name “World Issues”. The order of the steps is best decided by the participants of each program with particular consideration being given to the impacts they might have on other programs operating in the larger school.

This brief look at what a second step might be is intended to convey the need for flexibility. We don’t have to have a full vision and all the answers before undertaking substantive reform, and there are questions that can only be answered along the evolutionary route to reform. Trying to establish a set order to the steps would probably be futile, and it is better if people are able to determine their own progression according to their particular circumstances. Ideas grow like aviation grew from the Kitty Hawk to transcontinental passenger jets, and in education we need to give ideas room to grow.

At the time of the Kitty Hawk it would have been seen as complete science fiction if people described the air travel we have today. In public education today, self-directed learning is still in its infancy stage. Where it will lead is a matter of speculation, but some reasonable projections can be made on the basis of problems with the current system that need to be overcome.

Solution #1

One of these problems is the lengths of the school day and school year. The 9 to 3 school day and the September to June school year do not work for the modern family. Working parents are juggling their children’s days through stressful circumstances that see large numbers of children being taken to ‘before school’ care givers who then arrange for the children to get to school. At the end of the school day, children are returned to the care givers until the parents pick them up. It makes for a disjointed day for the kids. Moving them from place to place increases the chances of something going wrong, and there is constant concern over obtaining quality before and after school care. For children old enough not to require before and after care, parents face all the problems associated with latchkey kids.

Schools where children are self-directed can be far more easily kept open from morning to night, and all year long making it unnecessary for families to have to arrange before school, after school and summer holidays care. The elimination of timetabling and the cultivation of children’s ability to be self-directed learners produces a different environment. The day is not programmed with a start and stop bell and students being marched in unison from class to class, and the school year does not begin and end with the start and end of courses. A certain number of staff need to be on duty for safety reasons and to give the students a sense of belonging, but otherwise the kids can just come in and start doing whatever they do. The exact nature of this would vary from school to school depending on the needs of the community and the age of the children involved. The time of day and year that teachers would be available as facilitators of learning is something each community could decide to best meet its needs. (In another post to be included soon, the new role for teachers will be presented in some detail. Suffice it to say for now that no fewer teachers would be needed and the new role would provide them with far greater freedom to make a more satisfying career for themselves.)

Solution #2

A second problem is that of transitions. The Ministry of Education identifies it in Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario (April 2014). It states, “An important component of ensuring equity is supporting students through transition periods that we know pose challenges. There are several key transition points when children and students need extra attention – when they first enter kindergarten; when they make the transition to Grade 1; when they move from elementary to secondary school; . . .” A transition not mentioned that occurs for most public school students in Ottawa is the move from elementary to middle school. (Thinking of middle schools, a teacher once asked, “Whose idea was it to amass all those kids at the height of their hormonal hysteria all together into one place without the tempering influence of the younger and older kids?)

Many democratic schools have children aged K-12 enrolled. The transitions found in traditional school systems do not exist, except for the one when the children enter kindergarten, but even this one does not have to exit. The schools can easily be made to accommodate children of all ages. They can incorporate pre-school daycares where even expectant parents would be welcome to contribute, to learn from others and to prepare for the day when maternity or paternity leave ends and they return to work. Windsor House, a democratic school in North Vancouver provides an example of how parents can be a normal part of the school environment. It does not enrol pre-school aged children, but it makes it easy to see how parents can be a naturally included.

Solution #3

A third problem is that traditional schools greatly limit children’s interactions with the rest of the world. By containing students in settings that are essentially isolated from the rest of the world, where visitors feel conspicuous and not particularly welcome, and where outings are mass productions that confine students to groups, these schools run counter to the idea that it takes a whole village to raise a child. Again the problem comes down to timetabling. It creates “all or none” situations. If only part of a class is absent for an activity, a dilemma of sorts is created. “What is to be done with the remaining students and how will the absent ones get caught up?” The design creates the propensity to keep the students all doing the same thing with little deviation.

The Ministry of Education alludes to this problem in Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario, “Achieving success in this goal (Promoting Well-Being) will depend on the knowledge, wisdom and willingness of students, parents and guardians, community organizations, service providers, government ministries and others to create an environment that is healthy, safe and caring.” It is obviously encouraging schools to be more inclusive of society as a whole, but if we take just one example, we see the problem.

Imagine a student who lives in a group home who needs extra love and attention. In a democratic learning environment that student’s support professionals could be based in the school and mingle throughout the day with students. Their interactions with students would not be limited to before and after school hours. They could see first hand what the student faced in school life and deal with it accordingly. In time their role could become redefined. They may become fixtures in schools where the well-being of all students and the health of the learning environment in general is their concern. The point here is not to prescribe, but only to point out that the democratic learning model provides an opportunity to integrate services that are currently segregated with the possible result of better services being provided at less cost. From this example, the image of other people participating inconspicuously in the learning environment is easily extended to include parents, seniors, business people and others as normal parts of the daily operations.

Solution #4

A fourth problem is that access to quality learning resources is far too limited. Timetabling restrictions result in some students never taking courses with some of the most knowledgable and engaging teachers in their schools. Many are assigned to courses where the teacher lacks the subject specialty. Age-segregation results in the advantages of cross-age learning going largely untapped. Younger children study and mimic those who are slightly older with the result that the Sudbury Valley School, where students are self-directed, claims that its greatest asset is its cross-age mix. The knowledge of seniors and other community members is also minimally shared through schools. The elimination of timetabling provides the opportunity to create great diversity in learning environments and to bring the real world more fully to the attention of students.

Closing point: Today, even with no greater implementation of self-directed learning, schools can be made more family friendly. There is no substantive reason to prevent them from opening earlier and closing later to provide children with just one safe place to be all day. Some schools already house before and after school programs and they could become the norm. The same caregivers could run these programs with parents continuing to pay for the service. As schools eliminate timetabling and students become more skilled at self-directed learning, before and after school programs can become incorporated into the regular school day.


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