valemount secondary school

By: Frank Green

Valemount Secondary is rejiggering its classes starting in September, moving towards the so-called self-directed learning model.

It’s a setup where students have less traditional classroom time, with a teacher at the front lecturing. In its place are, among other things, increased time for students to learn things themselves, with the teacher as a last resort.

But it’s not yet clear what form the model will take at Valemount Secondary.

“The aspects of self-directed learning we’re going to adopt are limited,” said Principal Dan Kenkel. “We’re going to call it more of a flexible learning model.”

Valemount Secondary is making the change because of its shrinking student population — Kenkel says the school will have 63 students and just four teachers next year. There are no longer has enough kids to pay enough teachers to divvy them up into traditional classroom blocks.

Advocates of self-directed learning say it empowers students. It requires them to do more to help themselves learn—like knowing their teachers’ schedules as well as their own, so they can seek them out to learn what they need. And that may prepare them better higher education, where students are largely on their own.

“They’re required to take more ownership,” said Sean Nosek, the director of instruction for the West Vancouver school district, and a pioneer in self-directed learning. “Students pick up the soft skills like the ability to advocate for themselves, to negotiate, to approach an adult, to suggest an alternative.”

And under a self-directed learning model, those alternatives can be more radical. At A.L. Fortune, a self-directed learning school in Enderby, students can get course credit for volunteering outside of school, or working for a wage. They can set up independent study programs with teachers, looking into questions they find interesting. Doray said that part of the model meant ending the “song and dance” of forcing students to choose between the courses offered in a given block, even if they don’t want like any of the options.

“There’s this idea that if you give kids freedom they’ll make a mess of it,” Doray said. “Freedom with some guidance, they’ll do amazing things.”

Self-directed learning remains rare—the Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning consists of just eight schools. But students have scored similarly in that small sample size, and some schools outperform provincial averages.

But the model varies from school to school, and also depends on the class. At a self-directed learning school, Grade 11 math won’t look much different from its counterpart at a traditional school—there are so many concepts to learn that a teacher has to spend a lot of time at the front of the class explaining them. For humanities courses, however, teachers may spend less time teaching students as a group.

But that’s already happening, to a degree, at Valemount Secondary. Arrangements such as classes with multiple grades of students, which is common in self-directed learning, have already given the school a self-directed flavor.

In the end, the school doesn’t have the money for anything other than self-directed learning. But that doesn’t mean Principal Kenkel’s not excited about it.

“We have no other option,” Kenkel said. “But it’s actually a very good option.”