One Size Will Never Fit All Students

Alternatives to High School: There are more out there than you think!

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column is about alternatives to high school–there are more out there than you may know, so let’s not be afraid to think outside the box! 

When I was young I used a rotary dial phone. I had rabbit ears on my TV and bellbottoms on my jeans. And I went to a neighbourhood school from 9:00 until 3:15 everyday, sharing my teacher with dozens of other kids. Some things have changed, but others have stayed exactly the same.

When it comes to school, is this really the best we can do? We are living through an internet revolution, taking the world by storm—but leaving schools virtually untouched.

Yet there are pockets of change, giving us alternatives to high school the way we’ve always done it. Take the Virtual Learning Centre, administered by the Trillium Lakelands school board for the Ministry of Education. They offer online high school courses for any Ontario students. My two daughters, whom we have homeschooled since grade one, took several VLC courses. In grade 9 and 10 Science they had two hours of lectures every week, assignments to do on their own, and online drop ins with their teacher if they were having trouble. No more sitting through 90 minutes a day of Science class when the same material can be learned much more quickly.

This year, the Ministry of Education has also launched “Open School”, where students can start a credit at any time and work at their own pace. Work really fast, and you can earn a full credit in just a few weeks. Sure beats a semester of high school English classes listening to your fellow students butcher Shakespeare as they read Romeo and Juliet out loud.

Then there’s Athabasca University. Run out of Alberta, it’s an open university admitting anyone who is at least sixteen, regardless of educational background. My girls will both start university at sixteen, complete their first year online, and then transfer to a “regular” university for second year. For students who are bored or bullied in traditional schools, but who are independent learners, this is an awesome escape hatch.

But online resources can also benefit traditional schools, if schools are open to using it. After all, school teachers do not have a monopoly on the gift of teaching, and often the best teachers are found outside of the traditional classroom. Take the Khan Academy, an online video sensation launched by a young man who just wanted to help his relatives in India with their math homework. He started recording 15-minute videos of himself explaining a Calculus concept, and the videos went viral. Now he has thousands of videos covering everything from Economics to Biology. And they’re free.

Some enterprising American schools are tapping in to this. Instead of teaching kids at school, and assigning homework to complete at home, they “flip” school, assigning videos to watch at home, and then assignments to complete during class time, so the teacher can help students one-on-one with problems. A child can progress through multiple grade levels in one year using this method, if they’re fast learners. And the pace can be slowed for those who need to solidify the information.

Not everybody appreciates Khan’s teaching, but that’s okay. What Khan showed is that you can take the best teachers, record them teaching, and then use that to teach kids. Brilliant teachers are difficult to find; let’s expose our kids to the best, and then use teachers as facilitators, tailoring their approaches to what individual students actually need.

Unfortunately, as wonderful as these innovations are, they’re not very widespread. Too many people have a vested interest in keeping schools exactly as they are: expensive, inflexible, one-size-fits-all entitites. Thus, most of the students benefiting from the technological revolution are those, like my children, who have the luxury of parents who can supervise during the day. What about everyone else?

One size does not fit all, and now, with the internet, it doesn’t have to. It’s time for some radical rethinking about how we do school. Some students will always need the structured, four walls approach. But not everybody does. And surely, with all the technology we have available, we don’t need to be doing school the same way they did when my parents were children. Do we?

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  1. I was a brilliant child and was bored at school. When I was in high school I participated on an exchange to Germany for 6 weeks. When I returned, my Chemistry teacher spent a lunch hour with me to teach me what I had missed. Spending hours in a classroom didn’t work for me academically. But Grammar and Math weren’t the only things I learned at school. Your articles neglects to discuss the social skills children learn while at school with other children.

    • I think there are many other ways kids can have social interaction–and sometimes school can actually have NEGATIVE social repercussions. My own girls are social butterflies even though we homeschool. But that’s the point–there are so many different ways that we can do things, and there’s no need to try only one way! Some kids will need more social interaction, and some will need more tutoring. It doesn’t matter. Let’s just make sure that every kid gets what they need.

      • I agree with you there, Sheila. There can be some very negative social inertactions in traditional school. The “socialization” question is one that nearly always comes up when you talk about homeschooling. The thing is, why would anyone think that a child spending 8 hours a day, 5 days a week with just their own 1-year age group is socialization? That’s not real life. That doesn’t teach them to interact with a wide variety of people.

        In real life, you don’t get to work and interact with just your age group. Traditional schools often train children in very abnormal settings, from a socialization perspective. Each grade looks up to the “bigger kids” and looks down on the “littler kids.” They are taught peer-centrism by interacting primarily with their own, very narrow, age group. It is in this artificial setting that kids can become so obsessed with what their peers think of them (both when they are part of the “cool crowd” and when they are on the outside looking in). They often don’t know how to talk to or empathize with adults or people of different ages and that’s a real disadvantage in the real world.

        It’s not that children in traditional schools can’t be socialized (they definitely can), but the traditional school system is not nearly as conducive to real socialization as it ought to be.
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      • It’s funny, after I posted this comment, I read a very intriguing article by developmental psychologist Dr. Neufeld about “socialization”… after having read his viewpoint, I completely agree with you!

      • Oh, here’s a link to the article, just in case anyone is interested:

  2. Tracey Eyster says:

    We made a change this year and we are homeschooling our son at age 16, we found co-op classes for a few and next semester he will take a class at a local technical school. I agree that if the traditional school is not fitting your child’s needs it is very much worth it to explore other options! Already our son is thriving and more interested in learning. I am encouraged that parents are looking to what’s best for their child and no longer “assuming” all is well in traditional settings. Socially – trust me as a substitute teacher, all schools are full of influences that would shock most parents. It’s frightening really! Blessings and thanks for ringing the bell on this issue!

  3. Sheila…

    This is our first year of homeschooling! Loving it. I wasn’t very adventuresome with the curriculum this first year, but I’m excited about seeing what’s available for next year. Should have done this years ago!

    Hope you are well.

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  4. Homeschoolers here too! I don’t doubt the school systems work for some kids and definitely for many families it’s really the only option that fits their lifestyles and needs. For us, homeschooling works. It does mean that we can tailor to our children’s learning styles and interests, it does mean that we have to get out and get connecting with others.

    I love all the options available for us as homeschoolers and even for creative schooled kids who want more from their education. :)
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  5. My sons go to a “technology immersion” school. They use computers and iPads on a regular basis. This allows the kids to work at their own speed, especially in reading and math. There are 2 or 3 classrooms where every kid is issued their own iPad and all assignments are done using them. These approaches give the teachers more time to give one on one assistance to each kid. It’s great!

  6. Hi, this is my first time commenting on your site. I’d like to say that I love the conversations and it’s nice to see a little common sense in the world. (Christian world included) I have three children ,a girl 18,a girl 16 and a boy 15.My oldest girl attended a Christian academy , just graduated and is at a Christian college in Maine.My middle child attends public school (grade 11) because she prefers the variety of classes it offers.(I’m sure the freedom to wear hoodies doesn’t hurt either.) And lastly my son .I removed him from public school in grade 6.He started school in the academy ,switched to public in grade 4.He is dyslexic(diagnosed at age 8) and after giving everyone a shot I thought I should give it a try.I have never regretted it for a moment.I enjoy his company and think that he is becoming a awesome young man.I thank God that he has not lost the love of learning just because he struggles.I love the freedom that homeschooling offers,there really is more than the traditional way. I’ve learned from him that there are lots of way around not being able to read well.The internet is a awesome resource videos ,documentaries and how to blogs.One size does not fit all.

  7. Rachae worley says:

    I’m a mom of 7. the first statement I usually hear is that I must homeschool. Well, yes and no. I have two kids with disabilities that go to public school because it’s beyond my teaching ability, and then three who go to public school because it’s where they’d rather be, and then I homeschool our two youngest. This is my first year doing so, and it’s very overwhelming.

  8. WOW! The Khan Academy is amazing. I teach high school in Texas, and I just sent the info to our principal, technology director, and department heads. Thanks Sheila!
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  9. Sheila,

    I am a supply teacher in the Ontario public school system. I have little full time teaching experience, as I had kids soon after becoming a teacher; however, I get a glimpse into daily school life at the elementary and secondary level.
    Six years ago, I attended a technology based university (UOIT) for my B.Ed., where each student had to rent a laptop and complete assignments digitally. We had out of class online discussion groups and were required to learn and incorporate various technologies into our lesson plans. It was certainly disappointing to then go out into a teaching placement and find that the schools did not have the same technology we had access to in university. But now most schools in my board do have WIFI and dedicated interactive white boards, computers and projectors in classrooms.
    I agree that technological change has been happening slowly, but it IS happening. At the board level there are e-learning programs and a commitment to upgrade infrastructure (costly!). At the classroom level, there are innovative teachers using technology, social media, differentiated learning, inquiry and problem-based learning to create unconventional learning opportunities. “Younger” teachers seem to be at the forefront of these methods, though there are board-wide initiatives to promote and train teachers in them. Unfortunately, the skills of new teachers that have been trained in new technology and updated methods of teaching are going to waste, as they have little chance of getting a permanent job these days.
    I’m sure some folks in the education field that would fight the sort of changes you suggest, but there are lots of up and coming teachers that are enthusiastic about non-traditional methods. Change is going to take time!

    • That’s good to hear! And I totally know what you’re saying about the expense of computers. I do “get” that. But I often wonder: if they utilized more web-based learning, and then more one-on-one with teachers, could you not do bigger classes? Or combine classes and then have let’s say three teachers per one class? I think there are just lots of ways that you can “think outside the box” when it comes to school, but it doesn’t seem like the individual schools are doing it. I know the Boards are, because the few things I listed here are Ministry initiatives, but individual schools still look exactly the same! :)

      But I’m glad to hear that changes are coming…. :)

  10. One of the areas my parents have had a big influence on me is in education – their philosophy was that it’s about doing what’s best for each individual child. Two of my brothers and I went to public school, and thrived there, but my youngest brother went to a small, private Christian school where he absolutely blossomed. Were things always perfect? No. But they did the best they could.

    So with my own kids, I’m doing my best to not get too attached to any one philosophy. I figure the best I can do is to know my children as best I can so I can make the best decisions with their education. At least I’m gonna try. :-)
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    • That’s great, Melissa! We all have to know what will work with our own kids. But I do wish the public schools themselves would innovate more. As much as I love homeschooling, I know that the vast majority of parents just can’t swing it. But why does that mean that their kids have to do school the same way my grandparents did? Why don’t public schools make more use of all the innovations homeschoolers can now access? That way there’d be more choice even for parents who can’t afford a Christian school or can’t afford to homeschool. It just makes sense to me (but I guess not to the vested interests who want to keep school exactly the same).

  11. We tried homeschooling for one year, and it didn’t turn out to be what was best for my oldest son. I was disappointed and felt like a failure for ‘giving up,’ but he’s now about a month in to his wonderful University Model charter school – loving every minute of it and learning so much every day. I’m thankful to live in a time when there are starting to be more choices for education. Kids are so different – of course one thing isn’t going to be right for all children and all families.

  12. My husband and I just discovered Khan Academy this week! Awesome that you talk about it here. My husband has ‘gone back to school’ :). Amazing the kind of things we can do if we just think outside the box :)
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  13. Another group of students who benefit from technological advances are those that can’t attend regular classes due to illness. I ended up completing the last two years of my university degree via distance education almost 10 years ago, and had that option not been available, I wouldn’t have been able to graduate. Distance ed was just getting started then – we still had to fax in assignments :) – but what a blessing to be able to continue my education by finding something that worked perfectly in my situation!

    • So true, Kari! My husband’s a pediatriican, and online education has allowed kids undergoing cancer treatment in hospitals to at least keep up with their schooling, giving them something else to concentrate on and a degree of normalcy to their lives!

  14. As a teacher, I have worked at an online public high school, a traditional public high school, a Christian high school, and I have done tutoring for home school students. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment about each student being different and we, as parents, needing to individualize their educational experience. What I disagree about is who’s responsibility this is. It is not the government’s! It is parent’s jobs!
    The other thing I think you forget it the variety and background of the children the government is charged with educating. The system that you think it expensive and outdated, has to service kids who have iQ’s below 80, kids who don’t get fed breakfast at home, and kids who don’t sleep in the same bed 2 nights in a row.
    Those of us who provide a godly home for our kids comprise a very small minority of the homes in our country. our kids have such an advantage and higher ability for learning just for having a stable home with all their physical needs met. If public schools just had to educate kids like ours, I would agree with you. As that is not the case, I don’t stick my head in the sand, but I do understand the huge challenge public education faces. No one is trying to stop progress, but the challenges are bigger than most of us realize.

  15. Anonymous Too says:

    Here, here, Erin! I have taught in public school, private school, and I homeschool my children now. The admonition to teach children is directed at the parents. And what you said about a stable home is so true, “Those of us who provide a godly home for our kids comprise a very small minority of the homes in our country. Our kids have such an advantage and higher ability for learning just for having a stable home with all their physical needs met.” I would add too that those godly homes also have expectations for student behavior that is not commonly seen amongst the rest of public school students. I think people do not realize how much time is taken just to manage the students aside from teaching them. That goes with any teaching setting, but it’s significantly compounded in public school. The idea of combining classes and making them larger is frightening to me just becaue of the number of different “behaviors” that would come wih it. Regardless of how many teachers are in the room.

  16. I teach Science in a public high school. I agree with the concept of finding innovative ways to educate children. In fact, I switched to the read/lecture/notes at home and assignments/activities/labs in class a few years ago. However, the main reason I made the switch was because I was tired of students playing games on their laptops while I was trying to teach and tired of students failing because they didn’t do their assignments at home. The public education system is definitely broken, and I think the fix is to return the control of schools to states and districts, rather than mandates at the national level. Funding is always an issue when discussing new technologies. In the US, funding is often earmarked in such a way that districts are required to spend it on building developments, etc. and cannot use it at their own discretion. As a result, we have only cheap or free programs to use. These can be much more time-consuming than paid versions and can also be bandwidth hogs, making widespread use within a district very difficult. As stated in previous comments, more parental involvement is definitely needed.

    I love teaching in public schools, but I’ve learned enough about the public education system (here in the US) and how it ties the hands of teachers that I’m hoping to be able to homeschool my own children (if we can make our budget work on a single income). I do not want their education to suffer because of the mandates under which their teachers would be trying to operate.

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