Alternatives to High School - One Size Will Never Fit All Students

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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