There Are Costs Associated With Choice and Flexibility

The following is a recent contribution I made to the BC Edplan website; the government is using the site to gather feedback for its current forays into “21st century learning” and “personalized learning”. Admittedly, the site is probably also being used to legitimate any future policies that may turn out to be controversial, but I’ve always believed that one needs to engage directly with those in power. Otherwise, they will do what they want anyway, and your silence will only make their conviction stronger.


I think those who are excited about the possibilities of more choice and flexibility in education need to think about the consequences.

For example, at the secondary level (let’s say Grades 10 to 12), can we imagine individualized learning without an “open campus”? Almost every proposal I read seems to require an institution where students arrive and leave at different times, and where they may not come at all. In this kind of situation, “attendance” becomes a meaningless term. As a secondary teacher, I would personally welcome an open campus, but it comes at a cost. Schools will no longer be responsible for student safety in the same way they are now. How could they be? With students here, there and everywhere, how could a school possibly track all of its students like it does now? And, if I’m right about an open campus, are parents and the surrounding community willing to accept the responsibility for the safety of hundreds of 15 and 16 year-olds? It’s easy to decry the “factory” model of schooling, but at least a factory has the capacity to track and therefore take on the responsibility for its employees.

Here’s another question: If learning is to be truly personalized, and become largely one-on-one, what will happen to the students who are not conversing with teacher-mentors but are still in the building? More specifically, who will supervise them? If the kids hang out like they do at lunch time, the noise will make any meaningful dialogue or work impossible inside the classrooms. So supervision costs will likely rise significantly.

I also think we’re going to have to accept much lower completion rates. If more of the responsibility is placed on students, we will have to accept that many will not meet the challenge. The belief that we can offer educational autonomy to adolescents and expect excellent completion rates at the same time is, in a word, naïve. I don’t know a single secondary teacher who thinks otherwise. The distributed learning world certainly provides evidence of this problem, particularly as the degree of student autonomy (and asynchronous leaning) increases. Again, on a personal level, I don’t think lower completion rates are a bad thing, as I believe that failure – however it’s measured – is an invaluable tool that teaches lessons that may not be otherwise teachable. But is the community prepared to accept lower completion numbers? Will the education apparatchiks, who think the only good thing is a thing measured, survive the shock? ;-)

If you’re willing to treat adolescents as adults, and face the consequences, then I say, “Have ‘atter!” But don’t think there won’t be serious challenges in the world of “21st century learning”.


Can you think of other potential problems?

I wonder about transportation costs if schools are opened earlier and closed later. Would school districts have to offer more buses? Or, would parents have to pick up the proverbial tab? If the former, you’ll have an extra district-based cost, and if the latter, parents would shoulder the extra costs. 

Also, how would teachers prepare 200 individualized programs? I’ve mentioned the practical difficulties around this in an earlier post.


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2 Comments to "There Are Costs Associated With Choice and Flexibility"

  1. Fiona Luna's Gravatar Fiona Luna
    December 29, 2011 - 9:18 pm | Permalink

    I work at an open campus school as you describe. Middle school at that. We have no fences or gates, flexible schedules, our students all start and finish at different times, incidents of truancy and bullying are low, the majority of students (over 90%) report feeling safe and happy in the school, my stress levels are significantly lower than any school I have worked in previously and my work load is smaller. Our test scores compare favourably with other similar schools (ok enough of the modesty, we kick their butt). And we are not the only one. Our organisation runs over 20 similar schools across the country, from elementary to high school. Welcome to Sweden. And I have to say having taught in the UK, USA and now Sweden I would say the 1 thing I have learnt is that children will behave the way the adults around them expect them to. If you put your trust in kids then you can get wonderful rewards back. It is all about how the school establishes trust, rules and routines. So I disagree with your assertion that offering such open campus styled schools hass an element of naivety. It requires a bit of a mind shift but it certainly isn’t the horror story you present here.

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