I recently had the opportunity to spend a day at Thomas Haney Secondary School in Maple Ridge, BC. The school is known for its commitment to flexible, personalized, learn-at-your-own-pace education, and is touted by many as an exemplar of progressive pedagogy. As a teacher curious about the phenomenon of “21st century learning”, but also a little skeptical of the hype, I relished the opportunity to visit THSS and examine how it works. I had also taught many THSS students while I worked in distance education, so this was a school I wanted to understand.
One visit later, I am certainly no expert on the school, but I do think that some of my questions have been answered. Nevertheless, new questions have arisen, and in this post I’ll begin the process of sorting out what I know, what I don’t know, and what we can learn from Thomas Haney as BC’s education system pursues a reform agenda.
Let’s be clear – the Thomas Haney model is not easily replicated in other schools:
- A grade 8 to 12 school: the Maple Ridge school district uses an elementary/secondary system, and THSS therefore has five grade levels. One of the key benefits of this approach is that THSS can gradually introduce its students to the concept of self-directed learning. The Grade 8 students, for example, have very little choice and flexibility, but do observe older students using their time in a self-directed manner, and as they get older, students are given more and more “flex” time to pursue their learning. This gradualist method thus avoids a “shock to the system” for young people emerging from a fairly structured elementary experience.
- Challenge: How do you implement this gradualist approach in a school district with middle schools?
- A linear timetable: To offer the best chance for success, open-ended schooling needs to give students as much time as possible, and THSS therefore works on a full year, linear timetable.
- Challenge: How do you reconcile this with a school and/or district committed to the semester system? [Hint: The flexibility offered by the Thomas Haney model may mitigate one of the main reasons in favour of semestered schools.]
- An open campus: THSS operates as an open campus, especially for its older students, and therefore attendance is not taken except for seminars. [These have recently been introduced, as I understand it, to provide more structured contact between teachers and secondary students.] As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this open system – which goes well beyond allowing students out for lunch to Tim Horton’s – comes at a cost in terms of accountability and supervision. On the other hand, it helps that Maple Ridge has six secondary schools, so students and parents who aren’t happy with the Thomas Haney model have other choices.
- Challenge: How do you introduce an open campus in a community with fewer school choices? What if your local neighbourhood is opposed to an open campus? And is it possible to implement an open campus program (for example, a pilot project with just a few courses) within a larger, relatively closed school?
- Thomas Haney is a school of choice: Though we were told that THSS is a neighbourhood school, roughly 70% of the students come from beyond the catchment area, and even beyond the district. There appears to be a high degree of self-selection amongst the students; according to the students and parents I met, Thomas Haney is considered an “academic school”, and probably derives much of its academic success due to the high quality of students who choose to attend THSS.
- Challenge: Is it possible to introduce personalized, learn-at-your-own-pace education to a broader group of students who haven’t committed to this approach? What do you do with those who abuse their freedom? And if it works better with a self-selected group of students, can it be introduced in a larger school where the educational system remains more structured?
- Point to ponder: Thomas Haney has been around since the 1990’s. If THSS is such a revelation, why are the other five Maple Ridge secondary schools (or schools in the rest of BC, for that matter) not following its model?
- A lack of school district busing: Despite the large number of students coming from beyond the catchment boundaries, there are very few school buses arriving at THSS. Students either arrange their own transportation, or use public transit.
- Challenge: Will a lack of public transportation in smaller communities reduce the enthusiasm for this sort of schooling?
- Year-end assignment dumping and power marking: I didn’t receive a clear-cut answer to this concern, but my general suspicion is that a great deal of marking piles up in May and June. Students who have procrastinated all year are suddenly faced with the prospect of failure, and thus a crisis ensues for both the student and his or her teacher. The student’s crisis is obvious, but the teacher’s challenge is enormous, too. When faced with a Mt. Slesse-like pile of completed assignments, the only solution is power marking: each assignment gets a quick read and a simple letter grade or percentage, with no feedback, no chance to guide the student to the next assignment, and no mastery learning. Moreover, as the crisis of time mounts, the allure of plagiarism looms ever larger, and more effort is spent chasing somebody else’s prior learning than assessing current understanding. I know all about these problems, because I faced them in distance education. It is a soul-sapping and demoralizing experience for a teacher, I can assure you.
- Point to ponder: I saw a lot of assignments on display that looked a lot like assignments from any other school. The assignments were prepackaged in some cases, and teachers offered some alternatives and choices, but how is this so different from other schools? Indeed, I didn’t really see any significant personalization of content beyond what I and most other teachers offer.
Generally speaking, I don’t believe that Thomas Haney is a panacea to the straw-man “factory model” that progressives so detest. Like distance education, a realm in which I taught for eight years, I think an open, flexible school like Thomas Haney Secondary is a niche product for a niche market. This is not meant as an insult. What I mean to say is that it has some very positive possibilities for a minority of adolescents who genuinely love learning (particularly in more abstract disciplines) and are capable of learning with minimal supervision. But since I will never believe this applies to the large majority of adolescents, and there is ample research to support the general necessity of direct instruction, I simply don’t believe that the THSS model is “the answer”.
To be fair, I don’t believe that any philosophy or pedagogical approach is “the answer”. I personally favour a more liberal arts approach, but I know some students chafe under its demand for breadth. So, if flexible, individualized learning does have value for some students, the central challenge is how to incorporate it within a larger, more structured system. As Hamlet might say, there lies the rub!