Thursday, 15 September 2016

Research visit - Bishop Carroll High School, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

After a slight detour on the Calgary roads we made our way in to Bishop Carroll High School. Looking at it from the outside you would not recognise it as a school (as we know it), we did in fact drive past it, but the moment you step inside the building into the reception there was no doubting that this was a high school. The first thing I noticed was the smiling, happy and content young people in the hallway. This is always a positive sign. The school had a sense of calm about it and I knew straight away that this visit was going to offer up some gems for us in terms of opportunities for our students education at Rototuna.

We were instantly and warmly welcomed by the school Principal, Neil O'Flaherty and taken to his office where he shared the school's vision and philosophies with us. Needless to say it was not long before we were all engrossed in deep discussion about pedagogy, leadership in education and sharing readings and ideas. We could have sat there for a long time digesting the Alberta curriculum and the interpretations of the state system of education through the eyes of Bishop Carroll but we had a school to look at, and students to meet.

Nathan Easton and Peter Rybicki two of the Vice Principals (who laughed at our titles of Deputies - which we had never considered could be so funny, they made it sound so in Canada though! When they said "deputy dawgs" it conjured up images of Dukes of Hazzard and Sheriffs) took time out of their day to provide us with a tour and valued experiences of pedagogy in a self directed school. The school was established in 1971 and whilst the buildings are somewhat dated the self directed pedagogy was not. The leadership team all spoke to us about how student centred approaches and choices (what we call student agency) not only empowers the learners but it also drives the pedagogy. We came to this school to see what self directed learning on a large scale with a large number of students looks like and we definitely saw this successfully in action as the school hosts a roll of 1330 students.

To share a few key things we have digested so far from the visit:


  • learn at their own pace and are tested when they are ready. They go to the centre for testing and complete the appropriate assessment in their subject of choice which is administered by support staff.
  • can adapt and shift their learning to fit into their lives - some students spoken to talked about how serious illness could have set them back in a traditional school but here they were able to, with good guidance, get back on track. This structure (or lack of it) also suited high performance athletes who may have competitions etc that could normally conflict with traditional schedules.
  • behaviour changes in a flipped environment (like the use of this flipped as it talks about the students agency being at the forefront). Social policing is very strong amongst the students and when students get to make more empowered decisions about their learning then unwise choices (e.g. skipping classes) are reduced. Teacher guides are there to assist and support students in their academic pursuits. If students are falling behind they are easily picked up and steered in the 'right' direction. These guides really know their learners well (they have 28 students and 8-9 hours across the week to meet up on a one to one basis) to assist the student with their learning pathways.

  • Lends itself to choice and academic challenge.
  • Teachers are used mainly to deliver seminars (which students opt into) and resource time (readily available to discuss students learning with a student in a one on one basis).
  • The Alberta curriculum dictates the content of instruction and this is driven by a need for 30% of the Year 12 STEM subjects to be tested for the final diploma (equivalent to our UE level.) 
  • Teachers set their own timetables to ensure they met their own allocation of hours in conjunction with the SLT. All time in school is either instructional time, assigned time or curriculum development. There is no such thing as non contact time as all time in the school is seen as being valued time for the development of learning whether it is for the staff member or for the student.
  • Teachers teach and support staff do the administration.
  • Continuums set up to explore teachers level of value of student agency which assist the SLT with discussions with staff professional learning. Great as an appraisal tool!

The Leadership Teams! Back row Peter Rybicki, Sally Hart, Neil O'Flaherty, Nathan Easton. Front row: Natasha Hemara (me) and Megan Barry.

Big WOW moments for us:

  • Senior administration in the Catholic schools in Calgary move around every few years from school to school. Nathan spoke about this school being his 4th in five years. A very different model to NZ.
  • Actually seeing it all in place, so many students, all seemingly focussed and on task working in an independent and supported way.
  • Real one on one time spent between the teacher advisors and students. meeting times are booked in advance and negotiated.
  • How much time the leadership team took out of their busy days to host us, be so open and honest about their own journeys and the school. This has had us all thinking about the concept of 'pay it forward' and we can only hope to be as accomodating and hospitable to people who want to learn more about the pedagogy that will drive Rototuna Senior High School. Of course we invited them to NZ - sharing the ako!

Big questions for us to think about:
  • How do we challenge our students to 'connect' (as community participants and collaborative learners) whilst still empower them to make decisions in a self directed way?
  • How does self directed learning help students to build a sense of belonging with other students, the school and with our local community?
  • How might the full extent of the front end of the NZC be delivered with one dominant pedagogical approach?
I think that there is an element that is needed in our programme to engage students in self directed approaches to their own learning. I think it is necessary to ensure that the students themselves are engaged as critical decision makers in their own pathways and futures. The teacher as a 'guide on the side' to help the students navigate their journey through the senior years is critical. I think we must ensure that the teachers are provided with the time and skills to ensure that they can provide the best possible support for students to help them make key decisions for their futures in a supportive yet structured way. 

Self Directed Learning is one piece of a larger  pedagogical jigsaw puzzle that will assist us to ensure that we "empower our people to be connected, collaborative community-minded learners inspired to soar".

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