The Future of Education

Local school district’s leading-edge 21st Century Education programs offer students a new way to learn

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Imagine a school where, ed
as a starting point, nurse each child is asked what ignites their inner spark, side effects
what motivates them, and how they best learn.

Imagine a school where the idea of a “classroom” is busted wide open—sure, kids sometimes sit at desks, but they also gather in small groups for teamwork, meet with community mentors, collaborate with kids on the other side of the globe, or do their math at home in their pajamas.

Imagine a school aimed at preparing kids for the realities of the modern workplace, which continues to change at a dizzying pace.  That teaches critical thinking so they can evaluate the tsunami of information that streams at them daily.  That nurtures creativity and independent thought in all subjects.

Students at NIDES work on a robotics project with teacher Roger Vernon. The new ENTER program, starting in September at Aspen Park Elementary, is centred on explorations in engineering, science and robotics, and will offer Grade 6 to 8 students a chance to learn in a hands-on environment.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

An increasing number of teachers and school administrators around the world have been doing just that—reimagining education in ways that border on the revolutionary.

The result of this reimagining is a power-pack of ideas commonly referred to as 21st Century Education (or 21st Century Learning).  This is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of conceptual terms such as “individualized,” “project-based,” “inquiry-based,” “student-centred,” “personalized” and more.

The Comox Valley’s School District 71 is stepping up to the leading edge in this education revolution, with two new programs that look unlike anything that has come before.

The Fine Arts eCademy and the eCademy of New Technology, Engineering and Robotics (ENTER) will launch this September, delivered by Navigate, which is the new name of what used to be called North Island Distance Education Society (NIDES).

The Fine Arts eCademy will be centred at the Navigate main campus at the old Tsolum School in North Courtenay.  It’s a Kindergarten to Grade 9 program that meets provincial curriculum requirements while providing a special focus on theatre arts, visual arts, music and global education.

ENTER will be based at Aspen Park Elementary and will offer a middle-years program for Grade 6 to 8 students who thrive while learning in a hands-on environment.  The program is centred on explorations in engineering, science and robotics.

Both of these programs will share the same unique structure, with three days per week of in-school learning, and two days of distributed learning (a new, more all-encompassing term for what has generally been called home-schooling or distance education).

Both elements—the distributed learning (DL) and the in-school program—will reflect 21st Century learning philosophies.

As is typical in revolutions, change appears to be happening fast.   The new Navigate programs are springing into existence with great speed and energy—the very first meeting to discuss what was then merely an idea took place in February, 2011.   Now, just over a year later, the programs are ready to launch.  The Arts eCademy has more than 120 students registered—getting close to its maximum of 140—and ENTER has almost 20.   Job descriptions have been written and teachers are lining up to be hired.

The man at the heart of all this is Navigate’s Principal, Jeff Stewart.  Stewart, a former principal of Courtenay Elementary and Lake Trail Middle/High School, took over as principal of what was then called NIDES in January, 2011.   Back then, NIDES’ main purpose was administering distributed learning to approximately 4,000 students, ranging from part-time adults belatedly finishing high-school to home-learning kids from Kindergarten through Grade 12.

This means providing students with paper or on-line materials, setting them up with a distance teacher (accessed by phone and internet), and hosting weekly “interaction days,” where students from around the Valley gather in the school for a day of traditionally-delivered education.

When Stewart took the job, he knew he was stepping into something that needed a transfusion of energy and ideas.  Full-time enrolment at NIDES was declining, even though DL numbers were increasing throughout the rest of BC.  And the statistics from the School District as a whole weren’t entirely reassuring—the high school graduation rate in the Comox Valley stood at a lacklustre 72 per cent.

“I talked with a lot of people and it became clear that we had to shake things up a bit and do something new,” he says.  “I heard from a lot of parents a strong desire for a rich specialized program that blended both DL and bricks-and-mortar schooling.”   (Bricks and mortar is a commonly used phrase in the DL world to denote the kinds of schools most of us went to—physical buildings with bells and classrooms and the same timelines and rules for everyone.)

“It was time to break the rule of five—the concept that school has to be five days a week.  And it was time to break the boundaries of DL by doing something more blended… it was time to break the box,” Stewart adds emphatically, leaning back in his chair and pausing, allowing time for that declaration to fully resonate.

Stewart is unflaggingly passionate in talking about the new programs.  A solid presence in a crisply-pressed black shirt rolled up to the elbows, with a strong voice and a direct gaze, he floods his listener with facts, anecdotes, bold assertions and persuasive arguments about 21st Century Education and its particular manifestation at Navigate.

Fuelling this potent enthusiasm is the new BC Education Plan.  Unveiled in October, 2011, this simple eight-page document ( points out that the BC education system was designed 100 years ago.

“The world has changed.  The way we educate our children should, too,” the plan states.

The plan repositions teachers as guides, mentors, coaches and content experts who work collaboratively with students.  It says that the “core learning outcomes” in math, writing and reading will still be emphasized, while shifting the overall focus to promote self-reliance, problem-solving, innovation, teamwork, collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, technological understanding, and making connections with the world outside of school.

This plan sets the foundation that has allowed these two new programs to happen.  Also, Stewart credits the Comox Valley School District and especially the leadership of District Superintendent Sherry Elwood.

Elwood, says Stewart, is one of a group of BC superintendents “leading the charge” to implement the approaches outlined in the BC Education Plan.  “She’s absolutely embracing the 21st Century initiative and running with it.  As a result, School District 71 is able to do some very out front things,” he says.  This made it easier for him to move forward with his ideas.

“All the pieces came together,” says Stewart.  “When you have a superintendent who wants to move around the rules, it frees you up to do something magical.”

Wait a minute—a school Principal who’s promoting breaking (or at least “moving around”) the rules?  Is this the public school system, or a music video for the gleefully rebellious Alice Cooper song, School’s Out?

“We are breaking the rules,” says Stewart unapologetically.  “But meanwhile, the rules are changing.  So we are anticipating that the rules will catch up with us.”

To help parents understand the essence of the new education, Stewart plays them a couple of videos of TED talks (both easily findable with a Google search).  In one, psychologist Peter Bensen talks about “spark”—about how we can transform education by asking children what gets them excited, what gives their life meaning and purpose, what their spark is, and then letting that lead the educational path.  Quoting Plutarch, he says that youth are not vessels to be filled, but rather fires to be lit.

In the other, British educator Ken Robinson says, “Bring on the education revolution,” and calls for a shift in educational metaphors from the industrial model—based on linearity, conformity, and standardization—to a more organic model aimed at creating the conditions where kids’ natural talents can flourish.  While the industrial model is about keeping things separate—things like ideas, disciplines, kids of different ages, the organic model is about making connections, and that is what the world needs.

Stewart takes Robinson’s ideas a step further.  “Our planet is at risk.  Our civilizations are at risk.  We need a generation of kids and youth to grow into adults who are way more creative and imaginative in finding solutions to everyday problems.   And the working world has changed.  As we enter the knowledge economy in full force it demands high degrees of imagination, flexibility and innovation, and those are not the hallmarks of the factory system of education.  Absolutely not!  The hallmarks of the factory system are compliance, obedience and rote learning.  But we need young adults now who can break the mold.”

These statements get right to the heart of the education revolution—as well as dealing in facts and knowledge and skills acquisition, education must delve deeper, daring to ask how each individual student can contribute meaningfully to his or her world, and how their education can help them do this.

“We have got to honor the absolute genius each child brings to this human party.  Every child has something to bring, something powerful and unique, and our job as educators is to liberate that,” says Stewart.

Although many elements of 21st Century Education trace back to the alternative education movements of the 1960s and 70s or even earlier—Summerhill, Waldorf, free schools, Montessori and more—the 21st Century has brought a key element that makes their realization on a mass scale much easier: modern communications technology.

“The internet has links to hundreds of resources,” says Stewart.  “Kids can find the ones that respond to their passions and learning styles.  It totally blows away the “one textbook for the whole province” approach.

“There is such a choice now of ways to access learning,” he adds.  “There is print, and also video, blogs, websites, Skype, Elluminate [web conferencing]… and we can use resources from all over the world.  There’s so much out there.  We can tailor programs to fit the needs and interests of one particular group or one person—and it’s all available 24/7, 365 days a year!  We can shape, mold and shift education in ways we could never have conceived of 10 or 20 years ago.”

Asked to imagine the school of the future—say, in 10 years—Stewart lights up.

“You’ll see schools of choice proliferate.  Students can choose schools with different themes and different ways of providing education.  We’ll have a new breed of teachers who are artists of education rather than marathon runners.  We’ll have full integration between school and community so the kids will be surrounded by adults who care for them.  Every child will matter.  Everyone will recognize that each child brings something valuable.  And children will come out of schools turned on by life and by learning,” he says, barely pausing for breath between sentences.

Clearly, imagining schools of the future ignites Stewart’s spark, to use some of his favorite 21st Century Education terminology.  What makes that particularly interesting is that he is in a position to transform his imaginings into reality.

Starting in September, the school of the future will be the school of the present for approximately 150 students who can expect, as a starting point, to be asked what ignites their spark.