In the past year, I have written over ten essays for my Masters, but I have yet to write one sentence about my experience at Blue Sky School. I’m going to attempt to change that today, but it already feels like a far more daunting task than a twenty-page research paper. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do it justice. If you ever went to summer camp as a teenager, you probably know this feeling. You come back after a summer of building relationships, with ridiculous stories that only your camp friends can appreciate, and your school friends quickly grow tired of hearing you say: “This one time at camp…”
Thankfully, in my adult years, I have friends that are deeply interested in the stories I have to tell about my experience as a coach at Blue Sky School (or at least they graciously pretend to be and each deserve an Academy Award for their remarkable acting skills). Actually, my experience has been that people, in general, are quite eager to see and know more about our school model. All sorts of curious minds attend the monthly Think Tanks, we have at least one new visitor a week, the number of learners increased by 50% since September, and our Instagram page is surprisingly active (especially considering that 80% of the content includes my annoying laugh).
People are interested in our experimental prototype for a multitude of reasons. Some are public school teachers interested in observing how we structure and support passion projects. Some come to offer mentorship in a specific skill. Some are prospective parents and learners. Some are Academy-Award-worthy actors, visiting to make a certain someone happy. I think, beneath it all, the curiosity that draws people to us is this wondering: How would I have turned out if I had attended a school like this?
I think about this all the time, and I often pose the question to people that have visited. Obviously, we can’t know the answer, but I’ve noticed an interesting pattern in the way people respond. Several times, I have heard something like: “It’s great that Blue Sky exists for [insert type of exceptional learner here], but it wouldn’t have worked for me; I was good at school.”
This fascinates me! People are very quick to celebrate the benefits of Blue Sky’s personalized model for students that have learning difficulties, or who are gifted, or who struggled to fit in the traditional model, but reject the idea that a typical student could attend Blue Sky School and be successful. The underlying message seems to be: The traditional model is for normal kids, and everyone else can go to Blue Sky School! (The learners love hearing the story about a time when Shauna was once asked if Blue Sky School was for “super geniuses.”)
Let me just say, I get this. I was a high achiever all the way through school. I still am. Why fix what ain’t broke? To risk exaggerating, this rationalization reminds me of the argument: “Well, I was spanked as a kid when I was younger and I turned out just fine! I learned my lesson!” Just because the system didn’t fail you, it doesn’t necessarily mean it served you as well as it could have.
Overwhelmingly, the school system works for privileged people. We know that standardized tests and grades tell us more about the affluence of parents and how good kids are at memorization and taking tests than they do about their ability to be creative, think critically, work with others, and have an open and curious minds. You can do very well in the traditional model and come out with none of these skills. Every teacher can point to a student that graduated with an impressive report card but failed to show empathy, teamwork, motivation, engagement, flexible thinking, and passion.
Similarly, every teacher can point to a student that struggled in school but possessed these skills.
We also know that high school grades are not a reliable predictor of post-secondary success. Colleges and universities are keenly aware of this, and are increasingly looking for alternative ways to admit people that know how to think deeply, critically, and creatively.
The education system is highly inequitable in ways that are harder to realize when you’re getting high marks. The school district in Surrey, British Colombia, has moved away from assessment through numbers and letter grades. Their focus on more holistic forms of assessment, including digital portfolios, self- and peer-assessment has been well received by many. In their book, Creative Schools, Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica (2017) note:
“the biggest pushback is coming from those for whom the traditional form of grading worked […] because under this paradigm, you can’t get an A without progress. For a student who was accustomed to doing well in the old system because they were very good at playing the game and identifying what the teacher wanted, the rules have completely changed.” (p.180)
(As a side note: My high school’s motto was “Play the Game,” and I can’t help but wonder if the person who created it was brilliant or not.)
To say that the education system worked for you is not wrong. But at whose expense? And who might you have become had you had more opportunity for apprenticeship, setting your own goals, following your own interests, celebrating failure, networking with people working in your areas of interest, developing self-regulation skills, collaborating with others in an authentic way, etc. We don't know. That’s what we’re trying to figure out with this wild experiment. But my hunch is that we - as a collective - would have turned out much kinder, more compassionate, more innovative, more collaborative, more ethical, more curious, and more engaged.
It is worth noting that several of our learners this year were high achievers and successful within the traditional system. Take Madison, for example.
Last year, Madison did extremely well in the public system. She was motivated, polite, and achieved high marks. This year, during school hours, among many other things, Madison has self-selected to organize and host two major charity events, co-write a novella, learn to play and perform duets on the piano with a fellow learner, write blog posts and policy documents for the school, record a near dozen podcasts with VoicEd radio, analyze the Ontario curriculum, meet with a science student from the University of Ottawa to help her learn about electricity, attend over 40 field trips, attend and take notes in a Masters’ level university night class with me, run her own “history mystery” workshops for visiting students, opt out of workshops when she felt she had taken on too much, etc. All of this was self-selected. Every day, Madison checks in on her learning goals, shares her daily intentions with a coach, adds evidence of learning and a reflection in her digital portfolio, and checks-in with a coach to tell them how she’s feeling. Madison is 13.
I could tell a very similar story about our learners that weren’t successful in the traditional system.
I would say that, in both systems, Madison was “successful.” Now it depends on your metric of success. Back in October, I surveyed the parents at Blue Sky School and asked them: “What does success look like for your child?” The responses were beautiful. Overwhelmingly, the markers of success were motivation, engagement, confidence, happiness, and good health.
To be clear, I am not claiming that all problems would be solved if everyone attended Blue Sky School, nor am I labeling the traditional system as unequivocally bad. I am very supportive of public education, and hope that our experiences can inform and become part of public school practices. Not including my time as a substitute teacher, I have taught at six different schools in the last nine years, and I feel pretty strongly that there isn’t a school system that works for everyone. But I wanted to push back on this mentality for two reasons. One, because I’m curious to know what people think we are missing to become better, and two, because I worry that this type of mentality will prevent us from making major changes to the traditional school system. Changes that are needed for everyone - super geniuses and struggling students alike.
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