A university on training wheels

While I was in Edmonton I met up with Deborah Meraw who teachers in Education at the University of Alberta as well as being the guidance counsellor for St Joseph’s High School. Deborah got me involved in teaching her undergraduate class, which was good fun, and then agreed to show me around her school a couple of days later. She warned me that St Joseph’s was a really different kind of place from anywhere else that I would have been.

St Joseph’s is a high school in central Edmonton that prides itself on having a radical approach to education. When I arrived I was taken on a tour by an incredibly articulate young student who explained that the schools was designed to be a “university on training wheels”.  What this meant in essence is that the school has a much less structured curriculum than most and that students are trusted to be much more self-directed in their learning.

The design of the school was influenced by JL Trump’s School for Everyone  which set out how a school could be organised in a way that allowed personal development and growth for all pupils. What struck me as interesting was that this was not just about providing freedom for academic high achievers, but rather for all sorts of different kids. The school has excellent vocational programmes as well as running the International Baccalaureate. The curriculum is designed to allow kids to have greater amounts of self-directed time and the opportunity to move between academic and vocational programmes.
The following film (aimed at prospective students) sets out some of the St Joseph approach.

What was impressive for me was the way in which staff and students interacted. The school was amazingly friendly and hierarchies seemed to have been dissolved. At the same time there was a really purposeful engagement with learning which seemed to come from within the students rather than being imposed from outside. The feeling that I have that “discipline” is entirely the wrong lens through which to look at education seems to be born out by the experience of St Josephs. The schools focus is to engage students in the idea of learning and personal development rather than to force them through curriculum.

This kind of environment offers a huge opportunity for careers work. The possibility of cross-curricular learning, engagement in vocational learning and the opportunity to follow your interests makes it a really powerful space within which to undertake careers work. Furthermore the fact that the school has time and space gives those engaged in fostering career thinking the opportunity to work in a more personalised way. Careers work can be addressed to people at the point that it is needed rather than the point at which is prescribed by a packed timetable.

Schools like St Josephs are possible because of Alberta’s much trumpeted school based autonomy. While I’ve still got some concerns about this policy in the UK I think that my experience in Alberta has allowed me to see some of the up sides as well. Obviously not all schools are like St Joseph’s but there is a sense that teachers, pupils and parents are buying into the pedagogy and vision of the school that they are engaged in. This sense of local responsibility (as long as it is appropriately funded) is really inspiring.


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