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Trying my hand at a public policy: Education Part 1 - A Case for Independent, Self-Directed Studies Curriculum in our Public Schools

Posted by: Emily Beers

Part 1 explains how introducing the option for independent, self-directed learning in all public High Schools would help many teens learn more effectively, all the while would contribute to the class size and composition problem, as well as free up money to be used where it is needed.

I’ve learned through CrossFit that when deciding policies for a CrossFit gym, in order to create—and more importantly—to retain clients, as well as raise coaches who make a good living and a business that generates enough revenue to turn a profit, you have to base your decisions on what will help all three components of the business: the client, the coach and the business owner.

It only seems logical that the same principle should apply to public education. Our decisions need to help the students (client), the teachers (coaches), and the government/tax payers (the business).

My brainstorming about this has been spurred by the recent teacher’s strike in British Columbia, a seemingly endless controversy between the teachers’ union and the provincial government that is having negative effects on families in this province today.

It is all that anyone is talking about in B.C right now and has challenged me to go back to High School and think about how it could have been better for me as a student. While I’m not a politician or a teacher, I was a student for 20 years of my life.

High School for me: 

On paper, it looked like our public education system worked for me. I was a straight-A student through high school, went on to university, got an NCAA basketball scholarship, finished my undergraduate degree and went on to complete my master’s degree, pursuing varsity rowing at the same time.

Truthfully, though, I did not like High School. At all.


Too much wasted time in class, and I hated feeling like an animal—herded around all day, my whereabouts dictated by a shrill-sounding bell. We were treated like children; decisions were made for us and we were dictated to, which I don’t feel prepares you at all for the real world.  

I know not everyone learns like I do, but I also know I’m not alone in saying I’m an independent learner and worker who didn’t need to be in a class from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. everyday. I remember zoning out during lectures to work on my homework during class, which then freed up my evenings to play basketball and workout at the gym.

I was a self-motivated student who wanted to get my work done so I could pursue other things outside of school. School trapped me in a union-like learning environment, where we weren’t allowed to leave until the bell rang, even if we had worked harder than the person next to us and had completed all our work by noon.

So I struck a deal with my mom. If I maintained all As, she would quietly hang up the phone when the school called with an automated message that said, “Hello, your son or daughter missed one or more classes today.”

I skipped class all the time in high school, and I knew which classes I could get away with missing. I wasn’t naturally a math whiz, so I made sure to hit my math class everyday. But french, geography, often-times biology, I could get away with missing class, getting my homework done on my own and scoring 90% or higher on exams.

In university, I was the same way. Like many college students, I picked and chose the classes I needed to attend, and I personally learned more about how the kidneys work by studying a textbook and taking notes from my reading than I ever did by sitting with 100 other students listening to an often inarticulate and uninspired professor race through the intricacies of the nephrons during a lecture. 

These experiences have led to Part 1 of my education proposal:

Offer self-directed learning in public High Schools.

I know of one school that is run as a self-directed school - Thomas Haney Secondary - in Maple Ridge, B.C. This High School is part of the Canadian Coalition for Self-Directed Learning. The school has been subject to controversy at times; despite the controversy, the school is always above both the district and provincial average on exams. While I won’t pretend to know exactly how this school works on a day-to-day basis, what I envision for our schools is as follows:

High Schools would provide the opportunity for teenagers to attend a program that looks more like university: Instead of biology class being at 9 a.m. five days a week, it would now involve just two one-hour labs per week, while English class might include two discussion classes per week.

If you’re taking a full university course load (5 classes), you likely have 15 hours of scheduled class per week. There’s no reason many High School students need to be in a class directed by a teacher more than that.

The rest of the time, students would be free to complete their work, study for their exams, at least partially on their own time.

I envision a study hall at school, where students would be able to get their work done. Checking-in and checking out would be automated with a FOB. When students finish their homework, they would hand it in and would be free to leave.

The study hall would be able to accommodate more than a classroom full of students—perhaps 60 or 70 students—and one teacher/supervisor could be present if need be to oversea the students and collect homework.

Admittance into the program, as well as the ability to stay in the program, would be based on grades. In this way, students would be incentivized to work hard in order to remain in the program.

I realize this way of learning is not for everyone. Some people need more discipline and accountability; others need hands-on help from a teacher. And some students are happy to sit in class from 8 a.m until 3 p.m. and beyond. But I believe self-directed learning should be an option in our schools, an option I feel a good portion of students would choose.

How it would help the Students, Teachers, Tax Payers 

1). Students: A self-directed, independent studies curriculum would help students who learn better independently. It would also free up time for busier students, especially those who wish to work while in high school, or who play competitive sports or an instrument, and who want more time to practice these other passions. Further, I believe it would incentivize students to work harder, faster and more efficiently because acceptance into the program, as well as the ability to stay in the program, would likely based on grades. 

2). Teachers: This would at least make a dent in the class size and composition problem we have in B.C. If, let’s say 25% of the student body decided to join the independent studies curriculum, ordinary classes would be much smaller and manageable for teachers. Similarly, those left in ordinary classes would likely be a more streamlined group of students who possibly all learn in a more similar manner to one another. Classes would likely run more smoothly. And because you would need fewer teachers—since an independent learning program would require less labor—the money saved on needing less teachers could be used to either pay teachers more, or could be re-directed to hire more teachers' assistants for students who need extra help.

3). Government/Tax Payers: Government and tax payers would save money, and could re-direct these savings to pay teachers more money, or to hire more teachers' assistants.

Next up: Part 2: Incentivize the Teachers!





Posted by Emily Beers on

Emily Beers, hailing from Vancouver, crosses bridges by being not only a CrossFit athlete, but also a journalist. She has been a regular contributor to the CrossFit Journal since 2011. She qualified and competed at her first CrossFit Games as an individual athlete in 2014.

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Lauren O'Leary

September 16, 2014

Hey Em,
Glad you’re joining the education debate! You are right on, and one of the big topics of education right now (generally, not what is going on currently in the media) is making learning more personalized- that means implementing project-based learning and inquiry-based learning, both based on the concept of having students build understanding of topics based on what their interests are. We also at our school and others already offer IDS courses, independent directed studies, where students have a sponsor teacher and create their own ‘curriculum’ on their own time. Students can take these types of courses and are not confined to class time, but rather learn at their own pace. We even have had amazing Coop classes where in a semester a small group of students gets credit for multiple courses, while learning biology, PE and chemistry on outdoor education overnight trips and work experience placements related to each student’s field of interest.
Behind the scenes in education teachers have been making this shift for several years which is what makes our education system so empowering for students and one of the top systems on a worldwide scale. The problem is people do believe that education is the same as it was when they were in school 10, 20, 30 years ago. The general public doesn’t know how differently schools are run currently.
The other major problem with these amazing courses we offer is that we don’t get enough funding to run them. You can’t have one teacher individualizing an education plan for 60 students, even 30 would be pretty tough because instead of teaching one course, you are catering to 30 individualized learning plans. If there isn’t a full class of 30 IDS students teachers are asked to take on these students in addition to their already full classrooms. Our co-op course had previously had only 20 students in it but because of lack of funding it needed to be filled to 30 and therefore didn’t run. And the project-based learning and inquiry based learning that many teachers would love to implement require re-structuring the curriculum and therefore, some prep time during the day. The educational opportunities that teachers explore on a daily basis are endless, but at the end of the day we are strangled by lack of funding and support. Class composition touches only on students with learning disabilities, it doesn’t limit or discuss ESL student numbers, which add to the challenges in the classroom.
You’re absolutely right- there will always be a mix of students who have different needs- giving independent learning to everyone would not work either if you consider the average student – the self-directed approach is definitely not for everyone.
Hope this helps give an insight of what is currently going on in the education system… Well, that is if we ever get back in the classrooms!
Thanks for yor thoughtful input on a hot topic! I hope that at least from all this people do become more aware of all that teachers are doing in education to engage students in becoming invested in their own education.
Teachers have long abandoned the idea that students are vessels to be filled; rather, they are fires to be lit (as Plutarch said long ago)! We want to embrace this but unfortunately we need some fuel for the fire. Education funding at individual schools in our district has been cut 84% since 2002,.. The fires will burn out unless we get a bit more fuel!

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