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BCTF Advantage
Teacher Magazine Volume 28, Number 3
January/February 2016

Personalized learning

By Glen Hansman, BCTF 1st Vice-President

Back to the future?

EVERY GOVERNMENT wants to put its stamp on education, and in launching the BC Education Plan in 2012, the term “personalized learning” was resurrected, even though it was ambiguously defined then and has stayed that way since. 

What does the 2012 version of personalized learning really mean? Will every child have an Individualized Education Plan? Will students choose their own learning pathways at each grade level? Will they all be connected to digital devices? Will grade levels and subject areas disappear? Based on the Ministry of Education's PowerPoint presentations, briefs, and website content-nailing down the answers to any of these questions proves difficult.

A quick scan of education change in BC shows many educational initiatives arriving with great fanfare, but then falling flat, or ending up partially implemented. Teachers have witnessed the pendulum swing in education before, so it is no surprise that ideas once in favour are re-emerging. While the BCTF supports some of these initiatives, it will be interesting to see what actually sticks a decade from now.

Personalized learning
What's new this time?
BC teachers have always been vocal and active in shaping the direction and future of public education. In 1968, the BCTF conducted its own large-scale commission. Four teachers and BCTF staff travelled the province, gathering hundreds of oral and written submissions, publishing its findings in a document titled, Involvement: The Key to Better Schools.

This influential document included 189 recommendations including calling for the integration of students with special needs, meaningful provincial assessment practices, improved working and learning conditions, and greater opportunities for lifelong learning. The commission also made a number of recommendations related to “personalized learning.”

In fact, one of the commission's top recommendations states, “Education should be humanized and personalized,” and that “students, even in their youngest years, should be assisted in developing techniques for learning on their own, and given opportunities to evaluate their own progress.”

Furthermore, the commission recommended that emotional maturity and social responsibility should parallel the development of the intellect, and “[t]hat active involvement of students, under guidance, in self-selected areas of study, will result in voluntary sustained effort and the development of real scholarship.”

The commission's overarching idea called for the design of educational programs for each child, under the responsibility of the professional teacher, supported by the working and learning conditions necessary to do so.

John Church, a well known BCTF staff person and activist, also wrote an extensive study about school libraries called Personalized Learning in the late 1960s. His work led to the establishment of demonstration school library projects in Vernon and Vancouver from 1970 to 1975.

Other teachers were also exploring practices connected to personalized learning. The June 1971 issue of Teacher features a story about an award given by the BCTF to teachers Susan Close and Janice Micklethwaite for their work investigating personalized forms of teaching. The February 1972 issue of Teacher featured an article by Gyan Nath about personalized learning in a secondary school bookkeeping and accounting program.

But the 1960s and 70s weren't the first times personalized learning appeared. In 1916, American philosopher John Dewey published Democracy and Education, advocating for placing the child, as opposed to the curriculum, at the center of the classroom. His ideas quickly gained attention in BC. The November 1928 issue of Teacher refers to Dewey's philosophy, and its emphasis on play-based learning. A few years later in 1935, Major Herbert Baxter King, an official from the Department of Education in BC, replaced the 20-page curriculum booklet with a new extensive three-volume work based on Dewey's theories.

George Weir, the Minister of Education at the time, described this new elementary curriculum as the most modern in the world, one that promised continual “enrichment of the individual's life and an improved society.” He believed “[t]he curriculum must be made for the student, not the student for the curriculum.” The Minister and Major King referred to the new curriculum as a “project” or “enterprise” teaching method where several subjects are combined into a single “project” to allow students to have greater choice over their learning.

The “project” method failed to get off the ground for reasons that are not a surprise. Simply put, the province imposed this method and the curriculum without first adequately consulting, preparing, or supporting teachers. In desperation, BCTF locals set up curriculum study groups as teachers struggled to come to grips with the new system that they may have supported philosophically, but needed support implementing.

Only a short while later, the 1935 innovations of Major King were shelved, and a “back to basics” movement got underway, coupled with a revived emphasis on vocational and technical education during World War II.

Back to the future
Fast-forward to 1966. On May 30, the Vancouver Sun ran an extensive article describing how education was “taking turns in a world of change” with an emphasis on student-centred learning, liberation from bell schedules and time tables, a move away from siloed curriculum areas, incorporation of technology into classrooms, prioritization of critical thinking skills, inquiry over content and facts, and the promotion of trades in K-12.

Teachers were positioned as facilitators of learning rather than subject-matter experts, and the emphasis for students was to “learn how to think.” While posited as new, groundbreaking thinking, anxiety about a rapidly changing world underlined these statements, which were more about a return to what had been tried decades previously.

Twenty years after that Vancouver Sun article and the BCTF document Involvement: The Key to Better Schools, the province attempted a systemic change in the structure, curriculum, and teaching practice in BC schools. The Sullivan Commission on Education initiated the process and was followed in 1989 by a government policy described as the “Year 2000.” According to the policy paper giving direction to the Year 2000, major social and economic changes in BC were placing new demands and expectations on schools.

The paper describes new competencies for BC students, in familiar language. “In view of the new social and economic realities, all students, regardless of their immediate plans following school, will need to develop a flexibility and versatility undreamed of by previous generations. Increasingly, they will need to be able to employ critical and creative thinking skills to solve problems and make decisions, to be technologically literate as well as literate in the traditional sense, and to be good communicators. Equally, they will need to have well-developed interpersonal skills and be able to work co-operatively with others. Finally, they will need to be lifelong learners.”

The Primary Program, spanning a student's first four years of school, began in 1992-93. Substantial funding was provided, much of it in the form of grants to the BCTF and Provincial Specialist Associations to support implementation. By then, the Social Credit government had imploded, and Mike Harcourt's BC NDP was in power.

The new NDP government scrapped the Intermediate Program (covering what was traditionally Grades 4-10) and the Graduation Program (Grades 11-12) before either really got off the ground. In their place, the government recommitted to letter grades, standardized exams, and “higher standards.”

Ironically, some of the principles behind the entire Year 2000 Program linger in the Ministry of Education's present-day proposals, many of which the Federation supports. Whether or not a different outcome transpires remains to be seen.

Government: Don't repeat the same mistakes
As in the past, teachers will continue to positively influence the direction of public education and advocate for a system based on proper funding and equity. Hundreds of teachers, appointed by the BCTF, participated in the recent curriculum revision process by joining curriculum teams, writing curricula, and providing feedback. This is positive.

The additional non-instructional days secured by the BCTF to provide time for teachers to review curriculum drafts, provide feedback, and think about making adjustments in their classrooms and other worksites are both important and unprecedented.

But a wide-range of other supports are needed, particularly since all curricular areas are changing at the same time, and since a number of other aspects connected to curricula (the Provincial Assessment Program, graduation requirements, reporting, etc.) are also in flux. New teaching resources, more time for teachers to meet and collaborate during the implementation process, increased mentorship and in-service opportunities, improved working conditions-all of these factors are important if implementation is to be sustained and successful. We've been through this before!

In other words, for curriculum revision to succeed, government must provide adequate funding to support real implementation. And the Ministry must listen and consider teachers' feedback about revised changes, not just now, but as formal implementation takes place over the coming years. If not, curriculum change could be destined to fail in ways similar to the past. 

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