Tell us about your current role in education.
I work at the secondary level with students who have been suspended or expelled from regular programming. These are students who have been moved from their home school and assigned to me, for either the short- or long-term. In doing so they sometimes get to continue the courses that they started, but in other cases those courses have to be shifted because of the resources of our classroom.
So, in a sense, both you and your students are situated on the edge of the traditional high school context. How has that impacted your vision and the work that you do?
One of the things that I learned early on is that you have to make friends with everyone. Before I went into Alternative Education (Alt Ed), I taught hospitality and special education, and both of those had very specific departments and very specific support systems. So I didn’t have to look too far beyond the next desk to borrow resources and get help. When I made the shift to Alt Ed, it was like we needed running shoes! The students bring the courses with them and part of my focus is on finding the resources to help them get through those courses. So we had to move around to different departments, sit in on classes, learn how to teach new concepts.
I now have to pay attention to a lot of little moving pieces in the board. There are different initiatives, policies, resources and people to learn about and understand. I have had to develop a knowledge of community liaisons, law enforcement officials, superintendents, principals… and then there’s the home school and whatever their rules of engagement are. So I’ve become Chris Cluff, the connector of dots!
This is really important, because when students are shifting between the home school and my site, some of them may feel that the system has forgotten them entirely. So when we’re working through that transition process, I’m watching and listening to see whether or not they understand fully the circumstances that have brought them to me, but also what opportunities are still on the horizon for them.
I also find that I’m far more focused on helping the families behind the student. I’ve gotten closer and closer to really honest, wholehearted conversations with families. And that communication continues after the student has transitioned away from us. It’s an open communication process that goes beyond the intake table.
It becomes portable, so that the student and their family can leave us and have pretty cool conversations back at their school. We spend a lot of time preparing them: Who are you going to talk to? What’s the next resource you need? What are the courses you should be set up for? Do you have your volunteer hours? Have you written your literacy test? Someone mentioned it’s like they’re showing up with some source code because they can speak in an informed way toward the next move. They don’t have to spend a lot of time describing what they want. They can say what they want.
So, you’ve been forced to learn a whole lot more about the system, not because there’s a test for you to take, but because there are human beings that need you to have that knowledge.
There’s not a test, but there is a cost!
We’re talking in this issue of Education Canada about signals of change – those ideas and initiatives that are beating on the edges of our current contexts and offer us some insight into what the future might could hold for education. In our recent Regional Exchanges, you spent some time talking about micro-credentialing as a signal to which you are particularly attuned. What is micro-credentialing and where do you see it in play right now?
We can come at the concept of micro-credentialing from three directions. One way is through the world of business. In business and large corporations, micro-credentialing is a kind of upgrading of your skills once you get hired in a place. So, you could develop other skillsets, take other training opportunities and, in many cases, that type of micro-credentialing affords you better pay or a better position.
When you swing it more towards education, then you start to see the use of something called a badge system. You’re not necessarily making any more money for what you’re learning, but you’re getting some sort of emblem or some sort of notation that you’ve achieved a next level in something. It can create a kind of a “buzz” in someone to keep learning. It’s very much based on gamification.
And the third space – and this is where my particular interest lies – is where, instead of talking about a badge, we talk about school accreditation. Currently in Ontario, secondary school students need to earn 30 credits – 18 compulsory and 12 elective – in order to graduate, and they’re set within a pretty rigid operating system, mainly defined by the number of hours spent in a course.
So I start to think of what might be possible if we looked at smaller pieces of credits in the education system, specifically at secondary. What would it be like if you could earn a half-credit in something, not because you only achieved half of the expectations but because that’s the actual size of the course?
So that’s a really manageable and accessible idea and a great way to lead people into this concept. How would this approach to earning credentials impact the particular students that you’re working with?
Here’s something that I’ve asked students in the alternative education context in which I teach. “If you could achieve a credit in something that you’ve done outside of class, what would be ‘accreditable?’” One of the first things that comes up is sports: “Well, I’ve been playing sports forever. I’m on a rep hockey team…” And that leads me to think about “opportunizing” that type of credit. For example, I had a student who had participated in three levels of Scouts and had transitioned into a leadership position. Could that be worth a partial credit in Civics or Leadership?
The reason it becomes interesting to me is that when I look at the full list of the credits that have been earned by a student, it’s often elective credits that are missing. The compulsory credits tend to get picked up pretty quick but when I’m trying to get those elective credits rolling, its strikes me that if credits could be obtained in an alternative fashion it would benefit these students. And if they could be tied to things that they are already feeling success in, then why don’t we go there?
Do you think that the system is ready for this conversation?
Curriculum doesn’t have to be bound by periods or semesters. It doesn’t even have to be bound by existing course offerings.
There is precedence to start this conversation. Right now, there is something called High Performance Athletics where students can get co-op credits for basically being on a rep team. There are conditions there, in that you have to have a certain number of practice and performance hours within a semester but, ostensibly, you’re getting credit for playing a sport.
You know, I remember in my own schooling, getting a Grade 13 credit for completing a Grade 8 Royal Conservatory piano exam and a corresponding theory exam.
So, we’re comfortable there. We understand this. I’ll go back to your question about some of the things that I see by being in my current context and I mentioned being able to step back and observe the education ecosystem. So when I go into the conversations, I like to talk about the High Performance Athletic programs. I like to talk about tech courses and how they might be able to do fractional credits. I’ll jump into the fact that Civics and Career courses are already half-credits. Before I get into the logistics of what this change would mean, I’m still trying to find the spaces where this conversation can land and have a few people feel comfortable enough to have it.
And I think that’s important. It’s not totally “off-the-wall.” There is already a sensibility for it.
But, you know, I’m not sure if you can notice that from within your department and so, even though there is precedence, it still becomes a fairly big paradigm challenge. It’s interesting, when you go out to the edges – to the fringe – like I have and you look back, it is sometimes hard to share that view with other people. The existing operating system of education has such gravitas – it offers a very persuasive and intoxicating point of view. It is hard to get outside that bubble.
You’re talking about being open to the learning that can take place outside of the parameters of a school day and offering students a chance to earn credentials as the result of that learning. What is necessary in order for us to start to go down this road more intentionally? How do we begin to see and value the learning that takes place outside of the schoolhouse?
For me, it has been beginning to see the system of education as something other than a rigid structure. It’s a LEGO house. It has strength and stability if you leave it exactly how it is. You can put it on a shelf and leave it there. But the great thing about a LEGO house is that you can pull it apart and reconfigure it. So this understanding has put me on the path of thinking about curriculum in a very different fashion. It doesn’t have to be bound by periods or semesters. It doesn’t even have to be bound by existing course offerings. And if you can account for the student learning and for the fulfillment of the expectations, it can cross years and modalities.
Chris, this signal challenges some of the assumptions that we make about what it means to be in school and what it means to be operating a school. You’ve just mentioned a couple of important assumptions, but are there others that this seemingly simple idea serves to challenge?
One of the really big assumptions that this challenges is that every student is the same, every course is the same and that there is a way to make it more “the same” – both students and curriculum. Instead, the idea of micro-credentialing leads towards truly personalized education.
So, your ideas around micro-credentialing point to that bigger process of creating more personalized learning.
There’s a ceiling that it would crash through; I think it would be transformational if it were given serious resources and time! You seem to be pegging the idea of signals to the present in terms of what we need to be paying attention to. But, I’m taking this as a communication from the future that is saying, “How did they not know that they should have taken one step forward? How did they not see that, despite the logistical challenges, students were screaming out for something more individualized, more responsive and they wanted ownership over their learning?”
I think that all of the pieces are, in a way, laid out right now. And there’s a dissonance to them – they’re creating quite a bit of tension. In the same school, you have International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs, enrichment and co-op programs and, more recently, these conversations about personalized education. What is it being said here that we’re not paying attention to?
Illustration: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, March 2018