At the opening of Olds High School, Principal Tom Christensen held his breath as he watched students inspect the new facilities designed with a new approach to learning in mind.
The Alberta school is divided into four so-called “quads,” each housing one-quarter of the school’s 800 students, with flexible learning spaces to accommodate small or large groups, self-directed study, project-based learning and other forms of inquiry and collaboration.
“You could hear the students – they just got it right away,” says Mr. Christensen, delighted by their response.
In many ways, Olds is not your average high school.
It is located on the campus of Olds College, which partnered with Chinook’s Edge School Division to create a shared, multi-facility complex known as the Community Learning Campus (CLC). The high school occupies about 20 percent of the CLC’s Ralph Klein Centre, which also houses the CLC’s Health and Wellness Centre, the Central Alberta Child and Family Services Authority, Alberta Employment and Immigration, Integrated Career Centre, as well as counseling and health services.
Other facilities that make up the learning campus include a fine arts centre for theatre and performing arts for students and the community, as well as a Bell e-Learning Centre that serves as a high-tech hub for learning resources accessible to students, staff, and communities in the vicinity of Olds, Alberta.
As a measure of the physical integration of education facilities, high school students make use of career, technical and shop facilities, renovated as part of the CLC project and located on the college campus. In addition to saving money, the shared facilities enable smooth pathways from college to post-secondary education or training.
Former Chinook’s Edge Superintendent Jim Gibbons says students can “do a transition from, say, a level of skill at Grade 9 or 10 and then easily transition to the trades as well.” High school students can use the college library as well, with no need to duplicate the facility.
The layout of the high school is designed to get students thinking about their interests and possible career pathways. Students in the Grade 9 quad explore a “Who Am I?” theme that introduces them to project-based learning. In the past, says Mr. Christensen, a project might consist of: “we studied Columbus, now write a report on him.” Now, he says, “a project has a driving question; it’s based on the inquiry idea.”
A project has a driving question; it’s based on the inquiry idea.
Grade 10-12 students choose among three different quads. The Blue and Gold quads are organized along the familiar “classroom-based” model (“We don’t like to use the word ‘traditional’ anymore,” Mr. Christensen says). This model was inspired by small K-12 community schools in which teachers know high-school-age students and their parents well. “When we were setting up the idea of the quads, we were trying to make the four areas of our school function like small schools,” says Mr. Christensen. For example, in the Blue and Gold quads, teachers of Math, English and Social Science stay with the students through their three years of high school. The timetable accommodates team teaching as another form of learning enrichment.
The “Green” quad, by contrast, subscribes to an inquiry-based form of learning, with projects and seminars that allow students to be more self-directed in their activities. Students stay with the same two core-subject teachers for three years. Green quad students don’t have to be honour students, and many are not, according to Mr. Christensen, but they do need to be self-motivated and have a good work ethic. The self-directed approach is designed to create a university-like atmosphere to ease the transition from high school to university. Although the other three quads were developed as part of the planning for the new school, the Green-quad concept, previously known as the “academic team,” has been part of the Olds High School program for more than 10 years.
Enabling students to direct their own learning means students are not constrained by disciplines organized into the usual hourly units of classroom study. “We know as adults we learn at different rates,” says Mr. Gibbons, now a Senior Advisor with the Alberta School Boards Association. He says most schools hang onto the outmoded Carnegie unit “that suggests if we have students spend 60, 70, 80 minutes in a classroom they will come out with this defined amount of knowledge and learning. It doesn’t make sense.”
Not all teachers are comfortable in the kind of setting adopted by Olds High School. Four teachers among the staff of 30 decided not to stay after the new program was introduced, even though some participated in the planning and visioning. They included some master teachers. “I’m very good friends with them and I respect that they did that, says Mr. Christensen. “But it opened opportunities for me to hire people that were ready to really embrace what we’re doing.”