Engagement, Leadership, Policy

Supporting Innovation Across the System

Lessons from B.C.’s system change efforts

What can we learn from British Columbia’s system-wide educational transformation efforts to shift from a centralized standards-based curriculum toward flexible learning paths? Leyton Schnellert identifies the factors that have supported success.

British Columbia is undergoing large-scale change within its K-12 education system, with a commitment to transform education to better meet the needs of all learners. To be successful within and contribute to an evolving global context, B.C. is currently implementing a new curriculum designed for 21st century learners. Twenty-first century learners need to be flexible, creative and able to learn from and within a variety of real and virtual environments.1 B.C.’s new curriculum offers an opportunity for innovation and significant shifts in teaching practice.

The case of British Columbia

B.C.’s current system-wide educational transformation efforts position the province as a global pioneer in the shift from a centralized standards-based curriculum toward flexible learning paths. Worldwide, the real challenge in education is not to reform systems but to transform them; not to fix them through a collection of disjointed efforts but to change systems through collaborative partnerships among the public, educational professionals, and governments. B.C.’s efforts aim to evolve an already successful educational system into one that takes into account current research on teaching and learning to prepare learners to succeed and lead in a changing world. In particular, the aim is for learners to develop the skills of “creative thinking, problem solving, initiative, curiosity, and the ability to lead and work well in groups.”2 To achieve this goal, notions of what needs to be learned, how, and where have changed significantly; these transformational changes require all stakeholders to take risks, develop innovative practices, and work together.

Fortunately, in B.C. there currently exist a number of promising professional development practices that support the above transformation. These include inquiry-based approaches which have been found to impact not only teachers’ learning, but also their practice in classrooms. When engaged in cycles of inquiry, teachers identify challenges and opportunities in relation to student learning, pose questions, develop criteria for monitoring success, draw on resources to enhance their own learning, and then embed new ideas in practice.3 In contrast to short-term, more fragmented professional development approaches such as one-shot workshops, inquiry-based professional development assists teachers to sustain attention to goals over time and to integrate new ideas into practice. Particularly impactful inquiry-based professional development approaches are collaborative in nature, and either develop or are based in collaborative networks of professionals that are generative and enduring over time.

In this article I outline some of the key scaffolds and lessons learned over the past seven years as B.C. shifted from piloting our K-9 renewed curriculum to full K-12 implementation. It is important to note that B.C.’s renewed curriculum significantly decreases content outcome requirements and instead emphasizes big ideas (concept-based learning), disciplinary competencies, and cross-curricular core competencies (critical, creative and reflective thinking; communication; collaboration; personal and social awareness and responsibility). This shift has required teachers to rethink what they teach and opened the door to thinking about how they teach.

Two key scaffolds

A culture of teacher inquiry

In preparation for the Learning Forward Conference held in Vancouver in December 2016, I interviewed educational leaders, teachers, and government representatives about the key scaffolds that were already in place prior to our current education transformation agenda, and how these had helped us to embrace the renewed curriculum.

The most common response had to do with our province’s long-standing action research culture. A second key theme highlighted multi-partner initiatives that brought together the Ministry of Education, B.C. Teachers’ Federation, and university researchers. When these two factors combined, significant and sustained education change across rural and urban school districts occurred. (By contrast, some past change initiatives failed to build inquiry-oriented learning partnerships and were stymied.) A number of previous initiatives4 all contributed to B.C.’s collaborative inquiry culture through cross-institutional partnerships. Of note, in each of these initiatives, there was a critical thinking focus, voluntary professional development that brought educators together from across schools and school districts, and resources offered as fuel for inquiry and exploration. Teachers were situated as action researchers engaging in classroom investigations, bringing samples of student work to networking sessions and contributing to the development of shared provincial criteria using exemplars from their classrooms. The sense of agency and ownership that participating educators felt resulted in grassroots change. Countering top-down notions of implementation, educators were recognized as curriculum and pedagogy creators. This benefitted B.C. greatly as teachers, schools, and school districts used these criteria to pilot research-based approaches that made space for student voice, focused on critical thinking, and required responsive teaching. 

As we began the 2010s, and draft revised curricula became available, various groups in B.C. built on the processes (action research/inquiry teams) and focuses (critical thinking, open-ended pedagogies, formative assessment) of these previous initiatives. Educators were invited to try out draft competency-based curriculum in their classrooms and offer feedback. Many school districts around the province created professional learning series where teams of teachers co-planned units of study that were competency-based and, in particular, aligned formative and summative assessment. Many educators embraced inquiry teaching and learning within these explorations, in part because with decreased content demands, they had time to explore big ideas and concepts over longer periods of time. Different conceptions of and approaches to inquiry (e.g. open inquiry, guided inquiry, project-based learning) were debated and explored. For example, I had the opportunity to work with a learning team in School District No. 43 (Coquitlam). Two teachers from each school in this large suburban district attended as inquiry partners. In each of our five sessions, I highlighted some aspects of the renewed curriculum:

  • Session 1 – shift from content to concepts and competencies
  • Session 2 – working with the core competencies as opportunities to develop social emotional learning, self-regulated learning, and critical and creative thinking
  • Session 3 – pedagogical approaches that align well with competency-based curriculum, such as inquiry-based teaching, open-ended strategies, circle pedagogies, place-consciousness, cooperative learning, etc. 
  • Session 4 – using the draft curriculum with Backward Design and Universal Design for Learning planning frameworks
  • Session 5 – teacher teams shared learning sequences they had developed and offered feedback to refine a district-wide planning tool they helped to co-create in session 4.

While I introduced theoretical perspectives and research as part of these sessions, teacher researchers decided what fit for them in their classrooms and infused these ideas into their planning and teaching. The work was not without tensions, such as concerns expressed about a lack of pre-existing and/or grade-specific teaching and learning resources that aligned with the new curriculum. However, participants engaged in transformational work in their classrooms, designing classroom experiences and units that took into account the strengths, stretches, and interests of their students and opportunities for learning in their contexts.

A focus on inclusion, equity, and diversity

Another key scaffold in our change efforts has been B.C.’s decades-long commitment to and extensive work in inclusive education, equity, and social justice. In the 1980s, B.C. embraced calls for inclusive education, dismantling segregated programs and classrooms and striving to develop classroom communities that welcome and celebrate diverse learners. Most recently, there has been important and significant attention regarding equity and access to learning for our Indigenous learners. For example, Laura Tait’s work in SD68 (Nanaimo-Ladysmith) focuses on collective ownership regarding Indigenous learners. Defining collective ownership as every person in the system embracing and taking responsibility for the success of our Indigenous students, she calls for us to shift our thinking away from “Indigenous education for Indigenous students” to “what’s good for Indigenous students is good for all students.”  

B.C.’s renewed curriculum asks educators to teach “how Aboriginal perspectives and understandings help us learn about the world.” Due to this change, B.C. educators have been seeking ways to incorporate Indigenous voices and perspectives into curriculum, ensuring that Indigenous content is a part of the learning journey for all students and that the best information guides the work. This opportunity – and tension – has led to rich professional inquiry and learning. 

Just previous to the development of B.C.’s renewed curriculum, the First Peoples Principles of Learning, a set of nine principles, were developed by the First Nations Education Steering Committee and the Ministry of Education to reflect some of the common Indigenous perspectives and understandings in B.C. However, it is important to note that these principles do not reflect the beliefs of any individual Nation. Teacher inquiry teams across the province have been exploring synergies between the renewed curriculum and Indigenous learning principles5, such as:

  • Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place)
  • Learning involves patience and time
  • Learning requires exploration of one’s identity.

One example of equity-oriented collaborative inquiry is School District No. 67’s Through a Different Lens (TADL) initiative. SD67 had consistently achieved an 80-85 percent six-year school completion rate at the outset of the TADL initiative. But their two most at-risk populations, students of Indigenous ancestry and students with behavioural challenges, had, respectively, just 50 percent and 40 percent respective completion rates. Wanting to make a difference for students who were at risk of not completing school, a small inquiry group of interested middle and secondary teachers formed. They were committed to teaching and assessing in more innovative ways and tracking the results of these shifts in their practice. TADL grew to include 75 educators who meet in collaborative inquiry groups of 10-15 teachers six times throughout the year. Teachers identify a student who is at risk of not completing school, and learn from this student as an expert (curriculum informant) throughout their inquiry. Following Universal Design for Learning principles, TADL teachers interview and observe their expert students and develop and offer pathways for learning based on this student’s strengths, interests, and passions. They then offer these pathways to all students in the class. In their inquiry team meetings, the educators use a common “four-square” graphic organizer where they reflect on their actions and successes. Finally, group members brainstorm next steps to learn from and with their students, and adjust their teaching accordingly.

Lessons learned

B.C.’s curriculum renewal has offered a catalyst for change across B.C. I close with a few lessons we’ve learned about supporting innovation as educators respond to and implement curriculum change.

Educator and student voice in change-making

Educators’ role as inquirers, action researchers, and change-makers has been central. Other jurisdictions in Canada have introduced new 21st century learning-oriented curriculum. What makes B.C. unique is that it has made space for grassroots exploration, feedback, and ongoing interpretation of its concept- and competency-based curriculum. Previous initiatives in B.C. have faltered when educators were directed to implement approaches without opportunities for action research within the development process. Another tension that has repeatedly surfaced over the past 40 years is government and school district approaches to “accountability.” Instead of uniform evaluation of curriculum implementation based on notions of fidelity and reliability, our enduring approach has been one of contextualization and creative exploration. This culture has lived through many changes of government.

Creating inquiry spaces for “outliers” as positive disruptors and collaborators

Studying one cross-province inquiry network that explored the implementation of the draft curriculum6, Paige Fisher, Kathy Sanford and I found that inquiry spaces that welcomed diverse educational perspectives and approaches were crucial in disrupting teachers’ pre-conceptions of education and allowed them to see new possibilities. Teachers whose practice embraced outside-of-the norm approaches (e.g. project-based learning, interdisciplinary teaching in secondary schools, etc.) were important catalysts in the professional learning network.

Shared responsibility for and ownership of education change efforts

Despite a change in government during the implementation of B.C.’s new curriculum, progress was safeguarded through ongoing collaborative efforts. Key partners in B.C. have been the Ministry of Education, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, Faculties of Education, and school districts. When these groups have been engaged as learning partners with shared and reciprocal goals, change efforts have not only been sustained, but evolved. Past and current efforts are vulnerable when we do not take the time to revisit shared goals and the processes and activities that define and operationalize our collaborations. Earlier I mentioned a more relational and contextual approach to accountability. When partners identify indicators to assess how their initiatives are making a difference, they need to consider that innovation benefits from creativity, adaptability, and a sense of agency from those closest to the learning and practice. When we seek the voices of students and educators as key informants and co-creators of change, it distributes ownership and recognizes that teaching, learning, and education are emergent, contextualized, and relational.

Documenting and sharing innovation

Finally, studies during this time of curriculum change in B.C. have highlighted how beneficial documenting and sharing innovations from different parts of the province have been. The Growing Innovation in Rural Sites of Learning study has surfaced visible and tangible examples of innovative practices derived in rural communities in response to a local need, but shared with other rural teams across the province. Time and again, the situated innovations shared by those who generated them with students, colleagues, and community partners have been referenced as key to inspiring divergent thinking, risk taking, and educator renewal. 

INNOVATION and curriculum transformation are dependent on the knowledge and expertise of educators. When educators have opportunities to collaboratively inquire into innovative pedagogies and new curriculum and create and adapt practices to meet local needs, meaningful and sustainable change is possible. Fostering teachers’ creativity and recognizing them as knowledge creators nurtures morale, collective ownership, and investment in innovation.

1. OECD, Schooling Redesigned: Towards innovative learning systems (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2015).

2. British Columbia Ministry of Education, BC’s Education Plan (2015). www.bcedplan.ca/theplan.php

3. Schnellert, and D. L. Butler, “Collaborative Inquiry: Empowering teachers in their professional development,” Education Canada 54, No. 3, (2014): 18-22.

4. Specifically the Young Writers Project in the 1980s, the Reading/Writing/Thinking References Sets created in the 1990s, the Performance Standards for reading, writing, numeracy, and social responsibility developed in the 2000s, and Changing Results for Young Readers in the 2010s.

5. First Nations Education Steering Committee, First Peoples Principles of Learning (2015).  http://www.fnesc.ca/learningfirstpeoples

6. L. Schnellert, P. Fisher, and K. Sanford. (2018). “Developing Communities of Pedagogical Inquiry in British Columbia,” in Networks for Learning: Effective collaboration for teacher, school and system improvement, C. Brown and C. Poortman (Eds.) (Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2018), 56-74.

Photo: iStock

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Leyton Schnellert

Associate Professor, University of British Columbia

Leyton Schnellert, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Curriculum & Pedagogy, and Pedagogy and Participation Research Cluster lead in UBC’s Institute for Community Engaged Research.

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