On the edge of Yaletown, where Nelson meets Cambie, announced only by a subdued sign, stands The Westside Miniversity. Although it looks nothing like one, it is a senior high school, re-imagined to make learning irresistible. How? By placing the needs of learners as its prime organizational goal.
The school day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the school year is arranged in six academic blocks of 20 days’ duration; blocks are separated by “intervals”, each of five days’ duration. The intervals enable revision of previously completed courses, while one day is used for a student-inspired whole-school symposium on a subject of choice.
In each block, a student studies one course only; the teacher teaches one course only. As students study, they are not summoned here and there by bells or buzzers; they do not, while rushing from one class to the next, have to “turn off” math and “turn on” English; they do not reach the end of the school day having forgotten how they started it and so having to re-learn the material, without the teacher, in their own time; they do not have the mental stress of preparing for several tests at the same time, or completing multiple assignments with similar deadlines. They attend some whole-class sessions, of course, but for most of each day they work in their chosen style — personal space, small group space, and various other collaborative spaces are available. Their teacher is, however, always available, as are the resource collections, previously prepared and available online.
Other typical school conflicts are also avoided: learning off-site through field trips, for example, causes neither student nor teacher to miss other classes. Guest speakers are easily accommodated as invitations need not be limited to a certain time in a day, or to a certain location — our students can, if it makes more sense, visit them. Indeed, with such flexibility, the whole city becomes their campus: the central library, the university libraries, the museums and galleries, concert and theatre matinees, the law courts, businesses, hi-tech incubators, community enterprises and service providers all provide opportunities for authentic education.
For future success, students need to develop responsibility for their learning and resilience to overcome their inevitable setbacks. University presidents tell us that many students enter university without these qualities, sometimes because of over-parenting, sometimes because of inflated views of their ability resulting from a lack of rigour in their school courses. Whatever the causes, they result in the current significant growth in mental health issues among university students and contribute to the significant (about 30 per cent) number who drop out and fail to graduate. This is why, in the Miniversity, students have to maintain exemplary attendance, meet deadlines, and truly earn their marks.
Responsibility and resilience are not easily achieved, so students need guidance. This is why the Miniversity uses a tutorial method similar to the one used for generations in Oxford University. Each student has a personal guide, mentor, adviser and critical friend — a tutor. Tutors are responsible for the pastoral care of their (about 10) students. Tutors meet their students at the beginning of each day, read their daily journals, and grow to know them very well over their partnership of three years.
It is well, then, that teachers benefit from the Miniversity system, too. They have their non-teaching time in blocks. This enables them to undertake significant further study, observation of colleagues in other schools, preparation of new courses, research, creation of new course material, deep reflection, or any combination of these and other desirable activities. The aim is to increase their capacity to guide the students’ growth. This is especially necessary as we know that while research into any aspect of education can produce variable, and sometimes opposing, results, there is no disagreement on the primacy of the quality of teachers in student outcomes. Kipling was right when he wrote:
No written word or spoken plea
Can teach young minds what they should be
Not all the books on all the shelves
But what the teachers are themselves
Graham Baldwin is president and CEO of The Westside School