At Unisus, an independent school in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Dr. Tosca Killoran is navigating the ripple effect of the COVID-19 crisis. Before the pandemic, the school was guided by a philosophy that includes multigrade and cross-curriculum teamwork and access to cutting-edge technologies including augmented and virtual realities.
Today, health and safety protocols have forced the senior principal to rework the school’s path toward progress.
With 126 students from Kindergarten to Grade 11, the school, which opened its doors in 2018, has swiftly made changes for the new school year. It put rolling casters on tables with plexiglass dividers so students can move around a classroom and collaborate. Every grade is encouraged to come together and brainstorm outside in a safe and physically distant manner on the school’s picturesque grounds.
Within its hands-on entrepreneurship program, students are creating products and services that solve community challenges presented by the pandemic. During lockdown, students were tasked with a design challenge of their own making. The results included masks made with input from local medical and design experts, and health and safety videos that were scripted and recorded from scratch.
“As Unisus is a small and independent school, we have the ability to be agile in our school design process,” Dr. Killoran says. “From physical space to curriculum, we can rapidly prototype solutions and be responsive to our community’s needs.”
For example, the school is currently re-examining its report-card format. The goal is to place less emphasis on grades and rely on a student’s self-assessment based on their skill development. It’s a bold strategy that didn’t get approval by stakeholders last year, however Unisus’s ability to explore the option is key.
“We have wiggle room within regulations to play with ideas and get feedback. Together with our student, parent and teacher bodies, we can innovate report cards so that they eventually become right for each constituency within our community,” Dr. Killoran says.
Amanda Dervaitis, founder and principal of Summit Micro School in Toronto, which teaches Kindergarten through Grade 8, explains her school’s small population of 25 students allows for new ideas and innovations to be implemented quickly, responsibly and responsively. “We have the agency and autonomy to be really nimble. We learn what works and what doesn’t and then develop our programs from there,” she says.
As a result, she can bring fresh concepts such as futurism into the curriculum, which Summit is pioneering in an elementary school environment. She is collaborating with Teach the Future, a global non-profit organization that develops creative and critical-thinking skills to help students shape and envision their future.
“With all the doom and gloom and negative messages from media, futurist thinking is proving to help [young people] develop a more positive outlook and sense of agency,” says Ms. Dervaitis.
In light of the COVID-19 crisis, teaching a sense of leadership and balance in an uncertain world is vital. “We have to prioritize well being in this whole scenario,” says Dr. Joanne Foster, an education consultant and author of ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids. “We ultimately need to focus on resilience, courage and optimism.”
A small student body is also ideal for personalized learning, a teaching method supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. About the approach, Bill Gates writes: “At its best, personalized learning doesn’t just let students work at their own pace. It puts them in charge of their own academic growth.”
By empowering students to choose what and how they learn, strategies such as responsive scheduling, which is implemented at Unisus, can be explored. It allows students to self-direct time in their schedule to engage in their own passion project, content or curriculum.
In this context, the teacher’s role fundamentally shifts from being a lecturer to a guide who encourages the student to ask questions and discover their personal interests.
“Having small classrooms of 14 students is amazing. In that way, teachers can track and look at every child’s learning development,” Dr. Killoran says.
Summit Micro School personalizes education with project-based learning (PBL), a popular approach that requires students to solve a challenge within a real-world scenario and provides room for individual growth. The George Lucas Educational Foundation reports that PBL improves the long-term retention of content, helps students perform better on tests and boosts problem-solving, collaboration skills and attitudes toward learning.
For Ms. Dervaitis, however, personalization and innovation goes beyond the curriculum of her one-room school. Summit’s small student body means having the capacity to meet the different needs of every child and their parents' hectic lives, whether its facilitating communication that accommodates a parent’s busy schedule or nurturing a community spirit that she observes many families lack and actively seek.
“We’re able to respond to what’s going on at a societal and personal level. It’s impossible not to connect on a personal level. When you connect with a micro school community, you can always find ways to make [our relationship] work,” she says.