Two things differentiate the best schools in Canada

Last week was a busy travel week, with meetings in five CAIS schools in three provinces. If that cross-Canada perspective doesn’t impress you, consider this – none of the schools were in Ontario. I met with students, staff, leadership teams, and boards, and in every school, I had the chance to build on the work of our 2051 Project.

So what’s new? What impressed me most? Two things:

CAIS Schools are doing even more to differentiate their programs and enhance their unique value

What I saw in my travels was inspirational:

I was struck last week, as is often the case, by the commitment to providing more than the provincial requirements in terms of curricular and co-curricular offerings. But there’s more.

I have been conducting 2051 Student Focus Groups for over a year (See our video here) but last week, I took time to ask students about this idea of “more.” What I heard is that they want less traditional classes and more focus on life-oriented, real skills and experiential learning. And what, specifically, do they mean by “more interesting stuff”? Here’s their list:

  • Home economics – Why can’t schools teach us to prepare healthy food?
  • Finances, mortgages, taxes, and budgets – Everyone needs to learn this, so why don’t schools teach this? And not just in a lower level math class – schools should teach financial acumen to all students.
  • Cars and other opportunities to make and fix things – There’s a difference between “book smart” and other kinds of smart. Students don’t want to be naïve and lacking in hands-on activities that are worth learning.
  • Global issues and market trends – What is happening with Alberta oil and gas? Students may get this in certain classes, but they want to be on top of world events, and they want more debate on current issues.
  • People skills like communication and team work – Why is it considered an added bonus when some great teachers choose to focus on this?
  • Arts – Why can’t high school allow more time to explore more of a variety of activities?
  • Opportunities for personal discovery, character development, and leadership.

The challenge for schools is always time. How do you meet the provincial curriculum, get your students in to the best universities, AND offer more experiential and co-curricular opportunities? Fear not! Students can make this happen too – offer more experiences, especially at younger ages; redesign how we teach the current curriculum; create flexible schedules; and rethink learning opportunities outside of the classroom.

As usual, I ended the week with confirmation of one simple truth:

CAIS Schools ask, listen and act on, the advice of their students.

p.s. Honoured to make the January 22 Photo of the Day at BCS!


Is financial sustainability still the number one challenge facing independent schools?

Every three years, we ask our CAIS Heads and Chairs to identify their top three challenges, and we use this data to inform our research and professional development programs. So in 2013, when the top challenge was financial sustainability, we made that our focus (Think 2051 Project!). When you are in the business of whole school continuous improvement, you better know what is top of mind for members.

So this is the year to ask again, and I predict the following – the number one challenge will not be financial sustainability.

Merriam-Webster defines sustainability as “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed.” Good news! I have read every accreditation report over the past ten years, and more significantly, I have read every Response Report that demonstrates a school’s commitment to implementing the recommendations. This qualifies me to tell you that CAIS schools are not anywhere near “being used up;” in fact, they are working hard to ensure the opposite.

But for anyone thinking that this is a feel-good blog about the future of CAIS schools … “Not so fast Lopez!” There are significant questions in the current educational landscape:

  • Assessment for learning – How do we ensure it is dynamic, embedded and formative, based on real time data and enabled by technology?
  • Blended learning – How do we lead in terms of real-time, data-driven instruction and open up multiple pathways for students to learn and parents, students and teachers to communicate?
  • Competency-base learning – How can we develop a broader conceptualization of evidence of student mastery? And can we figure out a way to get universities to honour this in the application process?
  • Personalized learning – How do we move toward personalization for each student’s unique needs, interests, passions and competency-based pathways, while honouring the provincial curriculum requirements?
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL) – How can we do more student exhibitions that are authentic demonstrations of learning and connected to our communities, without simply making them an add-on for students?
  • Work-based learning – How can our university preparatory schools include co-op opportunities? Can they also be global, and entrepreneurial? Can we develop a badge system that is meaningful and rigorous?
  • Adult-development learning – This is new; in fact, I just made it up. But I am reading How to Raise and Adult and I believe that the author has hit on one of the key challenges facing our schools in particular: how do we raise happy students who know and like themselves? How do we encourage parents to back off and do the same?

Given these challenges, no school can rest on its laurels and not worry about its future strength. So for CAIS schools, I propose two new years’ resolutions:

  1. Change our terminology from “sustainability” to “permanence and strength” and focus on ongoing research to answer the above questions.
  1. Collaborate in terms of research but also in terms of PD. Never before has it been more important to figure out these challenges, and I am a firm believer in the power of together. (If you are a CAIS leader, you should meet your colleagues in Vancouver in April to have some catalytic conversations about the future of education. Read more and register here.)

p.s. I like this list of post-secondary trends.

One reason to celebrate a happy new year

I have spent the last six days repeating “Happy new year!” but the cold-hearted truth is that a frightening number of students in North America will not have a happy new year.

In her January 2nd New York Times article, Vicki Abeles shares some pretty depressing statistics about teen anxiety and what she calls a “nation of unhealthy schools”:

  • Nearly one in three teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression — and their single biggest source of stress was school.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended.
  • Only 14% of college professors believe their students are prepared for post-secondary studies.

I must admit that I find this subject increasingly upsetting and have addressed it before.

On a personal level, I worry about my own kids – they say they are happy, but are they? Really? And how do we really know? I can tell you for sure that they are sick of my wanting to talk about stress and how they cope with it. They told me over the holidays (before reading the article, when I asked about stress) that Lakefield has a wellness project that is run by faculty and administration, and a happiness initiative that the students lead (they were most excited by cookie decorating.) My hope is that these strategies work, but I can tell you this: my kids feel well supported by the adults – professional and personal – in their lives. And this matters most.

On a school level, what matters to me is that schools demonstrate awareness and support. The fact is, kids are kids wherever they go to school. We need schools to be all over issues of anxiety and mental health such that all students thrive. When I take a look at our CAIS schools, I am encouraged to see the following:

All this to say, I actually think our CAIS schools are leaders in developing strategies to promote wellness and mindfulness.

And that makes me happy enough to sincerely wish you a happy new year.