The difference between learning and school

Guest Blog post by Rebecca Chambers of R.I.S.E. Academy*

Learning is definitely a lifelong journey and where I find myself today, I could not even have imagined five years ago. Until the global lockdown I was a teacher in the public education system in Ottawa, Canada. During the latter part of my 17 years in public education, I spent time unlearning what I knew “school” to be and developed a program called the Social Change Maker Model (SCMM). I will share how this led to the R.I.S.E. Academy today.

In my classroom it was evident that if my students were trusted to follow their passions and take control of their learning they would flourish. I found the youth in my lessons thrived in this SCCM program – our learning space was a buzz of activity as the students worked on their projects, collaborated with each other and the community around them and embraced the adventure of learning. However, while the youth were flourishing in creating their own projects, unfortunately other teachers in the system felt threatened. The school environment became quite toxic, and I was seen as a threat.

This led to me taking a career break, a much-needed space to breathe, re-balance and explore within myself what learning is. This coincided with the global lockdown and gave me the space to develop the SCMM further and trial it on a willing group of youths from around the world.  Their experience was overwhelmingly positive. Their motivation ran high, and their creativity came alive. As an example of a project, three of the students grouped together and embraced learning about Black Lives Matter (BLM) – they created a BLM march in Minecraft which, at certain points on the march, you could stop and read about civil rights campaigners. Other students were invited to join the march and it was a powerful experience for all those involved and great learning for the collaborators/creators of the project.

Trialling SCMM with these students over two cycles gave me the confidence to launch *R.I.S.E. (Reach Inspire Soar Empower) Academy which has continued to grow and develop over the months that have followed. I have developed the R.I.S.E. programmes to allow youth to follow their passions and co-create their learning journey, have flexible deadlines, reflect and focus on their processes rather than testing, work on real world problems and authentic projects, connect to community outside of the classroom walls and finally celebrate risk-taking and failures. It is built on the pillars in the image below.

I can now reflect and see that this was something that the current system just wasn’t ready for.   In September 2020 I officially opened R.I.S.E.’s virtual doors to 12 youth and I have not looked back since. We received accreditation from the Ministry of Education in Ontario which has enabled us to follow more of a self-directed learning philosophy.  Working with the young people that come through our doors is a privilege; they are motivated in their learning because they have chosen their project, based on their passions and interests – I trust them to create and learn, I simply facilitate the process and connect them with experts or people in the community when required. My learning curve has been steep, I stepped out of a system that I knew was broken with deep uncertainty; I grew a dream, piloted it, learnt from the youth in the programme, and then launched the Academy. It has taken courage; I have taken risks and I have learnt so much from the young people I have journeyed with. My passion is to instil in them courage, a willingness to take a risk, to innovate and dream.

As mentioned above, at R.I.S.E. Academy we believe it is imperative to provide youth with choice, autonomy and self-direction in their learning.  Gracie Sacca is a grade 12 student who has attended R.I.S.E. for the last 2 years.  In that time, she has had the opportunity to be a co-creator in her learning journey.  Gracie is a product of the Ontario education system and taking control of her learning was not easy at first.  I invited Gracie to share a little of her own experience of how R.I.S.E. has impacted her own learning journey:

‘In the beginning I thought my time at R.I.S.E. was going to be similar to traditional classes where I would read, write, take tests and move on.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was very different.  Even though I was excited, it still took me a while to jump into having so much control over my learning, I didn’t know where to start.   In our first 10 weeks we spent time trying to figure out how I wanted to learn.  Rebecca took the lead in the beginning to support me while I figured things out.  She was able to take my love of hockey and relate the courses we were working on to it.  As we progressed through the year, I slowly began to see what made me excited to learn.  After getting out of my comfort zone, I realized that I really enjoyed talking to people about issues related to hockey.  I created a podcast, interviewed people from all over the world, spoke to 150 academics about racism in hockey, lead a roundtable discussion with prominent people in the hockey community and lead a social media campaign called #blowthewhistleonracism. Having choice, autonomy and self-direction in my learning has allowed me to recognize my strengths and it has made me feel smarter and more confident, as compared to regular school where I always felt stupid because I did not fit in their box.  I have learned that I like learning, whereas before I equated learning and school as the same thing.  I am not a fan of traditional school.’

Gracie is only one of many students who the school system has failed, this reality continues to drive us as we develop, believing that we can contribute to the conversation about systemic change which is so needed in our ailing system.  It is our belief at R.I.S.E. that we all have strengths and when given the opportunity we can all shine.

*R.I.S.E. (Reach Inspire Soar Empower) Academy is a not for profit, virtual, alternative high school that works with high school aged youth through the province of Ontario in Canada.  It is accredited by the Ministry of Education in Ontario, within this accreditation it still follows more of a self-directed learning philosophy.

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