Setting Their Own Goals and Schedules

The structure and support built into self-directed learning make it work.

by Nick Brune and Leanne Miller, OCT

From the outside it looks like any other large, urban high school. It’s the same when you first step inside. The halls are buzzing and teachers and education assistants are busy working with students, and those students are just as busy studying and learning. Yet Mary Ward Catholic SS in the Toronto Catholic DSB is unlike any school you have ever seen.

It offers a complete academic program at all levels of study, as well as ESL and extended French. There are programs for students who are gifted and for those with developmental difficulties. And students participate in a full range of co-curricular athletics and student clubs.

But that’s where the similarities end. Founded in 1985, Mary Ward is one of only six schools in Canada and one of just two in Ontario that delivers the standard curriculum through student-directed learning. Rather than learning in traditional teacher-directed classrooms, students study and learn independently with the support of a teacher-adviser program.

Mary Ward’s mission statement sums it up best, asserting that students flourish in a program of self-directed learning that calls on every student to be a leader in an achievement-oriented environment, and that all students can reach their highest potential through self-directed learning.

In other words, explains principal Patricia Coburn, OCT, students set their own learning goals, follow a personalized program and work and learn in an environment that enables them to actively pursue self-directed learning.

There is no master timetable. There are no bells, no periods, no semesters and no traditional classrooms. Instead, courses based on the standard curriculum are divided into 18 learning units. Students work independently through one unit at a time, following a mastery learning philosophy that requires them to achieve a minimum of 60 per cent on all evaluated work before they can move on to the next unit. The 18th unit is the final evaluation and involves an exam or culminating activity or a combination of the two, just as at most schools.

Mary Ward is a community school of about 1,150 students that gives first spots to Grade 8 students from its six feeder schools. After that, applications are taken from within the board, with priority given to siblings of students already attending as well as those applying to the extended French program.

The other self-directed school in Ontario is Westmount SS in the Hamilton-Wentworth DSB. Although both share a general philosophy, Westmount principal Rick Kunc, OCT, distinguishes between the two, explaining that Westmount was originally built as a traditional composite high school.

“We don’t have the space that Mary Ward has, so we run a more traditional timetable but give students some freedom. Our approach involves an element of self-pacing and students directing their learning.”

Westmount’s 1,400 students come from the board’s 96 elementary schools. Students in Grade 10 or higher from the board’s 17 secondary schools may also apply.

Kunc explains that the self-paced model allows students to choose an academic plan that suits their abilities within the traditional eight courses, semestered system and regular timetable.

“If Mark wants to miss English today to work on math, he can go to his English teacher and arrange to sign out of her class and work on his math in a location that better suits his learning needs for that period,” Kunc explains. “But if the English teacher is working on a key Hamlet lesson today, she may let Mark go tomorrow instead.

“When you give students input into their own learning and the pace of that learning, they are more successful,” says Kunc. “It’s as simple as that.”

Ted Bohn, OCT, works with music students at Westmount SS in Hamilton.

A teacher’s typical day at Mary Ward

The non-semestered school is divided according to traditional subject departments. Each department has a large open resource area where students from all grades, ability levels and subject-specific courses gather to work individually on their units. Subject teachers are always available – on the floor, they call it – to answer questions and provide support. Each resource area has adjacent seminar rooms, interview rooms for one-on-one interviews and special-purpose rooms such as science and computer labs. The school also boasts three large lecture theatres where any department may schedule seminars and other large sessions.

Mary Ward teachers do not teach daily lessons in traditional classrooms. For the most part they work with students one-on-one during floor time. But once every two weeks or so, teachers lead focused classroom activities, known as seminars. Students must book subject-specific seminars into their schedules. Attendance is mandatory and taken.

In fact, at both schools teachers take attendance three times a day. Self-directed learning has nothing to do with kids choosing not to attend classes they don’t enjoy.

Patrick McAlpine, OCT, teaches English at Mary Ward. He rarely teaches a whole class of students three times a day, as he would at a neighbouring high school. Instead, he’s busy working on the floor every day and meeting individually with his assigned English students before they hand in each unit of work. He points out errors, probes to ensure understanding and challenges them to improve their written work.

McAlpine laughs as he explains that many students keep coming back to make sure their work is as perfect as possible before handing it in for final evaluation. “These kids are keen,” he says.

In fact, about 85 per cent of Mary Ward students go on to college or university. At Westmount, the numbers are similar. About 90 per cent choose an academic postsecondary pathway.

Kunc explains that Westmount’s delivery model is founded on the belief that students have different learning styles. The school’s program affords them greater autonomy and more opportunities to direct their own learning.

Students study and learn independently with the support of a teacher-adviser program.  

“This student-focused environment, which is present in all Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning member schools, has applications in any traditional education setting,” he says.

In agreement with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, Mary Ward teachers follow daily department-specific instructional schedules that give them three hours of subject-based instruction (on-the-floor time), 40 minutes of prep time and one hour of dedicated credit-based mentoring known as teacher-adviser time. This involves completing the mandatory civics, career education, and leadership and learning skills courses.

The mentorship program is the critical element of the Mary Ward program. Each teacher – librarians and guidance counsellors included – is assigned 18 students from across all grades and levels of study. Students remain in their teacher-adviser (TA) group for the four or five years they are at Mary Ward.

Westmount students belong to similar groups, although groups at Westmount meet only once every 10 days. Mary Ward’s 69 TA groups meet three times each day. The teacher-adviser takes attendance, and students update their teacher-adviser on their schedules.

In addition, each group member meets individually with the adviser once every two to three weeks for a 30-minute interview that covers short- and long-term scheduling, course selection, career planning and time management. The meetings focus on pacing and course completion. After each meeting the TA sends home an electronic student progress report.

Mary Ward’s high-tech wireless system gives TAs complete access to their advisees’ marks, course information, record of achievement, unit-completion progress, test results and other information. The system makes it easy and efficient to send reports and communicate with parents and guardians via e-mail.

A significant benefit of the TA program is that each student develops a long-term relationship with one adult who serves as an advocate and mentor, Coburn says.

Structured academic supports make Mary Ward work

The Mary Ward model relies on the vital work of instructional assistants (IAs) and education assistants (EAs). The principal seeks permission from the Toronto Catholic DSB for special staffing each year, as two IAs count for one teacher.

The jobs of the 14 IAs vary from department to department but typically include handing out and collecting booklets containing the learning units and helping organize labs. Two IAs run the school’s testing lab, where students write tests when they complete a unit. Teachers are expected to have three or four versions of a test available to ensure academic integrity.

So a test on Romeo and Juliet asks students to choose two quotations from a list of five, identify the speaker and the person spoken to, and explain the meaning and significance of the quotation. For different versions of the test, the task remains the same but the quotations change.

If three students from the same course arrive at the test centre together, the IA ensures that they sit separately and receive different versions of the same test. If a student needs help during the test, the IA calls in the teacher.

As with any high school, Mary Ward students in any given course write their final exam on the same day and at the same time, although students who finish a course early can write their exam early. Students work this out with their subject teachers, and courses usually run a block of exams in May, as many students finish then.

The 17 EAs work like traditional EAs, supporting the school’s Special Education teachers. One of the huge benefits of the Mary Ward system, explains Special Education teacher Joanna Morra, OCT, is that the children are almost fully integrated and work alongside all the other students during floor time. Morra, herself a Mary Ward grad, has been teaching for five years, all of them at Mary Ward.

This year, of the school’s 1,150 students, there are 90 identified students excluding gifted and 23 students identified with multiple exceptionalities and developmental delays.

“They sit and work alongside the regular-stream kids,” Morra explains. “Even though there is little social interaction, my kids learn by doing and imitating. They see the other students sitting still and working quietly, and they tend to do the same. There are fewer behavioural issues than if these kids were working solely with each other all day long.”

Her students are grouped for vocal music, cooking and visual arts and receive one-on-one teaching and assistance specific to their individual needs and levels of study.

Mary Ward students work on their agendas with teacher-adviser John Notten, OCT.

Summer school

Mary Ward offers summer school as a continuation of the regular program, and summer school supports the philosophy of continual progress education, mastery learning and student-directed learning. Students who have completed 14 of the 18 units of a course by the second week of June may enrol in the four-week summer school program with the goal of completing a course. Alternatively, they may carry over as many as four units to the next school year and must finish all 18 units of a course by the beginning of November.

Although Westmount does not offer summer school, it too offers students a flexible carry-over process between two school years. “Student learning does not always end in June. Extended timelines and increased student choice can positively impact student achievement in any school environment,” Kunc says.

Keeping students organized

As at most schools, Mary Ward students receive an agenda book. But it’s not buried at the bottom of a locker. Students must track their TA individual and group meetings, their subject teachers’ on-the-floor and seminar schedules, and their own unit completion and marks. As tests must be taken within six days of teacher authorization, they also keep track of how long they have to write a test. Their pre-marked calendar outlines target unit-completion dates as well as dates to meet with teachers, holidays and field trips.

Students are given a daily planner that they must complete every morning in their TA group as they decide what they will work on. If teacher-advisers learn from subject teachers or through TA interviews that students are not attending floor time, they will ask subject teachers to sign daily planners to ensure that students attend floor time for all subjects.

Students also receive a wall calendar to post at home, so parents and guardians are fully aware of target unit-completion dates and school events, as well as the school’s code of behaviour, its cell phone and uniform policies, the role of guidance and the library, study tips, and so on.

“Communication with the home is vital to the success of our program,” explains Coburn. “Parents’ involvement and support of their children is essential.

“Although in many ways the program is flexible,” the principal continues, “it is also structured, and students know where they should be and what they should be doing to achieve success. They must do the work and put in the time with the support and guidance provided by the subject teacher and teacher-adviser.”

Jessica and Perrin are both in Grade 12 and are working quietly together in a small study room. Both have attended Mary Ward since Grade 9. They like the close relationship they have developed with their TA and feel confident they can ask for advice or speak with this trusted adult on any topic. Both students enjoy the interaction with students in lower grades that their TA group affords them.

They admit that they struggled in Grade 9 to adjust to the program, but now they love it and feel they are well prepared to attend university next year.

Jessica says, “I have strong study skills. I feel that I own my learning and can make proper decisions about time management and getting things done.”

Both say they have seen students take advantage of the system by skipping classes and delaying the completion of work. But they have also seen students suffer the consequences when everything comes due and they panic.

“It only happens once to a few kids,” says Perrin, “and then everyone finds out about it and doesn’t want to be stressed like that. It’s not worth it.”

Principles of self-directed schools

The Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning is dedicated to the personalization of learning, which takes into account individual student characteristics, talents, interests and academic backgrounds. Its philosophy is that learning flourishes in an environment where learners are able to exercise a degree of control over their learning.

Although each member school of the coalition is unique, they all subscribe to nine fundamental practices and values.

For more information on the Canadian Coalition of Self-Directed Learning, visit