Modern Learning at the Provincial Level: British Columbia is Hoping to Get it Right

What sort of vision do education policies and plans offer for the future of teaching and learning? Do they focus on test scores? Do they focus on rankings? Do they see technology as simply the digitization of old processes? Or do these plans articulate something new, something forward-thinking, something that addresses the challenges and opportunities that technologies can offer? EML co-founder Will Richardson asks these questions of British Columbia’s new education plan.

While many government policy makers around education continue to focus on how to raise PISA scores and help their students move up in world rankings, one Canadian province is charting a course to a much different definition of success.

BC education leaders are redefining the definition of what the focus of schools should be

The refreshed British Columbia education plan is focused on “Education in a Fast-Changing World,” stating early on that while “most people agree the BC system is a good one,” the system was nonetheless “designed in the very different circumstances of an earlier century” and that the province needs “a more nimble and flexible [system] that can adapt more quickly to better meet the needs of 21st Century learners.” To that end, BC education leaders are redefining the definition of what the focus of schools should be.

While the entire plan is worth the read, the focus of the work is in five important areas:

1. Personalized learning for each student

2. Quality teaching and learning

3. Flexibility and choice

4. High standards

5. Learning empowered by technology.

Missing by design is a focus on curriculum; in fact, in a supporting document around “Transforming Curriculum and Assessment,” the ministry says

the provincial curricula should prescribe the minimum in terms of required learning. Teachers should be in the position of thinking about what they can add to the curriculum to personalize it and make it more relevant to learners, not questioning how they can possibly learn it all.

It’s not just rhetoric. In my work with school districts in British Columbia, there is a tangible sense of opportunity stemming from an inclusive process and a patient, thoughtful implementation. At every step of the way, the government has engaged parents, students, community members and teachers in developing the general blueprint and, now, the specific prototypes of implementation. While all sides are feeling the effects of ongoing contract negotiations between the province and teachers unions, and while a number of budget challenges in general threaten to stall reforms, many I talk to still hold a sense of optimism that British Columbia can buck global trends of greater standardization in both curriculum and assessments.

A few of important lessons from the BC process to date.

1. Transparency, Social Media, and Design – The Ministry has done an admirable job of doing its reform work in public, sharing documents to the web, and, most importantly, engaging all of its constituents (from around the world, not just the province) in their process. Even the website address,, suggests a genuine interest in public comment. One thread on “The Importance of Reading” has elicited almost 200 comments, (quite a few respectfully critical,) many of them responded to by representatives of the ministry. In addition, the ministry has an active Twitter account  and uses a number of hashtags including #bclearns and #bced to connect with others. The conversations are honest and wide-ranging. High quality YouTube videos do a nice job of articulating the message, and the overall branding of the effort offers an energetic, modern feel grounded in kids and learning.

2. Local Feedback and Planning – In addition to seeking online input, the Ministry put together a BC based advisory group that meets regularly to add structure to the ideas being collected. Their recommendations were (and are) then taken to regional groups throughout the province for detailed feedback and response for revision. A quick look at the design plan shows that at every step, feedback from both online readers and local meeting attendees is an important part of the process.

3. A Clear Context for Change – There is no question that the authors of the BC plan have a very different lens through which they are framing these change initiatives. They recognize that as more and more information, knowledge and teachers become accessible through the connections students are carrying with them, schools have to move away from delivering content and, instead, empower students to make sense of the resources they now have at their fingertips. The BC ed plan reflects change as seen through a 21st Century context, not a 20th or even 19th Century context.

One important caveat: while the BC plan calls for personalization, I think what they are really articulating is a plan to allow students to do more personal learning. Personalization has come to connote the delivery of specific curricular materials to individual students based on their needs whereas personal learning is more focused on allowing students to pursue their own passions in the context of the curriculum. In my opinion, personal learning is the area where we need to focus, helping students find, identify and employ artifacts and people that support their learning needs at a moment when they have access to so much.

It remains to be seen whether or not the province can overcome the financial and contractual challenges that it currently faces to bring these ideas to fruition. But from the standpoint of articulating a vision for new thinking around what modern learning might look like in provincial classrooms and schools, British Columbia’s ed plan is a powerful document that other global leaders at both the ministry and individual school levels would do well to consider.

Questions we’re asking:

  • How can other countries/provinces/states follow suit in creating a template for change that is a) focused on personal learning and b) sustainable?

  • What other countries/state/provinces are articulating change initiatives in this way?

  • How do personal practices around learning inform larger change conversations?

Image credits: Bruce McKay

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