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Watson Lake principal earns national recognition

Take a moment to think back on your adolescence and the years you spent at high school: the rigid schedules, the anxiety caused by exams and the awkward hair.

Take a moment to think back on your adolescence and the years you spent at high school: the rigid schedules, the anxiety caused by exams and the awkward hair.

At Watson Lake Secondary School, principal Jean MacLean can’t do anything about your hairstyle but she’s set up a self-learning system where students thrive at their own pace.

The blended learning model, which is designed to offer the best of homeschooling and traditional teaching, has been so successful that MacLean was recently named one of Canada’s top 40 principals by The Learning Partnership.

MacLean said the idea began taking shape four years ago when she became principal at the high school. She realized that scheduling conflicts were forcing students to take required courses over electives that they were interested in.

“At F.H. Collins or Porter Creek Secondary the reason their kids can take elective classes is because they are offering the courses so many times a year,” she said.

“In rural high schools, it’s more challenging because staffing numbers are smaller, and it seems like those electives are the ones that get put to the side.”

MacLean started talking to people at the Department of Education and finally settled on Moodle, an online learning platform that is commonly used at universities. Content available includes videos, lectures and quizzes. Most of the school’s required classes such as math, history and English are also available.

As MacLean explains it, this way, you can have a classroom with students working on Grade 10, 11 and 12 English with a teacher present to answer any questions.

The students work at their own pace, set their own exam times and develop time management skills.

“When you’re teaching a large classroom, you have students who already know the material and students who don’t,” she said.

“This allows the best of both worlds. It takes away the pressure and anxiety of having to take an exam when they’re not ready for it.

“It’s all about personal goal setting and staying on track, and those are the skills I believe they need for 21st century learning.”

Grade 9 students are introduced to Moodle during their last semester, which makes the transition into Grade 10 easier.

When speaking to homeschoolers, MacLean heard the same complaint - it sometimes took days for a teacher to answer their questions.

By the time they did, it often wasn’t helpful because they couldn’t remember what the problem was.

In this system, if students get stuck on a particularly tough math problem, for example, the teacher can take the time to explain it to the entire classroom.

The results speak for themselves.

Attendance has shot up in the year and a half since the new model was implemented, and so have course completion rates, MacLean said. School morale is at an all-time high, too.

“We haven’t had a single vandalized laptop in a year and a half, and that’s because they’re proud of it,” MacLean said.

“These are courses they’ve actually chosen. It makes group work much better because everyone wants to be there, and it’s something that has really improved the climate at the school.”

Another benefit is that students who need to travel to hockey tournaments, or go hunting, no longer fall behind if they spend time away from school.

When they come back they just pick up where they left off, she said.

The notion of failing a course is a thing of the past, too.

Students just continue a class until it’s completed - it might take five or seven months, but it makes them more prepared for the exam at the end, MacLean said.

If students finish the course earlier, it gives them more time to spend on other classes.

A dozen older students in the community are also taking advantage of the Moodle courses to complete their high school credits.

“Those students couldn’t come to our school before because they were too busy,” she said.

“Maybe they’re full-time moms or they have full-time jobs. Some of them come on their day off.”

In addition to the self-paced learning program, MacLean also suspects student turnout has been improved by the free breakfast and lunch program introduced three years ago.

MacLean will be honoured at the 11th annual Canada’s Outstanding Principals gala on Feb. 24 in Toronto.

She will also take part in five days of executive leadership training at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Contact Myles Dolphin at