Over the past four months I have been teaching at Compass Centre for Self-Directed Learning, offering a course in political theory and how big ideas about politics and society can be applied to today’s tumultuous world. Over the past six years, while pursuing my Masters and PhD in History at the University of British Columbia, I have had the opportunity to act as a teaching assistant and lecturer in Canadian and American History. Yet the experience of teaching at Compass has been one of the most unique and rewarding experiences of my academic career. The students are engaged, curious and most importantly, are always willing to question assumptions and to challenge both their peers and myself to heighten our thinking and refine our ideas. However, these attributes, which in my experience are so essential to succeeding academically at university, are not innate skills, but are learned and honed through the experiences and practice that Compass offers.
Understandably, parents considering Compass may be concerned about how pursuing a nontraditional form of education will affect their children if they wish to pursue post-secondary education. As articulated on the Compass website, universities want exceptional students and with alternative admission paths increasingly available at multiple schools, gaining entrance is not an issue. However, what about once students are enrolled in an undergraduate program? Through my experience teaching undergraduates for the past six years, I would argue that students entering university with a background in self-directed learning are uniquely suited to succeed.
Particularly in the humanities, which is my field of expertise, courses build upon students’ skills, not specific knowledge gained through high school classes in social studies or history. For example, the vast majority of secondary school teachers are not versed in the conventions of academic writing and while they may have been taught basics such as grammar, syntax and spelling, it is up to professors and teaching assistants to impart the basics of academic writing and reading. Hence, so long as students have strong writing skills, they will not be behind any of their peers.
Finally, and most importantly, students’ experience at Compass allows them to learn how to learn. While there are a multitude of resources available through most universities, such as writing centres, professors’ office hours and many peer assistance programs, students must seek them out themselves. In a high school setting, students are given the information and instruction they need to succeed. Universities, alternatively, rely much more on individuals exercising their own initiative to supplement materials in class and address areas of weakness. However, for many students who have no experience in directing their own education, this process can be overwhelming and require a substantial change in habits. Throughout my time teaching I have had many students who needed to improve their skills, be it reading comprehension, writing or argumentation, yet I have sat throughout my office hours with no visitors, nor did these same students take up my offer to comment on drafts of papers or to answer questions about course materials at exam review sessions. This inability or unwillingness to avail oneself of potential resources is often a serious hindrance for many new undergrads. Fundamentally, success in university is based on very different skills and habits than the ones developed in a traditional high school setting. However, Compass helps teens develop these abilities themselves and offers excellent preparation for whatever path students wish to pursue in the future.