Helping Children Succeed at School – The Learning Bar
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
COO Beth Fairbairn, left, and CEO Colette Wasson, right, with The Learning Bar founder Dr. J. Douglas Willms, centre.
Colette Wasson and Beth Fairbairn are passionate about helping children succeed in school. Both Colette, chief executive officer, and Beth, vice-president and chief operating officer, help lead The Learning Bar, a global company founded in 2004 by Dr. J. Douglas Willms.
Willms and a colleague, Patrick Flanagan, had an idea for student perception surveys and providing immediate feedback for schools. The company has gone on to develop a full product line that includes the Early Years Evaluation starting at age 3, moving up to Confident Learners and then the Our-SCHOOL suite of surveys. Developed by in-house researchers and educators, their student assessments and survey solutions provide evaluation tools designed to give educators the insight needed to make informed planning decisions. Today, the Fredericton-based company has 60 employees, with offices in Australia and ongoing work in Latin America and the United States, as well as some work in China and Bermuda.
Dave Veale: Tell me a little bit about the history and background of The Learning Bar.
Colette: We sell our tools to departments of education in certain provinces, to school districts. OurSCHOOL, the student voice, is our flagship product; it’s used all over Canada and in 1,500 schools in Australia. When you read articles about bullying in school, about mental health, about anxiety, about student engagement, a lot of that comes from our survey. And, in Australia, our research organization is part of the Department of Education in New South Wales.
Beth: Engagement is one of the strongest measures in our student survey, and something that Doug is most famous for. He’s written over 200 research articles and has been a professor of education at the University of New Brunswick for 18 years. He held the Canada Research Chair in Literacy and Human Development for 14 years.
Colette: The research around these assessments was designed to make sure kids are ready to start school. For kindergarten to Grade 3, a literacy program called Confident Learners has been developed specifically with and for First Nations partners, encompassing the First Nations’ culture as part of the activities to help kids learn to read. The OurSCHOOL is a student climate survey to hear the voice of the students … with an opportunity for parents and teachers to participate.
Dave:How are we doing in New Brunswick in terms of our educational prosperity?
Beth: In New Brunswick, the Ministry of Education has used the Early Years Evaluation tool both in anglophone and francophone sectors since 2008. They were our first provincial roll-out. Principals tell us they love having the data because they can really think about equitable classroom distribution and making sure that we’re offering key programs to parents early. The family community resource centres of New Brunswick have been a wonderful partner in making sure that our families have the resources that they need for children to start school and be as successful as they can be.
New Brunswick was also the first client for the OurSCHOOL survey. We wanted to make sure we had a strong base in our own province. By aggregating the data up to the provincial level, we can really help the province in making targeted decisions with their limited resources.
Dave: It sounds like you do quite a bit of education in this sector.
Beth: Absolutely. We have an entire wing here dedicated to educator engagement.
Colette: The value we’ve been able to bring to the educators and the administrators is really to let them know where the vulnerable children are. Because the earlier we can find those children, the earlier we can help put interventions in place.
Beth: What’s powerful is that when a school finishes their surveys, within two days … they receive a whole slew of data. They can desegregate by age, gender, aboriginal status, socioeconomic status. Our school principals are then taught how to interpret the data to find their story. We have an average level bar so you can have a look at your school’s results and see if you are lower, equal to, or higher than the national average.
Dave: What does the future hold for The Learning Bar?
Colette: There are tons of opportunities in front of us. Right now we touch over a million children’s lives. And our goal … is to reach 25 million children and touch the lives of 25 million kids around the world.
Beth: It’s very measurable. We’re a data company, so we know exactly how many children have taken the survey, how many children have done the assessments. Here we are, a little company from New Brunswick reaching (more than a million) children.
Colette: It’s the difference we can make in those kids’ lives. Dr. Willms can predict graduation rate.
Dave: What can other companies learn from The Learning Bar as it relates to thinking big and getting into the global marketplace?
Beth: I think having effective, long-lasting partnerships is absolutely key for any company. We’ve established some key partnerships – with the New Brunswick Association for Community Living, the Rick Hansen Foundation and Opportunities New Brunswick. Another partnership I’m particularly proud of is the work that we do with indigenous communities across Canada.
Colette: As a company, we have strong core values of empathy, inclusion and equality. We are always looking for partnerships to help us make the biggest difference for all children.
This column has been edited for length.
As published in The Telegraph Journal, Leadership Unleashed column, February 21, 2019