This tweet resonates with me for many reasons….it brings forth big ideas related to personalized, student-driven learning as well as learner engagement, empowerment, and agency. We know in the realm of education, these are topics on the minds of many.
We also know that our contemporary learners are vastly different than previous generations. They are far more diverse, as are their needs. We know we need to change our focus and our approach in order to meet their changing needs and the demands of our society. Past practices, and only focusing on filling our learners’ minds with knowledge, are no longer enough. We need to support our students in becoming the globally aware, creative, adaptive, resilient, digitally fluent, flexible thinkers necessary in today’s reality. We know that the extensive research, knowledge, and experience we now have access to must drive the changes necessary to not only better meet the dynamic needs of our students but also our society as a whole.
We also know that many of the students presently in schools are disengaged. They struggle to see the relevance of much of the content they are learning and to connect it to their current context. Traditional classroom practices leave them disinterested and simply going through the motions. We can look to the Canadian Education Association’s (CEA) initiative on this topic, entitled What did you do in school today? It has shed much light on the topic of engagement in schools with its survey results from over 60,000 students investigating how student engagement impacts academic outcomes, instructional challenge, and intellectual engagement.
These wise words from Maya Angelou, seem fitting. “When you know better, you do better.” We now do know better, but often following through with the action or the “doing” part is easier said than done. In order, to see the true paradigm shift needed to transform educational practices and support our students in becoming dynamic learners, a number of changes will need to happen.
First, we will need to see less of a focus in our classrooms on content related outcomes, and more emphasis put on the skills and competencies our students need to be successful. This includes critical and creative thinking, collaboration, communication, along with a myriad of personal and social attitudes and skills around such things as; global awareness, empathy, reflection, risk-taking, resilience, and self-regulation. We see examples of curricular reform happening both internationally and nationally with BC leading the way with their recent Redesigned Curriculum. The curriculum models a shift in perspective which highlights the same 6 Core Competencies supporting pedagogy and practice throughout the grades from K-12. Big Ideas drive a focus for each subject area, with a stronger emphasis on Curricular Competencies and a reduced number of Content related outcomes at each grade.
Second, as suggested in the Tweet by Jason Hubbard above, we need to ensure that classrooms are in fact, “their classrooms”, that is our students’ classrooms driven in many ways by their interests, strengths, and needs. Moving towards a model of teacher as mentor and facilitator of learning is essential. It is only through a more personalized, student-driven learning approach, that we will see our learners engaged in their learning and invested in their education.
There are a number of schools we can look to as models. High Tech High being one of the most well known. At High Tech High schools, a strong emphasis is put on personalization. These schools practice a learner-centered, inclusive approach that supports and challenges each student individually. Students have the opportunity to pursue their passions through projects and reflect deeply on their learning. The focus integrates hands-on inquiry across multiple disciplines, engages students in work that is meaningful and connects learning to their community and world. High Tech High teachers work together to design curriculum and projects, not only with colleagues but with their students as “design partners”.There are a number of other schools or programs that have parallel approaches; some Canadian examples include SAIL (Surrey Academy of Innovative Learning), Inquiry Hub in Coquitlam, Connect Charter in Calgary and the PROPEL program in Winnipeg. In visiting all of these personalized, inquiry-driven programs one thing is evident, the students there are not only actively involved and engaged in their work, they are driving their own learning.
Last week, I attended one of the PROPEL program’s final presentation celebration events. I witnessed four high school students share a half hour presentation on the personal learning project that represented much of their learning for the semester. PROPEL uses an integrated approach to curriculum and students receive a Transactional English credit, a Technologies credit and an Electives credit related to their area of pursuit, a model feasible for many high schools. The students take coursework in the other core subjects in the alternate semester.
At this particular final presentation evening, one student shared her perspectives on creating music videos and her own YouTube channel to share her amazing songwriting and singing talents. One student described her deep, reflective learning journey in all of the work placements she had organized for herself over the five months, ranging from apprenticing as a mechanic, to implementing art therapy with people with developmental disabilities, to working in a dental office. The next student described how he had found his potential life path by working on his own film and delving into the filmmaking world through acoustic engineering. And the final student reflected on a two-year project he had been working on first designing a 3D model of a warming hut and then constructing it. His creation is now accessible to thousands of Winnipeggers on the skating trails at The Forks Market.
These four students were eloquent and impassioned in describing their learning journeys. They could not have been more invested. One of them, Seah Kohli, the creator of the warming hut, summed it up as he spoke about how valuable the experiences at PROPEL had been for him as a learner. He suggested that programs and approaches to teaching and learning such as PROPEL are “the future of education”. We can only hope that he is right and that all of our students’ school careers include learning as powerful and meaningful as the PROPEL experience was for these ones.
Over the past few years, I have been involved with implementing an experiential learning initiative through Winnipeg School Division’s STEAM Centres. I have seen firsthand the power personalized learning opportunities and a flexible learning environment can have on developing autonomy, confidence and agency in young learners.
The WSD STEAM program is offered to students in grades 4-6, across the division’s elementary schools and is built on four key pillars; the 4 C competencies, the design thinking process, reflection, and, strength based learning. After taking part in a variety of learning experiences related to Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics such as coding, design, instant challenges, game based learning, and other creation, makerspace type learning, students spend time exploring areas of strength and interest. The program uses a very hands-on, inquiry based, active learning focus and students are highly engaged and successful. Further to this, we now see many other K-6 schools across our division, adopting this type of STEAM centred learning approach through practices such as makerspace, challenge learning or Genius Hour initiatives, and it is exciting to see this elementary movement growing.
We can look to the examples above to help drive change and guide us towards a more competency focused, personalized approach for our learners, but the reality is that these schools and programs were in fact designed and created with this exact purpose, mindset and intent in mind from day one. With that in mind, they may not face many of the same challenges that is the reality for all other established public schools. Moving towards programming such as this within the realities and contexts of our current school systems as a whole is a bigger challenge. In Will Richardson’s and Bruce Dixon’s 10 Principles for Schools for Modern Learning they suggest, “Today, truly transformative change at a systems level in pre-existing schools is very difficult to find. It’s easier to build a new school than to change an old one.” In our current context in many schools, we see pockets of innovative practice and student driven approaches being used by teachers, but finding examples of where this may be happening school wide is tough. This may be the reality for a variety of reasons. Challenges may arise when teachers don’t have support and big picture understanding from the administrators in their building. Or on the flip side, in other situations learning leaders in schools are faced with resistance from teachers who are reluctant to let go of traditional methods which place students as passive learners, or still focus solely on content. It’s complicated. It is imperative that these changes occur and are supported at all levels and by all stakeholders.
There is much to do and at times this work will be messy and wrought with many stumbling blocks, barriers, and failures. The most worthwhile endeavors are rarely easy. Change is hard. A shift in paradigm involves a fundamental evolution in approach and often challenges much of what many believe and assume to be true. There is no one clear path, no magic formula, no silver bullet moving forward. But moving forward in this direction is not optional.
We owe it not only our youth but to society as a whole, to offer an education that best prepares our students for the future that is their reality. We owe it to our students to find the best ways to support building the essential knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed today in a meaningful, and engaging context. We owe it to our students to facilitate learning opportunities that are active, student driven, authentic and personalized. Ultimately, we owe it to our students to ensure our classrooms are in fact “their classrooms”.