Look at us now! Two months into our inaugural school year with 10 of the most curious, engaged, ethically-minded, creative, socially responsible, discerning adolescents I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Our place-based education approach to high school has allowed us to integrate with the vibrant community of Dundas, Ontario in a purposeful and positive way; learning spaces have included Dundas Farmers’ Market, Dundas Museum and Archives, Carnegie Gallery, Grupetto, Dundas Little Theatre, McMaster University, The Printed Word, Dundas Library, and many more partnerships to evolve. Expert facilitators have included politicians, professors, authors, curators, nutritionists, scientists, entrepreneurs, social-workers, artists, and still more to come.
The Montessori adolescent pedagogy is the most progressive, value-based, developmentally aligned education system I have yet encountered. It allows for maximum flexibility and innovation, authentic student voice and choice, vertical integration, project-based learning, collaborative discussion, real-world experience, outdoor education, gradeless assessment, interdisciplinary mindsets, context-based integrated knowledge, co-construction of outcomes, and a dignified respect for the social/emotional needs of teens. I call it a living curriculum because my main role is to curate a prepared environment, observe the self-directed learning process, and adapt expectations to follow student interests. In other words, I get to help guide their life.
This has been a truly transformative experience for myself, my family, and my teaching career! I have never had so much fun innovating lessons and experimenting with new ideas. I feel so grateful and fortunate to be part of such a supportive community.
For those of you unfamiliar with the brainstorming and iterative process known as Design Thinking, one of its most beneficial takeaways comes in the formation of what is called a HOW MIGHT WE question. This simple but profoundly empathetic injunction really gets the creative juices flowing; it can help to organize an action plan, kickstart an entrepreneurial endeavour, or overhaul a stale vision, allowing everyone involved—from the financial team to the end product user—to imagine new possibilities in solving tough challenges and addressing needs. What started as an esoteric creative process amongst designers and engineers, eventually made its way to Stanford University education research and into the popular imagination. Shows like Netflix’s ABSTRACT, showcase the influential power design has as an integrative discipline, continuously pushing the boundaries between art and science, psychology and business, math and philosophy.
What we’ve found is that kids are especially good at following the critical and creative stages of a Design Thinking process (it mirrors their natural curiosity and hands-on experimenting instinct); perhaps why the Design Thinking mindset has particularly benefitted inquiry-based approaches, PBL, Makerspace, and STEM or STEAM prototyping programs in school systems around the world.
For educators, Design Thinking is an especially powerful tool for professional development (Cohort21 spends the bulk of its workshop facilitation on an action plan based around this process) because our world has changed so rapidly in the past few decades, the importance of innovation in education has risen to become a top priority in both public and private systems. Simply put, schools can’t afford to disengage the next generation of students into what should be their human right: a profound sense of discovery through the power of learning. We know this personalized discovery process is no longer served by traditional factory models, over-stuffed classrooms, and out-dated academic achievement-only environments. It is up to every single teacher, administrator, and education system to recognize the various disconnects in their models and redesign unique and sustainable ways to improve. Innovate or die, as the saying goes.
A HOW MIGHT WE question has at its root, all the ingredients needed to establish an environment of inventiveness and openness. The question HOW is a practical extension of WHY and forces the dreamer into more utilitarian ways of problem solving, through constraint. The MIGHT ensures this is an iterative process, of countless prototyping and drafts, of formative experimentation that, yes, may indeed lead to failure (or new ways of looking at the same old!). There is resilience in MIGHT, adaptability in MIGHT, but also a positive desire and hope for change. Finally, there is the necessary WE. Collaboration and diverse perspectives are key to any successful venture. Empathizing with your end user ensures an ability to radically alter, if need be, the purpose and outcome of the change itself. If an idea is sometimes referred to as a “baby”, than it truly takes a village to innovate one.
Which brings me to my current challenge. I’ve co-founded a school named SiTE (Situated in Transformative Environments): a Montessori high school in Dundas, Ontario. Thankfully, my co-founder, Tony Evans, 18 years ago established an unbelievable community of progressive parents and self-directed children through his two other high-fidelity Montessori schools, Dundas Valley Montessori School, and Strata Montessori Adolescent School. Why Dundas? Here is one reason:
As with any new venture that is already up and running (10 courageous students started learning with me on September 3), we don’t have the luxury of prolonged research and development phase—we are iterating on the fly! At a recent international adolescent Montessori workshop (AMI/NAMTA) I attended in North Carolina, I was reminded just how bold an endeavour SiTE Schools is when out of a group of 100 Montessori educators, only one other school had extended their program to encompass Grade 10, 11, and 12 (Academy of Thought & Industry). In fact, when I researched Canadian Montessori high schools in the Our Kids website, I found only a half-dozen schools even attempting to tackle the senior secondary years in an authentic Montessori-style, and all of them are operating from an actual building! Have I got your attention yet?
Here is a highlight reel of the many many HOW MIGHT WE questions I’m wrestling with as I venture upon the greatest challenge of my professional career:
How might we create an adolescent Montessori micro-school without a traditional bricks & mortar building?
How might we use our unique small-town environment as flexible learning spaces that enhance subject mastery?
How might we partner with local business, galleries, Universities, to co-create real-world projects?
How might we reimagine the idea of teenagers and community for the 21st century?
How might we create a flexible timetable that starts at 10:00 and revolves around opportunities for outdoor and experiential learning?
How might we create a “quest-like” block course calendar where students immerse themselves in single subject areas for a concentrated period of time?
How might the daily timetable be self-directed?
How might we create a school of experience instead of a school of compliance?
How might we bring dignity to adolescence?
How might we enhance student initiative through purposeful work and meaningful context?
How might we track students or take attendance when the entire community is your campus?
How might we establish a tuition that is equitable and competitive?
How might we teach all three senior levels (Gr 10, 11, 12) at the same time?
How might we have one teacher to curate all subject material and use a team of experts to facilitate skill-building?
How might we turn every single assignment into either a group or independent inquiry project?
How might we create a “living curriculum” based on the personal interests of each student and the changing needs of the community?
How might we co-construct curriculum with students and still achieve ministry expectations?
How might we use socratic seminar (discussion and debate) for every lesson?
How might we use ONE single-point rubric to assess ALL assignments within a course?
How might we use an ongoing standards-based gradeless assessment?
How might we becomes guides instead of teachers, curators instead of facilitators, advisors instead of mentors?
How might we market the school with full parent/student participation?
If any of these questions relate to areas of interest you are currently considering developing in your school, let’s talk. Please consider your sphere of influence (Garth will talk about this at our 2nd F2F). I am grateful to be tackling the teaching opportunity of a lifetime and am ready and willing to be the guinea pig for all manner of educational innovation and disruption.
But I can’t do it alone. Nor do I need to.
Cohort21, developed 8 years ago as a CISOntario incubator for 21st century PD, is a vibrant community of innovative educators who have greatly helped me these past four years develop into the disruptor I feel I was destined to be. @gnichols has mentored me through some profound life changes, guiding me towards embracing the positive inventiveness he demonstrates daily at Havergal College. @jmedved is a beacon of innovation, always rethinking the HOW from his York School perch. @ckirsh has pushed me to question ethical choices and even challenged my MIGHT to join her podcast. @gvogt is my doppelgänger, a fellow poet of pedagogy in a sea of disruptive potential. No other person could have helped steward the Discovery Day initiative at Rosseau Lake College, making it even more engaging and sustainable. @lmcbeth is the queen of Design Thinking and through her work with the Future Design School has greatly shaped how I view education and entrepreneurship. @lbettencourt and @adamcaplan will trial anything tech in the most transparent of ways, sharing as they fail forward. @nblair is my spirit guide when it comes to questioning the status quo—no one does it better or with more grace.
There are more. Too many to mention here. Past facilitators, current coaches, former colleagues, and alumni galore. Cohort21 has a treasure trove of action plans at your disposal to pillage and plunder as you formulate your own powerful HOW MIGHT WE. Make sure to steal like an artist.
As an English teacher I’m always looking for the apt metaphor, that one-of-a-kind allegory which will once and for all, 100% no-questions-asked-put-your-hands-down-please definitively define what it is we do, day-in and day-out, as 21st century educators. I believe this one comes close.
The reasons why I like the visual synecdoche of the plate spinner may surprise you. In my heart, I know this is the healthiest model to explain why teachers need to give themselves a break, before they break themselves. And more often than you might think.
In talking with a colleague recently, the age-old adage of teachers not having enough TIME reared its perennial head. If it’s not TIME than it’s surely RESOURCES; (un-PC trigger warning alert!) the two twin towers of educational stress and anxiety.
But if we simply re-framed what we do as already impossible, perhaps then (only then) glimpses of the possible and profound would peek through. If politics is the art of the possible, then teaching is the impossible art!
If we divide teaching and learning into four ready-made components, they might be:
Assessment & Evaluation
If you think of these as the 4 plates we are constantly spinning, then you would be forgiven for thinking teachers have it easy, perhaps even under control. But, we know, like all good magic tricks, control is an illusion. The reality is there are spinning plates underneath these 4 plates, and more spinning plates under those– turtles on top of turtles, all the way to spinning infinity (R.I.P. Stephen Hawking).
The secret thus becomes this: in order to survive the greatest show on earth that is our noble profession, we can only spin ONE PLATE AT A TIME!!!
Yep. That’s it. Sarcastically sublime. Not as memorable as “with great power comes great responsibility” (R.I.P. Stan Lee), but nonetheless, reflective respite.
In other words, if you are concentrating on updating or improving strategies with your Instructional practice this year, you can let your other plates wobble for a little while. If- as I am doing this year- you find yourself with an opportunity and willing department, to radically change how you approach Assessment & Evaluation, than your Reporting might just not produce those wonderful bon mots you have so carefully curated and copy-and-pasted in previous times.
We set our own priorities, then we define personal best practice by them. If we don’t measure up to this exponential diagnostic quagmire, we imagine our plates have smashed and we have failed. We also unfairly project this best practice onto our colleagues and schools and when we do this we are guaranteed to find discrepancy- you see, we are all spinning different plates! This discrepancy may lead to stress and anxiety if used as performance comparison, especially as school mandates and department initiatives pile up, distracting you from your default-setting favourite plate; you know, the one you have the most control over so you spend all of your time spinning because if anyone noticed that your other plates were not spinning (or, gulp, missing) they might not see you as that grand wizard teacher anymore.
What we need to remind ourselves of, when everything is spinning, we can only control that which tasks our immediate concern or is in our sphere of influence. From there we can decide which plate to spin next, which one deserves the most attention, AND, most importantly when it comes to innovation and cultivating a growth mindset, which one we haven’t spun in a while.
The initial six weeks of Rosseau Lake College’s DISCOVERY DAYS have had a mixed reception amongst a small percentage of students and parents. Early criticism came from our Grade 12 class who felt this type of “experimental” learning would interrupt their academic goals of achieving high marks for post-secondary applications. They initially preferred the old system of teacher-developed ISU’s (Independent Study Units) or CT’s (Culminating Tasks) delivered in the last two weeks of a course. DISCOVERY DAYS’ longer timelines gave some students increased stress.
Much of this student-created survey can be interpreted as resistance to change and aversion to risk, especially with those students who have succeeded at the “game of school”. Now that the rules are changing, the development of new skills in previously untested areas is uncomfortable.
A small percentage of dissension has come from traditional analytical learners who feel classroom instruction has been diminished and therefore their opportunities to obtain important information in knowledge-based subjects such as Science and Math compromised.
The academic team sat down with students to listen to their voices and concerns and develop workable solutions. One such solution involved the creation of a “University Preparation” club, for senior students, to run during the Winter Term Active Time block. Facilitated by Math and Science teachers, this period will be used for a multitude of senior academic purposes: individual study, tutorials, catch-up classes, guest lecturers, and post-secondary application workshops.
As well as surveying the students on their level of engagement, we also asked the faculty to assess our progress with individual DISCOVERY DAY initiatives. Again, the results were not surprising given how different and unstructured these days can initially feel. Learning Spaces are still not being recognized or utilized by students as differing to their classroom function. Many students are drawn to spaces because of friendship groups rather than project needs. The Discovery Projects themselves are open-ended and some facilitators find it challenging as to how to help motivate students or link ideas to finished products.
What does success look like?
As quantitative achievement data has yet to be calculated (realistically, we will have to measure this with a longitudinal study over numerous years), we have only anecdotal responses and engagement surveys to gauge initial reception. Active Time has already been received positively by the majority of students who tend to learn in this manner.
For most students, success with Design Time and Flex Time may look something like appreciation of new skills learned and broader knowledge shared. Often times general academic acceptance is retroactive and only given credence after the fact or in the case of individual recognition.
For teachers, success will be in the form of professional development, sharing exciting and innovative ideas around the concept of facilitation.
For me, success already looks like this:
Our entire student body is involved in Project-Based Learning and has developed “How Might We… ?” questions. Added to that, more than half of the students have fully integrated questions that cross most or all of their subject areas.
One definitive measure RLC will be searching for, however, is the quality of the projects themselves. Deep learning experiences should lead to more original and interesting end products. It remains to be seen if the grade-oriented Discovery Projects or the fuelled-by-interests Passion Projects will produce that much-lauded exemplar. In either case, successful projects will be shared and displayed for present and future students of RLC to gain inspiration for continued discoveries.
A desire to see what students can do with their hands inspired a recent change at one of the world’s most renowned campuses. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (motto: “Mens et manus,” Latin for “Mind and hand”) now gives applicants the option of submitting a Maker Portfolio to show their “technical creativity.”
Applicants can send images, a short video and a PDF that shed light on a project they’ve undertaken — clothing they’ve made, apps they’ve designed, cakes they’ve baked, furniture they’ve built, chainmail they’ve woven. M.I.T. also asks students to explain what the project meant to them, as well as how much help they got. A panel of faculty members and alumni reviews the portfolios.
– Eric Hoover (Education Life), New York Times, November 1, 2017
Post-secondary needs have changed. Universities and colleges are starting to require evidence of 21st-Century skill development as part of their application process. Technology, especially developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI), ensures that many jobs will soon become automated, forcing greater reliance on those humanistic attributes that can’t be easily “Googled”.
Despite some resistance to this change at all levels of education (teachers, students, parents, board members) there is sufficient evidence to suggest the tide has already turned and those schools not incorporating at least some aspects of these learning modalities will quickly find themselves behind the times.
The DISCOVERY DAYS model is perfectly suited for smaller independent schools looking for ways to innovate teaching and learning within a traditional framework.
Benefits of a Discovery Day ‘Inquiry & Experiential’ Program:
Student autonomy helps foster resiliency
Cross-curricular projects help develop critical thinking skills
Longer time-scale for projects helps promote self-management
Interweaving direct instruction during the week helps students make authentic connections to their project as it unfolds
Passion projects help produce engagement and intrinsic motivation
Vertical integration helps foster mentorship and collaboration
Club creation helps promote entrepreneurship
Outdoor Learning helps promote mindfulness and environmental awareness
10 Next Steps
Ongoing communication with all stakeholders (parents, community, board, CIS Ontario, CAIS, media)
Targeted communication with students regarding weekly objectives (via Discovery Board, Google Classroom, Instagram, assembly announcements)
Co-construction of assessment rubrics and templates for (discovery & passion) projects
Further facilitator training (action plans) for teachers
Observation, feedback, and support for teachers in new facilitator role
Individual budgetary line items for various Discovery Day expenses
Booking of whole-school activities and upcoming guest speakers (spring)
Building of NEW Makerspaces (Tinkering Space & Music Recording Studio)
One of the more recent developments in education at all levels, from primary to post-secondary, is the movement towards creating distinct and flexible active learning environments that engage students in nontraditional ways.
STEM (Science. Technology. Engineering. Math.) learning or STEAM (Science. Technology. Engineering. Arts. Math.) learning, has placed greater emphasis on the application of disciplines through hands-on tinkering and experimentation of materials. The rise of 3D printers and robotics labs in schools have enabled students to visualize concepts both digitally and physically while making real-world connections. A popular name for one form of this “doing” environment is MakerSpace.
At its heart, the term maker space is about collaboration. That is, bringing people and ideas of diverse backgrounds and disciplines together to generate ideas and solve problems. Having spaces that facilitate those goals is critical, especially in the modern learning environment, whether for young students in a K-12 setting or college students in a higher education setting. (Schafer, D. & Yamasaki, K. 2017)
But here’s the thing. Since the 1970’s, educators have been trying to reimagine classroom space to accommodate early childhood developmental and pedagogical research. Many schools at that time tore down their walls in an attempt to foster collaboration between students and teachers. Unfortunately, human psychology reared its unconscious head and very soon those same free spaces of learning became noisy and unproductive hubs of chaos. In the 1980’s the specialty classroom became popular and very soon high schools became a place where “Industrial Arts” and “Home Economics” classes helped differentiate academic (gifted) vs. skills pathways (basic). This move was marginalizing to many, as not everyone who is good with their hands is unacademic, not to mention the obvious gender discrimination that resulted. So why is this trend becoming popular again? Technology!
YSpace will offer students, members of the community and startups, a large-scale co-working space and a makerspace, where they can access training programs for entrepreneurs, connect with other organizations in the community, and build virtual or actual prototypes.
TORONTO, Nov. 2, 2017 – York University will officially open its new innovation and entrepreneurship centre, YSpace, in downtown Markham (Walls, 2017)
As my school, Rosseau Lake College, sits on over 50 acres of Muskoka lake-front property, accessing multiple buildings for a range of educational purposes has always been one of our features. Students spend time outdoors throughout the year, walking between classes and utilizing indoor and outdoor learning spaces in their regular academic day.
A key aspect of our new program initiative, DISCOVERY DAYS, is to reinforce the intent and purposeful use of each space for the needs of individual student projects, called Discovery Projects. As we move towards embracing student autonomy through inquiry-based concepts, we also want students to take ownership over the choice of space they need to learn in. The team came up with 14 Learning Spaces on campus that could be divided into four distinct categories:
Quiet place for study and reflection
Comfortable place for collaborative communication
Inspiring space for visual brainstorming
Engaging place for practicing, prototyping, and experimenting
Facilitator Shaun Beaulne and Grade 7 RLC students in Makerspace
Having arrived at one of these Learning Spaces, students sign in electronically (using a QR code scan with their phone) and instead of meeting their classroom teacher, they are guided through the stages of their project by a facilitator.
It’s hard to tell at this point if the latest trend in learning spaces is truly the future of education or just another stop on a long and reflective journey into human development. The curriculum shift towards Design Thinking and Innovation and Entrepreneurial Mindsets has helped schools blur the lines between Science and Art, University and College streams. The next great idea will surely leverage the power of critical thinking, collaboration, and communication, Future Skills that anyone, regardless of learning style, gender or IQ, can acquire.
We do know that this no longer works for everyone:
In its50th anniversary year, Rosseau Lake College has launched a whole-school personalized learning initiative related to our strategic goals and mission: To graduate students with a strong personal brand, through a culture that is rich in discovery. After 18 months of development, faculty and stakeholder brainstorming, surveys and pedagogical research, the team iterated and designed an innovative approach to timetabling and program delivery: DISCOVERY DAYS are non-traditional days of learning (12 Fridays per semester) that support RLC’s unique value proposition— Nature is Our Learning Lab; Discovery is Our Culture.
The three learning components of this timetable change: Design Time, Flex Time, and Active Time.
Together, these three mindset blocks incorporate a variety of current educational theories that foster deep learning while also cultivating personal passions and developing resilience in each student from Grade 7 through Grade 12.
Our Junior School (Grade 7 & 8) work together as a cohort, collaborating on multidisciplinary projects over the entire year. These highly scaffolded immersions into inquiry learning give younger students the necessary tools to continue this method of discovery in future years.
Both Middle School (Grade 9 & 10) and Senior School (Grade 11 & 12) vary in approach only in the number of projects they are required to integrate in a scheduled semester.
Utilizing proven inquiry-based education techniques such as Project-Based Learning (PBL), Design Thinking (DT), Question Formulation Technique (QFT), and balanced within an experiential framework incorporating outdoor and active learning strategies, DISCOVERY DAYS aims to develop a variety of academic and kinaesthetic competencies in an engaging and holistic manner.
Over 50 acres of Muskoka lakefront property.
When Rosseau Lake College was founded in 1967, it was symbolically modelled after two internationally esteemed independent schools: Geelong Grammar School Timbertop Campus in Australia and Gordonstoun in Scotland. Both of these co-educational boarding schools paved the way for experiential and place-based education while maintaining traditional values and academic rigour. Being located outside of urban areas and steeped in outdoor natural environments, both schools challenge conventional learning methods by allowing students an opportunity to experience small community life and learn real-world skills through local service and activity. RLC continues this rich tradition of values-based education in a unique small-community environment with our DISCOVERY DAYS.
As I told Justin Medved at the conclusion of this year’s Cohort21 launch, this was the best PD I’d ever been to. No soundbite hyperbole or millennial proselytizing needed. I loved the organized chaotic structure of this CIS initiative, especially how anti-baby-boomer or “un-conferency” the first PD session felt. An action research plan without a destination! An organic development of 21st-century skills and professional networking, slowly building over an entire year. Yes please! For years I’ve been silently reinventing my own personal teaching wheel, and wondering why no-one was noticing. Perhaps, now, there is a space within which to share.
This blog is but a humble plunge into that brave new Edtech world.
I have been teaching high school for over ten years, travelling the world for fifteen, and writing creatively all of my life. I am both a Canadian and Australian citizen, having recently spent eight years living and teaching in Melbourne, Australia.
I have recently begun to view myself, without any post-GenX irony, as a Problem Solving Poet of Teaching and Learning; meaning— I apply the same rules of constraint and creativity used to structure one of my poems (yes Virginia, people still write poetry!), as I do with innovating my ongoing teaching practice. I think in allegories and metaphors. I believe in the visual, aural and written power of language, and truly abhor empty pedagogical rhetoric. I find teaching to be a highly imaginative endeavour, ripe with real-time inspiration and real-time challenges. I love the use of new technology in the classroom, but only if it helps teachers improve engagement and achievement.
The poet in me provides the necessary critical and aesthetic perspective; ensures I maintain a personal, ethical, and spiritual balance with any classroom activity. Here’s how it works: I often structure my poems around a central conceit, basing the number of stanzas or lines or rhymes on a hidden value taken from the subject (eg. a poem about four-leaf-clovers might have a quarter-stressed rhyming scheme or have four words to a line or four-line stanzas). Likewise, whenever I’m stuck on what to do with the designing of a classroom assignment, I use these same creative principles, to try and reveal the inherent structure behind the topic. A recent example revolved around the teaching of that classic text, To Kill A Mockingbird. What to do? Surely, by now, everything had been done to death with this book. My Grade 9 English students had heard of it, of course, but they were also very wary of having to study it. And I didn’t really want to do the usual Plot, Character, Setting analysis with a PowerPoint presentation to round off the ritual compliance.
Considering the famous setting of the novel, in and around a small-town court case, and of course, my own students’ default cynicism towards an older text, I creatively solved my teaching problem by twisting the main themes of intolerance and justice around and put Harper Lee’s perennial soapbox favourite on trial instead. The central question then became: Does this book still deserve to be considered a classic?
Engagement flourished as half of the class defended the book and the other half gleefully tore it to pieces. For a few weeks last year my class was full of wannabe lawyers of rhetorical analysis and judges of metaphoric longevity. When the Unit had ended and we sadly discovered that Harper Lee herself had died, well, suffice to say, the power of great literature once again shone through.
Now, by no means did I think I was the only teacher to have ever attempted a thematic linking activity like this before. That wasn’t the point, for me. The point was that I had personally discovered a new way into creating relevant and resonating assignments. By taking the central themes or metaphors or history of the topic and then structuring an assessment based around those ideas. The teacher in me was reinvigorated. The poet in me was satiated.
I am currently the Academic Lead (Curriculum Director) at Rosseau Lake College in Muskoka, about as pristine and natural an environment as any poet could wish for. I’m also the senior English and Drama instructor. As RLC is a small, independent school, I have many hats and many roles, from PD Development and Training, to Academic Budgeting, Marketing, Junior, Middle, and Senior School Curriculum Development, Edtech Provider, Arts Committee Chair, Drama Production Director, Sports Coach, House Parent, Weekend Don, etc.
Teaching is not just a job at RLC, it’s a lifestyle. Maybe even a work of art.