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.
Place-based Education and the Montessori Method combine to create a new micro-school for adolescents capable of saving humanity. (12 min. read)
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. (T.S. Eliot)
Imagine you’ve somehow attached hot-air balloons to your current school (yes, just like in the Pixar film UP—the only cartoon yet to make me cry!) and lifted it high into the air to move locations, depositing the entire building intact onto another section of the city you find yourself teaching in. Now I want you to ask yourself a series of simple questions: Would this make a difference to how the school functions? Would the community around you notice or care? Would your staff or students have to radically rethink what it is they do every day? If the answer is no then your school has not yet fully immersed itself in place-based education.
In a 2017 paper, associate professor Gregory A. Smith from Lewis & Clark College in the U.S., states: “At the heart of place-based education is the belief that children of any age are capable of making significant contributions to the lives of others, and that as they do so, their desire to learn and belief in their own capacity to be change agents increase. When place-based education is effectively implemented, both students and communities benefit, and their teachers often encounter a renewed sense of professional and civic satisfaction.”
I chanced upon the pedagogy of place-based education through the online blog, Getting Smart and found a multitude of resources around the subject (including this brilliant overview PDF download here). At the time I was working for a private outdoor education high school in northern Ontario as their academic director. They were looking for strategic ways to improve community connections while at the same time taking full advantage of a unique and abundant natural locale. Place-based education was just one of many deeper learning innovations that took hold of my imagination that year, but it planted seeds in me which would eventually lead to my current position as co-founder of an adolescent Montessori school in Dundas, Ontario, called SiTE (Situated in Transformative Environments).
In a traditional Montessori school, the learning environment represents far more than what recent educators refer to as the Third Teacher —it is in fact the only teacher! The teacher in a Montessori setting takes a necessary step back and becomes a guide on the side, observing the spontaneous inquiry of the child within what Maria called the prepared environment. The role of the guide is to simply stayout of the way of the curious child, to carefully follow their lead, trace their concentrated pursuit in completing tasks called jobs (Montessori takes the concept of purposeful “work” very seriously). Far from this being a free-for-all of competing self-interests, or even a more contemporary station-rotation of differing interests, what Montessori engineered—as a response to over a decade of scientific observation of children—are the carefully curated sensorial materials which enable learning to be an experience of freedom within limits; flowing and flowering throughout the room these children discover manipulatives in all subject areas that develop knowledge from the hand through the heart to the head. And that order is of the highest importance! If you’ve ever taught children, at any age—and let’s face it, the same can be said of most adults—you know they (we/you!) can only ever truly learn anything by doing.
Scientific observation then has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment. (Maria Montessori, Education For A New World)
Anyone who has ever seen video of a Montessori class in full “work-mode” is astonished both at the level of quiet concentration displayed by such active kids and the autonomous engagement each and every child gives to practical life activities. What Dr. Montessori uncovered over 100 years ago in Italy was nothing short of a hidden miracle to solve the problems of education, both then and now: the central role of the student in directing their own learning, the application of real-world contexts to achieve authentic engagement, the capability of youth to concentrate on challenging tasks well beyond their years through mixed-aged mentorship, and perhaps most vital of all, properly curated learning spaces, which cause the brain to light-up and the body to grow-up. In Italian, the word Maria used for this preparatory space was ambiente, which is closer in meaning to the word ambience than the English translation, environment; also light years different from our more prosaic modern eduterm, “learning space”; ambiente speaks to the aesthetic and atmospheric balance needed for a space to inspire and motivate. In Montessori, there is a place for everything and everything has its place.
So what happens when you transfer a foundation-years interior design revolution to a dynamic and variable high school setting? What constitutes the prepared environment in an adolescent Montessori school, or what Maria called the 3rd Plane of Development, where teenagers are similar to toddlers only in so far as theres’ is a mental/emotional growth instead of a physical one? Teenagers from age 15-18 are in the stage of becoming social newborns. What happens when you don’t have as much control over the stationary environment as elementary or Casa teachers do to facilitate this social/emotional (SEL) need? What if your classroom is, say, located on a farm with animals instead of desks, or, in my case, if you don’t have a set classroom at all.
The answer for me and my co-founder, Tony Evans (Director of both DVMS and Strata Montessori, a middle-school actually located in the woods, with chickens), was in combining the values of an adolescent Montessori experiential learning model—which has at its core a greater expectation of community integration, service opportunities, and personal responsibility—with the place-based ethos of maximizing local learning spaces, leveraging project-based initiatives, and achieving mastery of relevant real-world skills. SiTE Schools was born from this idea to provide purposeful work in meaningful contexts to adolescents deserving autonomy. I believe in this hybridization so much it informed the basis of the SiTE values model which begins with the appreciation of PLACE, before moving on to PURPOSE, PERSISTENCE, and finally, PERSPECTIVE. This has become our 4P’s version of the hand-heart-head Montessori motto. Progressive educators call the transformative concept of creating a curriculum from locally relevant surroundings, place-based learning. Psychologists use the term situated cognition, a theory that argues all knowledge is situated in activity, bound by social, cultural, and physical contexts. I simply call it the only way to provide dignity and initiative for teenagers in the 21st-century!
After having taught in public schools in Australia for 7 years and private schools in Canada for over 4 years, I now find myself in the unique position of disrupting education through the development of a high school (Grade 10-12) that doesn’t have a building. Instead, the community is our campus. The real inspiration, however, for a school-without-walls comes not from a thesis but from the vibrant town our school is located in and I call home, the hidden Ontario gem known as Dundas. Surrounded by the natural beauty of the escarpment, with over 100 waterfalls, botanical gardens, conservation areas and the Bruce Trail, Dundas is a pristine valley town which is older than Hamilton. It has a modern Historical Museum, a Carnegie Gallery, professional art and dance schools, a thriving public library, dozens of successful small businesses, and is literally down the road from McMaster University. In other words, this is the perfect place to create a “prepared environment” for adolescents who are craving a tertiary preparatory experience, one that lets them roam widely and safely, with real responsibilities extended beyond the classroom walls and into the community at large. How else can we expect teenagers to know how to be responsible in their lives or take ownership over their future decisions of study and work if they’ve never been given the opportunity to test this out in the real world?
Every year millions of youngsters need to decide what to study in college. This is a very important and difficult decision. You are under pressure from your parents, your friends, and your teachers, who have different interests and opinions. You also have your own fears and fantasies to deal with… It is particularly difficult to make a wise decision because you do not really know what it takes to succeed in different professions, and you don’t necessarily have a realistic image of your own strengths and weaknesses. (Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century)
Already SiTE has leveraged local learning opportunities by conducting civics meetings at the Town Hall with working and retired politicians, pitch sessions with volunteer boards for securing the possibility of managing a Winter Market, brainstorm sessions with the Museum to co-create an exhibit for Remembrance Day, service opportunities with the Down Syndrome Association of Hamilton (DSAH), and countless more experiences yet to come (including invasive species extraction, local watershed research, entrepreneurial media mentoring, AI lab experience, small press publishing, etc.). Traditional schools have access to these practical life lessons, and certainly teach the subject-specific knowledge components in the classroom, but often relegate the skills exposure to a single field trip, with all the administrative bureaucracy that goes along with having to travel and organize large amounts of students. Never mind having to assess learning outcomes at the same time! This is why I believe summative assessment is still so dominant in schools today—because it is easy to administer and control! The agility of a small school embedded in a community means that our response to changing events and flexibility in hosting experts is amplified. With one or two guides in close proximity to the same group of students all day, diagnosing learning skills, discovering gaps in knowledge, and mentoring interpersonal wellbeing becomes a matter of course and not something that has to fit into a manufactured Flex Time. Instead of traditional academics suffering at the expense of innovative approaches, a smaller, mobile, one-room-school-house of vertical integration ensures a level of modelling and interdisciplinary learning that is virtually impossible to duplicate in a regular school setting. Deeper learning and assessment on this scale can happen anytime, and anywhere. I say this after only four weeks of curating SiTE’s first term of curriculum, and the difference to me is already profound.
SiTE Students at Dundas Town Hall
This is by no measure a new approach to education. American charter schools have been experimenting with place-based, public museum-based, or corporation sponsored lab-schools for well over two decades, and community-based schools are as old as culture allows, many rural areas knowing no different. In the current Canadian education system, however, there is less choice in the market for parents and students looking for a more affordable alternative to the private system yet still providing progressive value-based programming; values which a pluralistic public system, nobly aligned as it is in creating a common standardized experience, just can’t afford to give. While technology is helping to bridge the gaps (social, economic, gender, race, etc.) in many instances, allowing remote areas to participate in best-practice, online or blended courses have increasingly become the norm for high school students everywhere. The loss of face-to-face mentoring and modelling in place of virtual adaptive learning is happening in real-time and on our watch. Although no one can predict the long term positive or negative results of such a paradigm shift in education, we can point to rising levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and screen addiction in youth as possible consequences of these decisions. I have personally seen teenagers completely disaffected and disillusioned by online learning tools which in many cases are producing the desired diagnostic feedback improvements administrators covet but are not making learning any more relevant or remembered by the user. Too often the edtech reports focus on what is to be gained rather than what is simultaneously being lost by the software. In the scenario I’m presenting, what’s lost is not only a personal connection to the teacher but a sense of shared continuity with the local culture, landscape, and historical heritage of community. It’s clear the challenges of the modern world will not be addressed by technology alone.
At a time when most public school class sizes are vastly exceeding the ability of teachers to differentiate and personalize their learning, and many private schools are shielding themselves economically from urbanization through infrastructure capital campaigns, what adolescents are craving most is a way to reconnect with the real-world. This is so well considered a current need in education that a high number of schools have included the development of 21st-Century Competencies or real-world skills in their strategic plans and mission statements. And yet, most attempts to innovate within the confines of the traditional box seems to create an opposite-yet-equal desire for teenagers to leave the box by any means necessary. Where is the “real-world” in a school setting? This unsurprisingly results in a rise in old-school truancy and new-school digital escape into social media or gaming through mobile phones, where anything is more interesting because it is happening far away from the predictable here and now. The government solution: ban mobile phones! Instead of investigating the source of disengagement into distraction, it becomes more efficient to police a sensitive area of adolescent identity (remember, social newborns!) instead of teaching them the responsible and ethical use of technology at this crucial stage. At SiTE Schools our phones are used for the purposes they were intended: the amplification of inquiry or creativity, recording of observed experience for reflection purposes, and facilitation of practical life (communication, bus schedules, reminders, GPS locators, etc.).
A corollary argument can be found in the representation of so-called “snow-plow” or “helicopter” parenting. As a way to respond to this tsunami of over-protection, schools once again have tried to adopt effective rhetoric around the 21st-century values of resilience, grit, adaptability and flexibility. At the same time, however, greater emphasis in teaching and learning (UDL principles) has been placed on the creation of exemplars, explicit step-by-step instructions, detailed rubrics and scaffolded assignments, to prevent (or avoid!) the burden of not reaching every child at their educational level and potentially upsetting the very parents who are so concerned their child is losing the ability to think for themselves in the first place. We see this pattern repeated in post-secondary institutions where professors are noticing a lack of initiative in Millennials towards independence and critical thinking, even in disciplines where this skill is paramount. What lies unstated here, of course, is the responsibility these same institutions have in creating dependancy around those very structures which many adolescents feel as yet another top-down method of alleviating their responsibility, pushing further away the necessity of practicing adult autonomy and all of its inborn “failures”.
If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s (sic) future. (Maria Montessori)
Finally, amalgamation of mid-sized public schools and provincial cut-backs have created an education clot in most urban areas where the average school-size hovers around 1500 students. Considering the human capacity to have meaningful social relationships maxes out around 150, a 10% increase in forced connectivity can produce a detrimental experience of community. Private schools, although being able to fundamentally reduce class sizes, nevertheless compete on a growth advancement model, increasing their schools admissions by fundraising for more property real-estate. No amount of Harry Potter-style co-curricular House activity can improve the quality or experience of community when the spectre of anonymity becomes the default setting for the vast majority of students who can’t be bothered to be involved in branded events and become more adept at hiding than participating. This may me negligible for the toddler or elementary child, or even the middle-school student whose experience of the world tends to keep them within the boundaries of their perceived social sphere. The adolescent, however, becomes acutely aware of the discontent and distance between themselves and others on a hyper-scale. High school peer cliques is one thing to observe, but sensing the us-and-them gulf between students and teachers and teachers and administration and administration and staff and staff from the school and the school from the community itself is quite another. What sort of model for society are we building for our youth if we don’t value all perspectives as equal in a shared environment? How can these perspectives ever be united in a hierarchal system that doesn’t truly represent the real-world? Where are the babies? Where are the elderly? Where is the life all around that informs us of our interconnectedness?
In most respects, there is nothing new about place-based education. It is an attempt to reclaim elements of the learning processes most children encountered before the invention of schools. Throughout most of humanity’s tenancy on this planet, children learned directly from their own experience in the places and communities where they lived. They explored their world with peers, imitated the activities of adults, participated in cultural and religious ceremonies, and listened to the conversations and stories of their families and neighbours. Most of this learning was informal, although at important transition points such as puberty, initiation rites provided them with more direct forms of instruction about community understandings regarding the world and adult responsibilities. In this way, children grew into competent and contributing members of their society, able to care for themselves and for others in ways that sustained the community of which they were a part. This outcome with its focus on both individual and social sustainability is also the goal of place-based education. (Gregory A. Smith)
To be fair, many schools around the world are doing exceptional jobs creating unique cultures all their own. Some schools are blessed with rich locations that embrace all the diverse opportunities on offer and students involve themselves in real-world experiences through co-op, co-curriculars, and the innovative practices of progressive teachers keeping things relevant. Alumni in both public and private schools speak of a togetherness and camaraderie for their former alma mater that sometimes even transcends the actual felt memory of such a place. Traditionally, this has been good enough to provide a sense of community-in-training for citizens, which has trickled into the civilizing process of negotiating work/family life outside of schooling. In today’s world, however, where connectivity with millions has likewise also produced a feeling of anonymity by the millions, the loss of the real local in favour of the digital global has become an epidemic.
Unfortunately, teaching kids to embrace the unknown and to keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them an equation in physics or the causes of the First World War. You cannot learn resilience by reading a book or listening to a lecture. The teachers themselves usually lack the mental flexibility that the twenty-first century demands, for they themselves are the product of the old educational system. (Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century)
The challenges are immense, and by no means has SiTE Schools’ hybrid iteration solved the main issue here, which is the ability to scale an authentic experiential program on a mass level without dismantling the current Canadian education system at its roots. Radically repurposing the intention of high school from a conveyor belt of standardization serving post-secondary admissions to a network of highly effective individualized learning nodes serving individuals and communities will take time, if it happens at all. This brand of social justice schooling might remain elitist by virtue of its minimalist alternative design. In 1995, David Tyack and Larry Cuban of Stanford University, coined the term “grammar of schooling” to characterize the long-lasting and unchanging core elements of schooling. Many of their arguments were persuasive to those educators who witnessed decades of alternative pedagogies result in little more than utopian promises. Unlike the universal aspects of language acquisition, however, schooling has continually adapted to its changing socio-political context. It still has four wheels and an engine, yes, but that engine is becoming fusion instead of combustible, and those wheels will soon drive themselves.
I do know this: reimagining education is the job of everyone involved in education. It’s not just the teachers but the students and parents who are experiencing first-hand the stagnation of systems which may not be adapting to our complex world and may be rendered useless if climate change predictions become a reality or AI technology shifts the very fabric of our future notions of the workforce. Bringing innovation to any and every aspect of your practice as a teacher ensures the possibility for new and exciting outcomes to occur. This possibility brings dignity and engagement to adolescents as they become participants of the greater change they already feel on the inside and intuit in the rapidly evolving world around them. Aspects of place-based education can act as an antidote to the alienation and apathy felt by teenagers and increase not only their intrinsic motivation towards learning, but also their self-worth as part of a larger community.
Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war. (Maria Montessori)
So go ahead and pop those balloons already. Land safely in your own backyard and view it again through fresh eyes. We need 1000 crazy ideas to improve this world and education is just one place to start. We don’t know where or who these ideas will come from next. Perhaps a student you currently teach will become inspired by your relentless pursuit of the new. Remember, Charles Darwin lived in the same small village (Shrewsbury) most of his life, spending only four years abroad, travelling on the HMS Beagle around the world and to the Galapagos islands where he imagined an entirely new concept for humanity through the careful observation and experience of place.
Rosseau Lake College’s inquiry-based and experiential learning initiative, DISCOVERY DAYS, like all truly great things, rests on the shoulders of giants. I was inspired by the following schools and articles and perhaps you might be too.
In other words, explains principal Patricia Coburn, OCT, students set their own learning goals, follow a personalized program and work and learn in an environment that enables them to actively pursue self-directed learning.
Repko (2009) and others have asserted that interdisciplinary instruction fosters advances in cognitive ability and gains in the ability to recognize bias, think critically, tolerate ambiguity, acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns.
Engaging students and helping them to develop knowledge, insights, problem solving skills, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and a passion for learning are common goals that educators bring to the classroom, and interdisciplinary instruction and exploration promotes realization of these objectives.
My argument here is that if we utilize effective direct instruction in the PBL/PrBL classroom specifically in situations where students are building knowledge and skill then we may substantially mitigate the limiting effect of the method as it relates to learning.
List of Schools Adopting Similar DESIGN TIME Initiatives:
The district personalizes learning by giving students a performance-based model that lets students progress after they demonstrate mastery. School days are split between self-directed learning and teacher-led instruction. District teachers are called “learning facilitators,” and even during teacher-led instruction, students can choose from various assignments and learning experiences.
District leaders realized that “one size fits all” doesn’t work when it comes to student learning. Now, teachers and students work together to create individualized learning plans based on students’ needs, interests and goals. The approach includes project-based learning, self-based learning, online learning, and peer-led instruction.
The school developed a program focused on Socratic seminars and leadership development, because teachers and school leaders believe students benefit from inquiry, critical thinking and problem-solving. Students work at their own pace toward college and career readiness.
School administrators believe every student can be a leader, and student agency, leadership and character education is an important part of the school’s philosophy. Classes aren’t organized into traditional subjects, but instead are grouped into 30-day “learning modules” that integrate various subjects and let students explore local, national and international issues through research and critical thinking.
“Our semi-annual Project Weeks challenge students to dive deep into something they have learned in their academic coursework, make it personal, and mobilize it creatively. While we focus on research and process, the results are incredible… Project Weeks are all about mobilizing knowledge: connecting disciplines, digging through deeper ideas, and applying what one has learned.”
The search-engine giant, Google, allows its engineers to spend 20% of their time to work on any pet project that they want. The idea is very simple. Allow people to work on something that interests them, and productivity will go up.
Daniel Pink asks what drives us. Sir Ken Robinson asks us to inspire creativity in our students. The latest in education is asking us to teach our students to create their own questions, do their own research, and form their own conclusions with their learning. Why? The world is a collaborative, communicative place and it is the world of online tools that has made it this way. Our students’ workplaces will be places with teams at tables, not individuals in cubicles. They will be asked to be innovative and create the next tool, not to push bureaucratic paper. We must teach them how to think on their own without being told what to do. We need to teach them to be autonomous learners. Only one who can guide his own learning can effectively contribute to a team.
Despite its exciting beginning, that first Genius Hour project more than 10 years ago actually failed on many levels. I provided too much structure in areas where students needed more freedom and agency. I didn’t provide enough scaffolding in areas where they lacked necessary skills. I failed to anticipate some of the social and emotional challenges of giving students the freedom to learn what they wanted to learn.
Still, even with all of these mistakes, something was different. My students were empowered to take their learning in their own direction.
Researchers acknowledge that the need to engage in problem-solving and critical and creative thinking has “always been at the core of learning and innovation” (Trilling & Fadel, 2009, p. 50). What’s new in the 21st century is the call for education systems to emphasize and develop these competencies in explicit and intentional ways through deliberate changes in curriculum design and pedagogical practice. The goal of these changes is to prepare students to solve messy, complex problems – including problems we don’t yet know about – associated with living in a competitive, globally connected, and technologically intensive world.
What is clear is that interpersonal skills are unlikely to be rendered obsolete by technological innovation or economic disruptions. In a changing workforce, it’s having a strong foundation in these versatile, cross-functional skills that allows people to successfully pivot.
New research from theSutton Trust, a British foundation focused on social mobility, finds that 88% of young people, 94% of employers, and 97% of teachers say these so-called life skills are as or more important than academic qualifications.
List of Schools Adopting Similar FLEX TIME Initiatives:
The only independent school in New Brunswick, Rothesay has adopted numerous innovations to give their students voice-and-choice over passions and interests. Most recently they have empathized with students by creating assessment blocks in which only specific subject areas are able to administer summative assessment one at a time. This aims to help students and teachers work smarter at not overwhelming and overstuffing the learning.
A wide-reaching whole-school initiative in which one hour per day is organized around student academic needs, well-being activities, and PBL guidance. Students choose where they should be and what they should learn.
The statement that “Social, emotional, and cognitive competencies can be taught and developed throughout childhood, adolescence, and beyond,” certainly underscores Carol Dweck’s work around growth mindset. In short, we aren’t simply born with or without SEL traits; rather, they can be taught and shaped throughout our experiences.
Outdoor Education can be widely defined, but generally is a form of experiential organised learning that occurs in an outdoor setting and typically involves “journey-based experiences in which students participate in a variety of adventurous, memorable challenges.” This style of learning has various benefits, from cultivating the relevant emotional intelligence needed for effective leadership, to develop the confidence and competence needed to persevere in stressful situations.
List of Schools Adopting Similar ACTIVE TIME Initiatives:
In other words, many students do not learn about the world in school; instead, they learn about a teacher’s preferences, a test’s likeliest questions, and their own ability or inability to master a system that doesn’t place their growth first.
Minerva focuses on developing your abilities to think critically and creatively, to communicate effectively, and to work well with others. These aspects of your education are far more important than simply memorizing facts and concepts because they provide a set of practical and adaptable skills, together with an understanding of how to apply them in the world.
Each student is required to take between one and four experiential blocks as part of his or her academic program. These blocks are designed to meet each student’s academic and career interests and can include varied experiences,
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)
A common criticism of PBL is because each student’s end product differs, connections to the ministry of education curriculum objectives suffer. It is often thought even more difficult for teachers to properly assess these types of projects because of this summative difference. This realization led teachers at RLC to develop Standards-Based Curriculum Checklists for our DISCOVERY DAYS inquiry-based projects initiative.
We have encouraged our faculty to choose exactly 50 specific curriculum objectives from the myriad of examples each ministry document gives for knowledge and skill building. Why 50? Because less than that would be difficult to properly cover each learning strand or unit and more than that would be next to impossible to teach within a regularly scheduled semester. As Rosseau Lake College also uses a Level 1-5 Achievement Chart, it is an easy move to create both a quality descriptive rubric, as well as one that could potentially act as the entire grade book in a competency-based system. The final touch with this easy-to-administer standards-based template is a column for reflection upon which both students and teachers can record conversations and observations and link to products. I have used this column as a formative feedback and reflection activity with my Grade 12 English class. Their role was to find examples from previous classroom lectures and activities to satisfy the potential mastery of each skill. Level 5 Mastery can be further enriched by co-constructing criteria around possible 90%+ “gamified” extensions of competencies (eg. real-world connections, ability to teach the material, etc.)
By incorporating student conferences with subject teachers early into the DISCOVERY DAYS schedule, students have the ability to directly link their partial or fully cross-curricular project ideas to specific curriculum objectives. A Google folder carrying the entire faculty’s curriculum checklists allows any student or facilitator the ability to easily locate aspects of a subject area to build projects upon.
This reflective component has so far proved crucial to maintaining academic rigour with PBL and in focussing students Discovery Projects on expected subject outcomes. It also has the added bonus of increasing student autonomy and voice-and-choice around interest areas. Resilience and flexibility have been a by-product of these check-ups as many students have had to “go back to the drawing board” if their culminating project ideas didn’t satisfy enough curriculum outcomes.
“More than one in 10 (12 percent) students educated at independent schools said they had been inadequately prepared for university. And the most common criticism was that they’d been given over-structured support at school and wanted to be more academically independent.” (Furedi, 2016)
Big thanks to former Cohort21 alum, Ed Hitchcock @ehitchcock@SciTeacherEd for his initial work in Standards-Based Grading (watch his video here). Also thanks to @egelleny for mentioning him to me in the first place. The Power of Cohort21!
“The goal of education has changed from the transfer of knowledge to the inculcation of wisdom” (Lichtman, 2014). Teachers have recently embraced the notion that direct instruction limits the effectiveness of knowledge transmission, as all students have personalized learning styles. The idea that a teacher should no longer be a “sage on the stage”, but rather a “guide on the side”, has meant a progressive reworking in the definition and purpose of this noble profession.
To help understand the various professional roles needed for teachers at Rosseau Lake College to conduct their challenging and multifaceted jobs, the faculty brainstormed and decided on four distinct responsibilities: Instructor, Facilitator, Mentor, and Coach.
The concept of a facilitator makes sense in a highly digitized information age in which teachers support student inquiry instead of merely delivering content.
This past August, teaching faculty at RLC dove deeply into facilitator training as we engaged in a two-day intensive workshop from the Toronto-based Future Design School headed by, you guessed it, Cohort21’s very own @lmcbeth! The effectiveness of this Design Thinking (DT) course entitled, “Hack Your Curriculum” led to further developments of our new DISCOVERY DAYS model—namely the opportunity for integrated “How Might We…?” (HMW) questions across subject areas. Our new facilitation skills had its first real challenge: a new model of curriculum delivery.
INTEGRATED PROJECT-BASED LEARNING
“How Might We…?” (HMW) questions are at the heart of the Design Process, a structured inquiry method for defining and prototyping projects, based on cultivating empathy for an end user. Each HMW question leads the student on a collaborative quest to discover more specific applications for their project. At Rosseau Lake College, we call thse Discovery Projects:
The Design Thinking (DT) method, first piloted in educational use at Stanford University (IDEO Stanford Design School) is a catalyst for creative action within the larger independent Project-Based Learning (PBL) practice. The Gold Standard PBL model was developed by the Buck Institute (BIE) and outlines the key components of administering this self-learning method.
BIE defines project-based learning as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge” (Buck Institute for Education, 2017).
In order to deliver a powerful inquiry-based program that increases student-autonomy and collaboration at every stage of the Discovery Projects, aspects of the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) as used by the Right Question Institute (RQI) are also incorporated:
Ask as many questions as you can
Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions
Write down every question exactly as stated
Change any statement into a question
By focussing on questions as the driver of curiosity and learning, it is understood that students will take ownership of their Discovery Projects through voice-and-choice while building links to real-world connections through their growing reflective knowledge. This ultimate inquiry method—as frustrating as it can be to those students used to learning in more traditional rote ways—also builds resilience by promoting an open mind to differing possibilities, including the possibility of failure.
Multiple-choice tests communicate nothing about school climate, student engagement, the development of citizenship skills, student social and emotional health, or critical thinking. School quality is multidimensional.
–Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.
Teachers at RLC saw an opportunity for DISCOVERY DAYS to develop new professional skills as facilitators. As this is a whole-school initiative and incorporates up to 30% of each student’s summative marks, why not facilitate students towards combining ideas for their Discovery Projects. Cross-curricular learning at the high school level is often difficult to organize. Subject teachers rarely teach complementary units and assessment of these projects takes extra collegial meetings that rarely happen. This is unfortunate, given how important it is for students to view all knowledge areas as vital and connected.
The key aspect of DISCOVERY DAYS is the prospect of students being able to complete one or two integrated projects instead of four separate ones.
For this first round of DISCOVERY DAYS, students chose from preselected HMW questions for each of their subjects. They were then guided by facilitators to develop partially-integrated HMW questions that combined curriculum outcomes from at least two subject areas. The bold students challenged themselves to create a fully-integrated HMW question that covered all subject expectations.
Students begin to take part in defining learning goals, connecting the learning to their own interests and aspirations and becoming more active observers and guides to their own and to their peers’ learning and progress. Deep learning tasks build upon the foundation of the new learning partnerships. They challenge students to construct knowledge and begin to use their ideas in the real world. In the process, they develop key skills and the experience of doing ‘knowledge work’ in ways that develop tenacity, grit, and the proactive dispositions that pave the way to flourishing futures. (Fullan, 2014)
Facilitation in the technology age is a relatively new professional skill that deserves more opportunities and support for teachers to practice and develop in their classrooms. Project-based learning is a natural opportunity to ask deeper questions of students and share in big ideas while fostering real-world connections. As learning becomes more autonomous and adaptive, important skillsets and mindsets such as modelling, encouragement, discernment, and inspiration become vital transmission tools for new flexible learning spaces that aren’t conducive to “chalk and talk”. Facilitation differs from regular instruction and coaching in that on the surface it looks like nothing is happening. Underneath, however…
As any parent knows, structure and boundaries with a child are vital, not only for development but also for sanity. My beautiful adopted girl, Aletheia, will soon be 20 months old. This past year and a half have been a blur of carefully organized and sectioned “time”. Her Time, Me Time, Work Time, Sleep Time, Eat Time, Bath Time… you get the picture. Interestingly, all of this life stuff was happening around the same time that Rosseau Lake College was developing its new DISCOVERY DAYS inquiry-based and experiential learning initiative. Ironically, a think a few of these terms and conditions from my life slipped into our new student program!
What is Design Time?
There are many styles of student inquiry, from highly structured to completely free and autonomous. Each is an entry point into personalized learning which can lead students to be intrinsically motivated, to achieve independently, and to continue ‘lifelong learning’ (Engelbert & Hagel, 2017).
Infographic courtesy of Trevor MacKenzie @trev_mackenzie
The uniqueness of Rosseau Lake College’s inquiry-based academic program, Design Time, rests on the idea that culminating knowledge does not happen in a vacuum, nor does it always happen at the end of a topic, unit, or learning sequence.
“Research shows that students perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learning material” (Terada, 2017).Knowledge is constructed and co-constructed through questioning, application, and reflection. It happens in conjunction with a teacher, with peers, and through self-guidance. The education model that was developed from this insight and aligned with our strategic objectives was a simple three-stage process, not dissimilar to the Design Process itself:
Discover. Learn. Adapt.
Instead of spending two weeks at the end of a semester quickly pulling together aspects of a rushed project, students at RLC spend the entire semester following their big idea questions through iterative discovery and prototyping stages. At any point along this process, the student may reach an impasse or gain interest in a similar topic based on their original idea. Just as in real life, they learn to adapt these ideas into new discoveries which then lead to further research and the eventual creation of unique end products.
Students keep track of their Discovery Project process using a standardized Google Doc planner divided into these three stages over the 12 weeks. Updates to the planner and weekly exit cards are expected.
With DISCOVERY DAYS happening every Friday, direct instruction is still able to take place during the week, which enables further linking of knowledge and skills gained from the classroom into the collaborative or self-directed Discovery Project.
What is Flex Time?
Just as the name suggests, Flex Time will be an adjustable component of our Winter Term and will have a variety of purposes. This year, the Flex Time program will be organised using mentor groups working on Passion Projects.
Many schools have opened up their weekly schedule to include time for students to engage in projects that are not marked and instead are aligned with student interests and pursuits. Some popular names for this type of program are Genius Hour or 20Time.
What makes RLC different amongst established independent schools is our small size. Vertical integration happens often and students find friendship groups from all grade levels.
RLC’s mentor program has traditionally been an area where these inter-student relationships grow. This year we hope to strengthen this program further by having mentors and mentees work on Passion Projects together.
As a group, the mentors will facilitate a design process over 14 weeks. Instead of achieving marks, students will be assessed in their development of Future Skills (Teamwork, Information Management, Self-Management, Critical Thinking, Networking, Global Citizenship, etc.) (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016). In the spring, RLC aims to host a Discovery Fair in which the most successful passion projects will be shared with the whole school and badges of Mastery in these essential skills will be awarded.
What is Active Time?
In the Fall and Spring, Rosseau Lake College benefits from its pristine location on the shore of Lake Rosseau in Muskoka. From the outset of its founding, RLC has aligned educational programming towards outdoor experiences. Active Time gives us the occasion for whole school immersion into our rich natural environment.
RLC students canoe Shadow River during Active Time
Requiring our students to experience the diversity of our unique location through swimming, hikes, environmental stewardship, canoe trips, and survival challenges, is a wonderful opportunity to advance the related importance of outdoor activity and well-being in the holistic development of each child.
In the Winter Term, Active Time becomes a block where both teacher-designed and student-designed specialty clubs can take place (Community Club, Boomwhacker Club, Culinary Club, etc). Although the form of these Active Time clubs can vary, the social-emotional aim is always the same: have a goal and learn skills to improve!
In the Spring Term, as the winter slowly begins to thaw, we will use Active Time as a space for arts and indigenous-themed events and host guest speakers, local and alumni entrepreneurs who can relate their experiences and run workshops regarding the concept of cultivating a Personal Brand.
I wonder what next great idea will come from my daughter… and yes, her future is so bright, she’s gotta wear shades!
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.
Nothing ever goes as planned, and that is why we teach.
Think about this statement for a second. Isn’t that what teachers do, don’t we create lesson “plans”? Don’t we try and structure learning so there is proper scaffolding of knowledge and skills in developmentally appropriate methods of transmission? Isn’t this the reason we became educators? Because the world doesn’t make sense and we are here, dammit, to help children make some sense of it!
If I dig deep into the psychology of it all, I would probably find some truth to that. Am I teacher because I secretly want control over aspects of my life I can’t control? Am I a teacher because of something lacking in my own upbringing that I want to correct? Either I was great at school and therefore never left, or I had a learning disability and now want to share my experience so no one has to struggle again.
Maybe you are one of those noble few who was so inspired by a teacher in your life you just had to join the profession, to keep the flame going. Or maybe, like me, you come from a family of teachers and this profession was always going to be the “backup plan”.
No matter the reason, at some point you will have come up against this great irony of education, the perennial bulwark: nothing ever goes as planned! And it affects all of us at some point in our career, whether you are a messy person or a clean person, a cat person or a dog person, a Beatles fan or a Rolling Stones fan. We have all reached that moment of saturation when your To-Do List needs a To-Do List.
All I can say is, thank god we are teachers in the 21st century! Whereas this statement in the recent past would have been swept under any available carpet out of shame (for some reason I’m thinking of those oval cord carpets from the 70’s), now, it is not only par for the course, THIS IS THE VERY DEFINITION OF TEACHING.
The reality of the classroom these days is, there is always something or someone going to undermine all of your carefully crafted secret plans.
Learning to surf the process of discovery, to embrace happy accidents along the way, is a 21st-century skill, for students and teachers alike. Being flexible enough to adapt strategies quickly, resilient enough to hear criticism as constructive feedback, and transparent enough to admit you don’t always know what the end dismount of that wave looks like; these are qualities far more cherished and sought after these days than a perfectly designed syllabus.
I have had the recent experience, as Academic Director at Rosseau Lake College, to witness the joy of disorder first hand. After working tirelessly for the past 18 months on developing our new whole-school, inquiry-based learning initiative called DISCOVERY DAYS, the launch day finally came this past September 29. After spending much of the last year and a half living comfortably in the Simon Sinek “WHY”, I had to shift gears very quickly to consider the Grant Lichtman “HOW”. It’s one thing to imagine what a non-traditional progressive approach to learning might look like— changing timetables, training teachers, building learning spaces, reading books and blogs, edu tweeting— it’s another to organize 100 students and 16 faculty for an entire morning of informative-yet-growth-mindset building activities. And then it rained. Actually, for the purposes of this analogy, it poured. Students were wandering around not knowing exactly where to be, or how to stay dry. Teachers were out of their element, facilitating a group of students that weren’t necessarily their own. The concept of a “How Might We…? question was met with raised eyebrows and blank pages. Some got it, some didn’t. Questions abounded.
But here is the beauty, the cherry on top, my fin de siecle. A crucial part of the Design Thinking process is built upon questions that don’t require answers, which inevitably leads to a foundation of failure. Failure, in fact, is at the very core of modern learning. We must fall down in order to get up. We must make mistakes while we prototype. Our plans must go awry.
Organized chaos, then, is that sweet spot of engagement that every teacher yearns and learns to conduct. When the noise level of your classroom is peaked, not with dissent, but with interest. When the questions just keep coming, not out of desperation but out of curiosity. When technology breaks down and your lo-fi solution produces even greater results because the shared experience is more vital. When co-constructing curriculum with students produces an idea you could never have planned for on your own. When what you have created has become something more than you could have possibly imagined and you know the next crucial step in your journey is letting go.
One of the most common criticisms from high-school teachers, around the topic of cross-curricular implementation, is how hard it is to schedule. Everyone loves the idea of multidisciplinary activities, but other than actual interdisciplinary courses (IDC)— where two or three subjects are mandated to mix and mingle— few schools can boast of regularly achieving this gold standard of 21st century knowledge integration.
Instead of spending last summer trolling ministry websites or updating persistently nagging AQ credentials, or even skimming chapters of the latest guru on innovation and personal branding, I did what I assume most teachers need to do on their off time— I vegged out. Now, becoming a vegetable on my vacation did not mean I stopped thinking about pedagogical approaches to curriculum design, no, no, no (I am, like most lifers, a 24/7 teacher). Far from it. I did what millions of teachers do best– I turned a television show into a future lesson plan!
The show is Netflix’s superb documentary, “Chef’s Table”, which, if you haven’t already had a chance to watch, is an absolute delight of the senses and the spirit. The episode that stood out for me, and got my pedagogical flavours flowing, was the first of Season Two, with the esteemed American chef, Grant Ashatz, showcasing his experimental art project/restaurant, Alinea.
What makes the food that we do at Alinea so interesting on the outside is that we really don’t let ourselves say no to an idea.
What struck me immediately about his imaginative approach to cuisine, was how similar it was to lesson planning. He always starts with a question: In his case, “why do patrons have to eat on plates?”; in my case, “why do multidisciplinary activities have to involve other classes?”
In designing an ISU for last year’s Grade 12 English class, I wanted to encourage a personalized and multidisciplinary approach by providing choice over what topic of English they wished to involve in their project. Through much discussion and co-construction (and some critical processing of my own) we came to the realization that there were at least 4 major subjects within English (Science, Sociology, Art, and Philosophy). Anyone who has taught Theory of Knowledge in an IB setting should recognize the similar pattern here. What was important to me was the senior students themselves came to this vital conclusion— that all subjects have other subjects within them, that the concept of “subject” is just a label, a way to organize information. From there the “buy-in” was easy, as most students were able to find a comfortable entry point into their project, based on a subject they enjoyed more than English, or were more skilled at. I also encouraged each student to talk to a teacher from the subject area they chose, to further deepen their research. No major rescheduling was necessary.
Grant Ashatz set the culinary world alight by challenging the basic assumptions of fine dining. He saw the simple ritual of eating to be full of potential for awe inspiring moments. Asking yourself the hard, reflective questions regarding your own practice, especially around subject stereotypes, is precisely the path towards innovation all teachers can use to reinvigorate their practice, and all students are waiting to ask. Why do we use textbooks in math? Do English students have to read the entire text? Does learning need to take place inside? Why do we need grades? Would this topic be best learned online? Do I have to write this down, can’t I just tell you?
Sometimes thinking outside the box means gaining inspiration from disciplines other than your own, other than education. Challenge the status quo. Give yourself permission to fail. Set limits to increase your creativity. These are not article links off Edutopia, they are lessons I learned from binge watching Netflix!