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.
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.
One of the most common criticisms we hear from teachers is usually voiced at the time they are being confronted with yet another change to their teaching and learning practice. This is the critique that any new initiative, edtech or life skills or otherwise, is really just the same old idea coming around again, repackaged with 21st-century buzzwords. Especially if you’ve been teaching for some time or work in a school that is culturally risk averse, there is a certain sense of deja-vu with most pedagogical “innovations”. Been there, done that, never getting that weekend back! Anyone remember Wikis or Zines? Constant provincial ministry mandates and ongoing administrator classroom strategies don’t seem to help abate this trend towards the cynical.
The frustration is real. It’s the metaphor that lacks.
I’ve found an easier way to view innovation in education. Through the allegory of the car. Yes, not much has changed since the discovery that four wheels can get us places faster. The horse drawn carriage was replaced by the internal combustion engine. Henry Ford’s Model T ushered the motor vehicle into the age of mass production. Tesla now has record sales for the electric car. Still just four wheels. Isn’t it just the same thing over and over again, repackaged?
If, however, you pause to consider how many small yet crucial design elements have added to and improved this basic human transport need; from removing coachmen and allowing passengers to drive themselves, to safety measures such as the seatbelt and airbags, environmental pushes towards cleaner exhaust, greater mileage, winter tires, internal navigation systems, and now, automated self-driving vehicles.
The factory model of education may still be the most efficient way to instruct large populations of students, but education has come a long way since the single room school house. How we design and run these “factories” makes all the difference to how we see and conduct ourselves as teachers and the experience of open mindedness and curiosity we model for each student. Every educational theory and teaching trend, from Dewey to Vygotsky, from Montessori to Gardner, from Fullan to Hattie, Duckworth to Cain, all of them add incremental yet vital elements to our dynamic pedagogical toolbox, as well as providing fundamental progress to this noble profession.
So hold your head high at the next staff meeting. Avoid the temptation to slide into your default setting. Think of how YouTube is really just like the seat warmer in your car.
Rosseau Lake College loosely defines a Personal Brand as how someone talks about you when you are not around. An apt social description for peer-pressured teens who may or may not see this commodified label as a marketing notion that comes from the world of public relations:
In the above website, a Personal Brand is described as “what separates you from everyone else in the world” and “how you want to live your professional and personal life”. While the irony of a private school with a collective uniform policy promoting stark individualism is not lost on me, what is clear about students growing up in today’s social media-soaked landscape is they must cultivate and present numerous versions of themselves both in the digital world and the real one. How they manage this pressure and develop the tools and mindsets to navigate such delicate communication is one of the latest and most important roles in education.
A common saying is one should not mix business with pleasure, but I wonder if the next generation will learn to successfully mix business with passion. This Entrepreneurial Mindset is one of the main Personal Brand Pathways that Rosseau Lake College is trying to cultivate in all of its senior students with the courses they select on their way to graduation.
Entrepreneurship + Communication & Design + Environmentalism
Taken separately, any of these pathways into post-secondary can lead to success and a potential future career. Taken together, however, and a powerful Personal Brand forms, a unique ethical vision of the world as demonstrated by current thought-leaders (Elon Musk) and business disrupters (Uber).
Rosseau Lake College has always stood for self-improvement through knowledge (scientia auget vires). While the knowledge component has certainly changed in definition over the years, what has not changed is the importance of challenging the distinct self through the acquisition of knowledge: Competence, Confidence, and Character are the resulting core values which have defined our schooling and permeate all areas of student life. We hold these standards as beacons of betterment, trusting in the notion that it truly takes all three to achieve success in school as well as in life.
DISCOVERY DAYS, continues our rich tradition of challenging the best of self through change. We feel this unique holistic program will give each graduate an advantage in the post-secondary application process as well as developing future workplace and life skills to help strongly develop each and every student’s personal brand.
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)
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.
FULL DISCLOSURE: (this post was first written, like, months ago, and then not published, and then completely abandoned, and now, in desperation to publish something, published; still not sure on the why, nevertheless working on the how!)
When you blow-up any traditional concept, in education or otherwise, there is always the inherent danger the pieces of your good intentions may become scattered and disconnected from the whole. Another way of saying this is, if you are not careful, you may lose your audience. Or in this case, your student? Or, as Australians are prone to say— the proverbial plot!
In my over ten years of teaching, I have found that educators typically fall into two somewhat contradictory mindsets: those who feel strongly we are preparing students for the harsh realities of the world, and those who believe students are the ones who will create their own brave new world. Did you notice the subtle yet fundamental difference there? One proposes to enrich a generation with the passed-down tools of success, the other prefers to engender resilience through autonomy. I am willing to admit that over the years I have found myself on both sides of this debate. I don’t believe either stance is necessarily the correct one. In fact, I am almost certain you need both of them in order to improve student engagement and achievement, in order to make education relevant again.
In my last post, I began the process of describing the intentions and HMW questions behind my Action Research Plan. To quote George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, who we are perhaps only now recognising will go down in history as the Charles Dickens of the 20th century or at the very least the John D. Rockefeller, “ideas are cheap”. What he meant by this, in spite of his billion-dollar Disney payout, is that anyone can have a good idea, but only the intrepid few can make it past the initial wonder-wall of sticky-note brainstorming and into the deadline-centric prototyping arena.
I am not usually one of those intrepid few. But I know a few people who are, and that has made all the difference.
THOSE NEXT STEPS
There have been plenty. Too many. I should have a pedagogical Fitbit for this.
Let us speed-date our way through this Escher. First, there was the User Feedback. I interviewed a student and a teacher, both of whom would benefit from this initiative. Here are some student thoughts around the why and how of skill development:
At one point I even had a few students on board to create a critical thinking APP. That idea quickly died when we all realised no one knew the first thing about designing an APP. But boy, let me tell you the excitement in the room….
So from those very positive user comments (suggesting I was indeed heading in the right direction) I created a mindmap version of the 7 LIKA Skills which our school has already subscribed to (Self-Management, Thinking, Network & Communication, Teamwork, Learning, Design & Innovation, Information Management). You will notice that a Levelling-Up strategy was initiated with each skill unfolding into a series of 5 increasingly challenging competencies. Not quite the Nintendo-style edtech “game” I had imagined, but nevertheless, something to aspire to. And quite pretty I might add (thank you coggle.it!)
Earlier in the year, I adjusted the achievement chart at our school for all subsequent assessments to cater for a Level 5 (instead of 4+, because, hey, it’s Level 5!). I then added Quality Descriptors so that our progress reports became gradeless and work habits could now be labelled as either Beginning, Developing, Deepening, Enhancing, or Mastering.
It made sense, to me at least, for our 21st Century Skills to follow a similar success criteria.
But it wasn’t enough. How would the unpacking of this work in the classroom? Or if not the classroom, where and when would teachers guide students through these 7 skills with 5 Levels each (that’s 35 separate competencies if you’re counting). Most importantly, how would they be assessed?
Then an idea hit me after the last Cohort21 meeting on Mars. The Parlay start-up boys that spoke to our whole group had an interesting functionality on their collaborative online forum— that of endorsement!
I would get the students to track their own skill development and ENDORSE others in the class who had likewise achieved a Level-Up. So that graphic looked like this:
I still needed the teacher to be somewhat accountable for this (without it being onerous) so a class tracking sheet for the teacher was also created. It looked like this:
I then spent too much time thinking about whether or not students would even be motivated to Level-Up on their own. I toyed with the idea that we should perhaps be giving some marks for soft skills, after all, there is a very good argument that all of these can be cultivated through each subject area and often make up a significant component any curriculum document (read your first 15 pages if you don’t believe me). But Should that be 5% of their final mark, 10%?
What if each student in the class started with a baseline 50% and then was given 5% for each skill they obtained and/or each endorsement? They wouldn’t be required to complete all 35 LIKA Skills, just 5 skills and 5 endorsements in order to reach 100%.
It wasn’t until a particularly poignant Google Hangout call with some Cohort21 alumni members that convinced me the road to success is not paved with extrinsic motivation. I couldn’t slide back into marks after having called for their exile! There would have to be another way!
While I was waiting for this other way, I asked our French teacher to get the kids to help them translate our new skills chart into French. It was a cool distraction, and resulted in this:
And so… HERE IS WHERE I AM! This is where my bitumen-paved butt hits gravel…. for a limited time only.
As the teaching faculty at my school and I prepare ourselves for another whole-school initiative (DISCOVERY DAYS, don’t ask, but please, ask?), I decided it was too much, too soon to unleash this particular 21st Century Skills beast on them. I wouldn’t say I’ve shelved it insomuch as I’ve merely back-burnered it for later in the year.
A few ideas that have recently hit me regarding the use and assessment of these skills:
perhaps they are used as a way to strengthen abilities for student passion projects instead of assessed by each teacher in their subject areas
There is another difference I’ve noticed over the years, regarding how teachers conduct themselves in the workplace. There are those teachers who would like to be told exactly what to do, and there are those who work best when left alone to do their own thing. Again, at various points in my career, I’ve found myself on both sides of this professional fence— very often dependent on the workload, one doesn’t always have time to play in the clouds when all you can do most days is survive unscathed.
We are lucky to be engaged in a profession where we are, to a certain degree, responsible only to ourselves, our own individual classrooms, our own knowledge and expertise, our students. I cherish this about teaching. I have also, only just this year, understood the vital importance of networking and collaboration in my reflective practice. Cohort21 is the first time in my professional life I’ve felt this way.
Mentally shifting my previous professional teaching experiences, from schools of well-intentioned colleagues, to this collaborative learning hive of like-minded ed-heads, has transformed my teaching practice in ways I have yet to truly reflect on. Except here:
I walked into the last F2F meeting with more than just a head-cold; I also had a head full of ideas and scatterbrain proposals from which to dump on this unsuspecting source of formative feedback junkies. My new role as Academic Lead at Rosseau Lake College has awarded me the freedom to develop areas of interest that “might” just indeed help our school move forward. Of course, almost instantaneously, the dreaded symbolic starting block reared it’s cosmetically challenged head, in oversized, day-glo sky-writing: Where do I begin?
LEVEL 1: THE WHERE
Luckily, our esteemed facilitators (@jmedved & @gnichols) and coaches at Cohort21, are well-versed in the language of stumble, and had problem-solving solutions waiting in the wings (literally, the wings of the York School hallways, used brilliantly as limbic nerve-system galleries of crowd-sourcing). The Design Thinking worksheets, sticky-note brainstorms and timed exercises, provided by @lmcbeth and Future Design School, were also a wonderfully scaffolded entry point into generative thinking, well away from the usual Saturday PD day-dreaming and doodle sessions of my past.
My original intention was to use the Cohort community as supercharged leverage for reimagining and rebooting our Master Schedule— a commitment to change which RLC (Roseau Lake College) is currently highly invested in. The unique process of design-thinking around this challenge, we began as a school last spring; with typical brainstorming results benefiting most from a speculative standpoint, with the not unusual— sometimes confusing and muddling— side effect of losing some staff through endless permutations of opportunity and critique. Ultimately, I concluded, that, as a school, we were already well ahead in unpacking this sticky-note problem— already at the prototyping phase, really (exciting stuff, TBA!)— and this being too specific a challenge, to be used as my Cohort21 action research springboard.
So, as a poet of pedagogy, as an agent of change, an adjunct adaptor of assessment, and as I am wont to do, I revised my original plan. Not changed tactics so much as I lessened the scope of my (ego)concentric circle to focus on another of my whole-school pet passion projects/peeves: 21st Century Skill Development.
I’m certainly not the first teacher to notice the writing on the pedagogical wall; the recent paradigm shift in teaching and learning, away from content and towards competencies, has been slowly evolving over the past decade or more (http://www.p21.org/our-work/resources/for-educators#SkillsMaps). The internet is a far better provider of knowledge than any one teacher could ever hope to be. One only need look at the proliferate example of Khan Academy, how its open-source adaptive technology has enabled a whole new generation of students to effectively tech-learn numeric knowledge in a scaffolded way, previously only possible through linear textbook instruction (Khan has naturally set their sites on literacy and grammar as well: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/grammar)
This evolution is a great relief to me, I’ve never been interested in any aspect of teaching that has me churning out cookie-cutter lessons or exacting standardized assessments like a machine; unfortunately, this delicate transition has been an obstacle to some teachers who have, perhaps unconsciously, staked, not only their professional claim, but also their identity around a proven silo of knowledge and/or singular interpretation of curriculum (especially at the secondary school level). I say, let the robots take over all the deductive aspects of school and learning! The computer has already made obsolescence a fact of life in other disciplines such as banking, manufacturing, health, military— why not education? If we, as educators, want to not only stay relevant, but also stay employed in the 21st century, we need to use content to teach skills. We need to become critical and creative facilitators of deeper learning skills and life skills. We need to become Poets of Pedagogy!
LEVEL 3: THE WHAT
After much reflecting and validating (… the Discovery Process…) on a possible teaching problem, and through the integral help of a feedback partner (@vboomgaardt), I finally widdled-down my “mighty” action research question:
How might we gamify 21st century skill development, so students can track their own learning, and teachers can gain meaningful evidence for feedback and reporting?
In order to arrive at this question, I first had to empathize with TWO END USERS in my design problem: both students and teachers. TWO END USERS!?! I think that’s okay, isn’t it? Yes, I think that’s just fine. The students will, of course, be the benefactors of a more streamlined, transparent, credential-focussed, success-driven criteria program around 21st century skill development. The teachers, as well, will need to be able to adapt these competencies and rubrics into their curriculum in ways that deepen and heighten curriculum expectations. If, along the way, we can get all edtech and add an app somewhere in the mix, well, hell, as my grandmother used to say, we’re cookin’ with gas!
Throughout this iterative process, I asked around the cohort to see if other CIS schools had identified “soft skills” as a potential problem worth solving. Similar questions around competencies did indeed exist, however, the conclusion I came to was although every school reported on work habits and had even made inroads into critical and creative thinking, there didn’t seem to be a whole-school system out there for assessing competencies in an intrinsic or adaptive way. It seems to very much still be at the mercy of individual teachers, which doesn’t really signal to the students or parents the importance of this shift in education. One of the simple questions I asked my fellow teachers was this: “What is the difference between a Grade 7 collaboration and a Grade 12 collaboration when it comes to assessing work habits?”. No one was able to give me an answer with any authority or consistency. With this Action Plan, I am to change that.
LEVEL 4: THE HOW
“Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it – and that, more than any specific body of knowledge, is what they will need to have in the future. The world is changing so rapidly that by the time a student graduates from university, everything he or she learned may already be headed toward obsolescence. The main thing that students need to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems.” (p.14)
When I arrived at Rosseau Lake College last year, they had already started a transition into a new strategic plan (Future Forward) which I am lucky to help continue to shape this year. One of the hallmarks of this plan is a personalized approach to education, using what we call a PLP (Personalized Learning Profile). Partnering with the learning and development company, LIKA (http://www.lika.ca/home2/), our students are able to approximate their learning preference through a multiple-intelligence, psychometric online test. Simply, this allows each student and teacher to see individual learning strengths and weaknesses as a visual quadrant infographic.
In addition to the PLP, LIKA has recently developed a list of 7 Skills which have already been Ministry approved and will form the foundation of RLC’s 21st Century Competencies.
These skills will be the basis for my Action Plan:
Networking and Communication
Design and Innovation
Finally, through the crowd-sourcing inspiration stage of our last F2F, I received a heap of ideas, many of them game and tech-related, to help me on my quest.
LEVEL 5: THE WHEN
It’s all happening in Semester 2. I am lucky to have both Junior and Senior Division Curriculum leads to help co-construct criteria around these skills. There is much research to conduct around badge creation, interactive motivator apps, Google Suite apps, JoeZoo, Doc Appender, and LMS systems. As well, I will be interviewing both of my END USERS throughout the process for feedback and suggestions.