September 10, 2015 Features & Images » Feature Story

The end of monolithic learning 

21st-century learning is coming to a school near you

click to flip through (7) STORY BY REBECCA ALDOUS - The end of monolithic learning: 21st-century learning is coming to a school near you
  • Story by Rebecca Aldous
  • The end of monolithic learning: 21st-century learning is coming to a school near you

The four Grade 1 students stand attentive at the front of the gathering.

This is their big moment. Six-year-old Ewan Jenkins holds a piece of paper with his introductory speech about the group's song. His white-blond hair shines in the sunlight as he straightens his back and starts the presentation.

"I will be singing about the people that don't have healthy food," Ewan says, while his project partners sway and twitch beside him as the small crowd's attention turns to them. "And our song's name is 'How I wish people had food.'"

The show marks the end of a problem-solving project for the Signal Hill Elementary School class. Two months ago, their teacher, Dixie Cameron, came to them with a dilemma — the Pemberton Food Bank was struggling to find healthy food. Under Cameron's guidance the six and seven year olds brainstormed ideas to stock the facility's shelves. They made flow charts, story boards and discussed solutions with their classmates.

That's when they took notice of the classroom's window planters and the seed of an idea was planted — why not grow vegetables for the foodbank? The children eagerly researched growing techniques and the benefits of different vegetation. Then they broke into small groups to create presentations. They also organized a plot at the community gardens beside One Mile Lake, so they could transplant the tomatoes and cucumbers once they had outgrown the school-room planters.

On a warm June day, the children planted their crop — which held a promise of help for those in need.

Now it was time to share their plan. It was an occasion they'd all been waiting for, knowing it would be no ordinary field trip. When the youth walked into the Pemberton Food Bank they had a tangible plan to deliver something that was going to make a difference.

They excitedly told the food bank staff about the plots, and the fresh vegetables that would be ready to harvest that summer. After the thanks it was time for the presentations. One group interpreted a poster they had created describing the healthy food initiative. Ewan's team sang the song they had written about what the project meant to them.

"Oh how I wish people had food to live forever. What could I do to give people the food to live forever?" the gaggle sings a bit off key.

While the song's words are simple, the process that the students undertook to get to that point was not, Cameron says.

"They learned it all, from science to social studies," she says, reflecting on the project before the start of this school year. "The students developed their skills in the key competencies such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and contribution."

The initiative, and others like it around the school district, marks a milestone for the Sea to Sky School District. Two years ago, the district undertook an intensive strategic plan development process to update its education program. Forty stakeholders — including 18 teachers, parents and students — came to the table to examine ways to create learning environments with more personal relevance for students in the 21st century. Aiming to come at education in a holistic manner, the group embraced a plan that focused on competency development. The idea is that through creativity, innovation, contribution, collaboration and critical thinking, purposeful learning will occur.

It marks a departure from more traditional schooling, with a teacher at the head of the class and students scribbling down notes. The strategic plan adopts a more project-based method to teaching that draws on the traditional cores — reading, writing, arithmetic — while focusing on critical thinking. It moves away from the industrial model based on a factory-style education assembly line and focuses on problem solving.

"It's doesn't mean the core skills (reading, writing, arithmetic) are dropped," district superintendent Lisa McCullough says. "They are threaded into everything, but they aren't the only focus of the work. If students are motivated by what they are learning, their reading and writing will improve too."

Subjects cease to be compartmentalized. Flexible groupings and schedules are encouraged to allow for greater opportunities for competency-based learning. This results in multi-age groupings for some learning situations, as well as some single-age groupings for other learning situations.

The district's plan puts it a step ahead of the provincial government's redesigned curriculum that B.C. schools will transition to over a three-year period starting this fall. This years Kindergarten to Grade 9 teachers will have the option of using the new curriculum in their classroom before it is fully implemented in the fall of 2016. The idea is to roll out the new methodology to the middle and high school grades by the 2017-18 school year. Officials are still working on updates for students' assessments that click with the curriculum.

As in the Sea to Sky School District's strategy, flexible learning is at the heart of B.C.'s redesigned curriculum. It aims to adopt a hands-on approach and aboriginal perspectives are integrated throughout the learning.

Both models are backed by today's research, and the train of thought of global education leaders, McCullough says. The Ministry of Education's model was developed in collaboration with more than 100 teachers over the past three years.

The meat and potatoes behind the changes are to spur on the spirit of inquiry, adds McCullough. The teacher's job has transformed into guiding that drive, rather than dictating all of the learning in the classroom. The instructors start by collaborating with students on what their project will be about and what will be considered a successful project. It's a formative process, with students and teachers providing feedback on work and ways to improve it.

"This is a social shift," McCullough says.

Not everyone is swooning over the new pathway and the uncertainty around its implementation and effect on student learning. As co-chair of the Whistler Secondary School Parent Advisory Council (PAC) and former co-chair of the District PAC, Margot Murdoch has listened to parents' concerns. Some of them have gone as far as taking their children out of the public system to place them in private schools.

How the education system assesses students within the new curriculum is one of the major questions asked by parents, Murdoch notes. The current grading meshes with universities, particularly for students carrying on to subjects such as medicine and law. Parents need to be re-assured that the final assessment system is researched based and concrete, she says.

"Parents want assessment," says Murdoch. "The assessment has to mean something."

The parent of three fields many questions from parents worried that reading, writing and arithmetic will fall by the wayside without the traditional structure.

"I think parents are really, really worried about the core skills."

While a lot of parents see the benefits in project-based learning, the multi-age/multi-grade groupings have raised eyebrows. In previous years, parents from Squamish and Whistler voiced opposition when School District 48 (SD48) piloted this class composition in Spring Creek Community School and Brackendale Elementary.

Teacher training is also at the top of parents' minds. Parents want to know how teachers will be supported to learn what is required about the new methods, and what that will mean for the everyday functioning of a classroom.

Despite the hurdles ahead, Murdoch sees the strategy as a necessary and positive step. But parents need to be better informed about the plan, Murdoch says. The school board has put a lot of effort in to explaining the new strategy, yet the message isn't getting out.

"It is so difficult to get parents engaged," Murdoch says. "There is a need to find a better way to communicate the new education plan."

The Sea to Sky Teachers' Association is focusing on three areas of concern — resources, funding for new initiatives and teacher training. Both the school district and provincial plans represent major change, the association's president Steve Lloyd says.

"We are really excited about it, but there are a lot of questions about it too," he says.

Lloyd believes collaboration between the teachers' association and the school district would help in the roll out of the plan. The organization could aid implementing the understanding of the strategic plan in schools, without costing the district money. Specifically, the association may be able to help find solutions to in-house training, Lloyd notes. Teacher-to-teacher meetings often prove fruitful when tackling new ideas, he says.

"How we make sense of it with the kids is our job," adds Lloyd.

McCullough wants to put parents' and teachers' anxiety to rest. The majority of people can agree — including all the strategic plan development team's members — that traditional teaching methods no longer hold their own in a world where memorizing facts isn't as important as sorting through, and making meaning of, an abundance of information.

"What was really clear was that everyone wanted the focus to be more about thinking," McCullough says of the new Pathways to Learning philosophy.

The driving force behind multi-age classes is not about saving money, she says. "That has nothing to do with this."

The idea is to move toward flexible structures. One tool is for youth to not be clumped in homogenous groups, she says. Besides being with the same teacher for an additional year, multi-age groups allow older children to take on the role of mentors. The school district does not demand split grades, but instead leaves it up to the school principals. They work with teachers and parents to decide their own direction, McCullough says.

"Research is pretty clear that in terms of psycho-social development multi-age groupings are superior," she adds.

The school district has been able to implement the new plan into its elementary schools with a fair amount of ease and speed. However, the high schools present more of a challenge, McCullough acknowledges. The Grade 10 to 12 curriculum is very much focused on provincial exams. It's also arranged within timetables, a structure that is difficult to get around, McCullough says. Currently, the district is examining how to transfer the new learning method into credits.

"We are going to see a slower progress at that level," she says, regarding the plan implementation in higher grades.

The strategic plan's success can already be demonstrated, particularly within the First Nations' student body, McCullough adds. The district's aboriginal six-year graduation rate improved from 39 per cent in 2010 to 81 per cent in 2014, matching the completion rate for all students within SD48. Simultaneously, suspension rates for all students have dropped by 59 per cent over the past three years. And they're on track for further reduction, McCullough adds.

Like McCullough, B.C.'s newly appointed education minister Mike Bernier is also hoping to ease parents' concerns regarding the new curriculum. The "personalized learning" approach is created by teachers for teachers, he says, noting it remains "solid on the basics."

"It allows teachers to do a lot of great things teachers have already been doing," Bernier says.

The ministry will be combing through possible assessment methods over the next couple of months.

"We haven't said we are getting rid of (giving) grades," Bernier notes.

The Ministry of Advanced Education was a part of the curriculum's redesign from the get-go, Bernier says, noting nowadays 80 per cent of jobs require post-secondary education.

"We need to assure we have those synergies," he says.

Not a new ball game

Project-based teaching is not a new concept. Independent schools have lured parents to their doors with systems that sit outside of the traditional schooling box. This past school year, enrolment at private-sector schools jumped 6.75 per cent, according to the Federation of Independent School Associations of B.C. (FISA). It marks a bump in growth that is higher than the average two-per cent increase the alternative schools typically experience.

Between 2012 and today, the Sea to Sky has seen a boom in independent schools. Cedar Valley Waldorf School, Squamish Montessori School and Whistler Waldorf School seek to expand their facilities to compensate for the influx of students.

In 2013, Coast Mountain Academy, located on Quest University Canada property in Squamish, opened its doors to 17 students. Last school year, the independent school had approximately 60 students. And this year marks the first year the school offers Grades 7 to 12.

Coast's deputy head of school, Mike Slinger, comes from a public sector background. The magnitude and structure of the public system places limitations on it, he says. Signing up with Coast Mountain Academy has put vigour back into his passion for education. The school wraps its classes around inquiry and is very much hands-on.

"It's why I got into teaching," Slinger says, noting the approach is not new methodology, but rather new in practice.

Sonya Hwang sends her two children, eight-year-old Kai and six-year-old Hana to the Whistler Waldorf School, drawn by the school's focus on critical-thinking.

"I was looking at all the education options," she says. "It has been an evolution learning about the whole pedagogy."

What she sought was a place that would bring her children up to be good individuals, a school that looked beyond textbooks. Hwang wants a system that would help develop her children's love of learning and give them the skills to ask the right questions.

For the past three years Jonah Regan has attended Whistler Waldorf. The 16-year-old has been a student within the public and private system. After the switch to Waldorf, Jonah says he's noticed differences within himself.

"I was a nervous kid," he says, referring to his time at elementary school in Whistler.

Since then he's taken up music, and is thinking about pursuing architecture or work within the film industry. Last year Jonah was in a class with Grade 10 and 11 students. Most of his friends are older, he admits.

"As a class, we are able to push each other and get good grades," he says of the multi-age composition.

Jonah's father Tim has also noticed a transformation as his son has gone from being a lacklustre student to a youth who loves the arts and is engaged. Jonah takes pride in his work and puts thought into its presentation, Tim adds.

Tim and wife Stephanie started to look for alternative schools following a string of teachers' strikes. The couple felt the public system was losing energy.

"I am pleased to know that the traditional system is adapting," says Tim. "I think it needs to adapt."

The social shift

The time of monolithic learning is over, Quest University Canada's new president Dr. Peter Englert says. Gone are the days of "this is on the exam." Students' knowledge of subjects will be showcased through applied applications, as professors step away from their lecterns to sit amongst the pupils as collaborators and tutors.

That's what's been happening at Quest for the past eight years. In 2002, Canadian geophysicist David Strangway set out to create a place where students receive a general arts and science curriculum that focused not on specific subjects, but rather how those disciplines operate within the world at large.

The private, non-profit liberal arts and science university runs on a block system, allowing students to focus on one course at a time over a three-and-a-half week period, rather than all courses at once. The university's curriculum puts an emphasis on communication, critical thinking, personal and intellectual development and civic engagement. Students are required to design their own majors with the guidance of faculty, and all students must complete a "question" — taking on a major thesis or project before their graduation.

"Given another decade or two, I believe other universities will have to make a shift toward a more critical thinking approach to education versus simply information gathering," Englert says.

The quantitative learning approach placed the institution on the forefront of change. It's a move that's a necessity for education to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, Englert says. In life and in the work place, problem solving is not separated into individual compartments, he continues. We draw upon all our skills — mathematics, geology and history for example — to solve issues.

"In reality, all of these things flow together," says Englert.

Quest's groundbreaking approach has paid off. In 2010, the institution earned the highest ranking among Canadian universities in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) in five key criteria — student-faculty interaction, active and collaborative learning, enriching educational experience, supportive campus environment and academic challenge. In the five years that it's participated in the NSSE, Quest has placed at the top four times and second once when students rated their entire educational experience.

"We have been successful with what we started," Englert says. "It's given a lot of credibility to what we are doing."

Earning the respect of the academic world wasn't smooth sailing. Besides changing the professor's mandate and the class format and structure, the university had to set up a different application format, veering away from SATs and provincial exams. Quest applicants go through an interview and present an original work to the university. What the institution is searching for is independent thinkers, students that didn't just memorize their text book but rather truly understand the material and can apply it to different areas, Englert says.

"We look at grades, but we are not that interested in them. We pay much more attention to the personal quality of the student," Englert says.

Adapting the traditional schooling model that has been in place for close to a thousand years is no small undertaking, Englert says. There is always resistance to change, he points out. But Englert is excited about this transitional phase in education.

"We understand the fear of something new. In the end what you really have to think about is what is best for the students. It is now known that project-based learning is superior to the traditional way."

The new direction

Christian Smith is the type of student that will do well under most conditions. His poise and presence makes the 15-year-old appear older than his age. There's an eagerness about him as he explains his project on castles.

"We did everything, from the history to now, and the changes that have happened," he says, his blue eyes filled with conviction.

Two school years ago Smith was a part of Don Ross Secondary School's school-wide initiative that served as a pilot for the district's project-based educational focus. During one week, regular classes for the Grade 8 and 9 students were suspended so pupils could work on their self-constructed projects. They were placed in teams of three to four and asked to delve into any subject relevant to the Middle Ages or Industrial Revolution.

The students chose their projects' mediums and how the project would be presented to their classmates. They submitted a project proposal and then set about the task at hand. They attended roll call in their home class every morning before venturing off to different parts of the school to work — models were constructed in the art class, computer work was done in the labs and book research in the library.

It was the first time Smith had been given such freedom, freedom he admits was overwhelming in the beginning.

"It was hard because it wasn't laid out for you," Smith says. "It was you who had to teach yourself."

But after the ball started rolling it was smooth sailing, Smith says. Group members knew how much and what they had to do. Students who sometimes struggled in class were free to work on their own interests at their own pace, he notes. They didn't draw unwanted attention from fellow classmates, unable to respond to a teacher's question. At the end of the week students got to examine all the work in an open house.

While Smith says he wishes school could always be like that, he understands it takes time. The school district needs to take the first step, he notes.

"I think if our schools change, the universities will change too."

Back at Signal Hill Elementary, Cameron is preparing for a new primary class. She's taught for 20 years, the last six in Pemberton. What's happening now in the Sea to Sky Corridor is exciting, the mother of three says.

"I think that when you are asking a child to problem solve, it brings in so much learning," Cameron says. "It's really a better use of time. You've got to think about student engagement. With this structure the students engineer their own learning."

It's meant a big shift in her train of thought as a teacher, she admits. She's had to relinquish control. She no longer stands at the front of the class with all the answers. Cameron doesn't know exactly where the projects will take the students and she's also constantly assessing their individual progress and guiding them where needed. But it makes sense, Cameron says. It feels good and every year it is getting better.

"That is what every parent wants — for their child to be happy and learning."

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