Sunday, June 17, 2012

No lectures, textbooks or worksheets - no problem

This post is long overdue. 3 weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend the ConnectED Canada Conference at the Calgary Science School, a Grade 4 - 9 school emphasizing student inquiry. I have grown increasingly more interested in learning about student inquiry so the opportunity to visit a school and see classes actively engaged in the inquiry process is something I couldn't pass up!

On Friday (Day 1 of the conference), we had the opportunity to tour around the school, visit classrooms in action and speak with students and teachers. Below are the key features I noticed after visiting nearly every class in the school.

I saw no evidence of...
  • Lectures...I didn't observe any instances of direct instruction where the   teacher acted as the 'sage on the stage'. I didn't see any teachers 'presenting' content, nor did I notice teachers asking their students to copy notes from a screen.
  • Worksheets...I didn't see students working through worksheet assignments searching for 'right' answers. For the most part, students were not trying to write answers or solve questions that the teacher already knew the answer to.
  • Textbooks...I didn't observe thick, heavy textbooks sitting on students' desks. Nor did I see students being asked to read lengthy passages of text or search through page after page to answer questions listed in the book.
So, what did I see?
  • Interdisciplinary tasks...Almost all of the work I observed students performing tied in elements from different curricular areas, Science and the Humanities in particular. Mr. Neal's description of  how he incorporated Science, the Humanities and Math into his students' cross curricular inquiry about the Weaselhead was by far the most powerful. Check out a quick video here.
  • Relevant, meaningful, authentic tasks...I observed tasks that were being performed for real purposes. A group of students were creating 'kinetic text' presentations for the Mayor's Environmental Expo. The goal was for students to create a convincing and powerful enough kinetic text presentation about a local environmental issue that it would be worthy of being presented at the Mayor's Environmental Expo. The beauty of a challenge such as this is that students weren't just learning about environmental issues removed from their own context that were made up for the purpose of the classroom. They weren't being asked to '...pretend you are presenting to the mayor...". They were learning about real issues that were personally meaningful to them and relevant to their local community. 
  • Public demonstration of learning...What makes the previous example of learning so much more more powerful is that students were demonstrating their learning to a real audience. Students were not just communicating their learning about a classroom-created challenge to their teacher. Rather, they presenting their learning publicly, to classmates, to parents and to the community. Equally as impressive is that the teachers at CSS are modelling the importance of publicly demonstrating their learning through 'Connect', their Professional Learning Journal.
  • Teachers & students building criteria...Taking the previous example a step further, I observed Ivy Waite (@IvyWaite) asking her students what they thought would make for an effective 'kinetic text' presentation. As students provided input, she added the criteria to a google doc that she displayed for her students to see. Her students didn't always agree on the particular language to be used in the criteria and this prompted healthy discussion. It was clear to me that this collaborative process of building criteria increased the 'buy-in' on the part of students and also helped her students better understand the criteria. It's less likely that her students would get lost in the 'edu-jargon' and fail to understand the expectations laid out by externally-created rubrics.
  • Collaboration...Two things stood out. In each classroom, I saw pairs of small hexagonal tables arranged together so that groups of four or five students could discuss, brainstorm, jot down ideas, problem-solve or work collaboratively using their laptops. Second, I saw considerable evidence of students (and teachers) using google docs to support collaboration.  I found it very interesting to see a group of Grade 5 or 6 students simultaneously working on the same piece of writing. They had recently completed some research, compiled their findings into a google doc and were working on revising and editing to ensure their writing conveyed their message and opinion. It was powerful to watch the students bounce naturally between reading each others' work, discussing different points, debating ideas and editing text in an effort to improve their passage of writing.
  • Feedback...Teachers were 'guiding' (not directing) student learning. Often, students were the ones who were approaching the teacher with questions. And, teachers prompted students by responding to questions with more questions and circulated around the room to offer suggestions. It was refreshing to hear their conversations focus on learning and not once making reference to 'marks' or grades'.
  • Technology...I'm not going to lie. I saw far more student and teacher access to technology than in most of our public schools in BC. CSS is a 1:1 school, each student being equipped with either a laptop or iPad. Each teacher had a laptop and a smartboard. But most importantly, the technology  wasn't responsible for the high levels of student or teacher engagement. The technology enabled students to access collaborative documents, publish written work publicly to blogs and wikis and quickly research a variety of topics but their high levels of interest came from the inquiries they were pursuing. 
Unfortunately, my one day experience came to an end, but I've returned home even more convinced of two things: the power of teaching and learning through an inquiry framework and that nothing is more important to learning than good teaching!

Thank you to the staff and students at CSS for inspiring me and all of us who attended ConnectED Canada!

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