Teaching Canadian History

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Over the past few months, I have been asked by a handful of fellow educators how I go about teaching Canadian history. As I am moving away from classroom teaching into an administrative role, I am somewhat saddened that I will not be directly designing learning experiences for learners, but grateful that these educators have prompted me to reflect on the past eight years of learning design.

When designing learning experiences related to the history of Canada, I tend not to start where I am at. I try not to inject my interests or experience into the design. As such, I angle away from the idea of beginning at a certain point — say Confederation — or from a thematic perspective. These two ideas seem to resonate as the central pillars in instructional design, but not necessarily in learning design.

Where I try to begin, and I should say that I fail often, is with two key ideas. The first is the experience of the learner and the second is with the very idea of history itself. In terms of the experience of the learner, I believe that it is critical that we come to know our students deeply before we begin to design learning experiences that are meaningful and educative in nature. This might well mean that our exploration of Canadian history might not delve into areas where we deem ourselves as experts. In fact on many occasions, I have been forced to leap out of my comfort zone and engage in discussions about areas of history that quite frankly I was ignorant. These are always the most fruitful explorations!

Learning about the experience of our learners also allows us to design with place in mind. Understanding what our learners understand about their territory, their city, the local ecosystems, and the biosphere itself, can help us plan future experiences. I often begin each year with an exploration as to what my learners know about Red River. Our exploration of Canadian history generally stems from a discussion about the rivers, the land, and their experience with the geography. From there, I often introduce Joseph Boyden’s Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont as a means of exploring the geography in an historical way. This also means that we need to get out of the classroom, explore the Forks, Fort Garry, and Union Station to begin to see how the landscape changed over the past three hundred years. (This is also a good time to introduce the historical thinking skills.)

Joel Westhiemer, in What Kind of Citizen?, suggests that understanding the roots of our learners is critical to learning design within the humanities. He suggests that what is important is “Root instruction in local contexts, working within your own specific surroundings and circumstances because it is not possible to teach democratic forms of thinking without providing an environment to think about.” (p. 80). For many of our young people, place is a central experience and something that they are attached to.

This emphasis on place has taken past learning communities I have been associated with on explorations of the HBC, feminist perspectives, and the Winnipeg General Strike. All of these bring in the notions of theme and chronology, but most importantly, become driven by the learner’s passion and experience.

Second, I have relied heavily on the contemplation of what history is to drive our learning and learning design. The Manitoba curriculum places emphasis on answering “What is history?” and this is a theme I try to introduce in each meeting. This is a fantastic question to really assess where learners are coming from, and when they reach the point of disequilibrium and frustration, I generally nudge them in the direction of Desmond Morton, who in his book A Short History of Canada, offers this as a definition:

“Whatever our future, we should understand how Canada has travelled through its most recent centuries to the present. If we follow that voyage, our history will give us confidence to change and compromise and in some enduring truths about communities and families and human beings. It should also tell us that no ideas, however deeply held, last forever.” (p.ix).

As such, Morton suggests that history is about a collective and very human experience. It is not simply a study of the past, but it is a quest to understand why it is we exist on this planet. What greater voyage could we embark on with our learners? Pulling this idea into every meeting grounds learning communities into a quest that reaches far beyond tests, quizzes, and the regurgitation of someone else’s story. History becomes a quest of sense making and a search for meaning.

So for those incredible educators who have been toying with how to design their learning experiences this year within the context of Canadian history, I leave you with these tiny nuggets from my past experience. Listen to your learners and challenge them to make meaning out of our collective and short experience on Earth.

 

 

 

 

Ken Robinson: A Demonstration of Ecological Literacy

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Four of the five educators of the Maples Met School at Big Bang 2016 in Orlando. (Will, Michelle, Sara, & Matt. Sopear was holding down the fort in Winnipeg.)

In recent months, I have been tasked, along with four highly skilled educators, to open a second Big Picture Learning school within the Seven Oaks School Division. The Maples Met School housed within Maples Collegiate and has been heavily supported by colleagues at both Maples Collegiate and the original 7Oaks Met School.

Given the newness of our school, we were invited to travel to Orlando and participate in the annual Big Picture Learning conference commonly referred to as Big Bang. The conference offers critical sessions on the components which make Big Picture schools unique, namely sessions related to exhibitions, advisories, internships and the education of one student at a time. All these sessions occur within the foundation of the Big Picture: Relationships, relevance, and rigour.

Not only did Big Bang afford us with outstanding opportunities to make sense of our roles within the life of a student, but it also allowed our small staff to bond and connect with itself. Similarly, we were also able to make powerful connections with the other Met School just down the street. We had tremendous discussions in between sessions, at meals, and in long layovers at dreary airports about experience design, assessment, and how to ensure that our learning environment was both rigorous and vigorous. many of us are also heavily invested in sustainability and ecological literacy, and began discussing how our school might champion these notions.

As part of Big Bang 2016, we were also treated to a talk from Sir Ken Robinson. As most educators are aware, Robinson is famous for a couple of brilliant TED talks and equally compelling books related to learning, schools, and creativity. His most recent book might be one on all of our reading lists. I had seen Robinson a few years ago in Winnipeg and so I was really excited to hear what he had to say.

Robinson was clearly a fan of of Big Picture Learning schools as they focus on the passion of the learner and allow time and space for learners to take control of their own learning. Robinson received the annual Disruptor award from the founders of Big Picture, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor, with grace and humour.

What was most interesting regarding Sir Ken’s remarks was his focus on the state of the planet and how high the stakes are for our learners. He spoke of the carrying capacity of Earth, how critical soil is in agriculture and how we have essentially destroyed much of it, and he paid special attention to the fact that we need to properly equip young people for the current and impending ecological crisis. Robinson spoke in systems and clearly understood how nature sustains all life on Earth.

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Ken Robinson’s aims for education.

I had never heard Ken Robinson speak this way. Granted, he was his usually charming and hilarious self, but there was a more serious and forceful tone to his message. In most contexts, the audience can be turned off by those who speak truth to power when it comes to our role in the destruction of our planet, but while Robinson didn’t seem to care, he also was sensitive enough to not alienate those who might be annoyed of offended by the truth.

Matt Henderson

This is my criteria of experience for an ecological literacy. It might help us create learning experiences which lead to sustainable communities.

For me, Ken Robinson spoke to our role as educators in terms of equipping our learners with the knowledge and learning experiences that will help them to gain an ecological literacy. It is incumbent on us to help them understand the world around them, to think in systems, to anticipate the consequences of human activity, and to take meaningful action in order to create sustainable communities. I believe this is our role as individual educators, and also as schools.

As we creep towards the beginning of a new academic year, how might we cultivate this ecological literacy within our learners? How can we design learning experiences which help give our learners a fighting chance?

Summer: A Time to Learn for All

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Smilkstein’s Diagram of a Neuron

In Canada, we are well into the period where we cut off the formal learning process within schools and learners are released into the wilds for a two-month holiday. This tradition harkens back to the days when young boys and girls were beckoned back to the fields, at a time when more than half of the country’s population lived in rural communities.

But in 2016, the research points quite clearly to the fact that this two-month hiatus can often be detrimental to learning in many areas and that it can stifle the educative experiences and processes which educators have worked tirelessly to design throughout the previous ten months. The research suggests that if we were to test learners in June and then re-test them in September, that the retention rates would be pretty pitiful. The curve of forgetting demonstrates this phenomena:

The Curve of Forgetting

The Curve of Forgetting

On a more positive note, the summer holidays allow many parents the opportunity to reconnect to some degree with their children, if they are privileged enough to be afforded vacation themselves. Those with limited means, who are marginalized, and/or who suffer from the effects of poverty often do not have the time or ability to rest — a fact barely mitigated by exceptional programs like CSI and other camps.

But for those of us who are lucky enough to have some time off in the summer (and teachers hit the jackpot), summer is a time to learn about and from our children. Today just happened to be one of those days, where my kids reminded me of the learning process and how the brain is designed to learn. My eight-year-old daughter, already a learned and avid cyclist, was in the process of coaching her five-year-old brother in the art of spinning. I was astounded by how patient my daughter was, but also at her innate ability to read the experience, temperament, and stages of learning my son was in.

It was almost as though my daughter had been reading about the stages of learning, as proposed by Rita Smilkstein. Smilkstein, a brain-based educator and scholar, has been able to succinctly explain how the brain learns and the stages involved. (Take a look at the Youtube video below, as someone has summed up these stages quite nicely.)

These stages include:

  • Motivation – Perhaps we watched someone else ride a bike, or we have to, or we have been shown, or we are really interested in learning.
  • Start to Practice – This is where we begin to practice, where trial and error take place, and we begin to ask questions.
  • Advanced Practice – This is perhaps where we seek out additional lessons, where we read about bike riding, and where we develop some confidence.
  • Skillfulness – This is where we have some success, where we experience enjoyment, and where we begin to share our ideas.
  • Refinement – At this stage, we see substantial improvement, where things become natural, where we might plateau and become creative.
  • Mastery – This is where we begin to teach, where we might receive some recognition for what we do and where we seek out higher challenges.

As Smilkstein argues, “we learn through these stages because this is the how the brain learns — by constructing knowledge through sequential stages.”

My daughter had demonstrated these stages of learning and read them well as she coached my son. My son was certainly motivated to learn how to ride a two-wheeler, but he needed practice, a chance to fail, and the opportunity to ask questions in order to have some success. This was an educative experience for me, as it reminded me of what actually happens in the brain and how neuroscience relates to theories of experience as espoused by the likes of John Dewey and Paulo Freire.

Not only does this mean that I can enjoy bike rides with both of my kids, but it also speaks to the need to understand that our learners are going through a process, that their brains are physically changing when they learn, and that the task of the educator is to design experiences whereby neural connections are nurtured, built, and strengthened. This experience also has forced me to reconsider the purpose of summer holidays and that perhaps this two-month period away from school creates a further gap between those who are privileged and those who are not. Do summer holidays inhibit learning for some and do they create an imbalance in educative opportunities? In other words, do they do more harm than good? If they answer is yes, perhaps we need to rethink the status quo.

Criteria of Experience for an Ecological Literacy

Over the paMatt Hendersonst few years, I have been in the process of creating a Criteria of Experience for an Ecological Literacy to help guide my design process. I have borrowed from the Centre for Ecoliteracy, Dewey, and Freire to help me reflect on how I design educative experiences for learners. Please feel free to share, modify, or disregard altogether.

As educators, how do we equip our learners with the skills, abilities, and literacy necessary to close these two gaps? My inquiry has led me to two hypotheses. First, learners need to be immersed in educative experiences which reveal how they are interconnected and interrelated with all systems on Earth. Second, These experiences need to lead towards learner-driven action, transformation, and a new ecological literacy. 

By ecological literacy, I offer this definition: To understand one’s connectedness to all systems, to appreciate the finite carrying capacity of the Earth, to predict consequences of human activity, and to ultimately create sustainable communities through action. Literacy refers to the skills and abilities to create new knowledge and ecological literacy relies on not only knowledge of the natural world, but also the drive to take meaningful and informed action — namely the notion of praxis.

Given the need to foster this ecological literacy in order to close the knowledge and the knowledge-action gaps, I set out on a journey to try and design experiences which might lead to this goal. With my hypothesis in mind about closing these gaps, I needed to seek out other people, schools, and programmes which had already traveled down this path. Some of the schools I visited, some people I have connected with on Twitter, and others I have simply known about through the literature. Some of the schools are public, some are independent, and some are charter schools. But all have a commitment to learning and fostering this sense of ecological literacy through the design of educative experiences. Here is a sampling of some of the schools I explored:

The Met

Eagle Rock

Soundings

Forest Schools

Hobsonville Point

Riverpoint Academy

High Tech High

Northwest Passage School

Punahou School

 

Mentors Needed!

A critical part of the Met School model is our internship programme. Twice a week, our learners venture out into the community and work with experts who are passionate about what they do. Are you passionate about what you do? Do you like working with youth? If so, please fill out the following form and indicate that you would like to become a mentor: