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.

 

 

 

 

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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?