The Seven Oaks School Division Post Baccalaureate Cohort in Inquiry is currently engaged in a course entitled Project-based Learning Theory. In the fall, the group completed Topics in Experiential Education, and as such, have a firm foundational understanding of experience and design. In PBL theory, we have been exploring PBL as a container for deeper learning. You can check out the podcast below to see how our thinking is taking shape. (We will be adding podcasts every few days.)
My good friend Will Burton and I designed a new course for the University of Winnipeg called Topics in Experiential Education. We felt there was a need to offer a course to teachers that took a deep dive into the theory and principles of EE. This spring, we had almost 50 teachers engage in the course, so we had to divide it up into two sections.
Here are some of the final exhibitions from my section. I am so impressed by the passion, curiosity, and rigour demonstrated by these educators. Have a look!
Will and I will be offering the course this fall as part of the Seven Oaks School Divisions PBDE in Inquiry cohort. Let me know if you want to jam.
As we enter our eighth week of class suspension in Manitoba, educators, learners, and families are working extremely hard to fill the democratic, emotional, intellectual, cultural, and nutritional voids that education and schools tend to fill.
We all know that the Covid19 has made wholey visible the inequities in our society — leaving those with less struggling further. We also are highly aware that if we are not careful as educators, we can often end up overwhelming learners and families, even with the best intentions.
So how do we approach the project of educating learners in a way that attempts to sustain community, addresses the inequitable distribution of resources and justice, and offers all learners the deep and educative experiences they deserve?
In these strange and disconcerting times, many of us have turned to history and literature, or the humanities, as a means for sense and meaning making. I have observed and been delighted that many learners and educators have turned to the 1918 pandemic as an avenue to think historically about Covid. Thinking historically allows us an opportunity to analyze the human experience, reflect on this collective experience, and develop the imagination and empathy required to navigate present-day complexities. Looking to history also brings us reassurance, that yes, pandemics do end.
It has also been fascinating to see peers and colleagues turn to Albert Camus’ The Plague as a means to help us navigate the uncertainty of these times. Camus speaks about the dangers of a benal life when one gives up asking the big and meaty philosophical questions. — when we don’t think deeply about the human experience or when we try to explain it through systematic responses. The pandemic is arguably a time when many of us are coming to terms with existential questions and agnst. So are our learners.
I believe that we owe our learners the opportunity to fully think about their experience during this time — supporting pursuits that have meaning and that enable them to make meaning. I have noticed the incredible work by educators in our province who have skillfully designed deep experiences for their learners — keeping in mind the experience of the child while developing the necessary provocations and invitations for inquiry and growth. And I wonder how we sustain this energy when we come back as communities?
Philosopher John Dewey argues that creating mis-educative experiences or simply offering disconnected activities for our learners stunts transformation and democracy, and produces what he refers to as bad habits. Dewey’s theorizing of how we learn is fully centered on community, that is the social, and an experience that “arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future….”
Throughout this time, I have observed a few phenomena that might help us come out of this pandemic event stronger; enabling us to support learners and families with consistency and vigour, while also providing our learners with the knowledge, skills, and ways of being necessary to contemplate the good life.
First, I have witnessed the shrieks of delight when learners are connected with their teachers and friends on phones and screens. I am astounded at the snapping back of the head when a child erupts in laughter and joy when in community. Our learners need us, and they need each other. There is no denying this and no replication. I am brought to tears when I see educators on the sidewalk waving to their kids at the window, watching with glee as this loving adult writes loving messages on the worn cement.
During and following Covid, nurturing and growing democratic communities need to be at the core of our design.
Second, I am struck by the anxious desire of educators in Manitoba who struggle with the desire to build foundational skills, steer clear of busy work, offer deep experiences for learners, and provide meaningful feedback to families. The litany of spinning plates is overwhelming when not all families and learners have the means to connect online or have the resources to what we might refer to as “engage.”
I have witnessed educators who have invited learners to make sense of their experience in this time. Middle Years educators who connect with their learners through developing zines, Kindergarten teachers who invite their learners to talk about how their favourite stuffy makes them feel, and Senior Years educators who tackle a New York Times op ed in community as a means to make sense of ideas such as authoritarianism, xenophobia, and social isolation. In these examples, educators know the experience of the learners, design with this experience and mind, and provide the supports and invitations for learners to reflect on their experience and grow.
During and following Covid, deep and intentional design needs to be at the core of our work.
Last, I am astounded at how quickly and nimbly schools and communities have supported our families in most need. Through hampers, school supplies, laptops, wifi, and respite work, and so much more, our schools have reached out and supported our learners and families. There was no discussion. Folks just got to work that needed to get done.
During and following Covid, equity needs to be at the core of our design and work.
As we live through this experience, there is an opportunity to consolidate our collective energy in Manitoba when it comes to schools and education. Let’s continue to and strive further to build democratic communities that are fully focused on equity and the pursuit of deep questions about the human experience. To do so, is to provide all our learners with the space, knowledge, and skills required to support their growth and transformation. Keeping these at our core will, as Deborah Meier argues, “nurture the two indisepnsable traits of a democratic society: a high degree of tolerance for others, indeed genuine empathy for them, as well as a high degree of tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and puzzlement, indeed enjoyment of them.”
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:
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.
Over the past 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: