The Beginnings of My Book
A New Paradigm (working title)
For many years, as a teacher, I pushed for innovation in education, confident I was making positive changes. What I did not realize at the time, was that I was pursuing this change inside of an existing system. This is much easier to do.
Then I helped establish the Pacific School of Innovation and Inquiry (PSII, pronounced “sigh”) in Victoria, BC, Canada. And was the first teacher hired. Working with a small team, we grew PSII from its infancy, building the plane as we were flying it.
The vision of PSII was developed by Jeff Hopkins, an education veteran, and a former superintendent. You can find the full philosophy of the school at learningstorm.org. PSII is the culmination of over 20 years of Jeff’s education research and leadership.
Moving from vision to practical application has been an entirely different story. This book is about my experiences implementing this vision, the perspectives I have gained, and the leap in my education practice. Revealing the successes, failures and learnings of that process, I lay out what I believe are the important steps needed to facilitate a transition into a new system. This book is based upon four years of “in the teaching trenches”, a glimpse into the practical experience of attempting to change the BC graduation program. It is not theoretical. What I have learned comes from hard earned practice.
Inquiry Based Learning
Asking Questions is the cornerstone of the new system. I want our students to ask huge, deep, powerful, multidisciplinary questions that cannot be answered by Google. But Inquiry does not have to be just be a question, it can also be a quest — such as learning how to operate your own internet radio station; or mastering the entire Adobe suite on the road to becoming a professional designer.
Our current teaching system was developed during the factory age, and has grown redundant. Memorizing facts and formulas, and later regurgitating that information on multiple choice exams is no longer sufficient in 2017. Things are moving too fast. Relying on an unchanging, static stock of curriculum and content, which must be learned by every student at the same time, according to age, is outdated. Instead, we must focus on the underlying skills of learning. Such an approach frees students to study content they care about, and creates a lifetime of opportunity. This provides a far greater learning experience. What really matters are the competencies that they develop. The content can be anything.
For example, during high school, if we want to create proficient researchers and communicators (both in speaking and writing) the same skills can be developed whether learning about Canadian Confederation, or Samurai in Japan. What matters is that students follow a line of inquiry they are interested in. We do not build effective skills by forcing students to learn things that they do not want to learn.
Types of Questions
Most students have been told what to do by a teacher since entering kindergarten. The result is that the innate curiosity of our children is gradually dulled through reinforcement. They are taught that what they want to learn is not valuable. Instead, they should stick to the format, follow the teacher’s plan, and do what the teacher wants to get good grades. The learner’s own questions are irrelevant!
I have found, it often takes a long time for a young learner to begin trusting their own questions. To encourage the process, at PSII, the staff guide students through five different lines of inquiry to expand and deepen their learning:
- Values Questions — What’s important?
- Systems Questions — How does this work?
- Cause and Effect — Where will this lead?
- Theoretical Questions — How did we get here?
- Descriptive Questions — What happened?
From experience, most kids tend to default to the descriptive questioning. They need help to broaden and deepen their lines of inquiry using all the types of questions above. It is difficult to do. There is so much unlearning to be done.
Of course, not all of the categories of questions apply all of the time, but an engaged teacher can develop almost any type of question with learners.
For example, one of my kids had asked : Should Korea unify? It is a good question with many angles to explore; it provides a snapshot on human affairs. We went through the types of questions:
Values: What really is important about life? We had numerous conversations about the North Korean lifestyle and how it compares to our own.
Systems questions: Of course, there is the Communist system. Interestingly though, the route that we took through this inquiry was looking at how nature has flourished in the DMZ over the last 60 years with no human involvement (landmines!); looking at how ecosystems regenerate and how wildlife bounces back quickly. We have discussed the role human beings are having on natural systems.
Cause and Effect: This one is captivating as there are so many outcomes with re-unification. The North is far behind. Think of all the progress that has happened in the last 60 years. Think about how far advanced South Korea’s technology is — the fastest internet in the world! What happens when one million North Korean soldiers go looking for a job? A fascinating conundrum.
Theoretical: This one was slightly more challenging for this inquiry, but the student worked around this by researching the conflict in the Korean War, both militarily and ideologically. We looked at the motivations behind key players and why we make the decisions we do.
Descriptive: This type of question tied in with the others.
This is challenging work, and it requires considerable one-on-one time with a teacher. Changing the role of the teacher to facilitate this kind of learning is absolutely necessary. It is hard because it requires teachers to let go of domain knowledge. It must be remembered that it is possible to connect any two points in the universe. The pace of information creation is simply too fast today for the “stand and deliver” method of teaching to be effective . Instead, students need to learn how to learn anything, and then creatively represent and share that knowledge with others.
Below are an illustrative sample of questions that I have co-constructed with learners over the last 4 years:
What was the role of the Samurai in feudal Japan?
How can I become an expert filmmaker?
How can I program a robot?
What would the world be like if the Roman Empire survived to this day?
Does life exist on other planets?
To be in sync with the rapid knowledge creation that is happening today, we must end the silos of subject matter and move into information flows.
To do that, we must begin with a big question — an open or guided inquiry. For example: “How can we solve global warming?” This question must come from what the learner wants to know, not from what the curriculum prescribes. We must use all knowledge to find the solution: write about it, use the scientific method to test hypotheses, understand cultural ramifications, collaborate with community members, and more. This is an interdisciplinary approach; it is the unity of knowledge.
How can we possibly expect our young, bright minds to solve giant problems when they are relegated to 55 minutes for science…bell…55 minutes for English…bell…when the information they ingest is put into silos? When they are collecting the dots instead of connecting them. Kids find it difficult to think in an interdisciplinary manner after years of traditional schooling because they have been conditioned to think in one subject area at a time. When the breakthroughs happen though, it is remarkable.
For example, one of my students had the inquiry:
“What is happiness?”
She read numerous books and articles on the topic: Ben Tal Shahar, Victor Frankl, Jeff Sutherland, and more. She conducted a social experiment with her soccer team trying to improve their performance through weekly happiness exercises. She also weaved a “happiness” blanket on the loom (there is a loom at the PSII).
In a traditional high school, her learning would have been broken into English, Science, and Studio Arts. She would have had no opportunity to connect the dots, as each subject area is totally cut off from the other. She would have had no opportunity to pursue her ideas and interests. Instead, she would have been reading “Lord of the Flies” in English while being lectured in Science. She would have been learning unrelated subject matter, with no unity of knowledge.
Let people learn what they want to learn. Why not?
As we guide a student through a large inquiry, we are allowing the individual to make choices in their own learning. Naturally, as they dig into areas of interest, more questions will arise. Setting a curriculum creates a mandated set of outcomes, and blocks the ability for lateral movement in learning. This is a massive problem when one considers how fast knowledge is being created today.
When presenting the PSII model to both the government and the public, by far the biggest hurdle to overcome is: no curriculum. In actuality, there is a curriculum, but it is co-constructed from what the learner really wants to do, under supervision of a teacher. It is not assigned by a teacher. Or a government. It is not just differentiation from one particular topic or subject.
A student identifies an area of inquiry such as:
“How can I make an original film?”
There are many avenues to explore: script writing, camera work, rehearsals, editing, etc. Through digging into the research, this learner may uncover some piece of knowledge that they were completely unaware of and then take off in an entirely new direction. This is an emergent curriculum. It is responsive to what the learner needs in real time.
Facilitating learning outside of one’s area of expertise is a requirement in this approach that many practitioners have little to no experience with. It is an art form to guide kids in building their own curriculum. One of the best examples of emergent curriculum that I was engaged in went on for 2 years.
The first year, one of my students, Liam, started working with Arduinos (microcontrollers). It is amazing what can be created in your garage these days. Liam ran through the entire “how to” book in a flash and from it, extrapolated some incredible lessons that catapulted him into a unique set of engineering problems.
I connected him with Limbic Media, a local, unique, specialized engineering firm. From there, they gave him a light strip of LEDs to play with. And did he ever! Everyone at the school was huddled around the table with the LEDs running and flashing in cool patterns.
This then led into developing a sensored doorbell for Limbic Media’s offices and shop. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was actually a challenging engineering project. Liam and the team did it. Simultaneously, they were working on sensors to light up a pair of old school tourist binoculars for VIATEC (a local tech incubator). Limbic Media recommended us. So, we got to work on another cool project.
The following year, we strongly ramped up production tackling a sensors unit for an urban aquaponics farm as well as partnering again with VIATEC to create sound reactive light cubes. Both of these projects were extremely complicated. The aquaponics unit required tremendous problem solving; water is a tricky medium to work with. The sensor was critical in ensuring the pumps were working properly and constantly monitoring water levels and temperature that sent a heartbeat to a website notifying the owner if there was trouble with the system. That is not an easy project for a teenager to tackle, but Liam and a few others did an amazing job.
At the same time, Liam was the lead on developing the cubes which was also a challenging engineering problem: everything from developing the boards and getting them built in China to engraving the acrylic to perfecting the algorithm to learning how to work in a team and evolve a startup. VIATEC gave us $3000 to develop six of them. We succeeded.
This is arguably the greatest example of emergent curriculum that has happened to me in my teaching career so far. Most education systems are still mired in content and outcomes. Liam and I had many deep discussions about what education should be. Sometimes, he would get frustrated with the inquiry based model, but I would always ask him if he would have got to do this learning in a traditional high school. The answer was always no. He would have had to take computer programming, electronics (if offered), physics, and…? There is not a course out there that could cover what he accomplished.
For the future of education, it is imperative that there is no set curriculum. Of course, there can and should be competencies to excel at and be assessed in, but placing limits on what an individual can or should learn is handicapping society.
Not everyone is up for this kind of challenge, but the ones who are should be allowed to run as far and as fast as they can; innovation happens at the edges. There needs to be more than one way to graduate. Universities need to open to representing one’s learning path through more than just a standard transcript. I see no logical reason to oppose having multiple ways to graduate. There are numerous educational paths out there that are based on decades of documented evidence for their efficacy. Let’s use them. The world has changed. Anything can be accessed via the internet. Let kids explore where their natural inclinations flow.