Further to the Globe and Mail…

A little over a week ago, the Globe and Mail published an article titled “The One-room Classroom Could Make a Comeback in Hamilton.”

Since the article was published I have received various responses both through email and Twitter, so I decided to write this post to clearly articulate what we hope to accomplish in Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

We have been hearing a lot lately about the need for school to change in order to educate our students effectively. I would argue that this change should happen on the foundation of our past successes in education.  In other words, we need not think of everything we have done historically as no longer relevant.  As we move forward we know that students must take ownership for their learning; engage their classmates so they can learn together, think critically, develop creativity, communicate effectively, and study and solve complex problems.  Further we know that technology may certainly enable these things.

On a related note, the notion of interdisciplinary studies is not a novel concept.  In 2002, the Ontario Ministry of Education published a curriculum document on interdisciplinary studies.  In that document, the Ministry states “Our world is increasingly interconnected and interdependent.  Communication networks exchange information around the globe, creating new forms of collaboration and transforming the nature of work and learning.” Therefore, there is a place for interdisciplinary studies.

And finally, inquiry based learning is something that educators have been discussing for quite some time, and the merits of inquiry-based learning are certainly noted frequently.  Inquiry-based learning always includes a central question or questions, investigation of these questions, and shared ownership of the learning process.  This shared ownership may mean a different relationship between the teacher and his/her class where the teacher sometimes engages in direct instruction, sometimes engages individual students or teams of students as a guide or facilitator and sometimes simply observes as the students lead the learning process.

Inquiry does not lessen the educator’s role; rather it invites the educator to think about how to create learning opportunities driven by the students while never losing site of the “big ideas” of the curriculum expectations.

As I reflected on the importance of 21st-century learning described at the beginning of these reflections, the fact that interdisciplinary studies is not new, and the importance of inquiry in the learning process, I wondered why there seemed to be more barriers than opportunities to create this type of learning environment.  Further, I began to wonder if the system I lead was inadvertently responsible for inhibiting some of this work by communicating expectations to our educators that may be hard to reconcile with the vision I am describing here.  These reflections led me to pose a question to my secondary principals that would allow us not only to talk about necessary changes, but to do something about it.

As described in the Globe and Mail article, I asked the principals to ask for volunteers at their school who would be willing to engage in a creative process to create learning opportunities in each school that were interdisciplinary in nature, focused on inquiry, and committed to creating an environment that allows our students to develop 21st-century learning skills.  This learning opportunity would allow the students to determine a learning focus, and the critical problems they wished to solve.  The students would design this learning opportunity with the support of teachers who would collaborate with one another to guide this learning, to extend the learning as required, and to support students to go beyond the walls of the classroom both experientially and virtually to enhance their experience.  Practically, the students would earn multiple credits as they engaged in this inquiry and the teachers collaborating in this learning would be able to offer these credits because they are bringing their expertise to the process.

I would like to offer one final note.  Programs like this already exist.  Usually these programs exist in what we call alternative education programs.  I would argue that students should be able to choose this type of learning experience in every school.  Students should also be able to request more blended and virtual learning opportunities as well or they may wish to continue learning in ways that we might consider more traditional.  Regardless, as educators and as a system, it is our job to find ways to expand learning opportunities for students.  We may need to expose them to ways of learning that our students do not believe is possible because after a number of years in school they may have never experienced anything like it.

Change is slow, but there is also urgency here.  Our world is changing fast; therefore, in order for education to be meaningful and valuable, we need to change too.  I am confident that as we make concrete, systemic decisions that change our vision of students, teachers and learning, we will make a profound difference for our students.  We are working on our systemic vision for learning in HWDSB.  Stay tuned for “HWDSB 2018 – A vision for learning.”

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