Saturday, November 24, 2012

hammer or the anvil

So far, I've avoided leaving even a single comment on any of the BC Edplan feedback forums. It's partly because of time, partly because of initial unease over the plan's origins, but also because I've often felt that the coming changes are inevitable. I'll adapt one way or another regardless of what it looks like, and help others do the same. Much like an anvil -- sturdy and reliable, but typically on the receiving end. A few discussions and experiences over the last while have convinced me to exercise my inner hammer and get involved one way or another. This was my motivation for applying to present at the recent Ed Leadership Conference and also why I've worn a path on this topic for most of the last two years at the district level.

During the Grad Requirements Dialogue that came to Prince George in October, a group of secondary and post-secondary educators, administrative officers and boards from various institutions (including our school district, CNC, and UNBC) parents, trustees, First Nations and partner group representatives (associations, unions, DPAC, etc.), political, business and trades types, and other stakeholders met to discuss how the structure and flow of high school might evolve in BC to meet new and existing expectations for our students.

One of the things we discussed at our tables and reported out to the whole group was how curriculum could or should change. Curriculum is currently organized into Prescribed Learning Outcomes (PLOs) and Suggested Achievement Indicators (SAIs). For example, one of the PLOs in Social Studies 11 is to "explain how Canadians can effect change at the federal and provincial levels." One of the matching SAIs is to "compare mechanisms whereby public policy can be changed (e.g., elections, petitions and protests, lobbyists, special interest groups, court actions, media campaigns)." The plan is to organize the discipline-based curriculum around Big Ideas (the themes of the PLOs), Learning Standards (the heart of the PLOs) and Links (that connect to various applications, competencies, and assessments of curriculum, replacing the SAIs).

This topic is also featured in the latest issue of Learn (BC Teacher Regulation Branch Magazine -- "wisdom" from the Ministry of Education). The article Transforming BC's Curriculum describes a perceived need to reduce the total number of outcomes while emphasizing higher-order thinking and more depth (online version not yet posted, but here is some context from Janet Steffenhagen). I was encouraged to see the involvement of Peter Seixas (UBC Ed Prof) with the Social Studies portion -- I've been working with benchmarks of historical thinking for a few years and I think using these as a framework for understanding curriculum is great. I was a little worried that the minority of voices clambering for dumbed down outcomes would gain traction, but with folks like Seixas onboard I am hopeful that this will be a way to streamline without losing depth. The critical inquiry approach has changed the way I teach, and also assess. Colleague Rob Lewis and I got the chance to play with the benchmarks while making unit study guides for Pearson's 2010 SS11 text Counterpoints. This exercise in collaboration and professional learning has led us into a new way of doing assessment where we are firm on the critical thinking and soft on the factoids. I've already put my two bits in on Socials Studies 11 curriculum change, but the Ministry should also invite some of these other educators to dialogue as well as Counterpoints authors Mike Cranny and Garvin Moles.

One thought I had while reading the Learn Magazine article is that spelling out the big ideas of the curriculum could actually restrict rather than liberate diverse learning. The present focus on skills, content, concepts allows teachers and students to build their own narratives with the curriculum, discovering and applying their own big ideas. This is what makes Social Studies exciting -- having students make profound connections precisely because we haven't made these for them. The idea of passively "delivering content" to students is very much out of favour, but will we be "delivering meaning" instead? What if students disagree that a "big idea" is important? Yet, we are still accountable for outcomes based on that big idea?  Constructivist and Inquiry-based learning work best when the end goal is not pre-determined. Many of our texts (like SS11 Counterpoints) have already made the switch to big idea, focus questions, and supporting concepts, skills, content. I suppose mine is more of a philosophical or semantic concern as the new proposal looks like what many teachers do anyways (when they're not chasing content). There are also some teachers that deliver a course as they have had it handed down to them, and sometimes never reference what they do back to the curriculum, and many students who never take the time to figure out what learning outcomes they need to pay attention to, so a more teacher- and student-friendly curriculum may be in order. This also speaks to the need for exemplars to be shared in a non-threatening manner and maybe a chance to meet other educators to initiate informal mentoring and collaboration.

At the Grad Requirements Discussion, we were shown a prototype of what the new BC curriculum website might look like (slides 22/23 on the Slideshow ppt posted at, slide 22 shown above). The "Links" section caught the attention of our table, and we speculated about what would happen if the Links actually connected to an interactive space for exemplars and ideas populated by teachers and students. These would showcase regional applications to curriculum, multimodal expressions of learning, meaningful assessment practices, wicked lesson outcomes, and unique examples of ordinary students doing significant learning. It could feature adaptations for ESL/ESD, enriched, at-risk, or students with a learning disability. It would need to be moderated in some way (e.g. ensure FIPPA, monitor size and repetition, prevent corporate encroachment), but this could be a launchpad for teacher education, student research, parent involvement, academic study, expert input, and professional development. Wiki, mobile app, forum style, digital learning commons... lots of ways to go with this idea, not every form appeals to every educator. We have informal and formal "learning repositories" at many levels already; I'm not thinking about a one-stop centre for lessons plans or complete set of learning resources (uhh, that would be the "internet"). This would be more of an exhibit of successful teaching and learning achievements, including assessment and the role of technology. Using the Social Studies 11 PLO mentioned above as an example (affecting political change), the Links section could feature a curation of BC exemplars.  This might include sample student petitions, a weblink to a lobby group formed or investigated by students, a teacher's best lesson for letter writing to politicians or setting up a mock parliament, a comparative analysis of austerity protests in Europe, a rubric for self-assessing active citizenship, an RSS feed of current events that relate to provincial and federal politics, proceedings from a Personal Learning Network that has critiqued problem-based cross-curricular projects that include political agency, testimonials and student interviews (politicians, journalists, new immigrants, special interest groups), student video on what they learned from taking a Canadian Citizenship test, student media campaigns or field work, and so on. The Links would change over time to reflect new discovery, and balance friendly competition and useful cooperation among BC schools.

More than just a list of links and exemplars, some level of interactivity would be ideal. This could be user rating scale or comment section to evaluate posted content and ensure that curriculum change (at least at the achievement indicator level) is an ongoing process and not something that stops and starts every few years. This would create a fluid user-generated curriculum guide that builds on what the experts have laid out as big ideas and learning standards, a necessary step towards flexible instructional design and personalized learning. There could be a sandbox or "guild" space where new exemplars and learning schemes could be tested and critiqued by the BC educational community, perhaps directly in the Ministry webspace or alongside the "Links" via social media. The Ministry of Education is already using interactive digital tools for gathering feedback -- whittle this down to something sustainable and never stop asking for feedback. Another route is to build a registry of BC educators and existing web resources, lesson elements, and student exemplars that match the various learning standards and assessment goals of the new curriculum. This would formalize the data that is flowing all the time on social media , a constant exchange and evaluation of curriculum design, teaching strategies, and student support of all kinds for student learning. It could also kickstart local discussions about mentorship and personal learning networks. Whatever the approach, the final step of new curriculum websites should involve some kind of dynamic space that will benefit new and old teachers looking to explore new paradigms.

The other interesting idea I pulled from the Grad Requirements Dialogue was the uncommon discussion itself.  We had one of the most extensive collections of SD57 educational stakeholders assembled that I've seen in 17 years of teaching. Let's just say our district doesn't tend to reach out in this fashion. The sum of what was said (and then forwarded to a regional contact) can be seen as our local community's shared beliefs about education and expectations for youth as they become "whole selves" -- active citizens, fulfilled employees, empathetic adults, etc. I was struck by how the discussion fit as well for our top academic students as it did our at-risk and vulnerable students -- it wasn't about raising or lowering standards as much as it was about how much we care about how our students turn out. I'm looking at some new forms of assessment for my next year, some methods that anticipate rather than react to changing ideas about competency and cross-curricular learning. I want to be able to present my students next year with a framework of expectations not from me, but from the whole local community that supports their learning, an invitation for them to create their own path of assessment within a social context. This locally gathered data provides that context -- an actual community-based expectation for understanding student achievement. I saw a few community-based approaches at the recent Ed Leadership Conference, and this seems like the right scale to build ownership for students. Students already set many of their own expectations (especially when their identity is engaged in the learning process) and try to meet the expectations of their parents, teachers, and schools (sometimes). We also expect them to meet provincial standards, too, but what would it look like to meet the expectations of their local educational stakeholder community? This is the milieu in which their ambitions will sink or swim, the people who will be encouraging, supporting, judging, teaching, employing, cajoling, and depending on them. I think this could be exciting. I'd like to try this with a group of Grade 11 students in a new blended learning program next year -- start their first seminar session by learning how to do qualitative analysis using the community stakeholder data. From this we move into shared assessment design where students build a plan for the course program based on the big ideas, learning standards, personalized goals and passions, and community expectations. I'm not sure if this will appeal to every student, but we'll definitely take care of the "why are we doing this" question right from the start. This is especially important for at-risk students who are often at odds with what they think their community thinks of them. Maybe this would be a step past the academic judgement they receive and move into a more care-based ethos (as in, let's all care enough to give a you-know-what).

Just some ideas here to stretch my thinking; I'm actually pretty content to stay the course on my own pedagogical trajectory in concert with the great ideas that come from my personal learning network, but it's better to be the hammer than the anvil when it comes to changes to curriculum and assessment. I've seen some crazy schemes arrive, turn into cliches, and depart in the last 17 years, so if we're going to be plunged into someone's version of 21st century learning, we might as well "own" our capacity to craft something original.

Teachers and other educational stakeholders, if you are able to set aside reservations about system upheaval, the scary libertarian bits, pressure on the BCTF, and challenges to our comfort zones, I am interested to learn what cool things can you do in your space that are opened up by BC Edplan. I'm taking it for what it's worth, the first major self-evaluation of compulsory schooling in at least a generation, and one that not only allows but enables diverse instructional design and respect for student inquiry.

What do you want to get out of the coming changes? What can future Ministry Curriculum websites do to support you? What do you think about community-based expectations for students? Tweet your responses to @bcedplan, visit their forums, or leave a comment here.

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