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Social Action and the Curriculum

19 Feb

If I think back to the content of what I learned in elementary school, I am hard pressed to remember most facts that were delivered to me and I was expected to recall onto a piece of paper. I have taken that knowledge and compiled it into a general knowledge of the world. Given that I did relatively well in school, would it not be safe to assume that my students, if I taught them the same way that I was taught, would also not remember the delivered content even if they also did well?  I am assuming this is true.  Since I do not teach in a manner that delivers facts and information to students, what do I think the purpose of our time together should be?  I think that my job is predominantly two fold. 1) to create students who know how to learn on their own and do not need a teacher to fill them with information and 2) to create students that are socially conscious, active members of society.  I want them to be able to question, think critically and have the confidence to act when they believe that they can make a difference.  So how do I do that when I have a responsibility, as set out by my government, to ensure that all students meet prescribed outcomes that focus mainly on content knowledge? The answer is, I read between the lines.

In my Social Studies curriculum, the guide provided a list of goals that do reflect a focus on fostering social action in students:

“The role of social studies education is to help students develop the values and attitudes, knowledge and understanding, and skills and processes necessary to become active and responsible citizens, engaged in the practice of democratic ideals and aware of their capacity to effect change. Social studies supports active and responsible citizenship by enabling students to:

  • value the diversity, respect the dignity, and support the equality of all human beings
  • develop a sense of social compassion, fairness, and justice
  • recognize, speak out, and take action against injustice as it occurs in their schools, communities, Canada, and the world
  • understand Canadian and world history, to better comprehend the present and to influence the future wisely for the well-being of all
  • critically consider and understand historic and contemporary issues, including controversial issues, from diverse perspectives
  • develop a global consciousness with respect to the human condition and world issues
  • understand how political and economic distributions of power affect individuals, communities, nations, and environments
  • understand geographic concepts and skills, and that humans exist in a dynamic relationship with the natural environment
  • develop a consciousness and sense of stewardship for the land, as well as an understanding of the principles of sustainability”

From Social Studies 8, Saskatchewan Curriculum

The goals set out in the curriculum sound well intended and right on track for fostering social action in middle years students but when you focus on the Outcomes and Indicators it is difficult to see how what they would like students to be able to do and how teachers can expect them to demonstrate it, meets these goals. The Outcomes do not do enough to meet the goals.  To prove my point, I will focus on the goals of  “understand geographic concepts and skills, and that humans exist in a dynamic relationship with the natural environment” and “develop a consciousness and sense of stewardship for the land, as well as an understanding of the principles of sustainability”.  The following Outcome and Indicators relate directly to these goals:

OUTCOME: Critique the approaches of Canada and Canadians to environmental stewardship and sustainability.

INDICATORS:

  1. Represent on a timeline the evolution of Canadian policy on global environmental issues, including historical First Nations approaches to environmental stewardship.
  2. Outline the issues involved in finding solutions to an environmental challenge (e.g., sharing water resources with the US, logging in Canadian forests, expansion of nuclear energy, development of tar sands).
  3. Tell the story of changes made in his or her behaviour to protect the environment (e.g., walking, purchasing locally-produced or seasonal products, recycling; composting; disposing responsibly of garbage; using less paper; using less plastic; factoring packaging into purchases).

Timelines, reports and stories do not sound like true Social Action to me.  Reading the article “An inescapable network of mutuality”: Building Relationships of Solidarity in a First Grade Classroom” by Shira Eve Epstein and Celia Oyler, which outlines a social action project in a first grade classroom, has inspired me to do more. In the past, my social action projects have done what the curriculum has done, forgotten to do the actual “action.” and while these project did meet curriculum outcomes, they did not meet the goals of the Social Studies curriculum.

Within my classroom and among our other two grade 7/8 classrooms, we will soon be embarking on a Social Action project that will directly address the above mentioned curricular outcome along with other related Science Outcomes and Literacy Outcomes. Students will introduced to a variety of different social activists, environmental issues (our example will be the effects of Oil production on the environments and society and will be framed through the lens of the Gulf Coast Oil spill) and will be asked to make a plan for action and most importantly FOLLOW THROUGH on that action. You can visit our wiki to follow our process on this endeavor and I will be blogging about it further. I am also going to be encouraging the use of Social Media like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube for this project (even though that may be dangerous, but that is a whole other issue.  Please see my Roadblocks post for my concerns.)

I am very excited to be starting on this endeavor with my students but I am wondering why direct social action and following through on a plan are not part of our curriculum? Do we think that our students are incapable of making sustainable, authentic change in our world?  We only have to look to the stories of Craig Kielburger, who founded Free the Children when he was 12 and Severin Suzuki, who appealed to the United Nations to stop destroying our world, to know that this is not true. So why do teachers have to read between the lines and invent these kinds of projects on our own? Why is there not direct support for this in our curriculum. My young students can be full of energy and passion, they just need the guidance and resources to take advantage of that.  Surely, we can expect more from our students than a timeline, a proposal for action or a story of someone else that has done something.  I intend to do so and I will let you know how it goes. Who knows, maybe I have the next Kielburger in my class, maybe you do. Why is our curriculum not encouraging us to find out?

What are you doing to inspire social action in your students?

 

Science as A Humanity: A Metaphor

29 Jan

 

I just finished reading Legitimating Lived Curriculum: Towards a Curricular Landscape of Multiplicity by Ted T. Aoki and while I know he was using the examination of Science as a Humanity as a metaphor for relating the official “Curriculum as Plan” to the “Lived Curriculum”, I was struck first by the fact that I always approach science as a humanity in my classroom.

When I look at the official science curriculum for my grades, I see a dry, fact filled exploration of scientific knowledge which I am to impart on my eager students who will learn it, memorize it and know it forever. Being aware of the “lived curriculum” in my classroom, I know that will not happen if I deliver science to them in that manner.  I am always framing my science units within a story of humanity.  I even most often have an actual story in the form of a novel to go along with it.  I know that in order to engage my students in the knowledge and facts part of science I have to give it a real world context, a human context.

Here are some examples of what I have done in my classroom to teach Science as a Humanity.

1. The first project that I did came shortly after returning from New Orleans and seeing the devastation that was left from Hurricane Katrina even three years later.  At that time there was still a unit in our grade 7 Science curriculum called Structures. My student’s task was to redesign the New Orleans Levee system.  As we started the unit, I noticed that the part of the project that was engaging them the most were my stories of the people and the tragedy that occurred during the flooding.  I realized that in order to sell them on the importance of their project I had to make them love the city as much as I did and make them want to help the people.  In Science we leaned about racial tension, inequality, poverty and human struggle as much as we learned about the strength of a triangle  and the properties of concrete. I acknowledged the curriculum that was alive and growing in my classroom and used it to teach the document. It was a break through for me as a teacher.  The success of this project is what inspired me to investigate cross curricular teaching.

2. The grade 8 Science Curriculum includes a unit on Cells and Cell Systems.  Last year, I used this unit as a jumping off point for an examination of racism and genocide.  How did I go from cells to genocide?  I used the cell unit as a starting point to talk about race as a human social construction not as a genetic predetermination.  We learned about animal classification and how humans were once classified according to the colour of their skin and ordered according to intellectual superiority (I think we all know who was at the top).  From learning about the origins of racism in scientific history we looked at power relationships in the world and how they have allowed genocides to go on unstopped throughout history.  To teach this I also used many Outcomes from both the grade 7 and 8 Social Studies curriculum.  We read the novel Shattered by Eric Walters (which we had used as we examined poverty and homelessness before Genocide) as a starting point. The students also read various novels about Genocide such as “Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You and Alive in the Killing Fields.  It was a heavy year for my kids but I think it was an important eye-opening experience for them and it took them out of their protective bubble of privilege for a little while.  I sought out to trouble them and I succeeded. The culminating project was a digital textbook of sorts: The Milliken Genocide Project

3.  This year we are working on a two-part project with our students on disasters.  In the Grade 7 curriculum there is an Outcome relating to the Earth’s Crust. Through this Outcome we have been learning about Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tsunamis.  This could be a very simple unit to teach but we (my two colleagues and I) wanted again to put into a human context to engage their empathy.  We have framed this unit around the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, the Haiti earthquake and the Iceland Volcano (which centers more around economic impact than loss of life).  We have learned the science of how these natural disasters occur but most importantly we have learned about the impact on humanity that they have.  Again, we have used the novels of Eric Walters; Wave and Shaken to frame this portion of our learning. Shaken also has a heavy religious over tone that addresses a whole other spectrum of humanity.

Following our look at natural disasters, we will be using the Gulf Coast Oil Spill to teach density, buoyancy and viscosity.  We will be tying our Literacy into this unit by examining through reading and writing the impact that humans have on our planet.  We will be reading the novel Empty Suzanne Weyn as well as newspaper articles and other writing to learn about the world’s dependence on oil and the effect it has on our environment.  This part of the project also allows us to meet both Grade 7 and 8 Social Studies Outcomes on Stewardship and Sustainability.

In our grade 7/8 classrooms in our school, there are very fine lines drawn between three very different, separate official curriculum documents. We have read our students (the lived curriculum) and know what we need to do to engage them into caring about what they are required to learn (the curriculum as plan). To do so we need to “smoosh” the curriculums together and seek or invent contextual commonplaces .  Perhaps that is something that should be looked into and taught in university education programs Smooshing 101: Cross Curricular Planning for Curricular Multiplicity. That’s a class I would take!

Teacher As Curriculum Maker

16 Jan

Calvin Reviews the Education System

This blog entry is a response to the chapter Teacher As Curriculum Maker written by D. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly. Please see reference at the end of the blog.

This chapter attempts to address the role of teachers as they interact with the curriculum.  As this chapter is very long and intensive I will be focusing on the sections that specifically resonated with me and my experiences as a teacher, not the whole chapter.

  1. The Teacher Framed by the Conduit Metaphor

In an attempt to summarize and understand this metaphor I found some information on the Encyclopedia Britannica Online that supplemented that of the chapter. The Conduit Metaphor refers to the  idea that knowledge is a “commodity that is external to learner”, meaning that it is provided for them rather than something that they construct themselves.  In practice it refers to the idea that the student is an empty vessel waiting for the teacher to fill them with their infanite knowledge.  Success can be measured by the student’s ability to regurgitate that knowledge with a high percentage of accuracy. It is the job of the student to memorize the information provided for them without consideration for their own context or experience.  The teacher is expected to provide a scripted wealth of information through prescribed methods. These methods and content were provided for them through the curriculum.

This is what I believed teaching to be when I began my career.  As I began teaching, I quickly became bored and unsatisfied with this method and deviated from it. In doing so, I abandoned the curriculum except for obtaining the grade appropriate “topics” that I could address with my class in a way that I thought they would find the most engaging. The chapter refers to this abandonment when it refers to a study of the Toronto secondary school biology curriculum conducted in 1978 in which it was found that

“Roughly two-thirds of the curriculum taught was outside the bounds of policy specified in the provincial guidelines document and was therefore technically illegal.” (372)

While it was assumed that teachers were and should be using prescribed curriculum and were acting in accordance to the “conduit metaphor”, it was not happening.  Teachers were instead being “curriculum makers” (Side note: I put that in quotations not as a refernece to the chapter but instead to Norm Yakel of the University of Regina as during my undergrad degree he would tell us not to be curriculum users but instead curriculum makers.  This resonated with me and I used this as a rationalization in my mind as I deviated from the curriculum during my first years of teaching).

Happily, I think that in my school division and province, we are now moving away from this model with the renewed curriculum and through my board’s “Structural Innovation“. Through the use of Outcomes and Indicators teachers are given a guideline of “Big Ideas” that they are to meet through their teaching, there are not prescribed units that they must follow anymore, allowing the teacher to become a maker of curriculum that meets both the interests and learning levels of their students.  The Indicators are to me, suggestions of things that I should look for in their demonstration of their knowledge but I do not treat them as a list of tasks that I must have them perform.  I use them as inspiration as I plan their learning path.  Since the release of the new Saskatchewan Curriculum, I have actually been using it and even have the Outcomes that we are addressing posted predominantly in my classroom. This is good because this is also the first time that I have ever actually been held accountable for my use of the curriculum within an Inquiry and Project Based learning framework.  This approach to my student’s learning is a lot of work but “making curriculum” is one of the most exciting things for me in this job, I would not have it any other way.  My teacher librarian refers to them as my “idea explosions.” It is what I do best!

My board’s Structural Innovation framework allows me the flexibility to structure my classroom, my student’s learning and my teaching in a way that allows me to facilitate the learning my students engage in rather than dictate it. I consider myself a Constructivist and the roles of curriculum maker and learning facilitator are integral to my practice.

Having said all that, this does not resonate well with all teachers.  In the chapter, the authors refer to a study conducted in the 1970’s that found that when it comes to educational reform, teachers can be the most resistant. It found that any reform efforts were often thwarted by three things; 1. The grade level of the teacher (secondary teachers were less likely to change than elementary teachers). 2. The longer the teacher had taught, the less open to change they were. 3. The teacher that believed that all students could be motivated and successful, the more willing to engage in reform they were.  Being in the schools as Structural Innovation was introduced and implemented, I witnessed all three of the above mentioned first hand.  It also states that in order for change to follow through long-term, teachers needed to be directly trained on how to change and that the training needed to be practice and self developed, not prescribed.

2. “Teacher-Proof” Curriculum Within The Conduit: From Teaching Machines to Distance Education

This section of the chapter refered to attempts to make it very difficult for the teacher to deviate from the prescribed curriculum.  In the video below, the Teaching Machine and it’s purpose is described.

I think that you would agree with me when I say that I am very glad that those machines did not become common place as they are the epitome of the teacher as conduit model!

This section of the chapter also discusses another method of computer assisted learning that they refer to as Computer Assisted Learning environments.  In this case, computers are used to facilitate student learning but that the role of the educator in this model is unclear.  They go on to introduce the Computer Mediated Communication System. This is described as

“Helping distance educator develop their own kinds of interactive classrooms: small and large, local and regional group configurations of learners are created by a telephone, computer conferencing and face-to-face meetings and workshops.” (375)

The authors write that this type of computer assisted learning is one in which the teacher must take on the role as curriculum maker as they must work collaboratively with the learner to create this space and what they will be learning within it.  At the time of the writing of this chapter (1992), it was not yet known just how far this would go!  Think of all of the online collaboration that occurs now through social media and the discussion around the use of Personal Learning Networks (PLN) and Personal Learning Environments (PLE) as the face of new educational reform.  What the authors are referring to through the use of Computer Mediated Communication Systems in education was a rudimentary form of the PLN/PLE.  In a PLN/PLE, a learner creates a network of people, digital resources and information that they access via various forms of social media, digital tools and means of communication and collaboration.  In the formation of a PLN and/or PLE in a structured school environment, it would be the role of the teacher to guide the learner in setting their own learning outcomes and helping them establish relationships with the people, resources and tools that are necessary for their PLN as well as being part of the student’s PLN.  Many scholars are exploring the use of PLN/PLE and digital learning as the future of education.  See the work of the University Of Regina’s Alec Couros as an example of this exploration. When education reform and our technologically driven world leads us to this type of open learning, teachers will have no choice but to be curriculum makers and will work alongside their students in this capacity.

An example of the PLE of a Grade 7 Student

3. The Humanities Curriculum Project

When my board office introduced Structural Innovation to teachers, I heard a lot of people comment, “We tried that in the 70’s, it did not work then, it will not work now.”  I found this very discouraging because I thought it sounded very exciting an I was energized by the idea of trying new things.  This was because I was already doing so and I was excited to see that I would have admin support.  I am not sure that the thing that was tried in the 70’s with my board was related to the Humanities Curriculum Project but it does sound very similar.  The chapter goes on to say that just like Structural Innovation, some school had success, some did not.  One of the key aspects talked about earlier in the chapter was that change only works if the teachers are involved in the decisions.  In the case of the Humanities Curriculum Project, it was intended for the teacher to be central to the reform in the classroom but how that would look was shaped by the researcher and not by the teacher.  As mentioned previously in the chapter, that would not work. I know that in our application to become a Structural Innovation school, all of the teachers had full input however, I did hear of other schools where all decisions and ideas came solely from the administration. I believe that we will have a similar results in our school system as the Humanities Curriculum Project because of this reason. So, yes, in some cases it will not work.  That does not mean that we give up trying.  There are some success with change.  I can speak to this from my experience in my Professional Learning Community and how we have structured our senior classroom. For a peak at what we do, visit our Wiki.

4. Teacher as Curriculum Maker

The authors of this chapter call attention to the need for educational reform. Through examples, they show that the reform will only truly be successful and sustained when the teachers are directly involved in the decisions that are made for change. How do we engage teachers in these decisions?  The authors state that teachers must become curriculum makers (and in this, they do not mean only what will be learned but that curriculum should be a “course of life” encompassing all things related to teaching and learning) and that in order for teachers to become curriculum  makers, researchers must listen to their stories.  Through this listening, a usable, realistic, engaging format for educational reform can be formulated.  I agree with this idea wholly as I have seen and heard the difference that it is making in the success of Structural Innovation in the schools in my system.  And while I  can not speak for other schools and other teachers, in my school, where the needs, wants, and success stories of the teachers were considered in making our plans for innovation, we have seen many successes.

 

A Call For Educational Reform:  What are We Going to Do About it?

Related Articles

Curriculum as a Multistoried Process by Margaret Olson

Article Reference

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (1992). Teacher as curriculum maker. In P. Jackson (Ed.), Handbook of Curriculum Research, pp. 363-401. New York: MacMillan.