Posted on 21 February 2013 by Richard McGuire
The schoolroom of the early 21st century is a very different place, parents and educators heard at a forum last week at Osoyoos Elementary School.
The electronic “smart board” has replaced the old chalkboard at the front of the classroom, students submit projects as PowerPoints, and technologies such as Skype and iPads are part of the normal school day.
Technology is just part of the change. School curricula are being overhauled to place emphasis on broad skills, teaching approaches are being individualized to a student’s learning style and class work increasingly revolves around projects where students learn by doing.
The line between English, physics or art may be blurred.
A community forum held last week (Feb. 13) heard from Roderick Allen, superintendent of learning with the British Columbia Ministry of Education, who spoke for about an hour before principals, teachers and students from local elementary and high schools shared their experiences by video.
The majority in the packed classroom were teachers and school officials, but a handful of parents also attended, some raising questions and others applauding the changes.
The discussion was filled with academic jargon and buzzwords – “project-based learning,” “core competencies,” “cross-curricular competencies,” “assessment models,” “learning outcomes,” and “visual literacy” were just a few of the terms tossed out by educators and students alike.
In a nutshell though, the emphasis has shifted from learning facts and content to learning how to learn, and acquiring broad skills that students can use throughout their education, in the workplace and throughout their lives.
When Allen spoke of the new-style curricula currently being developed, he emphasized that developers are not getting rid of content. There’s just a different balance toward the bigger picture.
“It feels quite different,” he said. “It looks quite different. It talks about ‘competencies’ a lot.”
So what do educators mean when they speak of “core competencies,” probably one of the most used terms in last week’s discussion?
These, said Allen, are still being fine tuned as those developing curricula tweak their “prototypes and models” before adding content.
Proposed competencies, however, involve three “cross-curricular competencies” with several “sub-domains” each:
• Thinking Competency, which includes critical thinking, creative thinking and reflective thinking;
• Personal and Social Competency, which includes positive personal and cultural identity, personal awareness and responsibility and social awareness and responsibility;
• Communication Competency, which includes use of language and digital literacy.
The entire approach to developing curricula is changing, Allen said, noting in the past it has been developed for each subject area on a rotating 12-year cycle.
Now, it’s being developed all at once and will continually be updated “in an evergreen cycle,” Allen said.
The difference, he pointed out, is it’s no longer necessary to get it completely right the first time as it would be if it couldn’t be changed for 12 years. Now, tweaks and improvements can continually be made.
The new curricula, he said, will be less prescriptive. It will allow teachers “white space” where they can innovate and use “project-based learning.”
Parent Alicia Osland sat through the presentations before asking near the end of the forum the question on the minds of many parents: “Will it be balanced with the three R’s?”
She was assured by school officials and in a meeting the following day that the “three R’s” – reading, writing and arithmetic, along with other core subjects, will continue to be covered.
“I got plenty of reassurance last night and today that the core subjects will be considered absolutely critical and they’ll be taught separately from the project-based learning,” Osland said in an interview the following day.
Now her only concern is she would like to see the education changes happen a lot more quickly.
Another parent at the forum, Sandy Summers, has a daughter in Grade 5 in one of two designated 21st Century Classrooms at Osoyoos Elementary School. Summers likes the progressive approach and her main concern is what will happen to her daughter next year when she’s back in a regular classroom.
“I’m pretty excited because it’s a new way of approaching the way that teachers teach the information, and from a student’s point of view it’s great,” Summers said. “They can extract the information they need and choose what type of learning style they have. Knowing their learning style, they’re able to do the work the way they learn.”
At the beginning of the year, the teacher discussed with the students the different learning styles so they could assess themselves and decide whether they learned best orally, in writing, kinetically, or another way, Summers said.
Her daughter has often told her she’s having the best year ever.
“She’ll say: ‘This was the best day ever. We didn’t do any work today,’” Summers said.
Upon further questioning about what she did, it’s clear that her daughter has learned a lot, but it just doesn’t feel like school.
“All kids have different learning styles and for my daughter her learning style is she needs movement,” Summers said. “To sit still all day doesn’t work for her.”
As an example of project-based learning, Summers said students built a model of the Mount St. Helens volcano that involved art, science, English and other skills.
“It’s a more holistic approach to learning and the kids actually set the tone,” she said.
Osoyoos Elementary School Principal Bo Macfarlane says many of the approaches discussed by Allen from the Ministry of Education are already being used at his school.
Still, he says, the core academic subjects are taught in the morning, with project-based learning taking place in the afternoons.
“We haven’t moved away from teaching the three R’s,” Macfarlane said. “That still will always have a place, but we’re branching more in the direction of giving kids more input into what their education looks like.”
Macfarlane cites one example illustrating just how much schools have changed as a result of technology and project-based learning.
Grade 5/6 teacher Dean Rowland’s class was learning about water in Africa, so they communicated through Skype with aid workers at a water project, directly conversing with audio and video over the internet while watching them live on the smart screen at the front of the class.
“Our kids were learning how to make water filtration systems similar to what this group was doing in Africa,” Macfarlane said. “So there was dialogue back and forth live – they were in Africa and our kids in the classroom.”