Thursday, 6 November 2014

Competency Fun and Learning...

Here's why I love working in an Alberta school right now...

And here's why my students love learning in an Alberta school right now... (complete with photo bomb:)

Recently we completed a project in the true spirit of inquiry and project based learning that we would like to highlight as an example of competency based teaching and learning in action, aka 'fun and learning' as we have come to refer to the process within our class.
If you're having fun and not learning, that's bad. If you're learning and not having fun, that's worse. If you're having fun and learning, that's our classroom!
So we were learning about a curricular outcome in seventh grade science under the following heading and supporting focus questions and curricular overview ...

Unit A: Interactions and Ecosystems (Social and Environmental Emphasis)

Focusing Questions:
  • How do human activities affect ecosystems? 
  • What methods can we use to observe and monitor changes in ecosystems, and assess the impacts of our actions?
Overview: Ecosystems develop and are maintained by natural processes and are affected by human action. To foster an understanding of ecosystems, this unit develops student awareness of ecosystem components and interactions, as well as natural cycles and processes of change. Building on this knowledge, students investigate human impacts and engage in studies that involve environmental monitoring and research. By reflecting on their findings, students become aware of the intended and unintended consequences of human activity, and recognise the need for responsible decision making and action.
We are also guided by the following key concepts which are all aspects of the prescribed emphasis on social and environmental issues...

Key Concepts
The following concepts are developed in this unit.
− interactions and interdependencies
− environmental monitoring
− environmental impacts
− producers, consumers, decomposers
− nutrient cycles and energy flow
− species distribution
− succession
− endangered species
− extinction
− environmental management

I share all of this to indicate our adherence to prescribed curricular content in our seventh grade science class. The obvious correlations from the above concept list are 'environmental management', 'environmental monitoring' and 'environmental impacts', but we work really hard to identify connections to all of the above concepts with every project, activity or assignment that we take on in our science class.

When we began speaking about the specific concept of 'ecological footprint,' we found a good activity in the textbook that directed kids to study a flow chart'ish map detailing the ecological footprint of a fast food hamburger meal starting with the farmer and ending with the waste produced at the end of the cycle...

We had rich dialogue around this diagram, and then the assignment was to see if we could reduce our ecological footprint by producing and consuming food in a different way that was less impacting to the environment. Here was the direction...
As a group, create a similar chart for a sandwich made at home with home-made ingredients (e.g., home-made bread, lettuce and tomatoes grown in a garden, etc.)
The new charts the kids created turned out pretty well also, but the concept wasn't "jumping off the page" so to speak... the kids could have probably answered a question on a test like,
What is the definition of 'ecological footprint,' and how can you reduce your particular ecological footprint?
...but you know, my student teacher and I just weren't satisfied with the level of passion among our students for this very important topic, one that most certainly addresses the overarching theme of 'social and environmental emphasis'. So lucky for us. once again, we work in an Alberta school and have the opportunity to look toward the new competency based curriculum for some inspiration:)

So here's what we did... on the fly really, but it worked out so well I have to say we are now looking at the rest of the year's content with a fresh and clearer lens. I asked the kids if they would like to act out a mindful and visceral process involving them sourcing local farm to table producers, organic ingredients and actually cook the meals they had detailed on their group project posters. Once we gave them a bit of background into what 'farm to table' and organic meant, their answer was a resounding "yes!" Off we went then... and I should say we're also lucky enough in our K-8 inquiry-based science and technology school to have a full foods lab that the teacher was completely willing to trade with us on the final day of our project so we could carry out our evolving plans right to the preparing and eating project final activity . We extended the inquiry question, "how do human activities affect ecosystems?", to...
How can we reduce our ecological footprint with respect to the ways we produce and consume food?
A list of competencies we ended up addressing in our own constructivist way follows, and grew as we asked more questions during the inquiry and investigation process...

  •  Lifelong Learning, Self-Direction and Personal Management
    • If we have "fast food," and that isn't perhaps the best way to shrink our ecological footprint, is there an opposite term that describes a better way to do things?
      • We learnt about the concept of "slow food":)
      • We learnt that we all have choices in life relative to what we choose to eat; both the actual food product and in choosing what we will and won't accept about how food is packaged, manufactured, transported, modified etc.
  • Digital Literacy
    • We are also lucky to be a one-to-one laptop school... kids are very used to accessing technology in a routine way to source information, but we can always get better. 
      • During this project our students learnt how to use Google Hangouts to make free phone calls to local farm producers looking for ingredients for their slow food meals.
      • Students extended our skills in sourcing information from the web, searching using various maps, lists and search tools.
      • Students extended our abilities to be asynchronous when they couldn't get together in person to work on their projects.
  • Collaboration and Leadership
    • Our kids were working in groups of 4 or 5, and that always comes with some challenges, but you can't teach responsibility without giving responsibility, and we just kept asking them to find a way to get to "yes", with each other... and we put out a few fires, but the kids really did evolve their skills under our gentle direction in team work and we definitely witnessed some leadership skills emerge. 
      • One great story about a young man who is a more solitary boy, reluctant to speak up or speak out... his mom works at our school as a lunch room supervisor and shared with me that her son has been talking about this project for a week and a half. I shared with her that we observed him connecting to this process in a way that was very impressive, and that for the first time we actually heard him speak pretty regularly during the project process. He took charge at critical times with his project partners, displayed assertiveness and arranged for his mom to come by at lunch as he had promised to make an extra plate for her... awesome!
  • Communication
    • It wasn't always effective, but it got better... (remember that 'can't teach responsibility without giving responsibility thing?:) 
      • Our students communicated with others, learnt how to speak with vendors, negotiate prices and quantities, invited staff guests to their group's meal etc.
      • Students learnt how to ask better questions to get to the heart of what they wanted to know, understand or be able to do. They asked increasingly sophisticated questions of us, the farmers and suppliers they solicited and of each other.
  • Social Responsibility and Cultural, Global and Environmental Awareness
    • Our school is a UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network School... Global thinking is a major focus of our school context as we learn how to 'know, do, be and live peacefully with each other.' 
      • In a cross curricular context, we talked a bunch about how people in other parts of the world deal with their ecological footprint; how they access food; how they support sustainable food production etc. The conversations in this context were very involved, and will continue to evolve under the heading of social and environmental awareness embedded within our science curriculum.
  • Creativity and Innovation
    • Our students learnt that ketchup and other food products don't originate in a bottle;)
      •  They set forth to discover  and create recipes for ketchup, (we ended up with a very nice spicy variety,) mayonnaise, pickled onions and cucumbers... even homemade cheese and everyone figured out an awesome bread recipe to suit the type of sandwich they wanted to make (lots of choice was built into every element of our project) 
      • They found a way to get things done... some at home ahead of time, and some at school with each other and our support and assistance.
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
    • I need to create some context around this one as I believe 'critical thinking' is a term that we use a lot, but perhaps don't understand it as much as we need to...
crit·i·cal think·ing
  1. the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.
    "professors often find it difficult to encourage critical thinking amongst their students"
    • So yes, we participated in a ton of critical thinking processes during this project designed to objectively analyse and evaluate issues in order to form judgements. Some examples of issues we addressed included...
      • What is our moral and ethical responsibility to be aware of how our eating habits affect the environment?
      • How do we feel about the financial cost of the conventional ways we process and provide and consume food? 
      • Are the conventional ways we provide and consume food sustainable?
      • What are the moral and ethical implications of conventional agricultural practises?
      • Are there ways we (as young kids) can advocate for improved agricultural practises, and can we take a leadership role in doing so?
There are always questions about hoe to assess group work. We used a couple of strategies in this case. We designed this 'Bloom's Responsibility Rubric' last year to correlate student's levels of sophistication within each taxonomy heading. We are using it as part of our assessment strategy in this project to position students' current level of function under each heading, and to frame areas that we need to promote further development.

Regarding the way that kids interacted as part of a team within the group, we gave them a Google Form to complete asking the following questions:
  1. Your name please: 
  2. Names of group members: 
  3. Description of project: 
  4. On a scale of 1-4, how well did your group do at managing time within your project? 
  5. On a scale of 1-4, how often did you assign yourself homework? 
  6. On a scale of 1-4, how often did you complete the homework you assigned?  
  7. On a scale of 1-4, how well did your group members communicate? 
  8. On a scale of 1-4, how well do you feel you used your time in class? 
  9. On a scale of 1-4, how well do you feel that your partner/partners use their class time? 
  10. On a scale of 1-4, how do you think your partner will rank your use of class time? 
  11. On a scale of 1-4, how well did you and your partner/s get along during this project? 
  12. What do you feel are some of the factors that made your group work well? 
  13. What do you feel are some of the factors that made your group work not so well? 
  14. On a scale of 1-4, what was your level of responsibility towards working on your project? 
  15. On a scale of 1-4, what was your group member's level of responsibility towards working on your project?
  16. What are you most proud about your project? 
  17. What changes would you make if you did the same project again?  
  18. Is there anything else you want your teachers to know that would have helped you during this project, or help you during upcoming projects? 
The anonymity of this on line way to ask these questions allowed us to garner honest feedback about how the group dynamic played out, and what we can do to support growth and development of future project designs (in partnership with our students of course:) This is another way we were able to assess the competency based skill sets related to working effectively and productively as a member of a team, group, collaboration etc.

There is so much more we can say about our little project extension of what would have normally been chalked up to a bit of knowledge about the topic of ecological footprint on the infamous study sheet required to pass the requisite test, but we will save some reflective space for our next project. For now we just want to summarise by saying we feel very satisfied that we've been able to nurture the development of engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with entrepreneurial spirits with thanks to Alberta Education and Red Deer Public Schools for the latitude to do so:)

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