27 October Adjusting to Changes in the British Columbia Curriculum
By Sam Johnston, Director of Learning at St. George’s School
ST. GEORGE’S SCHOOL IS A LEARNING COMMUNITY.
Of course, it is—it’s a school. It’s no surprise that we think of St. George’s as a Learning Community. It almost goes without saying. Almost, but not quite. Even more than in the traditional sense of learning in school, St. George’s is a learning organization that models the skills and dispositions essential to learning in our complex and rapidly changing world. It is a place that embodies learning instead of just talking about it. Directed by our school’s Guiding Educational Principles, learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom; it happens in every corner of the school where our students develop character and core values, critical and creative thinking skills, and global perspectives. It is how we improve, how we innovate, how we lead—as a community.
Leading innovation is really about creating time and space in which others are willing and able to do the hard work of innovation. Almost a decade ago, the faculty at St. George’s, under the direction of newly appointed Headmaster, Dr. Tom Matthews, created a framework for professional learning for all members of staff to use to continuously improve. What came from it was a shift in mindset from having all of the answers to searching for interesting questions. This simple change gave us license to try new and innovative ideas, specifically about how we could improve our professional practice to make the students’ learning experience more relevant, engaging, and meaningful. Since then, what has unfolded involved a lot of hard work, but all of it well worth the effort. The work that has come out of this shift is exciting and has given rise to the implementation of research-based instructional strategies and ways to more effectively draw students into the learning process. It has also seen the creation of Cohort Programs in the Senior School and Neighbourhoods in our Junior School, changing how we organize learning in an effort to blur the lines between traditionally siloed subjects in order to allow students to grapple with complex, multidisciplinary topics. It has even shifted the bricks and mortar of the school’s classroom walls to give us the opportunity to play with new ideas about how our environment impacts learning.
You may have heard in the news that the British Columbia Ministry of Education is currently going through some major reform. Fortunately, their new model matches the moves St. George’s School has been making over the past decade. There is a much greater emphasis on what students can do with their knowledge. Instead of focusing so much on dates and dead European kings, boys at St. George’s learn to use mapping software to represent complex ideas like migration or conflict on a dynamic map. The school is moving away from the teacher as the source of all information and is finding ways to give students ownership of their learning. In the old model, there was an emphasis on control and efficiency from the teachers; what we are seeing now is engagement and creativity. Well before the BC Ministry curriculum changes became a hot topic of conversation, St. George’s School was dissatisfied with the tired idea of having students sit back and absorb the teacher’s knowledge only to reproduce it on a test later in the week. Together, as a community, the school asked how we could be better, how we could engage students more in the learning process, how we could motivate them to take the lead. As a result, St. George’s School has implemented instructional strategies like:
• Discussion-based Learning, a discussion protocol for engaging all students in the issues and substance of a reading so they may deepen their understanding of concepts and develop their communications skills.
• Project-based Learning, a method that focuses on students using their knowledge to synthesize and create something in order to share their learning with others. This strategy has given our students the opportunity to grapple with challenging concepts and present their ideas in creative ways. Inquiry is a research strategy that gives students more ownership of the learning process and motivates them to share their new knowledge. These strategies started as a question from one or more of our faculty, and after research and reflection become ingrained in the culture of teaching and learning at the School.
In the same way St. George’s School examines classroom practices, the School tackles classroom environments as a community. The classroom environment has changed dramatically since the teachers themselves were in high school. Row upon row of clunky, uncomfortable, and inflexible desks have turned into tables and chairs on wheels that can easily shift from small group collaboration to a large round-table discussion to independent study. Classrooms aren’t dark little boxes that no one looks into and no one leaves. Now they are a mixture of glass and wood that promotes collaboration, and they are covered in surfaces on which students can show their thinking. They are open and inviting to the whole community, with plenty of sunlight, and they provide different contexts in which teaching and learning can occur. Take the recent renovation of the fourth floor in the Junior School as an example. Who wouldn’t want to go to school in classrooms that look and function like that? With space for students to work in their own way and areas to creatively display student work, these classrooms really celebrate learning in all its forms. However, creating this amazing learning space didn’t happen overnight. Those classrooms were designed after the model had been researched and then thoroughly tested. Its predecessor, the Grade 7 Neighbourhood, was a pilot project with the express purpose of testing different structures for organizing classrooms and different furniture to activate boys’ learning. The school community has learned a lot from the process; we took our lessons from the pilot project, and we have created something magical.
(For more information on St. George’s School, please contact Ms. Monica Cheng at [email protected].)