Bigger Ideas: Connecting the Dots of BC’s New Curriculum

In BC’s Know-Understand-Do model, the “Do” is very clearly connected from grade to grade. In each grade and in various subjects within each grade, students will further develop their abilities to communicate and think. The grade three teacher can rest assured that teaching students to read is something they are carrying on from previous grades.KUD

But how about with the “Know” and “Understand” aspects of the curriculum? What is it that students know and understand that is to be carried on from year to year?

How is the teacher to know what students know and understand from previous learning experiences and how is the teacher able to connect what is being taught to what is already known and understood?

It seems a bit much to expect BC teachers who continue to transition to new curriculum to also take note of each of the Big Ideas and concepts and content from previous grades. Even if they were able to do so, students, even those coming from the same class, have vastly different experiences and interpretations from their year, particularly when given opportunities for self-directed inquiry. Nevertheless, beyond simply asking students what they know about a topic, there are at least three ways to connect learning from subject to subject and grade to grade.

Firstly, teachers can, despite challenges, connect Big Ideas from grade to grade. In fact, many Big Ideas repeat. For example, in Language Arts, the Big Idea, “Stories help us learn about ourselves and our families” is used in Kindergarten to Grade 3, with the addition “and our communities” in Grade 3. Clearly, that is a big idea that can connect several years of language arts together, and students will develop a deep understanding of the concept and importance of storytelling.

Secondly, the curriculum has been redesigned so that certain topics that were once found in just one subject and grade – for example structures and functions of the human body systems – are now found in two or more grades.

Thirdly, there are bigger ideas than the “Big Ideas” identified in BC’s new curriculum.  These “bigger ideas” can connect learning from grade to grade by offering a concept to which learning can be anchored. When I first heard the term “big idea,” it was in 2007 when a cohort of West Vancouver Schools teachers met with pro-d guru Sue Elliot to discuss Grant Wiggin’s and Jay McTighe’s Understanding By Design. This approach to teaching/learning suggested big ideas were “broad and abstract,” “represented by one or two words,” were “universal in application” and “timeless.” They present a “conceptual lens” for any area of study.

In my twelve years of teaching, my early years looking mostly at Grades 5-7 and my latter years as an elementary school administrator looking at K-7, one “big idea” meeting the criteria above sticks out more than any other, the biggest idea (in my mind!) of them all: relationships. Much of what students learn about develops this very idea: cause and effect, systems within systems, interacting with each other and students understanding who they are in the world. In using the Curriculum’s Search Tool and typing in “relationships,” the concept comes up in dozens of Big Ideas, and hundreds of content phrases and curricular competencies.

When I shared my thinking with other educators, some agreed and some had other big ideas – change, systems, integration, conflict and identity are all big ideas with the potential to unify curriculum.

I don’t know if there is a biggest idea in BC’s curriculum, but I think an overarching concept that unifies learning from subject to subject, and grade to grade, can help students make connections between what is known and what is about to be known.

In doing so, I hope that students see past learning as helping prepare for what is being learned in the present; and, as importantly, what is being learned as enriching what may have been learned long ago. If learning, past and present, can be mutually reinforcing, how powerful it would be for a student to leave their elementary school with an inter-connected story of their learning.

Happiness & Generosity

In 2012, the United Nations declared March 20th International Day of Happiness. Last Friday was the world’s third celebration where the United Nations stated, “The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal.”

There is a political element to the day with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging member states to consider the impact peace and climate have on the potential for happiness of the “human family.”  The UN Foundation also encouraged global citizens to sign the Live Earth Petition which urges world leaders to “sign a strong and meaningful agreement at the climate negotiations in Paris this year.”   (For more on Paris 2015 COP21, click here.)Generosity

The day also recognizes that while happiness is fostered in conditions of peace, prosperity, human rights, and sustainability, happiness to some degree is a choice and individuals can take control it.  The charity Action for Happiness has articulated Ten Keys to Happier Living, described here and summarized in the graphic to the right.

At BICS, we are focusing on the Virtue of Generosity for the months of March and April.  This virtue flows well from the virtues of Kindness and Tolerance which were a focus in January and February. Generosity is both an act and an expression of kindness and leads to more kindness and generosity as it contributes to the happiness of all involved – givers and receivers.

So, part of generosity is giving.  But as Ban Ki-Moon reminds us in his message of happiness for 2015 below, celebrating happiness also involves giving thanks for what makes us happy.  Therefore, we can use our focus on generosity not only to encourage being generous to others, but also recognizing the generosity of other people and our planet.  As spring is upon us and Earth Day is April 22nd, it is a fitting time to recognize how the earth so generously provides the necessities of life – food, water, and clean air.  It is a fitting time to recommit to school initiatives to reduce the amount of garbage we produce through the encouragement of litterless and boomerang lunches.

Let March and April be a time where all members of the BICS community generously commit acts of kindness, for each other and the planet, and more fully appreciate the generosity of others and the earth.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon ‘s Message for 2015:

I wish everyone around the world a very happy International Day of Happiness!
The pursuit of happiness is serious business.
Happiness for the entire human family is one of the main goals of the United Nations.
Peace, prosperity, lives of dignity for all – this is what we seek.
We want all men, women and children to enjoy all their human rights.
We want all countries to know the pleasure of peace.
We want people and planet alike to be blessed with sustainable development, and to be spared the catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Let us give thanks for what makes us happy.  
And let us dedicate our efforts to filling our world with happiness.
Thank you.

A New Beginning?

In January of 2005, I started my teaching career at Bowen Island Community School.  It was a temporary assignment, just six months, teaching Grade 6-7.  After leaving BICS, I taught Grade 5 for several years at Ridgeview Elementary School before returning to BICS as vice-principal in 2010 to carry on my teaching career and begin my career as a school administrator.  Now, in January 2015, I have the honour and privilege of leading BICS as principal.  So, in many ways, BICS has been a place of beginnings for me.

But will the change of principals at BICS be a new beginning for the school and, if so, a beginning of what?

At first thought, it might seem ungrateful and naïve to suggest that the school will carry on just fine without the thoughtful guidance and inspirational leadership of BICS’ now retired principal, Jennifer Pardee.  But so much of Jennifer’s work at BICS was to create a shared vision for the school involving students, educators and the community and to build capacity in staff to pursue innovative approaches to teaching and learning.  So, while Jennifer will be deeply missed by the BICS community, professionally and personally, much of her leadership has been to foster conditions for continued success after her retirement.

Over the years, I have heard BICS described as a “moving school.”  A moving school is one that has very clear priorities and where there is buy-in from staff to develop and implement strategies and tactics to achieve those priorities.  In other words, a “moving school” is an improving school.  Current research, insights from experience, as well as technological innovation, have created many opportunities for schools to move forward on several key initiatives.  At BICS in recent years, there has been a greater focus on social and emotional learning, aboriginal education, self-regulation, and a restorative justice approach to student conduct; there is increased access to digital technology, and our school iswell on its way to an inquiry-based approach to learning where students practise and develop critical thinking skills and mindset.

We are certainly not at the beginning stages of any of these initiatives but they will each continue to guide the work we do for years to come.  I will use this blog space, as Jennifer and I have done over the last several years, to write about our school’s progress.

So there is much to be continued, but there are other changes on the horizon in BC education; there are new beginnings.  The BC Ministry of Education has released a new curriculum, currently in draft form, that BICS will transition to in coming years.  The curriculum is a major redesign that articulates what students are to know and understand in a way that supports inquiry-based learning (I have written on this aspect of curriculum here), and will change the way student learning is communicated with a focus on three core competencies – Thinking Competency, Communication Competency and Personal and Social Competency (I have written on this topic here).  Our school is well-positioned to transition to this curriculum as we have been focusing on many of its core elements – inquiry, critical thinking, flexible learning environments – for years.

What students need from their education to be successful in a rapidly changing world and insights into how people learn means that the vision for BICS will continue to evolve as we strive to provide students with the most relevant and effective learning experiences we can.  But as the BICS staff is deeply invested in many initiatives, at this time of transitioning principals, at this time of a new beginning for me, consistency for the school in pursuing the initiatives in which we are immersed, in doing them as best we can, is needed.

Change is certainly upon us at BICS, but change is nothing new in a moving school.

Professional Growth Plan, 2014 – ?

My professional growth plan is very much linked to school growth plans.

All schools in BC must prepare a school plan that sets one or more school goals for improving student achievement, the strategies to achieve these goals and the measures for determining success.

It is one thing to measure school growth and improvements in student achievement, it is another to trace results to causes. Schools are not science experiments where one variable at a time can be added and tested. With many teachers and many strategies all at play each year, it is not difficult to acquire data on many areas of student achievement – such as literacy skills – but tracing this growth to the strategies of teachers in a variety of classrooms is difficult.

At Bowen Island Community School, our Growth Plan, poses the question of inquiry:

Will an increased focus on inquiry-based learning that places emphasis on developing students’ critical thinking skills and self-regulation skills improve the level of student engagement and academic achievement?

The question examines the affect inquiry-based learning and critical thinking have on student engagement and academic achievement. As BICS has also focused on self-regulation, digital access for students and teachers, environmental education and place-based learning, tracing improvements in student engagement and academic achievement to any one cause is perhaps impossible; and perhaps unnecessary.

Each of the strategies mentioned above work in concert and I am learning more and more how dependent they are on one another. I often refer to the Galileo Education Network for a concise definition of inquiry. They state:

Inquiry is a study into a worthy question, issue, problem or idea. It is the authentic, real work that that someone in the community might tackle. It is the type of work that those working in the disciplines actually undertake to create or build knowledge. Therefore, inquiry involves serious engagement and investigation and the active creation and testing of new knowledge.

The strategies and approaches of environmental education and place-based learning, where students learn in the community and look at issues or problems facing the community and world, is very much aligned with the definition of inquiry as described above. Further, digital access, far from being a strategy in its own right, can be viewed more as an effort to support inquiry by providing students with as much opportunity as possible to delve deeply into a topic, beyond the opportunities people, places, and print found in the community and library might offer. Digital access also allows students to share their inquiries with others. With access to so much information, the ability to assess the reliability of information and make sense of it, core tenets of critical thinking, is vital. In this way, through inquiry, students practise critical thinking skills rather than just learn what it means to be a critical thinker.  This practise of critical thinking is core to the philosophy of the Critical Thinking Consortium, which has helped guide BICS’ work in this area.  Self-regulation, in the words of Stuart Shanker, is the ability for students to be calm, alert, and learning. It is perhaps the foundation for any other strategies a school might wish to implement.  Inquiry is pointless unless students have the capacity to be engaged.

My growth plan involves inquiring into the following questions:

  1. What does it mean for someone to be engaged in learning?
  2. What factors (culture, strategy, tactics) lead to learner engagement?
  3. How can you tell whether students and teachers are engaged and can engagement be traced to particular strategies (inquiry, digital access, self-regulation), tactics or attributes of a school’s culture?

As I begin my inquiry, I am becoming more and more aware of the challenges of isolating strategies and determining their individual impact. Self-regulation, regardless of what other strategies a school might have in place, has tremendous power to improve student achievement. But it is already bundled together with other strategies our school is pursuing. It may not be possible to weigh the individual impact of various strategies but I am looking forward to learning more about measuring results from the formidable combination of strategies at work at BICS.

What are the Attributes of an Ideal Environmental Educator?

Photo:  Jeff Morales

Photo: Jeff Morales

Bowen Island Community School recently shared a job posting for an environmental educator teaching outside45, an ecological education program based on Bowen Island.  Interested applicants can apply on Make A Future until Wednesday November 19th 2014 at 1 p.m.

The purpose of this post is to share the attributes we highlighted we were looking for in an ideal candidate and invite readers to share what they feel are the most important attributes of environmental educators.  What would you add, remove or prioritize from the posting below?

The successful candidate possesses a Certificate of Qualification from the Teacher Regulation Branch as well as a recognized Wilderness First Aid Certificate (typically at least 50 hours) and demonstrates the following:

  • a strong background in environmental and experiential education with elementary school-aged children;

  • high level of outdoor skills for a variety of activities including, but not limited to, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, camping in all seasons, and orienteering;

  • interest in cultures of coastal First Nations of BC and, more generally, Traditional Ecological Knowledge including learning from the environment and pursuing the goals described in School District 45’s Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement;

  • excellent planning skills, both of curriculum and to coordinate the logistics of field experiences;

  • clear understanding of risk management and the ability to work with other staff, parents, and students, to implement a risk management plan;

  • ability and experience to plan, teach, differentiate and assess an educational program building on the goals and outcomes as described in the Ministry of Education’s Provincial Learning Outcomes and Integrated Resource Packages and knowledge of BC’s Draft Curriculum;

  • an ecological and inquiry-based approach to learning, including integrating learning from various subjects for the purpose of developing big ideas, conceptual understandings and Core Competencies;

  • proven ability and interest in working in a very collaborative teaching and learning environment; this position involves working very closely with several colleagues and parents;

  • a clear understanding of the characteristics of intermediate-aged children and the ability to develop a positive learning environment addressing the intellectual, physical and emotional needs of students of this age;

  • ability to seamlessly integrate digital access into teaching and learning;

  • an understanding of self-regulation strategies;

  • proven effective written and verbal communication skills with students, colleagues and parents.

Who are you learning from?

We learn most from those whose views are most unlike our own.

Do you agree?

I would answer, “It depends,” but over the years I have become more convinced that there is great value in deliberately seeking the opinions of people whose views, I anticipate, conflict with my own.

Ten years ago, I attended a weekend sustainability symposium on an island in Howe Sound with about fifty other people.  We started the weekend with introductions – who we were, where we were from, and what we hoped to get from the weekend.

As is often the case in situations where fifty people respond essentially to the same questions, the responses sounded similar.  Except one.  The individual, dressed in visibly filthy cotton trousers – which I deemed hardly appropriate for a weekend being outdoors – and a tan trench coat – equally embedded with dirt – stepped forward and introduced himself as Derrick Jensen, from an unceded territory in California.  His unkempt hair and unshaven face added to the, “I don’t care about the way I look,” appearance.  I remember all of these details, all of these judgements, to this day.

It turned out that Derrick Jensen was invited to the symposium to catalyse conversations.  The organizers felt that his perspective would stimulate discussions, whether people agreed with his views or not.

Put simply, Jensen argues for the deconstruction of civilization.  By any means necessary.

Such a view put him in contrast with others in attendance, some of whom were more pacifist in their activism.

I learned that Jensen authored many books, and after listening to his thoughtful views, his passion for urgent change to live more sustainably, his value of learning from cultures who have managed – and manage – to live more sustainability than “western” cultures, I ended up reading many of them:  A Language Older than Words, Walking on Water, and most profoundly, Endgame, Volumes One and Two, where he articulates the means to the end of living sustainably.  

I did not always agree with his views as they often exceeded my comfort level, but because they exceeded my views, they stretched and clarified my thinking.  Even when my beliefs were not stretched, my understanding was.

His thoughts have profoundly effected my beliefs about how to live and more than any other experience, encountering Derrick Jensen has made me more open-minded.  The judgements I had about his appearance have long been replaced with admiration: his tired clothing was an indication he did not want to burden the environment with buying many new things.  He had the courage to withstand judgement from others, live his beliefs and change minds.  With his words.  With his clothes.  With his actions.

I recently stumbled upon a blog written by an “unschooler.”  I occasionally bristled at the blog’s criticisms of public education, something I believe in and dedicate a large part of my life to.  Soon, I realized though that bristling was not particularly useful and I recalled my experience with Jensen.  Although I disagreed with many of the views shared in the blog, as I disagreed with some of Jensen’s views, the ideas in the blog were thoughtfully presented and thus worth listening to and learning from.

There is more purpose in finding the nuggets of truth that stretch thinking than simply being frustrated that the author seems to have got many things – in my opinion(!) – wrong.

I feel lucky to have stumbled upon numerous people, books, blogs and documentaries that challenge my thinking and beliefs but have realized I could and should spend less time stumbling and more time deliberately seeking views I predict challenge my assumptions.

Who are you learning form that challenges you?


Purpose-Giving People & Places

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Paddling in another purpose-giving place, the Johnstone Strait. Photo: Chris Parslow

Laura Magrath, a teacher of West Vancouver School District’s environmental education academy outside45, concluded a thoughtful blog post with the following statement:  “Ensure that your own educational journey is conducted with purpose.”

Several weeks ago, students in outside45 paddled from Bowen Island to Gambier Island for three days of kayaking, camping, and celebrating being outside in a beautiful part of the world.

I was not on this trip but paddled over from Bowen to Gambier with my partner one evening to join outside45 for some camp fire time before returning to Bowen later that evening.

This short paddle and time with the group reminded me of part of my purpose as an educator in helping develop outside45.

Cooperation, inclusion and appreciation were clearly visible in watching students interact.  It was apparent that students understood that one of the great joys in life is to be in beautiful places with people they care about.

Returning home, in our hour long paddle back to Bowen Island we slowed our kayaks several times and dipped our hands into the warm water to pull plastic bags from the ocean.

In just three hours on the water and in spending time with the group I was reminded quite powerfully of why experiential environmental education matters, I was reminded of the purpose of outside45 and my role in it.

I believe strongly that schools should create opportunities for students to develop deeply supportive relationships with classmates.  I believe strongly that students should be given every opportunity to love learning and that they should be exposed to learning environments that teach them about the world and who they are in it.  And we should all give ourselves frequent opportunities to connect with the natural world as such experiences remind us of how important it is that we be positive participants in the natural systems we contribute to and rely upon.

This last point particularly resonated with me.  If we deliberately and mindfully connect with the natural world, how does this affect our understanding of who we are in the world and how we are to act?  Conversely, If we do not mindfully and frequently connect with natural environments, how does this affect our understanding of who we are in the world and how we are to act?

So, in thinking of my purpose both as an educator and as a participant in the natural world, I endeavour to frequently ask myself these two questions:

(How) Did I connect with the natural world today?  How does this affect my understanding of how to live?

Jackie Hildering, a naturalist behind the website, The Marine Detective, noted after one of her seemingly daily reverential experiences observing whales, “If only more of us could feel the connection to our life-sustaining sea, no matter how far we are from her shores. We’d care more, consume less, better use our electoral and consumer power and – live happier and more meaningful lives.”

(How) Did you connect with the natural world today?  How does this affect your understanding of how to live?