Are Questions the New Template?
by Darren Spyksma, SCSBC Director of Learning ◊
Teachers have been required to fit all learning experiences into the same boxes and the same structures for many years. It helped ensure that schools that espoused to be teaching the government curriculum actually documented their compliance. This was not a wrong way to do it, rather it was the most efficient way to evaluate a system that focused on ensuring that students acquired as much knowledge as possible. If the focus of education is on stuffing students full of information, then efficiency in planning, lecturing, testing, and reporting is the way to go. There was a time when lecture, test, repeat worked fairly well. That time is not now.
The Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Office of the Inspector of Independent Schools (OIIS) understand this and continue to take bold, courageous steps to ensure that the future of education in British Columbia is good for all students. Through a recommitment to the work of the Sullivan Commission and its articulation of the Educated Citizen and a re-articulation of how this work impacts learning development in British Columbia, leaders in our province continue to develop frameworks that prepare students for lifelong learning in a world where ongoing change is the constant.1
There is a paradigmatic shift taking place that centres around the learner and the competency development of the learner. As we support teachers in reimagining teaching within this shift, two questions are asked more often than all others. “Do you have a template we can use?” and “What is the template going to look like?” These are not educational questions. They are compliance questions and therefore cannot be the starting point when designing learning plans within this new paradigm. If we truly stand as proponents and protectors of our school’s mission, we must first establish what purposeful, mission-directed, BC Ed Plan-contextualized learning looks like in our schools, knowing that work done well should also comply with the expectations of the OIIS.
Once schools have clearly established an understanding of their purpose through the use of graduation profiles, tag lines, or other methods which practically articulate how the schools mission will impact classroom interactions, then they are ready to develop learning plans for students. Once the “why” has been established room needs to be made for the “who”. I understand that teachers may not be ready to forgo planning until after they meet their students, however as teachers plan, they need to make room for meaningful choice in the areas of content, assessment, teaching methods received as well as any other areas where student involvement can be used to increase engagement and depth of learning. The more teachers leave room for students to be intimately involved, the more ready students will be to learn.
For teachers in the field, the changes I have discussed already are significant, and the starting point for significant change in the classroom. If teachers have the privilege of knowing the students they will be teaching from year to year, they are at an advantage. Forward thinking leaders will look for opportunities for teachers to have the same group of students for more than one year to make this shift in education more manageable for teachers and more meaningful for students. Looping of student groups is one way to make this transition more purposeful. However it magnifies the need to provide students with teachers in whom the school has utmost confidence.
Teachers who are clear about the practical application of their school’s mission and the role of meaningful student involvement in ever-growing areas of learning are ready to plan learning for students using the BC Building Student Success documents.2 But rather than planning for boxes, teachers are encouraged to work through a number of questions that can guide their planning. Once these questions have been answered, teachers can choose to arrange the details of their planning in a way that works for them. It is important to realize that each teacher will begin planning at a different place. There are times when a teacher has an outstanding activity they love working with, their students love being engaged in, and has meaningful learning potential. Other teachers, still feeling responsible for content coverage, may start with a concept or topic they need to cover. Other teachers will meet their students, determine needs the students have, and design learning from established needs around competency development. Whatever the starting point, by walking through a series of planning questions, teachers can be assured that first and foremost they will be able to start where the students are at and help them learn while also establishing a plan to be compliant with the OIIS expectations.
The guiding questions are not meant to be linear, but a clear understanding of the shape of tomorrow’s lesson comes from thinking through each of them in preparation for working with a unit. They do begin with larger concepts and then work through to content and activity focused questions. However, teachers are encouraged to start with any question and then link them together as they follow a certain train of thought. As we practice with these questions, we notice a cyclical nature with this way of planning. Teachers need to be free to go back, rethink, tweak, review and continue the process. In a world where so many students have learned and been taught to seek out the easiest “right” answer or the answer the teacher wants, a cyclical planning process will assist teachers in understanding the very cycle we encourage students to work with as they wrestle with real problems affecting people in their neighborhood.
As teachers continue to work with the BC Ed Plan, it is essential that they are initially freed from concern about compliance. All stakeholders are passionately pursuing meaningful, deeper learning for students. This translates into purposeful freedom being allowed in this transition process. By using a series of questions to guide the planning of learning, teachers still receive the structure they need while being encouraged to think beyond the boxes into a learning plan that is malleable based on the needs and interests of students. These guiding questions are a compilation from a number of conversations and resources, most notably with leaders from within our member schools, Teaching for Transformation, Experiencing Christ in the Classroom, BC’s Building Student Success, Expeditionary Learning and Ron Bybee’s “5 E’s”.
David Bentley Hart suggests, “We are free, not merely because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.”3 This is the new crucible for teachers. Teachers need to choose well while also teaching students to choose well. Our choices need to show that we understand Corinthians 10:23-24. The good of others should be paramount in the choices we are making.4 For Christian teachers, this means realizing that the learning opportunities designed in the classroom must point students beyond themselves. There is no room for learning “just because.” Through collaboration with colleagues, community partnerships, and ongoing teacher development, even learning to calculate moles in Chemistry is part of a larger story of students developing the practices and routines needed to become both lifelong learners and lifelong agents of change. Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote, “It is nothing but a pious wish and a grossly unwarranted hope that students trained to be passive and non-creative in school will suddenly, upon graduation, actively contribute to the formation of Christian culture.”5 Learning must include opportunities for teachers and students to take an active role in the lives of those around them and in the creation of an intriguing story that stands in place of the story of individualism so prevalent today. This type of learning does not happen by filling in boxes. It can happen if teachers intentionally think through key concepts using guiding questions and then invite their students into the creation of a learning story that has the students actively working to imagine and develop an exciting and attractive Christian culture which speaks into the lives of so many who are disenfranchised with the focus on self so prevalent in society and our schools.
Interested in reading SCSBC’s suggested guiding questions for learning plan development? Member school administrators can access the planning tools through SCSBC’s Administrators’ Portal. Schools not part of our membership are welcome to contact Darren for more information.
- Introduction to Curriculum Design, August 2015 (DRAFT)
- Bently, David. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. Yale University Press, 2010.
- The Christian Teachers Journal, November 2015.
- Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning. Baker Academic, 2002.