The Adventure of Meaningful Learning
Where have five years gone? It feels like just yesterday, three weeks into the job, that I was standing in the parking lot of a hotel in Smithers, BC. As I pulled the hatch door of the rented minivan down to slam it, the unthinkable happened.
It crashed directly down onto the head of then-boss Henry Contant. In the chaos of the moments that followed, as we tried to talk Henry into getting stitches, I wondered if I would still have a job at the end of the week.
It is amazing how quickly five years pass when you are on an engaging learning adventure. The past five years have been full of changes, excitement, challenges and support. Through all the ups and downs, my greatest privilege is always the opportunity to learn from my interactions with many wonderful educators around the province, continent and world. As I hear stories, see examples and share in passionate dialogue about what is best for students, key themes emerge. Though not exhaustive, I hope that you find yourself in these themes and use them to support you and your teams as you engage more deeply with teaching Christianly and student learning.
Belonging + Contributing = Becoming
Students need to belong to flourish. Belonging by itself is not the end. A strong Christian learning community understands that Christ’s ability to create space for His disciples (read students), to feel like they belonged was never the goal of His stories, activities, words and actions. Christ used a sense of belonging to catapult His students into a state of becoming 1. Students only belong in order to ___________? Learning communities who claim the role of Christian in the world, desire to create a place where all students gain a sense of belonging within the school community. Belonging is the foundation of learning, service, faith and a relationship with Christ. As students gain a sense of belonging, they should be nurtured in a desire to help others to belong. When students begin to contribute to the sense of belonging within the community, they are in a state of becoming.
Never underestimate the power of eye contact, a smile and calling someone by their name to increase a person’s sense of belonging. Do you have systems in place to ensure that every child receives those gifts every day from their school community?
Learning that Haunts
Before many students get to the middle years, the draw of the screen, whether it be scrolling and swiping their way through someone else’s curated life, or building and blasting an animated self to victory, exceeds the desire to learn in a traditional learning environment. What learning is taking place, what questions are being wrestled with, which in a break in the action in their parent’s basement, have students pondering possible solutions and outcomes. Content acquisition for the sake of content acquisition does not meet this objective. Questions which can be answered with a quick google search will not haunt students into their afterschool screen frenzy. How often is learning organized around a question that has more than one right answer? How often is the driving question one that is beyond the learning designer in the room? If you already know the answer, is it a question worth spending much time on?
Shifting the Starting Point
No Christian schools within the SCSBC community changed their mission and vision as a result of the modernized curriculum. The end is still the same: wholeness, discipleship, Christlike discernment, joyful service, educational excellence, and the shaping of God’s world. These elements of a school’s mission support the understanding that students are not heads on sticks2. Embodied learning practices leading to content acquisition allows schools to pursue their mission with integrity. To do this well, educators must start, “with what do my students need to practice as we engage with these concepts?” It is only then that teachers should be asking: What content do my students need to know to engage and practice well? Each group of students has their interests and areas for growth. To educate students in this way, they must be known and have agency. Not agency for their own gain, agency to improve the lives of others.
The Answer to “How” is “Yes”
In his book, The Answer to How is Yes3, Peter Block suggests that positive change and innovation are held back by a group’s fascination with and desire for the illusion of perfection. It is the pursuit of perfection and having all the details worked out that encourages organizations to forget about asking the question, “What matters in this situation?” and jump straight to being frozen by the enormity of “How are we going to do this?” The enormity of how becomes an excuse for inaction. By focusing on what matters, organizations are freed to innovate and explore. “Choosing to act on what matters is the choice to live a passionate existence, which is anything but controlled and predictable.” As educators step into their Christian identity as leaders pursuing educational improvement, they step forward trusting that God goes before them. In that space, they act with confidence, moving into the unknown using their collective intellect, the stories of their shared history and the organization’s mission to guide the innovation they trust will improve learning in schools. Indeed, the answer to “how” is “Yes!”
For a teacher who commonly closes the door of the classroom after the bell, doing their own thing and then going home at night, the modernized curriculum is a problem. Secondary teachers, in particular, need to adjust to the reality that all teachers are responsible for being aware of and supporting the development of skills related to literacy, numeracy and career awareness. They need to support the development of competency in the students, give time for reflection, and track this development and reflection across disciplines. The only way this happens well is with meaningful collaboration. Schools focused on student development will blur the lines between disciplines, because organizing learning exclusively by discipline does not support learning, creativity and collaboration. Even post-secondary institutions are acting on this learning innovation4. For many discipline specialists, moving from individual or department focused learning to a more life ready interdisciplinary approach to learning, is a huge adjustment. In this moment of grief, educators are encouraged to name the emotions that come with change, reminding themselves that education is about the student.
Change is hard. There are already many good learning experiences in Christian schools across BC. The modernized curriculum is not a call for the elimination of everything that has gone before. It is a call to continuous improvement focused on learning, awareness of the marginalized, and support for the learner. The changes represented by the modernized curriculum are about reorienting educator practice to focus on the impact of pedagogy on learning. James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits5, suggests that it is small adjustments to habits that result in significant improvement over time. He suggests that anyone’s trajectory, rather than their current results matter and that commitment level determines progress. A positive trajectory is created through “habit stacking.” For an educator, that means inserting a new habit into the lesson planning routine. Before moving from the creation of the learning target to “the hook” which starts the lesson, educators would be encouraged to ask themselves, “which Core Competency Facet do I want students to practice today?” By adding this one question to the habits of planning the educator improves the focus of learning for students.
Meaningful learning is an adventure. Some days will feel like you’ve been cracked on the head by the hatch of a minivan. Hopefully, in moments like that, you know that the worthwhile things in life take effort. There will be setbacks. On the days where you find yourself rubbing your head, remember that what matters is that you are on the journey prioritizing what is best for student learning.
Darren Spyksma (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SCSBC Director of Learning
1 George Eldon Ladd – Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God
2 James K.A. Smith – Desiring the Kingdom
3 Peter Block – The Answer to How is Yes: Acting on What Matters
4 Cheryl Mahaffy – Weaving a Tapestry of Learning: Introducing the King’s Common Curriculum
5 James Clear – Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results