The past 30 years have been marked by an increased rate of change in societies around the world. In the span of a single generation, new technologies like personal computers, the internet, smartphones, and social media forced us to reconceptualize the way we engage in social interactions, work, and public life. Now artificial intelligence is challenging the boundaries of what it means to be human.
While these technologies have largely been adopted in positive ways, the systems under which they were created have also caused or exacerbated major world crises. The climate change crisis has shown us the consequences of unsustainable exploitation of nature and little regard for our limited resources. The spread of COVID-19 revealed capacity, coordination, and equity issues in our health, government, and education systems. Finally, most modern societies are also facing an economic crisis as a result of late-stage capitalism,1 which will undoubtedly change the face of our cities, work relations, and public life.
With all of these life-changing scenarios, what can the educational community do to equip students to deal with the challenges facing our world? This kind of question is usually confined to conversations about curriculum policy or reform. Many teachers believe their current curriculum does not address these challenges effectively, making it hard to tackle them in the classroom – especially in mathematics.
Specifically in mathematics, why is it so hard to address matters of public life in class? Perhaps the answer has less to do with curriculum policies and more to do with how we understand math education. The solutions to a quadratic equation, for example, can be found through digital technologies with precision and efficiency, so why is it that we still teach the discriminant technique? If we were to pay less attention to procedures and formulas, what could we do in mathematics classes to support our students to navigate the changes in our societies?
Preparing students to respond to the challenges imposed on our lives in the 21st century is a shared responsibility between policymakers (responsible for designing curriculum and approving pedagogical resources) and practitioners (school boards, schools, and teachers). Many readers might argue that the solution is to change the curriculum. While this is true to some extent, most Canadian provinces and territories have recognized that mathematics teaching in the 21st century must look different from the past.
Provinces already incorporate some of these important issues in mathematics classes, and many others are revising their curricula to increase their importance. They do so in three ways:
If many provincial curricula already have space to address our generation’s most pressing problems, what is missing? This is an epistemological problem. We, as mathematics educators, have been trained to see mathematics through its scholarly representation. We understand and appreciate theorems, concepts, algorithms, and formulas. But if we take a step back and look at mathematics as a way of thinking and being in the world, we might be able to see how our classes can contribute to a better tomorrow. Teachers often find themselves confused about the values they promote regarding mathematics. What is the purpose of teaching mathematics in the 21st century?
As it turns out, there are three answers to this question. In my research with mathematics teachers, I have identified three main orientations of mathematics education: disciplinary, professional, and citizenship. Depending on their orientation, teachers understand the value of teaching mathematics in unique ways. Consequently, they will respond to social change and tackle contemporary challenges distinctively. Below, I provide a brief description of these epistemologies, along with suggestions for readings and activities teachers can do with their mathematics classes. These are suggestions I’ve been using in my teacher education courses that have proved relevant to mathematics teachers’ visions and values.
This orientation refers to the most traditional – and most common – approach to teaching mathematics. It approaches the subject as the teaching of a scientific discipline, i.e. as an abstract science that is worth knowing for its own sake.
Most secondary mathematics teachers who pursued a specific degree in the subject enjoy mathematics for its own sake. For these teachers, mathematics – just like fine arts – should not serve immediate economic goals. It should instead be appreciated and celebrated as a common heritage of humankind and a way of developing the mind through problem-solving, logic, and rationality.
Teachers who share the disciplinary orientation of mathematics can respond to contemporary challenges by portraying mathematics problems that have yet to be solved. It is important to show students that mathematics as a discipline is still unfinished. Most students would assume that mathematical knowledge is already established and there’s nothing else to discover or invent. That is the result of the way math is often represented in the curriculum and textbooks, with formulas and concepts that must be memorized. By sharing unsolved mathematical problems, teachers can also show students that mathematical investigations can be done with a variety of technologies, including spreadsheets, coding, software programs, simulators, etc. Unlike what many might think, mathematical work is not isolated, and it certainly uses more than just paper and pencil.
Instead, I would invite teachers to introduce to their students the notion of a conjecture (a proposition that seems to be true but for which we still lack proper proof). Exploring a conjecture provides many opportunities for students to learn about the work of mathematicians and use a variety of technologies to investigate mathematical propositions. Students can also learn about the history of mathematics and how mathematicians pushed the boundary of human knowledge in attempts to prove conjectures.
Suggested book: Fermat’s Last Theorem, by Simon Singh (Fourth Estate, 2017). This book explains the history of more than 300 years of mathematical endeavours to prove a relatively simple proposition. Students can create a book club to discuss the book in parts. They will learn that mathematics is a lively science with lots to explore. The theorem (previously known as a conjecture) was only proved in 1995, 350 years after it was first proposed.
Suggested classroom activity: Explore the Collatz Conjecture2 with students in class. This conjecture can be easily understood by middle and high-school students and can generate many beautiful representations. Use Excel spreadsheets to automatically create a sequence based on a seed number, implement an algorithm (in Python language) that creates the sequence based on the user’s input, and create a concept map (use CmapTools) of multiple sequences.
This orientation is perhaps the most pragmatic of all three; it stems from an economic view of education as training. For teachers (and students) who espouse this perspective, the teaching and learning of mathematics should prepare students for future professional life. Particularly in high school, mathematics classes should develop appropriate skills that students could use in the workplace and/or prepare them for university programs that demand mathematical skills. With the intensification of the use of technology, skills associated with mathematics (counting, estimating, measuring, comparing, reasoning, etc.) have become ubiquitous in virtually all fields of professional life, from life sciences and STEM to literary work and fine arts. Most professionals face some, if not multiple, strands of mathematics daily. These demands intensify as they attempt to get promotions and climb the ranks of their organizations (typically moving toward management positions).
Consequently, mathematics classes should be responsive to these changes and portray the use of mathematics in a range of professions, so that students can see the value of learning mathematics and make informed career decisions in an increasingly precarious job market.
Many teachers see this phenomenon as a way to increase their students’ motivation to study mathematics. However, when faced with the infamous question, “When am I ever gonna use this?” they struggle to bring authentic examples of math in professional life. After all, it is unrealistic to expect mathematics teachers to be aware of how different fields are evolving. Do we expect industrial engineers to solve quadratic equations by hand to optimize costs in a production line? Or do they use software programs to simulate different scenarios under budget and resource constraints?
To tackle this challenge, teachers could provide students with opportunities to explore mathematics in professional life through research and social media. Platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Quora, and others provide a much-needed connection between school settings and real-life professionals. Through these platforms, students can reach out to workers from many fields and ask specific questions about the way they engage with mathematics in their daily tasks. Not only can this practice increase motivation, but it also allows teachers to create a portfolio of examples of math used in real-life workplace settings.
Suggested books: For middle school mathematics, On-The-Job Math Mysteries: Real-life math from exciting careers, by Marya Tyler (Prufrock Press, 2008). This book presents a set of mathematical problems faced by real-life professionals in interesting and unique fields. It provides teachers with explicitly mathematical problems that can be used in a class while also portraying mathematics authentically.
For high-school mathematics, 101 Careers in Mathematics – Fourth Edition, by Andrew Sterrett Jr. (Maa Pr, 2019). This book can be used by students, teachers, or counsellors to explore a wide range of careers for those who enjoy mathematics in high school. The book features real people in different fields and how mathematics was part of their professional trajectory.
Suggested classroom activity: Although most “traditionally mathematical” professions now use software programs for mathematical tasks, there is a lot of value in knowing how particular mathematical concepts were developed within those fields. One good example is geometric instruments and constructions, both of which were developed in the context of architecture. Notable angles, parallel and perpendicular lines, and triangle centres can all be constructed with high precision simply through a compass and a ruler. Students can learn a great deal of math by exploring why such constructions work. Here is a guide for a variety of constructions: www.mathsisfun.com/geometry/constructions.html
This orientation perceives the teaching of mathematics as a way of facilitating active participation in social life. Mathematical knowledge is one lens through which students can understand the world. When we discuss issues of public policies, the planning of our cities, the distribution of resources, or the electoral system, it is important to understand how mathematical information is produced, used, and communicated. It is therefore paramount that our students learn to decode different discourses through mathematics.
Most teachers present this orientation in implicit or explicit ways. They agree that mathematics is required to become a well-rounded individual in our societies, but sometimes struggle to identify proper opportunities to discuss important issues in the classroom. How much time should be spent discussing the context before diving into the “actual” mathematics? How much preparation does a math teacher need to approach sensitive topics? How do we identify the underlying mathematics concepts that can be explored in such topics as city planning or government budgets?
It is true that mathematics teachers need to go above and beyond their original training to make connections between mathematics and citizenship. However, once this connection becomes clear, it can save time in the classroom by interweaving different math strands into one unit. Also, the most recent curriculum revisions have introduced topics that facilitate these connections explicitly. Financial literacy, coding, and data literacy are just some examples of new mathematics strands that can easily be implemented with a citizenship epistemology. These concepts are unequivocally connected to social situations.
Suggested book: How Not to Be Wrong: The power of mathematical thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg (Penguin, 2015). Each chapter of this book explores a different mathematical concept or principle and how it has been used to shape our daily lives. It is a great resource to find deep and authentic connections between mathematics and social life.
Suggested classroom activity: One of the biggest debates in Canada over the last decade has been electoral reform. Currently, Canada uses the so-called first-pass-the-post system: each of 338 districts elects a member of Parliament to represent its interests, and the party with the most seats then forms the government. Through publicly available data,3 students can organize a spreadsheet according to each district and the votes received by each party.
A range of questions can be explored: What is the percentage of votes received by your MP? In which riding does a vote have the most/least percentage impact? Which riding elected an MP with the highest/lowest number of votes? Which riding had the closest race or largest landslide victory? Which non-elected candidate received the greatest number of votes? Has any MP been elected with less than this number? These questions elevate the debate about Canada’s voting system without promoting any specific position about electoral reform.
Similar to art, which can be valued for its aesthetic contribution as well as its depiction of social issues, mathematics is multi-faceted in its contributions to our world. The orientations described above are present in curriculum expectations, textbooks, teaching practices, and students’ rapport with the subject. They are certainly not mutually exclusive and can emerge in the classroom at different moments. Mathematics educators can benefit from a deeper look at their own values related to mathematics in order to recognize the biases and ideas guiding their instructional choices. In doing so, they might also be able to recognize the orientations their own students bring to the classroom and express in mathematics.
Which of these orientations is most closely aligned with your values? How do they inform your practices in the classroom?
First published in Education Canada, September 2022
1 Commodification of housing and health, widespread industry monopolies, precariousness of workers’ rights.
2 See The Simplest Math Problem No One Can Solve – Collatz Conjecture. Veritasium. www.youtube.com/watch?v=094y1Z2wpJg
3 2021 results: www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rep/off/44gedata&document=index&lang=e
Over the past two years, teachers have had to shift and change their teaching practices due to the worldwide pandemic. This has caused us to re-evaluate the traditional teaching methods that we have been using in the classroom. Instead, we have shifted to instructional practices that are more differentiated, and that attempt to meet the needs of all of our students.
As we shift away from traditional classroom practices, one strategy that has shown a lot of promising results is the use of short, teacher-created instructional videos. When instructional videos are teacher-created and personal, they can also foster digital relationships with our students.
There are many reasons why this practice has shown so much promise. Here is a breakdown of some of the benefits to teachers, as well as students.
The first step is to determine your learning goals. Go back to your curriculum, figure out which skills you want to target, and plan backwards from there. You want to make sure that your learning goals are very specific, and will allow you to chunk them out into short videos of approximately five to six minutes. This means that one curriculum expectation might turn out to be a series of several videos and that’s OK!
In terms of which tools to use, it is completely up to you! If your board or district has rules around the tools you are permitted to use, then be sure to consult that list. If not, then there are a variety of options available – choose one that you are comfortable with, and that fits your purpose. There’s no need to get fancy or to try out a new or complicated program.
Plan out the structure of your video. Start by deciding if you’ll be doing a presentation, using a whiteboard tool, or demonstrating something in a classroom. For subjects with practical components, such as labs or tech courses, it might make more sense to outline the steps of a procedure instead, so that you can physically demonstrate that skill in the video. Either way, you’ll want to make sure that you have a clear picture of the outline of your video structure before you hit record.
Once you have an outline in place, you will then want to create the visual component that you will use for that lesson. It can be a PowerPoint or Slides deck, a more complex Prezi presentation, your LMS, or even a physical lab set up with materials. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but whatever you choose, make sure you minimize the amount of text that you are using – too much text can be extremely difficult or cognitively overwhelming for many students. You should also try to find images that pair well with the text you are presenting; this will help students to make more meaningful connections to your lesson.
If using Slides or PowerPoint, you should also consider using transitions or animations to help chunk out the different steps or concepts that students need to know. This will allow students to focus on one thing at a time, instead of reading ahead and possibly missing out on an important concept.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
Possible recording tools to use:
Possible tools to add interactive elements:
Have we lost the purpose of education during the pandemic? Or did the pandemic exacerbate a lost purpose for education? These are the questions I have asked myself since schooling for almost six million children and youth was disrupted in Canada due to COVID-19.
There were many poignant moments of this sense of loss. One stark moment was last June when my children’s elementary school report cards were delivered. Although it was challenging, my children were able to engage in the mandated five hours of daily online instruction for more than half the school year in Ontario. This was possible because we had technology and stable Wi-Fi, a house with quiet spaces, at least one parent with flexible employment, and so much more. What grades were schools giving to the one in five children or one in two First Nations children living in poverty (Canada Without Poverty, 2021), who were struggling to access school supplies and services from books and computers to food security programs? How were the 10 to 20 percent of students with special education needs graded when they did not have access to differentiated online instruction or social and therapeutic services (Vaillancourt et al., 2021)? The report cards were a grade of our privilege.
Faced with an unprecedented lifetime crisis in education, school officials rarely chose to depart from typical assessment measures and other standard policies. The irony is that the pandemic ushered in urgent public conversations about the need for a “new normal” based on collective well-being. From forced physical distancing and social disconnection with family and friends to relying on strangers to get the vaccine and flatten the curve, we learned about the fundamental importance of relationships for us to be well. Yet our humanity or the need for relationships for human flourishing – a purpose for education – seemed lost in the crisis. Perhaps more accurate is that the relational foundations of education have been further lost.
Gert Biesta describes a lost purpose as a decades-long process of “learnification.” Learnification refers to a language of learning that has “shifted attention away from the importance of relationships in educational processes” (Biesta, 2016, p. 15) and toward individual sense-making of an abstract something (Biesta, 2009, pp. 36–9). Learning asks “for a student to get it, comprehend it, be ‘conscious’ of it; even if [they] didn’t want to get it, didn’t enjoy it, or does not intend to use it” (Ellsworth, 1997, p. 46). Steeped in neoliberal policies, learning has become an individual’s responsibility to respond to market-driven demands of employability.
Who is harmed when the fundamentality of relationships is undermined in education? The answer is all of us. One illustrative example is reconciliation education. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) made it ever more apparent that current curricula exclude Indigenous knowledges. Cree educator Dwayne Donald reminds us that “the tipis and costumes approach has been applied to classrooms for years leaving teachers and students with the unfortunate impression that Indians have not done much since the buffalo were killed off and the West was settled” (2009, p. 5). While there have been curricular advancements, too often schools do not address settler responsibility for colonial unjust relations. This is evident from the long tradition of naming schools after residential school architects and underscored by the recent reprimand of an Indigenous student who refused to stand for O Canada (Coubrough, 2021). Schools perpetuate what Donald refers to as the mythology of the fort – a deeply embedded colonial frontier logic that characterizes Indigenous and non-Indigenous lives as walled, separate realities (i.e. “civilization” on the inside and authentic “Indians” outside) (2009, pp. 1–3). What would it mean for reconciliation if we rejected “denial of historic, social and curricular relationality” (Donald, 2009, p. 5)? What would it mean for education if relationality, fundamental to Indigenous worldviews, was a driving purpose?
Who is harmed when the fundamentality of relationships is undermined in education? The answer is all of us.
If relationships had been the purpose for education pre-pandemic, school officials’ responses to the crisis might well have been different. Governments across the country closed schools while often keeping bars, restaurants, and gyms open – prioritizing the economy over in-person learning. The rationale was that learning would seamlessly continue thanks to technology for remote instruction and private resource partnerships. A recent report from the Royal Society of Canada on pandemic education outlines the inequities of digital learning access and outcomes. Experts cited higher rates of disengagement, absenteeism, and thus “learning loss” for the most vulnerable students. Less often acknowledged is that “learning loss” – far different than measures of numeracy and literacy – is, simply put, a loss of relationships. Students reported worsening mental health, including higher rates of depression and anxiety, and a withdrawal from virtual classes, in large part because of the loss of social interactions with peers, teachers, and other education staff (Vaillancourt et al., 2021).
Education stands in contrast to learnification. Biesta contends that education is the creation of spaces where students may practise together their “grown-up-ness.” He defines grown-up-ness as an educational value by which students may respond to the challenges of human living – democracy, ecology, and care – without positioning themselves in the centre of the world (Biesta, 2015, pp. 8–10). Education is about a concern for humanity and not “survival of the fittest.” The school classroom then, rather than a controlled space for individual achievement, must be envisioned as being comprised of human beings seeking to understand what it means to be in relation with another. Likewise, political problems in education, like violence in schools, rather than being reduced to problems with individual learners, must be taken on as a collective responsibility that requires interconnected social systems of care and justice (Campbell, 2019).
What does it mean then to have a relational approach to education?
1) It means acknowledging that relationships are a fact, but the kinds of relationships we foster in education are a choice.
As humans we are constituted in and through relationships with others (Llewellyn & Llewellyn, 2015). We have a range of social relationships – some healthy and some unhealthy – but connections are essential determinants of our identities and well-being. We cannot choose the fact of relationships, but we can choose to be attentive to relationships for human flourishing. One resource for evidence-based methods of developing healthy relationships is the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet). This network offers a range of resources, on a range of topics from healthy dating relationships to bullying, that support youth development. For more information, visit www.prevnet.ca.
2) It means that the relationships at stake within schools and broader communities must determine what we do in education.
Who is education for? What is it for? A relational approach asks who before what. The absence of asking who enables the continued privilege of normative identities (Llewellyn & Parker, 2018). The identities of those most marginalized are excluded when education is about individualized learner objectives and ignores the power relations within communities. A relational approach is not one-size-fits-all training. Instead, it requires attention to the context of relationships and the facilitation of dialogue to understand and act upon the diverse histories, experiences, and perspectives of students. An example of such an approach is Relationships First, which encourages relational education policies in Newfoundland and Labrador. For more information, visit www.relationshipsfirstnl.com.
3) It means that social systems, including but not limited to education, must work relationally toward a better future.
A relational approach requires a move from siloed and fragmented systems and services to integrated efforts that address complex challenges for humanity. It requires school officials to recognize the interdependence of education with other systems, from health and finance to justice and labour. The health of relationships cannot be borne by individual teachers or individual schools that rely solely on social and emotional learning objectives. Instead, collective action is needed to prioritize just relations for the future of policy, curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and school culture (Butterfield, 2019). An exemplar of this work is Nova Scotia’s Restorative Approaches in Schools Project, which is a crime-prevention partnership between the departments of justice and education and with communities. For more information, visit https://novascotia.ca/just/prevention/restorative_approaches_in_schools.asp.
4) It means that the past stands in relationship with a collective reimagining of our future.
A relational approach requires that those involved in the educational project look back, not to simply blame, but to determine how we can move forward together. It calls for us to be guided by Sankofa – a symbol that was taught to me by the African Nova Scotian community in my current research. Sankofa is a West African term that means it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot in order to go forward. The term is represented by the image of a bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg – symbolizing rebirth – in its mouth. To learn more about Sankofa in action you can read about the Restorative Inquiry for the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, inclusive of a Canadian History curriculum Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation (DOHR) at www.restorativeinquiry.ca or www.dohr.ca.
While many of these resources speak to the principles of a relational approach, the question remains: What does that look like for post-pandemic teaching? The answer is: It depends. This is an unsatisfactory answer for some people who may be seeking easier solutions. It depends does not mean, however, that it depends on nothing. It depends on being steadfastly attentive to human flourishing and the relationships at stake in each educational context. To illustrate in more concrete terms, it means healing harms and not punishing non-compliance in schools. It means moving away from standardized testing and empowering teachers to work with families for authentic assessment. It means rejecting hybrid/fractured teaching, which is technology for technology’s sake, and embracing technology for human needs. It means not cramming content into the classroom but seeking to introduce knowledge that is responsive to urgent problems in communities. It means ending attacks on teachers and instead offering greater care for those who do the most care work. Overall, drawing from black feminist theorist bell hooks (1984), it means bringing what lies at the margins into the centre and struggling together for a brighter future.
The good news is that students are leading the way. Just listen to the news and you will see that students are not only thinking and acting relationally, but demanding their schools follow. Hundreds of students at Waterdown District High School in Waterdown, Ont., walked out early in October, after their principal reinforced dress codes for female students only days after the launch of a sexual assault investigation at the school. Sophie Vivian, who helped to organize the walkout, told the media, “It’s harmful for so many victims and even girls in general” (Pope, 2021). And, last fall, hundreds of students at Bishop McNally High School in Calgary protested outside the Calgary Police Headquarters over anti-Black racism in schools, including racial slurs by white teachers. Winnie Osunde, a Black student at Bishop McNally, publicly called for schools to teach more about Black history and Black Lives Matter movements (Ferguson, 2020). These and other similar news stories during the pandemic demonstrate that students are demanding an education that prioritizes relationships of belonging, equity, and justice. Students are modelling for all of us what it means to practise grown-up-ness – to respond to the challenges of humanity and seek human flourishing for each other. My hope for a post-pandemic Canada is that we will choose to restore or make new a relational purpose for education.
Photo credit: Adobe Stock
This is part of the first edition of Education Canada, powered by voicEd radio, a cross-platform professional learning experience.
This article draws upon earlier publications by Dr. Llewellyn.
Llewellyn, K. R., & Llewellyn, J. (2015). A restorative approach to learning: Relational theory as feminist pedagogy in universities. In T. P. Light, J. Nicholas, & R. Bondy (Eds.), Feminist pedagogy in higher education: Critical theory and practice (pp. 11−31). Wilfrid Laurier Press.
Llewellyn, K. R., & Parker, C. (2018). Asking the ‘who’: A restorative purpose for education based on relational pedagogy and conflict dialogue. The International Journal of Restorative Justice, 30(1), 399−412.
Llewellyn, K. R., & Llewellyn, J. (2020, June 15). A restorative approach is key for a new normal after COVID-19. Policy Options.
Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 33−46.
Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50(1), 75−87.
Biesta, G. (2016). The beautiful risk of education. Routledge.
Butterfield, K. (2019). Restorative approach to education. Equity Knowledge Network. https://rsekn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Restorative_Approach_to_Education.pdf
Campbell, C. (2019, February). Learnification and the attack on education. Epoché Magazine, 20. https://epochemagazine.org/20/learnification-and-the-attack-on-education
Canada Without Poverty. (2021). Just the facts. https://cwp-csp.ca/poverty/just-the-facts/
Coubrough, J. (2021, September 22). First Nations student reprimanded after not standing for O Canada. CBC News. www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/winnipeg-student-reprimanded-o-canada-wfpcbc-cbc-1.6179258
Ferguson, E. (2020, October 8). Hundreds of high school students join walkout in support of anti-racism. Calgary Herald. https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/hundreds-of-high-school-students-join-walkout-in-support-of-anti-racism
Donald, D. (2009). Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts. First Nations Perspectives, 2(1), 1−24.
Ellsworth, E. (1997). Teaching positions: Difference, pedagogy, and the power of address. Teachers College Press.
hooks, bell. (1984). Feminist theory: from margin to center. South End Press.
Pope., A. (2021, October 8). Waterdown students protest dress code reminder amid sexual assault investigation. CHCH News. www.chch.com/waterdown-students-protest-dress-code-reminder-amid-sexual-assault-investigation
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.800288/publication.html
Vaillancourt, T. et al. (2021). Children and schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and connection through opportunity. Royal Society of Canada. https://rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/C%26S%20PB_EN_0.pdf
School, for nearly every child, means far more than schoolwork. This point was clearly highlighted by the pandemic-related isolation: children were missing their friends and the social fabric of their school communities. During the pandemic, most children in Canada were isolated at home or confined to cohorts during the school day, often separated from friends. Recess, lunch, extra-curricular sports were drastically reduced, if not cancelled altogether.
How quickly we were reminded that social connection, play, and overall well-being are critically important to a healthy childhood, and how quickly we were reminded that well-being is critically important to school engagement. Just as there have been concerns of pandemic-related “learning loss,” there has been, unequivocally, a “play loss.” As we start a fresh new school year, we argue that children will need an extended amount of school time to focus on reconnection, healing, and play. Supportive spaces at school will need to be carved out for this to happen.
Schools have long been defined by standardization, academic competition, individualism, and conformity – so much so that play, social connection, and a sense of belonging may seem trivial and counterproductive to the purpose of learning.
But there is a sizable body of research to indicate otherwise. In a landmark new book, Let the Children Play, Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle (2019) consolidate over 700 recent research studies that link school-based play and social connection to increases in well-being and far better learning. Creativity, imagination, play, and social connection are foundational to well-being, and well-being is foundational to learning. It’s that simple. Yet the education system tends to be deeply entrenched in practices and routines that pay less attention to the social and emotional needs of children.
But we can change this. If the pandemic is to have a silver lining, it’s that it has highlighted the need to prioritize time and space for human connection. And this is particularly necessary in school, where attitudes and behaviour take root early and are continually reinforced. We have an opportunity now to change up the entrenched routines.
Let’s start now with something rather simple: provide more – and better – recess.
Recess is a social space. Remember how important recess was to your life, for better or for worse? Recess, from the perspective of students, is far more than a break from instruction, a time for fresh air, or a need to amass the required 60 minutes of daily physical activity. We have long known that positive school friendships provide students with a sense of connectedness that makes school meaningful and engaging. Indeed, we know that learning happens in relationships, and relationships are forged when students have an opportunity to connect with their peers during the school day, most often outside of instructional time. These connections happen during lunch, on the playground, and in other informal school spaces, with important benefits for health and learning.
Yet, we need to pay attention to these informal settings to ensure that they are supportive and inclusive, otherwise we run the risk of undermining the very benefits we hope to realize. Unfortunately, out of all of the developed nations, Canada has some of the highest rates of school-based social harm – and the majority of this harm has been found to take place during recess and lunch. Many schoolyards, particularly those in low-income areas, are barren and uninviting, covered by a soulless layer of asphalt; and in dense urban neighborhoods, schoolyards are further impeded by their small size. And for some children, particularly those in low-income and urban areas, recess may be the only chance for outdoor play and access to friends in their entire day. Our concern is that when these spaces go unsupported, we see higher rates of boredom, bullying, loneliness, and exclusion – factors that undermine children’s attempts at play and connection.
We can do better. It’s time to change this and use this time to prioritize well-being and ensure all children have the space in the school day to connect with others in activities that allow for meaningful, inclusive, and playful engagement. Far from detracting from learning, these opportunities can influence mood, well-being, school engagement, behaviour, learning, focus, attendance, and overall school climate.
Play and social connection mitigate stress. After nearly a year of social isolation, chaotic change, and uncertainty, students are undeniably experiencing stress. Stress makes it difficult for children to access the aspects of the brain that allow for thinking and reasoning. We now know that play activates the brain’s reward circuitry and releases endorphins – the chemicals that make us feel happy and calm.
Play, by definition, is something we do because we want to, not because we have to (Gray, 2013). This is important for children – particularly now – because it gives them a sense of control and predictability that allows them to feel safe and secure, mitigating the effects of anxiety and stress. Both laughter and physically active play trigger the release of oxytocin and serotonin, chemicals that relieve tension and buffer against further stress. Social play provides the emotionally sustaining qualities of happiness and support, which is precisely what children need to feel safe and secure.
Play makes children happy. Gasp – dare we consider this as a “metric” to measure school quality? Schools are far more than academic institutions. They are communities where children spend a considerable amount of their waking hours during highly significant developmental years. We know that when children feel included, connected, and accepted by their communities, they are more likely to develop a healthy, positive attitude toward themselves and others that influences their behaviour at school. When children feel calm, secure, and happy they are more likely to enjoy school, engage cooperatively and considerately toward their schoolmates, be committed to their schoolwork, and have higher expectations of success.
Children have a Right to Play. Because play is so fundamental to a healthy childhood, Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (General Assembly of the United Nations, 1989) deems play and rest to be indispensable human rights: “the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.” This responsibility to protect and promote this right includes schools. This right can be leveraged by ensuring the recess environment is inclusive, fully accessible, secure from the effects of social harm, and appropriate for all genders, ages, stages, and abilities (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2013).
Children should love school. We all want our children to experience an ecosystem that supports curiosity, creativity, and connection. When this nightmare pandemic is over, let’s collectively find ways to give them opportunities to laugh and connect again, to have meaningful breaks in their day that allow them to heal from the relentless trauma. Let’s push hard for what William Doyle calls a new Golden Age of Play – and be sure schools are part of this conversation.
This article is a summary of a chapter from the Royal Society of Canada’s Report on COVID and Schools, in press, 2021.
As a start, we suggest all stakeholders – teachers, administrators, education leaders, parents – continuously advocate for schools to integrate more and better recess:
General Assembly of the United Nations, Convention on the rights of the child (1989) Treaty no. 27531. United Nations Treaty Series, 1577, pp. 3–178.
Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books.
Sahlberg, P., & Doyle, W. (2019). Let the children play: why more play will save our schools and help children thrive. Oxford University Press.
UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), General comment No. 17 (2013) on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (art. 31), 17 April 2013, CRC/C/GC/17. www.refworld.org/docid/51ef9bcc4.html
“Fitton, you baby.”
I can still remember the nasal voice and twitchy mustache of my Grade 9 wrestling coach as he derided me, and the way he emphasized the luscious double “B” in “baby.” I’d arrived at wrestling practice sick, knowing how important it was to my coach that we attend regularly for the team. I’d asked woozily if I could watch practice from the bleachers.
I wish I could tell you that his words inspired my immune system to leap into action and triumph like the Miracle at Dunkirk. Instead, I felt gutted. His infectious words meant that within the year, I’d quit the wrestling team. Twenty-three years later, his words served as a powerful inoculation against the use of negative semantics in my own classroom.
Many people can vividly remember their own short but powerful instance of a time when someone believed in them – or not. Maya Angelou’s wisdom is visceral: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”
One October staff meeting, our admin team presented a graph that became the reason I get out of bed each day. As the data appeared on a PowerPoint, our principal congratulated us on the results of the previous year’s Ministry of Education Learning Survey of students at our school. He pointed out that when asked “How many adults at your school care about you?” 69 percent of our students reported, “Two adults or more.”
A few staff members stifled a yawn; others finished their grading. Sedation washed over the faculty like the warm hug of a narcotic – but my reaction was volcanic.
A good news story? I felt angry. Worse: ashamed. Nearly one in three – 162 kids – were walking through our front doors feeling that hardly any adults in the school cared about them. That’s five to six full classrooms of students disconnected from adults, possibly for four years of their academic experience. That’s not education. That’s a prison sentence.
But the data was a call to action.
In 2021, the survey is asking a new question: “Are there two adults in the building who believe you will be a success in life?” Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert, two professors from the University of British Columbia, had urged our district to explore this question. It’s a subtle but seismic semantic shift: Adults can care about a person and not believe in them. Belief is related to “care” and “connection,” but is something akin to a combination of both on steroids. It’s a three-for-one deal!
In Give and Take, Adam Grant reminds readers of the Rosenthal Experiment. Elementary teachers were told by Harvard researchers Rosenthal and Jacobsen that they had a class with several “Bloomers.” These were students who could make 15 to 20 percent gains in achievement during the year.
It was a ruse. But as a result, the teachers developed a mindset where they believed in their students. Then the magic happened. When teachers thought their students had high potential, their teaching methods and approach ensured that the kids made significant academic gains. Interestingly, the research was replicated by Dov Eden in the Israeli military. As Adam Grant (2013) reports, these “high potential” students and soldiers were viewed by their instructors differently. When they made mistakes, their instructors believed they simply needed coaching or had made an error that was not indicative of incompetence. Teachers were generally warmer and spent more time with these identified pupils.
The power of the self-fulfilling prophecy – the Rosenthal Effect – should be revisited in our schools. As a best practice, schools would encourage teachers to consciously adopt the mindset that all students have high potential. Indeed, this paradigm shift is championed in Kaser and Halbert’s Spirals of Inquiry, by George Couros in The Innovator’s Mindset, and by Adam Grant in Think Again. Ultimately, their ideas around education seem to distill into creating meaningful relationships with students that demonstrate that their teachers believe in them.
The shift to believing in kids can have a 15 to 20 percent positive impact on students academically. Isn’t it time that we educators applied it with efficacy and intentionality? Without duping faculty, could schools adopt the Rosenthal Effect mindset consciously? Let’s work together to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that will positively alter the experiences and lives of our students! Today, will you consciously find something to nurture and believe in, with every student you teach?
Illustration: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
My teaching career began as a high school mathematics teacher, yet my focus over the last ten years has been in elementary, both researching and now teaching. I am currently teaching math to two Grade 5/6 classes, with half of them having IPPs. They are a complex group.
My interest in elementary math began by watching my own kids struggle. What was holding them back? Why did some students struggle more than others? Both of my kids, early in school, were labelled with learning disabilities in mathematics. Now both are achieving at a high level, one in high school, the other in junior high. My work with them was a journey that ebbed and flowed between barriers and progress. It often felt like going through a maze, heading in one direction, and then hitting a barrier. So, we would turn around and try another direction. Over time, patterns emerged in those barriers, and one telltale characteristic began to reveal itself: memorization. Through this recognition, the barriers became easier to avoid. Upon hitting a barrier, I would ask, “OK, what in this task am I expecting them to just remember without understanding?” Once identified, we would go back and focus on developing the conceptual understanding or image in their mind for this idea or symbol. Once they were no longer expected to memorize a process or a symbol without understanding, they would progress in leaps and bounds, often exceeding my expectations. Where there had previously been a brick wall there was now a passageway.
The barrier for many students is not the math but the ability to remember. Presenting students with symbols along with a series of steps that represent concepts before they have sufficiently grown their own personal understanding or image for that concept can be a major barrier. Students who memorize easily have an advantage, but is that advantage rooted in mathematical understanding? I have worked with many students who can find an answer but do not understand the underlying math.
How can we be more inclusive while focusing on the growth of understanding for the majority? It was this question that took me down the path of exploring how we absorb information and what types of activities contribute to the growth of our mental images for mathematical ideas. Are there ways of offering students information that are richer than others?
May I suggest three categories for offering information, ranked according to their ability to give us information as directly, originally, and optimally as possible:
The first mode of presenting a mathematical idea is through the oral discussion of mathematics and its written symbols. This is the emptiest way of presenting the meaning within a mathematical idea. We absorb information through our senses, and these symbols visually look nothing like the ideas they represent. If a student has not grown the understanding of these symbols, we are not offering them anything with meaning. Symbols are just the tip of the conceptual iceberg; the meaning, which is so much bigger than the symbol, lies underneath the surface. The symbol for four (4) can represent a distance, position, or quantity, which can be represented in an infinite number of ways. The shape of the symbol (4) itself offers no meaning; it is the students themselves who bring the meaning.
The second form, the imaginative, is the act of visualizing. Zimmerman and Cunningham (1991) state that the intuition that mathematical visualization affords is not a vague kind of intuition; rather, it is what gives depth and meaning to understanding. This internal offering of information for the idea through your personally developed images has much to offer in terms of growth in understanding. Images beget more images, leading to deeper understanding.
It has been well documented in both sports and music that growth occurs through the act of visualizing. As a teenager, my husband’s swim coach would ask the swimmers to lie on deck with their eyes closed while he orally described a swim race, guiding them through it, while they imagined themselves in the race. The description by the coach is a signitive offering, but where each swimmer takes those oral descriptions imaginatively is different for each person. In a meta-analysis done to answer the question Does mental practice enhance performance? (Driskell et al., 1994) the researchers concluded that “mental practice is effective for both cognitive and physical tasks; however, the effect of mental practice is significantly stronger the more a task involves cognitive elements” (p. 485). In this discussion, it is noteworthy to mention that physical practice was the most effective form, and that those who were experienced in physical practice (perceptual) benefited more from mental practice (imaginative) than those who were novices in the task. The reason suggested for this is that, “the novices who mentally practiced a physical task may not have sufficient schematic knowledge about successful task performance and may be spending their effort imagining task behaviors that could turn out to be somewhat counterproductive” (p. 490). This supports the idea of the importance of establishing the perceptual level of activity, which allows for continued growth when visualizing.
Our world is perceived not only in terms of object shapes and spatial relationships, but also in terms of environmental possibilities for action. A perceptual experience in mathematics, I suggest, is the acting out of a mathematical idea. It is within the spatial acting out that meaning is given or “lived” in the most direct, original, and optimal way, for we are experiencing the mathematical idea through our senses when, for example, we physically cut the shape into equal parts, connecting us to the concept of fractions. This physical act will allow for growth when we later imagine this act.
It is important to distinguish and emphasize the importance of this third category (perceptual) because it is a sensory act. It is this act that allows for the deepening and continual growth of images. So, when a student is stuck and struggling to understand, some kind of perceptual experience must be offered, some level of active interaction with the environment to promote further growth.
The imaginative and perceptual are closely intertwined. In fact, they are hard to discuss as separate entities, for together they are one idea – spatial reasoning. Spatial reasoning is more than just passively receiving sensations; it is the intentional act of perceiving and then engaging our bodies purposefully (Khan et al., 2015). Through acting out a mathematical idea there is a co-evolving that occurs in both our mental and physical skills. The actions being discussed are not only physical actions, spatial reasoning encapsulates mental actions as well. Visualizing is very productive within mathematics, as spatial reasoning ability and mathematical ability have been shown to be intimately linked (Mix & Cheng, 2012). Mental interactive playing and exercising of our images can stimulate growth in and of themselves without actually engaging our environment, but a foundation for this imagining must first be established (e.g. physically counting, organizing, regrouping, building, drawing, etc.). It is through these physical acts that our imaginative and perceptual experiences interact seamlessly with each other, building and strengthening images.
The idea that the math classroom benefits from the interaction between the signitive, imaginative, and perceptual is the arena in which my research lies. The perceptual and imaginative strengthen and evolve as we engage with our environment, but also within mathematics there is a strong signitive element that must be attached (memorization) to our mental images. How can these elements interact to the mutual benefit of all three?
The classroom teacher and I worked with her Grade 5 students in a school for students labelled with learning disabilities. We began with the foundational ideas of fractions. In our preassessment the students presented as having minimal understanding, many not knowing how to write a fraction (signitive). We had four days with them, offering perceptual experiences that were always combined with the signitive to encourage the association with their growing images. We would have them physically cut shapes (perceptual), practising the concept of splitting into equal parts. Yet before they cut the shapes, we would discuss and imagine how to ensure that they would end up with equal parts (imaginative), i.e. we would fold the shapes and then cut them. Next, the students would write the symbols representing the fraction pieces (signitive). This interaction with pieces offered them a visual, embodied, and imaginative experience connected to the mathematical concept. Later they would combine (perceptual) these different pieces and write the fractions (signitive) using an addition symbol.
Although we started with the basics, we continued stretching the complexity of the topic to see how far their images/understanding would take them. By day four, we played a game called imagine-build-steal, in which we offered them a signitive question first, such as 2/4 + 1/2 The students were then asked to imagine and give a solution. None were able to answer the question based solely on this signitive offering; they had not yet grown sufficient images. They needed more from their environment to deepen their own images. To promote this further enhancement, the students were asked to build (perceptual) using the fraction pieces that they themselves had cut out. This they could do; they had grown sufficient images for looking at the signitive offering and building the solution. So, we continued with this cycle of signitive first, then asking to imagine, and then offering a perceptual experience. Their images continued to grow until by the end of that period, students began to offer up imaginative solutions to expressions like 2/3 + 2/6 + 2/8, based solely on the signitive offering. They had reached the point of sufficient growth of their personal images to solve this complex expression without having to build it.
The growth of mathematical understanding is a complex process, as seen over and over again with my own kids, in my research, and in the classroom. It is also personal; each student must grow their own images for the mathematical ideas in order to be able to visualize and make use of them. For some, they can be slippery. This is true of both the student who finds it easy to memorize and the one who does not. I find spatial reasoning tasks to be a great equalizer in a classroom. The student who struggles to memorize and therefore follow steps may reason and visualize with ease, but those who can follow a series of steps to an answer may struggle to visualize the mathematical concept. Math, however, is about ideas and concepts, not a set of memorized rules. My experience and my research support the claim that mental images are a key element to mathematical understanding that is often underappreciated. Far too frequently, the goal is to get the student as quickly as possible to an answer rather than to deep understanding of the idea.
If these mental images are the key to deep understanding, then what factors influence the growth of these images? If we accept the idea that images are grown through a dynamic process of restructuring based on a stream of perceptual encounters and conceptual revelations (Arnheim, 1969), then playing with, utilizing, and exercising these images can support their growth. A classroom focused on growing images is one in which students are engaged in imagining, drawing, moving, and regrouping objects while incorporating the signitive to encourage association. If all we offer students are symbols on a piece of paper, only those students who have already grown sufficient images can benefit from such a task. As educators, we are then not providing new opportunities for growth to the various levels of student understanding that every classroom contains.
Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual thinking. University of California Press.
Driskell, J., Copper, C., & Moran, A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance? Journal of applied psychology, 79(4), 481–492.
Khan, S., Francis, K., & Davis, B. (2015). Accumulation of experience in a vast number of cases: Enactivism as a fit framework for the study of spatial reasoning in mathematics education. ZDM: The International Journal of Mathematics Education, 47(2), 269–279.
Mix, K. S., & Cheng, Y. L. (2012). The relation between space and math: Developmental and educational implications. In J. B. Benson (Ed.), Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 42, pp. 197–243). Academic Press.
Zimmermann, W., & Cunningham, S. (1991). Editors’ introduction: What is mathematical visualization. In W. Zimmermann, & S. Cunningham, Visualization in teaching and learning mathematics (pp. 1–7). Mathematical Association of America.
In recent years, schools have become more interested in outdoor education for a number of reasons. Outdoor education can help students learn to appreciate nature and its biodiversity in nearby settings before being introduced to the seriousness of environmental issues (e.g. pollution and deforestation). These familiar outdoor spaces are rich learning environments where teachers can incorporate content in a concrete way to make what is learned in school more meaningful. For example, students can study biodiversity by discovering the species that surround them, use buildings to put mathematical concepts into practice, or identify problems in their community to develop a project.
To properly plan an outdoor activity, it’s essential to set a clear educational intention for each outing (e.g. have students explore the diversity of arthropods that live in environments near school).
To ensure that students know what to do outside, it’s important to define your expectations by providing clear instructions, and/or by modelling the expected behaviours.
Respect your level of comfort. It’s best to start with shorter challenges the first few times (e.g. a 15-minute outing) before gradually adding new elements with each outing.
To maximize the impact of outdoor activities, it’s important that they are integrated into and complement the activities taking place indoors (e.g. prepare an observation sheet for students to record their observations of arthropods and then have them compare their observations with their classmates when they return to class).
Although the adoption of new educational practices requires a period of adaptation, trust your experience, your adaptability and your desire to teach outside.
While outdoor education allows students to learn differently, this practice also includes many other benefits. When natural outdoor environments are integrated into teaching and learning, they can foster students’ cognitive, social, and physical development. In particular, research shows that outdoor education decreases sedentary behaviours and encourages students to be more physically active, improves their attention and motivation, and reduces stress levels.
Will the post-pandemic world return to a past version of itself or will there be a new story with changed values? The Story Model (Drake et al., 1992) is a transdisciplinary way for students and teachers to explore these questions, and address change and the “unimaginable” future. At a time of deep uncertainty, it is crucial to offer students two things: an approach to interpret the world they live in now, and a way to nurture their hope and personal agency for their future.
No matter what changes, two fundamental questions of education will remain: What is important for students to know, do, and be in the 21st century? And how is education best delivered? We cannot reliably predict the “know” of essential content, but it’s clear that artificial intelligence will play a role (Hey, Siri).
What should students be able to do? There is general global consensus that learning 21st-century skills is essential (OECD, 2020). The Councils of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) identify these skills as:
How do we want students to be? While attitudes, values, and behaviour are influenced by cultural norms, in Canada we want students to develop a good work ethic, and to be flexible, open-minded, and committed to being good citizens.
How is the curriculum best delivered? In a post-pandemic world, we anticipate an expansion of technological skills, integrated curriculum, project-based learning, design thinking, and personalized and collaborative learning.
The Story Model (see Figure 1) is aligned with our view of future education and can be integrated into curriculum in any subject area. It is the perfect vehicle for a collaborative multidisciplinary project and is particularly useful to explore “wicked problems.” The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (sdgs.un.org/goals) are examples of wicked problems. Ending poverty, achieving zero hunger, and addressing climate change are problems so complex and intertwined that they can seem overwhelming and unsolvable. The Story Model’s emphasis on individual and collective agency for positive change counters despair and motivates action in the face of such problems.
Humans make meaning through narrative (Binder, 2011; Vygotsky, 1978). Individuals “story” their lives to make sense of them, interpreting experiences to create a story that has a perceived past and an anticipated future. Groups, cultures, and nations also have stories. Stories are filled with emotion and conflict. Embedded values influence decisions. The Story Model makes these stories and values explicit. Alone or collaboratively, people can consciously choose to change the storyline if they do not like its direction. We can create a new story to live by.
1. Explore a topic. Students work with the Story Model graphic (Figure 1) to explore a relevant, engaging topic through the four interwoven layers that frame the model: personal, cultural, global, and universal. Topics such as pollution, the Olympics, beauty products, hockey, video games, and racism can be studied at different levels of complexity throughout the grade spectrum. Let’s use the topic of blue jeans to consider each frame.
The personal narrative is the first lens of knowing. Canadian students, familiar with this popular fashion item, can write or tell a story about wearing or wanting to wear jeans. A personal connection increases engagement and highlights the relevance of the topic.
The second lens is the cultural story. Each student lives within at least one cultural story, be it ethnic, religious, social class, and so on. Some cultures may disapprove of jeans, whereas jeans are almost a uniform in others. Critical reflection helps deconstruct these cultural stories and their often taken-for-granted values.
The third lens is the global story. The popularity of blue jeans has significant global repercussions for ecology, labour, and the economy, to name a few. Cotton cultivation and manufacturing consume vast quantities of water, produce toxic pollution, and exploit labour. Multinational companies advertise, transport, and sell globally. When Canadians purchase their jeans at a local mall, they tap into a huge international network worth $100.25 billion US in 2020 (Shahbandeh, 2020).
The universal story connects us as humans. We all experience human needs and hold values. Humans everywhere value survival, health, and social belonging (Maslow, 1954). Yet, these universal human rights are threatened by the fashion industry.
2. Analyze the present story. Individually or in groups, students analyze the present story of their topic(s) by situating it within a transdisciplinary real-world web (Figure 2) that has been designed by the teacher, the student, or both together. The categories on the web are flexible; for example, the web in Figure 2 is missing politics/ government, global connections, and the arts. Perhaps they would appear on the web you design. The key idea is that categories are broad and rooted in real-world context. For younger children, the web would contain fewer words and words that are more familiar to them. For example, the word economy becomes money; equity becomes fairness; law becomes rules; technology becomes computers.
An effective web ultimately pushes any topic into the global realm. It also extends any topic from a disciplinary to a transdisciplinary context. Students use each category on their web to identify what they already know. They supplement their knowledge with research. Frequently, they consult with other students to make connections among categories. Systems thinking can be made visible by drawing connecting lines on a paper transdisciplinary real-world web or mind-mapping on the computer. Completing this exercise shows that in the real world, every category on the web is interconnected.
3. Identify the old story and its values. Next, students consider the present story in light of the past, their personal stories, and the transdisciplinary real-world web. The present story contains elements of the past. What are the historic roots? What explicit values of the old story persist? Old story values of the jeans story would include industrialization and capitalist values. Are there positive parts of the old story that are still useful? For example, students might enjoy the comfort of jeans. However, learning that their manufacture has environmental repercussions and economic disparities invites critical thinking.
4. Create a new story. Applying the Story Model graphic, students envision different futures. The model proposes two (or more) divergent paths for the future: either a projected story as a continuation of the old story or a preferred story as an imagined idealized alternative. The projected story would continue an industrial worldview with values such as profit, competition, greed and power. The preferred path will be an idealistic (and possibly unrealistic) story. This path might include eco-friendly manufacturing, and safe, secure working conditions based on different values such as sustainability, social justice, collaboration, and empathy.
Students critically evaluate the old and present stories and look for ways to reconcile them with their idealistic future story. The future story needs to consider the interdependence of multiple categories in the dynamic, transdisciplinary real-world web. Creating a new story evolves in an iterative, creative way, focused on interwoven questions (Figure 3).
The new story is not an either/or choice; it is more of a selective synthesis, a “both/and” resolution. Martin (2007) defined this process as integrative thinking – generating a solution that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to either one. Central to the process is the question: “How can we accomplish [this] while also accomplishing [that]? As students grapple with a possible answer, more and more complications arise. The question “but what about…?” always defeats a simple, superficial solution.
Returning to the blue jeans example, one tension between seemingly opposing positions is profit versus health. How can we have a thriving denim/blue jeans industry while also having a healthy environment and healthy workers? The resolution must resolve around a collective and sustainable option, which is what we are seeing with the green initiatives (water reuse, fair wage practices, use of natural dyes) of major companies that have responded to collective consumer activism (Farra, 2020; Sarkar, 2020).
5. Commit to “my” story. As a “final” step, students develop a values-based personal action plan to actualize their new story. They might purchase sustainably made jeans, endorse eco-responsible companies on their blogs, repurpose used denim, and so on.
Education (research, schools), media, and legislation propel a new story forward. The seatbelt is a good example of a formerly new story that is a taken-for-granted one today. The acceptance of seatbelts happened when people learned how they enhanced personal safety and when laws were created to penalize people who did not wear them. Emerging new stories are LBGTQ2+ equity, integration of AI, legalization of marijuana, and mainstream adoption of alternative power sources.
A new story does not stay “new” for long; it becomes the status quo from which another new tension arises. Thus, students come to understand the importance of lifelong reflective critique of the status quo. In an uncertain world, they see that action is the antidote for despair – that the individual has influence. Look at Greta.
The model can be simplified in multiple ways and combinations to suit various ages.
For the richest experience, apply both the Story Model and the web; students can follow specific steps to move from “old” to “new” story.
To learn how the Story Model was used in a Grade 9 Science class, read the article “A New Story in Grade 9 Science,” by Susan M. Drake, Bruce Hemphill, and Ron Chappell: https://greenteacher.com/the-story-model-empowering-students-to-design-their-future
1 Adapted from Drake, S. M., Bebbington, J., Laksman et al. (1992). Developing an integrated curriculum using the story model. OISE Press.
CMEC. Global Competencies.
Drake, S. M., Bebbington, J., Laksman, S. et al. (1992). Developing an integrated curriculum using the story model. OISE Press.
Binder, M. J. (2011). Remembering why: The role of story in educational research. In Education, 17(2).
Farra, E. (2020, April 24). These are the 10 sustainable denim brands you should know about now. Vogue.
Martin, R. (2007). The opposable mind: How successful leaders win through integrative thinking. Harvard Business School Press.
Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. Harper & Row.
OECD. (2020). OECD Future of education and skills 2030.
Sarkar, P. (2020, July 29). Making denim & jeans [in a] more sustainable way – initiatives by top apparel brands. Online Clothing Study.
Shahbandeh, M. (2020). Global denim market – Statistics & facts. Statista.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind and society. Harvard University Press.
It seems the one thing we can be certain of is uncertainty; COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that change is part of our lives. It’s difficult to predict what our formal education system will look like post-pandemic. Nevertheless, we can say that in this new normal there will certainly be a need for open exchange of views among all stakeholders in education. This article describes a model of school and community engagement, the Gathering Model, that may prove useful. In presenting this model, we share a set of equitable best practices that teachers, schools, and school boards can use as a template for parent and community outreach initiatives and to offer a resource for addressing the new normal.
Toronto’s York Region is one of Canada’s most diverse school districts. While 90 percent of its residents are Canadian citizens, one in two were born outside Canada. The languages spoken at home include Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Russian, Farsi, Italian, Tamil, Korean, Urdu, Spanish, Punjabi, and Gujarati. When we consider these changes, it becomes clear that we need to think differently when talking about community building. Community building based on goals and principles of sameness does not achieve inclusion. Community building has to be fostered through inclusive practices and processes. This applies in all our school communities, as populations across Canada are increasingly more diverse.
The Gathering Model is based on an ongoing, 15-year collaboration between the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) and the Faculty of Education at York University. In 2005, they partnered to pilot a new model of community engagement. Scott Milne, Manager of School and Community Projects at YRDSB, and Dr. John Ippolito, Associate Professor at York, were invited to serve as leads. Armadale Public School was selected as the pilot site because it was the largest and most linguistically diverse school in the YRDSB, in a neighbourhood experiencing pronounced demographic shifts. The thinking was that the initiative could both capitalize on emerging assets within the changing population and respond to new challenges. Since this time, multiple versions of the model have been implemented in over a dozen YRDSB schools.
This model goes beyond community engagement to explore the potential for family voices – including the voices of marginalized parents – to support school and community improvement. The model responds both to recent patterns of migration and to extensive research on the positive impacts of parents taking an active role in their children’s education.1
The Gathering Model supports a cycle of community dialogue. This dialogue centres on after-school/evening events involving parents, administrators, teachers, students, researchers, and community service agencies. In most of our sites, the role of community agencies has been limited, but in some schools their role has been more significant, even if only to highlight the services they offer. These events (anywhere from one to four per year at participating schools) address issues parents think are important to their families’ experience of public schooling. At some schools, the event now includes a separate student dialogue.
Clearly, the pandemic has put these in-person events on hold. As with education more generally, our participating schools have experienced a fracturing of community, leaving students and families feeling disconnected from their schools. However, this forced time-out is being put to good use in revisiting initiatives the model has piloted over the years, such as parent-driven research, parent and teacher research groups, and online discussion forums (Ippolito, 2012, 2018), and in exploring more recent online conversation platforms such as ThoughtExchange. We look forward to making innovative links between these online platforms and in-person events, which will, at some future point, become possible. This interplay of in-person and online resources will remain defined by the cycle of community dialogue outlined below (see Figure 1).
A fundamental component of the Gathering Model is a formalized planning team consisting of staff, families, and community partners. While everyone is invited to the planning team, a deliberate effort is made to engage individuals, community members, and organizations that represent marginalized voices. The aim is to have at least three community members present for each meeting, though the community members do not have to be the same at each meeting. In these instances, new members are welcomed into the planning discussion with a brief synopsis of previous work. Rotating membership for community members and flexibility in the timing of meetings encourages community engagement. This planning team is involved in every stage of the cycle, from pre-event planning, to event design, to post-event data analysis, to data mobilization in school, and system planning. Through this process, the model becomes a regular and ongoing formalized process.
Unlike traditional parent involvement approaches, where families are encouraged to participate in their children’s schools but where the agenda and decisions lie in the hands of the school, this is a model of community engagement where schools evolve in relation to family needs and where the community shares responsibility and power in determining agendas (Ippolito, 2010). In developing an agenda and topics for the discussion forums, the goal is to have at least half of each event’s agenda determined by students, families, and community partners on the planning team. The questions used to collect data for school and system improvement must be generated with community input, as with the following:
The structure and frequency of planning meetings are flexible and depend on the context and availability at each school. However, planning teams meet twice per month in the three months preceding an event. Some timelines to consider include when to send out invitations to the community to provide sufficient time to RSVP and when to contact local food vendors.
Community dialogue events begin with a shared meal. Schools have held this event in school gymnasiums and libraries/learning commons. Some schools have organized the event in local community spaces, such as a neighbourhood mosque. When planning the menu and selecting vendors for a shared meal, it is important to be culturally responsive and to consider dietary needs of the community. Since childminding is also provided, schools consider opportunities to partner with community organizations to provide students and families greater awareness of local resources. In addition, planning the physical space requires consideration of religious accommodations, including prayer spaces. The shared meal, childminding, and any other expenses are funded through the school, removing barriers for families wanting to take part in the community dialogue.
Tables are set up and all stakeholders are invited to sit with each other, regardless of their roles. This encourages community building by removing the barriers of formal titles like administrator, school staff member, community organization leader, parent, or student. The purpose of the shared meal is to provide time and space for people to get to know each other through conversation. At the end of the meal, children are directed to various childminding spaces and activities. Some schools have encouraged student performances of dance, poetry, and music to open and close the shared meal and bring families together in celebration of students. Student performances are welcomed, but care is taken so they don’t take up too much time. The goal is to ensure that table-based discussions of the agenda items constitute roughly three-quarters of the time of each event.
The community dialogue engages stakeholders in open-ended conversations while removing potential barriers for participation. One such barrier for many families is language. Intentional steps are made to lessen this by providing translation technology and on-site translators reflecting the home languages of families. In addition, designated tables are assigned for conversations in preferred languages, with additional support of translators as needed. Another barrier is posed by power differentials between various stakeholders within education. These differentials can influence what gets shared and what is kept silent. To disrupt this, the event is set up to encourage discussion of agenda items between stakeholders in the same role, rather than across stakeholder groups. This provides each group an opportunity to speak openly about their thoughts and experiences.
A defining feature of the Gathering Model is a commitment to collect and mobilize data generated through various forms of community engagement. This research work is done by the formalized planning team consisting of staff, families, and community partners. Planning teams also have access to research expertise from the Faculty of Education at York University.
At the community dialogue events, data is recorded at each discussion table with Chromebooks equipped with multilingual software. Having the data digitized enables translation into English for the purposes of data analysis. The digitized data is prepared for analysis following qualitative methods for text-based responses (e.g. Glesne, 2015; Lichtman, 2013). Focusing on the core questions that shape the agenda for a community dialogue event, data is coded to summarize and condense key themes or issues. This search for patterns in the data moves from the level of codes to categories to themes and, potentially, to theory generation. The overarching aim of data analysis is to measure the impact of community engagement, which can include student engagement through participation in co-curricular activities, and to generate recommendations for school planning and further mobilization of findings.
The school must update the community in a timely fashion on how data have been used to improve school and/or system operations. Community members must see and hear evidence that their efforts are moving the school’s culture and practices forward. These updates often take place at subsequent community dialogue events and serve to link a previous event to a current one. The school, school board departments, and senior management may present information of benefit to the community, or data may generate key questions for gathering further data to help the school and system serve students and families better. This is also an opportunity for the community to ask follow-up questions about school and system priorities and how to better support student learning and community development.
A core challenge in mobilizing this process is sustaining the involvement of community throughout various stages of the process. Currently, families and community partners are mostly engaged as participants in the community dialogue. Community participation is substantially reduced or absent during data analysis, mobilization of data, and decision making. This highlights a mindset prevalent among system staff that community is not an integral partner. While schools welcome community voice, they continue to hold decision-making power in how narratives are shaped and what is prioritized and acted upon.
This lack of full involvement by community members means that realizing the model’s potential for change lies disproportionately in the hands of staff. In many cases, staff have neither the skills nor knowledge to seize upon this opportunity, so schools often choose to take action on items that are easiest to address rather than on what is identified by the community as most urgent and needed.
Additionally, school responses can sometimes be surface-level actions (such as inviting a one-time guest speaker, without further follow through or commitment to looking at implications of their own school policies and programs) that lack depth or sustainability. In this way, a checklist mentality becomes a barrier to the model’s potential for change. This way of thinking is reinforced by the system’s emphasis on timing and accountability that pressures schools to sacrifice the quality of the process in exchange for completion.
Addressing this core challenge requires full focus on the key determinant of success within the Gathering Model, namely, inclusion of community voice and agency. This input must occur in a formal way through participation on the planning and research team, and not through ad-hoc, informal conversations with school and/or system staff. Having said this, participating schools are encouraged to seek out partnerships with internal system departments such as Research Services, Planning, or Special Education, and with external community-based agencies.
Schools wanting to implement the Gathering Model effectively must ensure this level of community input. Community is more than just a physical and geographic similarity. It is also a feeling of safety and belonging. Identity and community cannot be separate and belonging must be defined through a lens of equity and justice. These priorities are well-served by the open exchange enabled by the Gathering Model and will prove useful to us in the new normal.
First published in Education Canada, June 2021
By Hirosh Abeywardane
The Gathering Model has made an impact on our community in ways beyond what I can explain in words. It has given a voice to marginalized parents and caregivers and helped bridge a communication gap between school and home. It eliminated the language barriers for many parents and caregivers and allowed them to express their concerns freely. It has helped build relationships, not just between school and the community, but also among parents and caregivers. The gathering has made it possible to transform ideas and suggestions into implementable solutions because the end result is a collective perspective of students, staff, and the community.
The gathering has become a tool to help parents and caregivers understand the importance of engagement and the impact it will have on their child’s well-being and education. Most importantly, it taught the school community to think beyond just their own child’s experience in the school and aim to improve every child’s experience in the school.
The gathering event has allowed the school community to trust that the school staff and administration will listen to their concerns, ideas, and suggestions because they know that, unlike a typical survey where you will never see a visible result, those concerns, ideas, and suggestions will be converted into solutions, and those solutions will be implemented as visible actions.
My various involvement with the school and the school board has given me a unique perspective of the event. As a parent, a school council co-chair, and as a PEAC (PIC) Co-chair, I am truly humbled to be part of the planning process of the gathering event at my school. It was amazing to see the students, parents, caregivers, school council, and staff building partnerships and working together for a common goal. It would be almost impossible to organize a successful event like the gathering without those partnerships. During the data mining process, it was unbelievable to see the same reaction and expressions from different groups of individuals who are reading the same feedback forms. It is truly remarkable to see an event like this connecting students, teachers, and the community.
1 Included here is stronger academic achievement, more consistent attendance at school, higher rates of graduation, a strengthened sense of self-worth, and a more positive outlook on education (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). More recently, these positive indicators are reiterated at primary levels (Wong et al., 2018); secondary levels (Gordon & Cui, 2012); and post-secondary levels (Palbusa & Gauvain, 2017).
Glesne, C. (2015). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction (5th ed.). Pearson.
Gordon, M., & Cui, M. (2012). The effect of school-specific parenting processes on academic achievement in adolescence and young adulthood. Family Relations, 61(5): 728–741.
Henderson, A., & Mapp, K. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools.
Ippolito, J. (2018). Learning in schools and homes: Successes and complications in bringing minority parents into conversation with their children’s school. In Y. Guo (Ed.), Home-school relations: International perspectives (pp. 57–71). Springer.
Ippolito, J. (2012). Bringing marginalized parents and caregivers into their children’s schooling. What works? Research into practice. Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ontario Ministry of Education. www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/WW_MarginParents.pdf
Lichtman, M. (2013). Qualitative research in education: A user’s guide (3rd ed.). Sage.
Ippolito, J. (2010). Minority parents as researchers: Beyond a dichotomy in parent involvement in schooling. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 114, 47-68.
Palbusa, J. A., & Gauvain, M. (2017). Parent-student communication about college and freshman grades in first-generation and non-first generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 58(1), 107–112. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1127388
Wong, R., Ho, F., Wong, W., et al. (2018). Parental involvement in primary school education: Its relationship with children’s academic performance and psychosocial competence through engaging children with school. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(5), 1544–1555.
We were at the mercy of the pandemic. Powerless. The pandemic stripped teachers from what we knew or believed was good teaching and learning. We had to make choices to regain this power. The pandemic served as a catalyst for change and forced educators to exercise their agency and think critically about what’s really important to teach and learn – with less time and more barriers. Getting through the curriculum seemed like an impossible task… and it was.
One way to regain our power as educators was to let go. We had to let go of our routines and expectations. What we used to do in the classroom could not be done during the pandemic. We had to figure out how to create learning experiences that were engaging, yet wholeheartedly embraced learning intentions that best reflected the curriculum. Not everyone was in class and some students were learning online. Deciding to let go of what was is a choice.
Understanding that we have choice as educators is key to our freedom to create and design experiences that meet the learning needs of the students in our classroom – and also meet our learning needs as educators. Teaching during a pandemic inherently involves a steep learning curve that we’ve had to tackle whether we like it or not.
Wishing away the pandemic or hoping that all schools would close and go online are not outcomes within our control. Choosing to let go and reconsider what teaching and learning looks during the pandemic is within our control. Exercising our professional autonomy and making decisions that best suit the learners in our classroom is our agency as educators. As educators, we are collectively questioning what we can do to make teaching and learning viable for our students: to meet them where they are, make learning fun, and stay loyal to the curriculum.
As a teacher educator, I have the privilege of peeking into K–12 schools to observe teacher candidates, but also to imagine what is possible in teaching and learning during COVID times. I saw classes ranging from five students, to classes split into morning and afternoon cohorts, to full classrooms. I loved watching classes that were held outside. Students in a multi-graded class would gather and sit under the “poetree,” in the snow, to read, listen, share, and create poetry together.
In another class, where there were very few students, the lesson focused on movement and play-based activities to learn how to sound out words and spell. Students were encouraged to get up and move around the room to find words about food (their favourite topic), and they could choose to work in partners or independently. Students were engaged, on-task, and worked at their own rate. The words hidden around the room were inclusive and students had choice in what words they found, how they would sound out the words, and how they would practise spelling the words.
By letting go and embracing our autonomy and agency as designers of learning, we can create learning experiences for students so that they are able to develop and exercise their agency by having choice within the learning activity. Students, in turn, will feel empowered. They take ownership of their learning. They can choose how they learn, who they learn with, and what they produce. The driving force to this kind of learning is the why that’s embedded.
In British Columbia, the provincial curriculum has three Core Competencies: Communication, Thinking, and Personal/Social. These core competencies are developed and embedded in the learning. Students are learning how to communicate, collaborate, and think critically, creatively, and reflectively. They are also developing social responsibility, cultural awareness, and positive personal identity, which serve as underpinnings to what is being taught and why it’s important.
The Core Competencies not only connect and interconnect different subject areas into more meaningful and purposeful interdisciplinary learning experiences that are holistic and experiential; they also prioritize the humanness of learning back into education. The mastery of content is no longer the goal. Instead, content serves as the vehicle for learning. Curricular competencies are introduced, developed, and honed. And context and community matter.
When we focus on the competencies, we not only free ourselves from the burden of singular outputs and striving to create a high level of sameness amongst our learners, we empower students to personalize their learning, make choices about their learning, and
be the agents of their learning and achievement. Joy becomes part of the learning experience. Learning with others and co-constructing knowledge and criteria become the norm for students.
In a Grade 3–6 class, the primary focus was to make their math thinking visible. The topic was estimating. The class started out with a jar of dominoes and students estimated how many were in it. The lesson moved onto working in small groups at locations around the classroom, where each group collaboratively make their thinking and learning visible on whiteboards.
With each problem projected, the students became more engaged. The learning environment was inclusive, collaborative, and dynamic. Students had the freedom to move, discuss, and solve.
Throughout the math lesson, students were practising their numeracy skills, understanding of math facts, and number estimating. They were also developing their skills in communication, collaboration, and thinking. The Core Competencies were central to this learning experience, which enabled the teacher to facilitate the learning while also having students choose how they would approach the problem, work in small groups, and mutually agree or negotiate an answer.
The lesson concluded with students returning to the jar of dominoes to see if they would change their original estimation based on what they had just learned and collectively experienced in small groups. Some students chose to keep their answer while others opted to change. In the end, they counted the dominoes in the jar to see how close their estimation was to the actual answer. There were cheers, smiles, and a few groans once the answer was revealed.
The students provided feedback to the teacher at the end of the lesson by holding one to four fingers up to their chest to reveal their level of confidence and understanding of estimation. The students also offered many opportunities during the lesson for the teacher to assess how they were doing with the learning. One could assess the noise level in the room (a.k.a. the hum) when students broke off into small groups. One could look at the thinking made visible on the white boards. One could see how they well they estimated the number of dominoes in the jar, before and after.
What I appreciated most about this lesson was not only that the educator created a learning experience that provided many choices for students to engage in the learning, but that there were also many different opportunities and ways to assess student learning and progress, and multiple ways for students to demonstrate their learning throughout the lesson. Assessment is not limited to the traditional pen and paper, and what was important was more than the answer.
The global pandemic stopped everyone in their practice and allowed us to take a moment to reflect, reassess, and recalibrate. What is working, what’s not working, and what is worth keeping? I invite you to reflect on these questions and self-assess how you have pivoted during the pandemic and what you would consider keeping in your practice or return back to.
To regain our sense of power during the pandemic and beyond is to understand and exercise our agency as educators and feel good about letting go of some of what we previously did – because doing so allows us to get to the heart of teaching and learning. We want to create, design, and facilitate learning experiences where students feel empowered because they have agency to choose within flexible and reflexive frameworks and guidelines that you determine and provide.
Trust your professional judgment. Take a risk. Break (your) rules and be vulnerable to the uncertainty of not doing things in the same way you have known or experienced. Go outside with your class. Be intentional with the learning. Notice and wonder. What are the students learning? What’s working? What’s not working? Tweak it and try again. Try assessing students in ways that empower them, include their input and voice; this can be done in a variety of ways.
We must break away from the industrial model of mass education. COVID-19 separated us and now we pine to be together as a community and learn together as a community. We want and need to bring back humanity, strive for learning that is student-centred, competency-based, personalized, and interdisciplinary. The pandemic kept us home, which helps us to value being local, learning from our community, and learning more about local Indigenous knowledge and perspectives.
Be vulnerable. Let go. Be the agent of your learning. Choose what will work best for your students as it relates to the curriculum. Less is more. We are choosing what is best for our students to learn, meeting them where they are, and focusing on quality over quantity. Enable and encourage students to be the agents of their learning. We can empower ourselves and also the students by giving them voice, choice, community, and context.
What we hope for post-pandemic is for teachers to embrace their professional autonomy to create learning experiences for students that give them opportunities to exercise their own agency. We want students to love learning, feel in control of their learning, and understand the intrinsic good of learning. When we achieve this, students will extend their learning, take risks, and be vulnerable. They will develop their competencies and sense of self as they construct and co-construct deeper understandings of their identity, of others, and of the environment.
First published in Education Canada, June 2021
Anxiety about the environment, a sense of helplessness, pessimism about the future, individualism – the world is going through a dark time and many people are concerned about the morale of young people and their ability to exercise active citizenship. However, Oxfam-Québec meets thousands of young people every year who are exercising their citizenship in the fields of climate, economics and gender justice, with both hope and ingenuity.
For over 45 years, our organization has been active in schools to encourage youth civic engagement so we can build a fair, sustainable world. We believe that young people wield citizen power and that it is crucial to treat them as what they are – agents of change – and in light of what they do – take unified action to fight inequalities.
When describing Oxfam-Québec’s current educational activities, we talk about global citizenship education, an educational approach that helps young people grow into responsible, united citizens of the world. The goal of this educational continuum is to inform youth, mobilize them, encourage them to influence the halls of power, and promote their activities. Young people join this movement by attending in-class workshops; taking part in the World Walk, which for many is their first experience of collective action; working on long-term projects like fundraising for sustainable development projects; or by engaging in calls for action as part of mobilization campaigns.
All of these activities correspond to specific elements in the Quebec Education Program (QEP), in terms of its mission, broad areas of learning, skills to be developed, and progression of learning. Oxfam is even cited as a cultural reference in the school curriculum, under the theme of wealth disparity in the Contemporary World course offered in Grade 11. All of our resources clearly identify the corresponding QEP elements. Many teachers, as well as non-teaching staff like spiritual leaders and community programmers, use these resources in class or as part of extracurricular activities. Given their demanding mandates and busy schedules, school staff members appreciate the support of our team, which offers learning activities to meet their needs. To use these resources, one can find all the information needed on the Oxfam-Québec site, under the heading Ressources pour les milieux scolaires (School resources, in French only).
The educational activities we offer are both transformative and empowering. In particular, they enable girls and minority youth to have a voice and be heard in their fight against injustice. We can build a fair world without poverty if young people mobilize to exercise their global citizenship, solve problems, and work with their peers around the globe.
In accordance with UNESCO guidelines, the Oxfam confederation believes that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations must be the priorities driving global citizenship education. In the following paragraphs, we present groups of educational activities tailored for four SDGs. These activities have been adapted to remain accessible during the pandemic, using online communication tools and interactive digital resources.
SDG 5, Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, is the heart of our work: it is impossible to build a just world if half of humanity cannot flourish and have their rights respected.
For example, the campaign Les tâches ménagères et le travail de soin. Ça compte! (Make Care Count) teaches young people about the unequal division of care work between the sexes, notably through a policy paper entitled Time to Care. A free workshop, Libres de choisir (Free to Choose), teaches high school students about sexual rights – which are a human right – and encourages them to consider the social and cultural context when reflecting on the impact of failing to respect these rights. The workshop’s title, referencing the question of freedom of choice, is significant: when it comes to choice, the inequalities faced by teenage girls around the world have major consequences on their lives. In Quebec as well, young people must make choices about their sexual rights. After taking this workshop, young people are invited to support a project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Healthy Mothers, Healthy children, which aims to improve the health of women, teens, and children. In the case of older youth ages 18 to 30, the project C’est pour elles aussi (It’s her right, too) can help develop their abilities to mobilize friends and family and disseminate positive messages using coordinated actions, digital action plans, and meetings with elected officials.
“My participation in the Oxfam-Québec project ‘C’est pour elles aussi’ (It’s her right, too) helped me understand that my voice is valid and that I have the right to be heard. Social networks are powerful allies for raising people’s awareness and advancing the debate. […] The team introduced me to theoretical concepts related to cyber activism and gave me the courage I needed to use my voice! I was even empowered to develop my own platform of inspiring resources on Instagram (@lesensduchaos) to counter the psychological stress caused by the lockdown.”
– Laurence C. Germain, participant in the Oxfam-Québec “C’est pour elles aussi” project
SDG 13, Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, plays a key role in Oxfam’s educational outreach efforts. This issue is intertwined with all global issues of inequality: historic, socioeconomic, and gender inequalities.
The campaign devoted to this topic is called Climat de justice (Climate justice). Like the content in the free workshop offered to young people ages 12 to 30, the campaign highlights the injustices associated with the climate crisis, and the outsized impact this crisis is having on the people who produce the fewest carbon emissions. Since indignation can be a powerful driving force, the young people involved can then participate in the 50th World Walk for Climate Justice. The World Walk is the culmination of a year of action. To highlight these efforts, the Oxfam-Québec team has asked the young people preparing for the walk to meet several challenges, from filming a video to speaking to the media. At the beginning of the school year, young people can also organize a symbolic, united action in their respective schools called Stand Up for the Planet to tell decision-makers they are committed to climate justice.
“To everyone who says that we can’t accomplish anything, look at us – 6,000 young people marching for the world! I am really proud to see this! It is our place, meaning that, regardless of our age, gender, colour, or religion, we have the right to use our voice.”
– Estelle Lafrance, age 17, member of the Oxfam-Québec Youth Seat, participant and spokesperson for the World Walk
Of course, SDG 1, End poverty in all its forms everywhere, underpins all the others. It is important to talk to young people about the economy and deconstruct dogmas that hinder a real understanding of possible solutions so everyone can live with dignity on this planet.
Along these lines, there is a free workshop for young people on the new economic model created by Oxfam. L’économie du beigne (Doughnut Economics) rejects the obsession with infinite growth at all cost and proposes instead that the economy target the well-being of humanity by respecting a series of social indicators without overshooting any planetary boundaries. This new model has already been adopted by many cities around the world, including Brussels, Amsterdam, and Nanaimo in Canada. This workshop is part of the campaign Taxing wealth: Flattening inequalities. Young people are invited to sign the petition addressed to the Canadian government asking it to rebuild an economy that is capable of tackling inequalities. In anticipation of the upcoming municipal elections, young people could ask candidates if they are interested in applying the doughnut economics model to their city. A wonderful way to learn about politics!
Doughnut economics also refers to SDG 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.
An innovative Oxfam-Québec project started some 15 years ago introducing young people to the values of innovation, creativity, and sustainability advocated by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC): Magasin du Monde (World Shop). This initiative has students create social economy businesses to promote fair trade. Participants create a shop, sit on a board of directors, and share the tasks involved: market research, inventory management and sales, activities to educate the school community, and internal and external communications. The shops do not sell ordinary products, as everything is certified fair trade and a percentage of the profits are used to support a sustainable development project. In some cases, the entire local community participates in the project, which becomes an engine of development. This happens, for example, when local farmers’ markets and tourism agencies help to promote these extraordinary shops.
“The work we accomplished on the committee for a sustainable City of Mont-Saint-Hilaire has increased my desire to have an impact on the world in which I live. It is proof that when you work at it, anything is possible!”
– Émile Chapdelaine, founding member of the World Shop at École Ozias-Leduc, member of the Oxfam-Québec Youth Observatory, and a member of the committee that helped get Mont-Saint-Hilaire recognized as a Fair Trade Town.
Research on and assessments of student participation in these so-called “civic engagement” activities reveal many benefits for the young people themselves. Those interviewed report improved self-esteem and a greater sense of responsibility. In addition, they exhibit an increase in positive social attitudes and a decrease in risky behaviours. This is mainly due to a greater sense of belonging to their school and improved academic results.
An external impact assessment carried out last year (Sogémap) confirmed the positive effect of youth civic engagement. According to this document, Oxfam-Québec’s global citizenship education programming enables young people to develop an awareness of global issues, an open, engaged mind and an increased ability to defend arguments. Not surprisingly, young people who take part in these activities maintain their civic engagement when they become adults.
In light of the above, it is easy to understand why encouraging young people to exercise their citizenship is crucial to supporting democracy and achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Back in 2017, the United Nations Population Fund noted that meeting the SDGs relies on bold measures to ensure that 60 million girls around the globe can live a life of dignity. In this pandemic period, young people, like the rest of the world, are experiencing unprecedented crises that directly threaten their present and future lives. By working with schools, Oxfam-Québec hopes to provide them with concrete measures for overcoming this challenge and support their efforts to create a more sustainable, inclusive society.
This article is translated from the original French. Some resources are also available in English; check the websites.
Resources for SDG 5:
Resources for SDG 13:
Resources for SDG 1:
Resources for SDG 8:
Photos : La Boîte 7
Caron, C. (2018). La citoyenneté des adolescents du 21e siècle dans une perspective de justice sociale : pourquoi et comment ? www.erudit.org/fr/revues/lsp/2018-n80-lsp03532/1044109ar/
Gingras, M.-P., Phillipe, F.L., Poulin, F., Robitaille, J (2018). Étude sur les obstacles à la mise en place d’activités d’engagement civique en milieu scolaire au Québec. Canadian Journal of Education, 41(3), 661-687. https://journals.sfu.ca/cje/index.php/cje-rce/article/view/3177
Philippe, F. (2019). Projet de recherche Réussir : 15 constats révélateurs sur l’impact des activités d’engagement civique chez les jeunes de niveau secondaire au Québec. www.elaborer.org/pdf/R3.pdf
United Nations Population Fund. (2017). Worlds apart: Reproductive health and rights in an age of inequality. www.unfpa.org/swop-2017
Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals – also known as the SDGs or the Global Goals – came into effect on January 1, 2016, following a historic United Nations Summit in September 2015. 193 governments from around the world agreed to implement the SDGs within their own countries in order to achieve what has become known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To meet these new SDGs, countries are to mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities, and tackle climate change, all while ensuring that no one is left behind. To achieve this global challenge, everyone must take action both here and around the world. We know that these goals highlight issues that affect our students and communities as well as the broader world, and offer powerful points of connection to engage students on global issues in the classroom.
Global citizenship, the idea that the actions we take here can affect lives all over the world, is a compelling lesson for the classroom. Engaging students on global issues, and especially taking action locally, can spark exciting projects and build global awareness in students. Students who understand these local-global connections are building their understanding of issues facing the world today, developing compassion for the world around them, and discovering the power of taking action.
The Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC) has a long history of engaging students in classroom workshops and student conferences that are focused on educating students about global issues and empowering them to take action. If you need ideas on how to bring the SDGs into your classroom, we’ve developed Sustainable Foundations: A guide for teaching the Sustainable Development Goals, a new bilingual resource for educators that includes multiple lesson plan ideas and action steps for each SDG. The guide includes lesson plans for Grades 2–12, but largely focuses on Grade 5+, where the content around global issues is more relevant to the curriculum.
Taking an inquiry approach, each chapter in the guide offers an overview of a specific goal, including learning objectives, a summary of important international targets, and the ways to tell if we are on track to reach the goals. Each chapter offers inquiry-style questions that connect back to the curriculum, exploring some key questions, such as: Where did this goal begin? Why does this issue matter? Who and what are affected? and What is being done?
The guide explores the interconnected nature of the goals, taking care to highlight, for example, how we can’t reach Goal 1: Zero Poverty, without also reducing inequalities (Goal 10), ensuring decent work and economic growth (Goal 8), protecting life on land (Goal 15), and many others. There are many connections between each goal, and students can quickly begin to see how the success of one goal is tied to another.
Each chapter also highlights the consequences of inaction, sharing what might happen if we do nothing to reach the goal, and offers further reflection questions, inspiring quotes, and more. Of special importance to educators are the sections with resources, including ideas for taking action, lesson plans, activities, and video educational resources for use in the classroom.
For example, how can you teach your students about Goal 1: Zero Poverty? For students in Grades 5–8, consider the lesson “The World is Not Equal. Is that fair?” from the World’s Largest Lesson website and featured in the guide. This lesson highlights different types of inequality and helps students explore the impact inequality has on the wider society and economy. The lesson starts with students receiving an unequal amount of something (candy, stickers, etc.) and moves from fairness to a discussion on equality.
MCIC has also created lessons you can use in your classroom, now available directly on our website at mcic.ca. First, for students in Grade 5+, considering using the “Building Blocks for a Good Life” lesson, where students order a list of items from most important to least important for a good life. This lesson opens a discussion about poverty and what it means to have a good quality of life. Students will explore poverty as a “lack of opportunities” rather than a “lack of basic needs.” Framing poverty this way allows students to appreciate the complexity of the issue and promotes empathy in lieu of judgment.
Students work in groups to decide which items (a range including access to food, a television, cell phones, shelter, toys, health care and more) are most important and which are least important to a good life. Labels are provided that can be placed on blocks so students can build structures, or you can print a list of the items and cut them into individual squares so students can order them individually on their desks or at home.
This lesson has also been successfully used with high-school students, and we recommend leaving more time for older students to discuss differences of opinion and the debrief questions. Many great discussions can arise with all ages, based on student perspectives of the items on the list. There are several discussion questions and prompts included in the lesson, such as asking students if everyone needs the same things for a good life, a prompt that can be used to expand the conversation and include global perspectives. Do we need the same things as other countries? Use student answers to these prompts and differences in their prioritized lists to spark conversations about basic needs and lack of opportunities in the world.
Another MCIC activity with more global perspectives is “Breaking the Cycle,” for students in Grades 5–8. In this activity, students learn that poverty is not a result of individual choices alone; it is affected by societal systems. Students travel in groups through four different stations, making decisions about health and the environment inside scenarios from around the world, choosing how to spend their resources to survive. Focused on the themes of poverty and the poverty cycle, barriers associated with poverty, and a lack of access to health care and education, this activity brings home the real-world challenges people can face and opens a conversation about inequality around the world.
Learning about global issues is a great start, but true impact and passion can be inspired by taking action on the issues. Students who take action in their communities to effect change become engaged global citizens, learning powerful lessons about how their actions can change the world.
To encourage your students to take action, consider the ideas in the “How to Take Action” section included for each chapter of the guide, or the general tips on taking action in the introduction. For example, students could be encouraged to support a local organization through creating a fundraiser, or writing to their local government representative about the issues. Explore dosomething.org to find an issue your students care about and to find ways to take action on the issues. You can also see examples of how other students have taken action on the MCIC Take Action Blog, or consider connecting with an international cooperation organization working around the world. You can find examples of these organizations and their work through the case studies in each chapter of the guide or by contacting MCIC or another Council for International Cooperation in your area.
At our Generating Momentum for Our World student conferences, and as we share classroom resources, we encourage educators to let us know how their students take action on global issues. Following a student conference in rural Manitoba where students learned about the SDGs and how to take action on the issues, we heard about an exciting project one school had undertaken in their community.
With the support of their teachers, middle-years students created an “SDG Week” where they connected with their peers on a different goal each day. For example, when they talked about Goal 2: Zero Hunger, students baked and offered everyone in school a muffin. They hosted assemblies, shared information, invited MCIC to lead workshops, and created posters to share. One day they planted fruit trees on the school property, as a way to help reach several goals (no hunger, climate change, life on land, and more). With a new project each day, it was a great way to share what they learned with their fellow students and take action on the SDGs.
It was exciting to see how students took the knowledge gained about the SDGs and turned it into action, while sharing with their schoolmates.
AS EDUCATORS, you know that you hold the power to transform your students’ understanding of the world. As you teach them the universality of the SDGs and the issues facing the world today, we encourage you to also teach your students to be good global citizens who take actions that change the world for the better. Students who understand that they have the power to help reduce inequalities around the world and create a more sustainable future for all, are students who will take knowledge and turn it into action, making a more just world for everyone.
MCIC offers many free classroom resources at mcic.ca:
See also the World’s Largest Lesson website, with lesson plans and other classroom resources searchable by type of resource, age group, and duration:
Photos: courtesy MCIC
Global climate change and biodiversity loss are major contemporary challenges. To address these challenges, in 2015 the United Nations set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a timeline to achieve them by the year 2030. Goal 15 reads as follows:
“Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.”
The UN’s 2020 report on these goals (page 55) notes that, “The world is falling short on 2020 targets to halt biodiversity loss, despite some progress.”
To familiarize students with the important issues facing humanity, school curricula generally present these subjects at the elementary and high-school levels. From a young age, students are introduced to major global problems like pollution, deforestation and extinction, as well as their impact on the planet’s inhabitants. However, perhaps schools should start by helping young people discover the organisms that inhabit the ecosystems around them.
The outdoor spaces surrounding schools are rich learning environments, as both urban and rural areas are always full of life. Every environment is inhabited by a variety of arthropods, plants, birds, and small mammals.
These environments can help children develop scientific skills like curiosity, observation and experimentation from a very young age (Ayotte-Beaudet, 2020a). For example, to teach students about plants often described as weeds, ask them to draw a chalk circle around any plants pushing through a concrete sidewalk near school. Then have them write in the plant’s name to inform passersby (www.sciencesdehors.com).
Nearby areas off school property can also be used to learn about natural phenomena in situ (Ayotte-Beaudet, 2020b). Students can adopt a tree to make systematic observations about it throughout the school year. This will enable them to determine the adaptation and survival mechanisms used by the tree while also discovering the variety of living organisms that interact with it (e.g., lichen and birds). This type of monitoring helps children develop a shared sense of ownership in the tree under study.
Outdoors, students can also carry out field activities just like scientists do. Citizen science projects give schools a well-defined observation framework to follow and provide knowledge about certain local species (Secours et al., 2020). Some examples of citizen science projects are eBird for birding and NatureWatch for environmental monitoring programs.
The findings of a recent research project suggest that we should reflect on how schools teach biodiversity. The goal of the study in question was to better understand the impact on students of contextualized teaching and learning in a nearby ecosystem (Ayotte-Beaudet et al., in press). The participants, elementary-school students (ages 10-12), took part in a citizen science project designed to help them better understand the effects of global change on urban ecosystems (www.chenilles-espionnes.com). For the instructional phase, the researchers had decided to talk about nature in positive terms only, without ever mentioning environmental problems. During interviews conducted at the end of the project, many of the young people expressed the desire to protect living organisms, even though conservation was never explicitly mentioned. In other words, discovering nature in situ and hearing only positive things about it were enough to heighten young people’s awareness of the life around them.
If you are unaccustomed to holding outdoor classes on biodiversity, the first thing you should probably do is think about your motivation and set a clear learning objective for the first outing. This will help you plan the teaching and learning activities and persuade parents and administration to agree to your approach.
The first few times, it is better to go outside for short periods so you and your students can get used to this new learning environment (www.sciencesdehors.com). Research has also shown that it is important to properly prepare students for these outings, get them engaged in activities, and give them an opportunity to make choices (Ayotte-Beaudet & Potvin, 2020; Ayotte-Beaudet et al., 2019). Most importantly, stimulate the children’s curiosity and trust them. Furthermore, if you are a school principal, trust your teaching staff and give them a chance to experiment!
Elementary school curricula often focus on the gravity of environmental issues, but everyone involved in education should reflect on the best ways of making children aware of biodiversity. At what age can we, in good conscience, burden younger generations with the weight of the problems they will inherit? Before asking them to protect and restore terrestrial ecosystems, I believe we have a duty to teach them how to appreciate the diversity of life in the ecosystems around them.
Photos: Courtesy of Jean-Philipe Ayotte-Beaudet
Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P. (2020a). Éveiller aux sciences de la nature à ciel ouvert. Revue préscolaire, 58(4), 36-38. http://aepqkiosk.milibris.com/reader/9d1311ef-ccbb-4df1-af16-ebc7f44582ae?origin=%2Frevue-prescolaire%2Frevue-prescolaire%2Fn584-2020
Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P. (2020b). Regarder dehors pour apprendre et enseigner les sciences. Vivre le primaire, 33(3), 38-40. https://aqep.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/D-Regarder-dehors-pour-apprendre.pdf?fbclid=IwAR248QqdERwurwv755FVeGYMItC61bYxQ9GOjs4hbwxSiUN_-fT45NxlV8k
Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P., Chastenay, P., Beaudry, M.-C., L’Heureux, K., Giamellaro, M., Smith, J., Desjarlais, E., & Paquette, A. (2021, in press). Exploring the impacts of contextualised outdoor science education on learning: The case of primary school students learning about ecosystem relationships. Journal of Biological Education.
Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P., & Potvin, P. (2020). Factors related to students’ perception of learning during outdoor science lessons in schools’ immediate surroundings. International Journal of Environmental and Science Education, 16(2), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.29333/ijese/7815
Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P., Potvin, P. and Riopel, M. (2019). Factors related to middle-school students’ situational interest in science in outdoor lessons in their schools’ immediate surroundings. International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 14(1), 13-32. http://www.ijese.net/makale/2100.html
Chenilles-espionnes (https://www.chenilles-espionnes.com) is a Website dedicated to a citizen science project developed by a partnership involving Les Clubs 4-H du Québec, Université du Québec à Montréal and Université de Sherbrooke.
Des sciences dehors (https://www.sciencesdehors.com) is a Quebec-based knowledge-sharing website developed by and for people interested in and passionate about teaching and learning science.
United Nations. (2020). The sustainable development goals report 2020. UN. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2020/The-Sustainable-Development-Goals-Report-2020.pdf
Secours, É., Paquette, A., Ayotte-Beaudet, J.-P., Gignac, A., & Castagneyrol, B. (2020). Chenilles-espionnes, un projet de sciences citoyennes pour sensibiliser les jeunes à la biodiversité. Spectre, 50(1), 27-31. https://fr.calameo.com/aestq/read/00518148392339471f721
Let me introduce the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also referred to as Global Goals. We have 17 goals with one global aim: to make this world a better and peaceful place. We have to achieve these goals by the year 2030, also known as Vision 2030. We need to act right NOW. If we don’t waste food, water, and electricity that will help save the Earth. If people are treated fairly and respect each other, these small efforts will make a big difference too.
As a student activist and a community worker, human rights and the empowerment of the girl child are the areas closest to my heart. The first time I became aware of the UN SDGs was in 2016, when I was 13 years old and studying in Grade 9. I participated in an exhibition by my school, Ahlcon International in India, which was solely based on the SDGs.
Inspired by the exhibition’s message to spread the word about SDGs, I created short YouTube videos on each of the 17 goals for sustainable development that addressed various social issues like girl child education, bullying, and climate change. I also hosted various talk shows, ran campaigns, hosted Skype sessions with students in different countries and motivated them to take action at local and global levels.
I founded a Twitter community – @SDGsForChildren – in 2016 to provide a unique platform for children across the globe to connect, create, and collaborate for a better and sustainable world. Since then, the community has not only impacted millions of children and youth, but also inspired many educators to initiate their journey of SDGs in their classrooms. SDGs For Children is now incorporated under the Canada Not-For-Profit Corporation Act to support Agenda 2030 globally (www.sdgsforchildren.org). Many schools and children around the world are now part of this community and collaborating wholeheartedly in spreading awareness about basic human rights and global goals.
My experiences organizing the collaborations, both in India and here in Canada, have been life-changing. However, I am not special. There are hundreds of youth-led organizations that are working for climate change. The people leading such initiatives are all incredible teenage activists. Zero Hour, Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future, School Strikes for Climate are just a few of many organizations that take our concerns to leaders worldwide. We young world-changers are noisy and can change the conversation. We are sharing our emotional sides when we are writing essays or doing rallies, interviews or strikes, or even speaking or writing on platforms like this. It’s next to impossible to ignore our noisy voices. Social media has given us exposure to what is happening around the world. I have learned so much on these digital platforms. Instagram may be a tool to share selfies or food for many adults, and a lot of people say Facebook is a parents’ app, but many of the youth of my age have a different experience on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. There are thousands of accounts spreading awareness and knowledge about the Global Goals. And, as youth activism becomes more popular, sharing information gets easier and is ever increasing.
Serving the community has really developed my sensitivity to the requirements of others and has transformed me completely. I believe that success isn’t in only winning alone, but taking people along and winning together. The Sustainable Development agenda is not about my issue or your issue. These are global issues and we need every one of the 17 SDGs to be achieved.
The 2030 Plan for Sustainable Development offers a historic chance for Canada and the world to positively shape how tomorrow’s economies can evolve and thrive sustainably and inclusively for the mutual good of all. It is a chance to make a more resilient society by leaving no one behind.
In Canada, a number of schools are taking a leadership role in supporting sustainable development across the country. Some of the academic institutions undertake activities and studies that enable students to make informed decisions in favour of sustainable development. But this is not enough. There are many more schools that still do not understand the importance of the SDGs or are still exploring various options to apply them and integrate them into their daily curriculum.
There is an opportunity to continue building awareness, partnerships, and collaborations with other global educational networks and to learn from their best practices and success stories of working on the Global Goals. This is what SDG 17, “Partnership for the Goals,” is all about. In the official words, “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.” We need to create a specific and trained task force of educators, students, and parents to work toward incorporating SDGs not only in policy and governance documents across all educational institutions in Canada, but also in supporting their implementation at the grassroots level. The work needs to be measured by defined key performance indicators (KPIs) for this project.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives forever. We take stock of what is necessary when we experience a loss. We appreciate the things that maybe we took for granted. We revisit our values and our relationships, and we think about how we might honour them if we had another chance.
COVID-19 is not only a health crisis or an economic crisis, it is an education crisis as well. As per UNESCO, “290 million students are out of school due to COVID-19.” It’s time we take stock of what’s important. We must review what is good in our education system and what we must leave behind now.
This is a time when a lot of standardized curriculum and tests are going to be set aside. All the schedules have been turned upside down. Let’s change this uncertainty in school systems into an opportunity. This is a chance not only to reform education but also to bring reform through education.
SDGs are not just 17 goals with 169 targets. When these goals are brought into classrooms, they become the launchpad or the framework for collaboration in problem solving. Entire communities of students and teachers then become part of the solution by adding their action plans to make a difference in the world. SDGs have the power to integrate academics with activism. They are the tools for students to recognize they have a seat at the table and that their voice matters. SDGs let students explore what they are curious about, and they can pursue that curiosity with the help of their educators.
Let’s bring reforms in our education system and let’s address these basic questions through our curriculum:
The SDGs should become the language of any conversation within the class. Let’s design an open-ended, self-directed, inspiring research-based curriculum that allows our students to attempt the impossible. There are two possibilities when we take this approach:
Remember, everyone wins when we include failure, resilience, determination, persistence, and reflection as our learning outcomes.
I am happy that children are now mobilizing globally to own up to their responsibility and inspire adults to protect their future. Social distancing may have caused us to stay physically apart from each other, but the spirit of humanity cannot be restrained. We must prepare students as global citizens who are inclusive, informed, and engaged globally. We need to knock down walls so that students can learn to go beyond “me,” “my place,” and “my time,” and use the world as the biggest context for daily learning.
Photo : Adobe Stock
When the beginning of the pandemic closed schools and left district leaders like me in a constant state of disruption, I joined a small working group of EdCan Network staff and colleagues from our Advisory Council for an important virtual planning process. We engaged in a series of sessions to get to the heart of the impact that our Network can achieve to support K-12 educators across Canada. After many iterations, our creative team wholeheartedly endorsed the following three priorities to respond to the rapidly evolving opportunities and challenges that our education systems are currently facing:
These priorities were the focus of our virtual December 2020 EdCan Advisory Council Meeting. (The first ever gathering of the CEA was in 1891 in Montreal.) We will continue to explore how we can align our focus with supporting Ministries of Education, faculty, and school district leaders, principals, teachers, and staff throughout 2021 as we strive to increase the capacity, self-efficacy, and well-being of our 110,000 members, and through them, to heighten every student’s well-being and opportunities for meaningful learning to help them discover their purpose and path in life.
For more information about EdCan’s Theory of Change, Intended Impacts and Strategic Priorities, please visit: www.edcan.ca/aboutus
For a list of the education and philanthropic leaders who serve on EdCan’s Advisory Council, please visit: www.edcan.ca/council
First published in Education Canada, January 2021
It was September, the start of a new school year. Lunchtime was almost over and I remember leaning over the shiny wooden dining hall tables of Ackerman Hall to pitch an idea to my colleague, Suparna. I wanted to provide a creative writing opportunity for my Grades 9 and 10 students to think outside of themselves and build meaningful relationships with those beyond their own Senior School community. As we brainstormed, wisps of ideas coalesced. The service-learning opportunity that emerged was a cross-divisional project where my students would each interview a Junior School (JS) student from Grades 4, 5, or 6 and then craft a story, making the latter the hero of the story. We even leapt ahead and imagined the grand finale: Senior School students reading their masterpieces to the littler ones, with the latter listening with rapt attention and nibbling on chocolate chip cookies.
As an Academic English teacher, I consistently endeavour to stretch my pedagogy to benefit the personal learning journeys of my students. However, the intention to stretch beyond my pedagogical comfort zone brought trepidations. Despite my excitement for facilitating an innovative learning task, I felt nervous about possible challenges. For example, what if my students considered that writing a 1,000 to 1,500-word short story for JS students was too elementary and superficial? A lack of engagement on their part could result in insensitivities, hurting the JS students who looked up to them. I thought of the school community. Would they see this service-learning creative writing project as I did and accept it as an opportunity to go beyond normal coursework and explore not-yet-visible possibilities? I worried that the quality of the final pieces would be less than those produced through more traditional approaches. I moved beyond my concerns, however, with the support of Suparna and my administration. I deeply felt that the benefits and value of this project would far outweigh the drawbacks.
I pitched the idea to my students, and what a relief it was to see that there was no apathy, only excitement. My students decided to first conduct their own research to find out more about Grades 4, 5, and 6 students. What did they do in their spare time? What kinds of books did they like to read? What words were linguistically “cool” in their world? After a class discussion of their findings, each of my classes appointed subgroups to interview the JS teachers to gain further insight.
What happened next was sweet. Many of my students had already been taught four to five years ago by the teachers they were to interview. Stepping into their classrooms was, to my students, like stepping into their childhood. The teachers marvelled at their poise and maturity. They exchanged shy smiles. The students’ eyes shone with respect while the teachers’ glowed with care and joy. Patiently, the teachers answered their questions.
Next, my students conducted two sets of 30-minute interviews at the Junior School. Many of the Senior-Junior school pairings were done at random, whereas some were more deliberate to respect learner needs. For the first interview, the Junior students were asked to bring in three objects of personal significance from home to conduct a show-and-tell. Thrilled to be the centre of attention, they spoke openly about themselves. My students followed up with a second interview as they began formulating the type of story in which they would cast their young partners as heroes.
Once my students had their plots in order, they asked the Junior students to create three illustrations. My students provided just enough guidance for the drawings, but not enough detail to reveal the plot. It was a visual arts opportunity. The younger students, tickled pink that their new friends were thinking so deeply about them, zealously drew with an insatiable curiosity about the plot.
The revising and editing process took time. I had 40 students and wanted to provide meaningful feedback. Meanwhile, they continued with other language arts tasks. It was December by the time the Junior students received their personalized gift. My students carefully inserted their young friends’ drawings amongst the printed pages and bound their books neatly with ribbon. This time the Junior students visited the Senior School classroom, which was decorated for the holiday season. Clumps of Senior and Junior students sat all over the classroom, spilling into the hallway… and yes, the younger ones listened with rapt attention while drinking hot chocolate and nibbling on chocolate chip cookies. When the readings were over, the groups just carried on chatting. The sessions ended with hugs and the question, “When will I see you again?”
From a curricular perspective, my Grades 9 and 10 students developed their creative writing skills. However, what my students gained from this project went far beyond creative writing accomplishments. In particular, they began to learn that meaningful relationships lie at the heart of service, and that such relationships can benefit the school community in unpredictable ways.
The resulting stories were of higher quality than I have ever received. My students were not creating for a mark. They were focused on their new little friends.
It was serendipitous that two students who both loved music and had a penchant for breaking out into dance move sessions were paired together as partners. It was both fascinating and amusing to watch how they collaborated with each other during the interview sessions. They developed a common understanding of how to work together and an appreciation for their similar interests and qualities.
I watched an artistic Grade 10 student, who initially knew very little about video games, step outside of her comfort zone to learn all that she could about her Grade 6 student’s favourite game. As a result, she was able to celebrate her partner’s interest by writing about a protagonist who overcame the trials of a video game world.
One of my fairly serious students was paired with a couple of Grade 5 students who loved romances. With dreamy countenances and a twinkle in their eyes, they begged their senior partner to write a romance story. Also, the story had to include a pig. Although my student was challenged by the requests, she committed herself to the task because she was invested in bringing the story to life for her young partners.
My students were moved to see the JS students demonstrate an equal investment in the process when asked to provide illustrations for their stories. While distributing the completed illustrations to my students, I heard many of them excitedly cry out, “This is exactly what I had envisioned!”
Suparna and I noted that all of the students involved were able to experience positive emotions, felt fully engaged in the process, and built relationships that brought meaning into their lives. In the end, together they created a product that made their accomplishments visible. In fact, these experiences represent the five key elements that psychologist Martin Seligman believes promotes psychological well-being and happiness.1 We did not intentionally manufacture a project to “cover” these elements. A post-project reflection session revealed that we did.
The positive outcomes of this service-learning project were numerous and reached beyond relationship building.
Our school’s strategic plan includes:
My students had many opportunities to shift perspectives and see the world through the eyes of a JS student, cultivating a sense of care, empathy, and compassion. I frequently highlighted how chuffed the Junior students were to have new, older Senior friends. Their trust in my students helped the Grade 9s and 10s build confidence in their oral communication skills and experience growth in their interview techniques. All of the students transcended the barriers of traditional classroom walls and experienced an innovative form of meaning making. Cumulatively, all of these aspects increased my students’ investment in their finished products, and the resulting short stories were of higher quality than I have ever received. My students were not creating for a mark. Rather, my students were focused on making visible to their new little friends the heroes that they already were.
The JS teachers were impressed to see the quality of work that their past students were creating and were eager to adjust their current expectations to further nurture the skills they saw developed at the senior level. One JS teacher had her class create lovely thank-you cards. Another teacher planned to have his students dramatically recreate their story using a green screen in the future.
Unfortunately, the green screen dream did not materialize, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit and students were tucked away in isolation. The pandemic made Suparna and I wonder what such a project would look like if completely carried out online. Interviews and sharing sessions could all happen in virtual breakout rooms that could be monitored by teachers and recorded and submitted by the Senior School students to ensure ethical behaviour. Expectations and ground rules would need to be set in advance. Delicious cookies, I suppose, would also need to be mailed out to students.
No matter what the scenario, oftentimes as teachers, we postpone innovative ideas for more traditional approaches due to lack of time or confounding logistics. However, both Suparna and I feel that if it is at all possible (even on a smaller scale), service-learning initiatives are well worth the effort. The school community benefits, and students realize that perhaps the greatest secret in receiving an education is that they have the power to express that learning in an act of giving.
Photo: courtesy the authors
First published in Education Canada, January 2021
1 According to Dr. Martin Seligman, the five pillars of well-being are: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. See: Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Free Press.
The Power of Us enters the pandemic publishing parade with a compelling message that is both challenging and hopeful. Change consultant and author David Price makes a strong case for unseating traditional hierarchical ways of organizing our businesses, schools, and community organizations. That’s the challenge. But the hope lies in Price’s illustrative efforts to show us where in the world it is already happening.
The result of nearly three years of deep inquiry, The Power of Us draws us into a story of mass ingenuity, or what he refers to as people-powered innovation. Much more than just the sharing of ideas or organizing ourselves into cooperative clusters, it is the innovation that happens when groundswells of public activity, including inspiring examples of youth activism, meet up with organizations that understand and acknowledge that the traditional divisions between producer and consumer, artist and audience are quickly melting away. It’s what happens when companies start to see their users as co-creators, when the health-care sector starts to value highly invested patients as highly invested innovators, when schools begin to see their educators, parents, and students as co-learners, imbued with a sense of agency to make a difference outside the walls of the schoolhouse.
Price examines many of the familiar themes of change literature – ethos, structure, mindset, and leadership – through the lens of people power, supported by some very robust and compelling case studies written from the author’s own commitment (pre-pandemic) to travelling the world to find the organizations, companies, and schools that were actually showing up to their work differently. The generous summary of key points and take-aways at the end of each section invites the reader to look at their own practice and their own organizations through the lens of people powered innovation.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced David Price into rewrite mode, not because he was wrong, but because his ideas were so very right. COVID-19 is cast here, not as part of the scenery but as a main character, allowing The Power of Us to make a strong contribution to our rethinking of how we want to be in a post-pandemic world.
Photo: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, January 2021
Thread, 2020. ISBN: 9781800191181
The spring of 2020 will be described as “unthinkable” in our future textbooks. Grocery shelves were emptied, parks banned, classrooms closed, and businesses boarded. The world as we understood it was paused. But through the challenges, perspectives started to change and priorities shifted. Despite the fact that we were physically separated from one another, we came to a common understanding: that the “busy” of our lives was a glorification of exhaustion, discontent, and fear.
Teachers, with no classrooms to teach in, found themselves having to transition into digital educational spaces. My position was a little different. I was an online educator long before the days of COVID-19. However, the forced isolation led me to re-evaluate my own professional practice, in order to answer the many questions that were coming forward at that point. I was forced to reflect. In doing so, I realized that I needed to translate digital learning into an authentic and valuable experience for my students, and I needed to shift my own mindset about online practices, opportunities, and capabilities. We needed to come together, not just for academic success, but for our well-being as a group.
I thought I knew all there was to know about online teaching. It was my specialty, after all. However, despite my familiarity with the platform, I never fully understood or appreciated its potential benefits. Initially, its service for me was as a connector for learning and one-to-one Q and A. Honesty is key here, and as an online teacher, I will frankly admit that prior to the pandemic, I was quite resistant to online interaction. I believed the benefits of face-to-face connection could not be replicated through a screen, nor were they reliable enough in that context for professional practice. When it was necessary, I used it sparingly and in short intervals, as we were instructed to do by our administration. It felt forced and cold.
However, circumstances of these past months allowed for time to understand the potential and value of online learning. It was my bridge to students who, otherwise, would not be able to continue their studies. My mindset shifted. Mediums such as Google Meets and Zoom helped to alleviate the feelings of isolation. I scheduled meetings multiple times each week, with no filters, and no staging of my table or background. I let the clutter of home and the sound of my toddlers’ Netflix cartoons be part of my presence. In order for this to feel authentic and genuine, I had to first be an example of that for my students. Slowly, as both my students and I became comfortable with the process, I was able to answer their academic questions, but also ask about the pictures on their wall or the scenery at their cottages, and have them giggle with me at the many cups of pretend coffee my daughter would pour me while interrupting my lesson: “Mommy needs more coffee?!”
In the absence of physical contact, technology allowed me to build relationships – and those relationships extended beyond our scheduled times. Students informed me that there were others in the class who were struggling with the course because of issues like Internet connection, transportation, and accessibility. I made the taboo move of passing along my personal number (GASP – I know, but I did it!) to have those students reach out to me. I would make the arrangements necessary to ensure they had support in completing their tasks, and/or resources beyond their academics, if needed. I arranged phone conferences, created live docs through shared Google drives to provide immediate feedback, and when necessary, reached out to my administration to send paper copies of the material through the post for the students in more remote areas. I sent text reminders when I could to those who needed the extra push.
I found that trust could be established through the monitors, not in spite of them. I began to approach this platform with a newfound appreciation for its ability to cradle interconnection and create a new dimension of teacher/student relationships.
I know each teacher’s practice and experience will be different, whether online or in the classroom. However, I have come to three key factors that were instrumental in making the online experience successful and fun!
Let’s also admit that despite its benefits, online teaching is hard! As e-learning teachers, we must combat the inconsistencies of attendance and daily logins, missed assignments, and students’ overall struggle with time management and motivation to engage with a screen for their academic benefit rather than social pleasures. We have worked very hard to do this, and continue to do so, to help our students find success within themselves, regardless of the unexpected circumstances they may find themselves in.
Our learning does not end when we become teachers. As we transfer our binders and printed lessons onto digital platforms, and blend our classrooms into interactive and accessible hubs, we need to embrace a new vision of what an educator can be. It is not the end of the role, but rather a transformation of it, which we get to be part of. Change is inevitable and remains one of the only constants – but our growth is an optional component.
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, January 2021
MONTREAL, September 2, 2020 – Students, teachers, parents and guardians across Canada have had to make major adjustments to their daily lives in the midst of a global pandemic. To support our youth and to help them thrive in their educational journey, Desjardins is proud to announce new investments and programs with Kids Help Phone and the EdCan Network. Additionally, Desjardins is expanding its Desjardins Foundation Prizes to further support our youth.
All told, over $1.4M will be invested to provide much-needed support to students as they prepare to go back to school.
“Supporting education is important to Desjardins. For 120 years, Desjardins has been supporting our communities and working alongside them”, said Guy Cormier, President and CEO of Desjardins Group. “As students, teachers, parents and guardians across Canada prepare for a year unlike any other we wanted to reaffirm our commitment to our youth’s academic success, which is so vital to our nation’s future.”
As some young people prepare to return to school and others continue to learn virtually, Kids Help Phone and Desjardins are working together to ensure they have the resources and support they need during this transitional time. Kids Help Phone expects to make 3 million connections in 2020 compared to 1.9 million in 2019 and a 200% increase in web sessions.
In addition to providing resources for youth, adults and educators, Desjardins is supporting programs such as:
“Young people across Canada, and the adults who support them, are experiencing a wide-range of emotions going back-to-school during this global pandemic. Kids Help Phone has been there every day and night throughout these uncertain times” said Katherine Hay, President and CEO, Kids Help Phone. “On behalf of the youth in every province and territory, thank you Desjardins, you have helped to ensure our e-mental health services will continue to meet young people wherever they are, for whatever reason they need, however they need to reach us – it could not be more important, now more than ever! No problem is too small and no problem is too big, Kids Help Phone is here for young people 24/7.”
As many students continue to learn virtually, equitable access to technology is crucial to their academic success. Desjardins and EdCan are working together to help students and schools that may need support in obtaining computers and other tech-based learning tools. A new three-year partnership will support students to help close the gap caused by the lack of access to technology.
“The ongoing pandemic has heightened the challenges of too many students who were already more at risk for marginalization,” says EdCan CEO Max Cooke. “Our network is pleased to collaborate with Desjardins to provide technology to as many of these students as possible so that they can thrive.”
In addition to new partnerships, Desjardins continues to support students and the community through Desjardins Foundation Prizes. These prizes are awarded to schools and non-profit organizations who need financial assistance to carry out projects that help elementary and high school students. Since 2016, over 1,000 projects have been supported with more than 150,000 youth positively impacted. In addition to Ontario and Quebec, the 2020 program has been expanded to also include Alberta and New Brunswick. The application window will be open from October 5th to 26th.
“Desjardins is taking concrete action and working with various partners and the community to stimulate the academic success of our youth. It’s crucial to our socio-economic future and we will continue to help students achieve their goals and dreams during these uncertain times,” said Guy Cormier.
About Kids Help Phone
Kids Help Phone is Canada’s only 24/7 e-mental health service offering free, confidential support in English and French to young people. As the country’s virtual care expert, we give millions of youth a safe, trusted space to talk over phone and through text in any moment of crisis or need. Through our digital transformation, we envision a future where every person in Canada is able to get the support they need, when they need it most, however they need it. Kids Help Phone gratefully relies on the generosity of donors, volunteers, stakeholder partners, corporate partners and governments to fuel and fund our programs. Learn more at www.KidsHelpPhone.ca or @KidsHelpPhone.
About the EdCan Network
The EdCan Network has maintained its 129-year tradition as the only national, nonpartisan, bilingual organization representing 110,000 educators across Canada. Our role as an intermediary connects K-12 education systems across the country by producing and disseminating authoritative and evidence-based, yet accessible content that is trusted by educators, parents, and policymakers alike. EdCan aims to improve education policies that heighten equity and support deeper learning (i.e. a combination of the fundamental knowledge and practical basic skills all students need to succeed), and expanding the reach of educational resources in an effort to bridge the research-implementation gap.
Playing and designing games have been of interest to K-12 educators as ways to support student learning. Parents are also increasingly accepting of video and board games as their choice of family activity, based on a 2018 survey by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada finding that 71% of Canadian parents play video games with their children. Game-Based Learning involves learning situations where children play or design games – whether digital, physical, or table-top games – in which they solve problems and gradually develop new knowledge and skills. Games have been found to improve students’ motivation and cognitive development, such as memory and reasoning.
Research demonstrates that Game-Based Learning enhances essential life skills that are foundational to a child’s development. In particular, Game-Based Learning provides students with an interactive learning experience where they have the opportunity to use and develop many different cognitive, social, and physical skills. Problem solving, critical thinking, strategy development, decision making, and teamwork are some of the many skills that games can provide.
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