Thursday, July 12, 2018

Imagine a Canada design challenge

If you read my last post, you'll have gotten a glimpse at the final project I designed for my grade 7 Humanities students called Imagine a Canada.

This project in a nutshell: drawing from what they learned about Canada's sometimes dark history throughout the year, this was their chance to be hopeful: to design a solution that would make Canada the kind of place they wanted to leave behind in the next 150 years. They used the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals to launch a design challenge to answer these questions:

Imagine a Canada 150 years from now...
What kind of Canada do you want that to be?
What kind of ancestor do you want to be?

They were given an opportunity to learn a bit about each of the goals. We used this video as part of this initial exploration:

From here, students identified the top 3 goals they were interested in exploring, and we regrouped all three grade 7 classes into new groupings based on this. Sidenote: If you're an administrator, please don't discount the impact timetabling has on innovating learning. Because at my school, the only things that are timetabled are options and phys ed, and these happen at the same time for all students in the grade, the result is flexible time we can play with in the remaining core time. We were able to then schedule "final project time" and regroup our students based on their interests, rather than based on the class they just happened to be assigned to.

As the students were regrouped into three different rooms with a key teacher, they really dove into the project. Each group was given a printed copy of the slidedeck:

And they were also given a copy of a checklist:

We kicked off each work period with an overview of what would be reasonable to accomplish during the time they had, but having their own copy of the slides and a checklist let them move at their own pace.

An assessment note: the checklist had to be checked off by a teacher. What this did was create opportunities for groups to check in with a teacher before they moved forward, allowing us to give feedback and support growth.

Okay, that's the basics of how we set this project up, and how students moved through it. I just want to spend a bit of time unpacking what I learned through this project.

First, the Global Goals are an incredibly powerful starting point for any design challenge. Global in scope, they can be interpreted through a hyper local lens. Students can design local solutions for a global problem, which is optimistic because they are contributing, in their own small way, to this global goal. It's a way for students to feel like they can really make an impact in what are in many ways intractable social problems.

The biggest thing I learned is this, though: though my students have had much practice using design thinking throughout our year, they required lots and lots of feedback and support through this challenge. And for this feedback and support to be useful to them, we go back to Dr. Robert Kelly's assertion that
The creative capacity of the educator must be greater than the creative capacity of the student. (Kelly, 2012)

I would not have been as an effective supporter had I not been through design challenges before. I would not be able to know the sticky points - the points when I had to push and the places where I needed to ease back and allow productive struggle - had I not experienced this myself before. This is why we, as teachers, need experiential professional learning. This is why we, as teachers, need to experience what it is we want our students to do.

One point where I needed to give my students lots of feedback and support was the early research phase. In this phase, students needed to gain empathy for people who experience this problem in Canada, and one of the methods they could use was an expert interview. I supported my students by helping them find experts (drawing on my own wide professional learning network and connections I had with members of the community and experts in the field) and setting up phone calls for them to speak with these people and interview them. I had students talking with people who worked at food banks, a member of our school board's Indigenous education team, an educator I know who runs a charity to bring clean water to Indigenous reserves, an acquaintance who created an app to connect people to social services that can help them... and the list goes on. One of the hallmarks of intellectually engaging learning tasks is disciplinary expertise, and speaking with someone in the discipline was the most direct way the students could access this expertise. It's so uncommon in classrooms, though, for students to be speaking with people who are doing this kind of work out in the world. Why? I suppose it was a bit of added effort to find a contact and schedule a phone call, but the things they learned by speaking with the disciplinary experts far surpassed that effort.

One spot where I needed to drop a bit of feedback and then back off and let the students run with it was when they were ideating. As they brainstormed potential solutions, I circulated amongst the groups and asked "What if" questions. "What if senior citizens could grow their own food?" "What if you could literally have someone walk in your shoes?" "What if we could filter out pesticides from the water before it reached the water treatment plant?" At this point, I also helped them learn a technique I call "exploding an idea." We took one idea, like, say "an awareness campaign about endangered species" and exploded it, generating many different potentials from just that one idea. We could, for example, do a letter writing campaign, create a petition, create bus stop ads, put advertisements in bathroom stalls, create public art, design an immersive experience where people pretend they are the endangered animal, etc. Many different possibilities can be generated from one small thought. This strategy helped many groups get beyond the obvious and dig deeper into ideating, ultimately resulting in more innovative solutions.

Through this project, I spent 0.01% of my time "instructing" the whole group. Because of the way we set it up, it was fairly self-directed. The information each group needed depended on the Global Goal they chose, making direct instruction useless. But, let me tell you, I spent the entire time during this project busy. I was bouncing from group to group, giving feedback, checking in, assessing progress, and having conversations. This gave me far more information about my learners than standing in front of the class and giving them information would have. That's teaching, friends.

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