Monday, September 30, 2013

Curricular Obligations in the Creative Classroom

or How Do You Uncover 400 Years of History in 10 Months?

By Erin Quinn

One of the biggest struggles for a creative teacher is balancing the demands of packed curriculums with the desire to provide time and space for student creativity. I teach grade 7 Language Arts and Social Studies. Language Arts is no problem - it lends itself quite well to creative pursuits. But the grade 7 Social Studies curriculum is a beast of a curriculum. It focuses on pre- and post-Confederation Canadian history, basically spanning the years from 1600 to the mid 20th century. Pretty big for eleven-year-olds to swallow.

This past summer, I sorted the curriculum into Googleable and Non-Googleable outcomes, and discovered that the majority of the content objectives involved lower level thinking skills. Specific outcomes like, “What factors led to Louis Riel’s emergence as the leader of the M├ętis?” or “What was the role and intent of Chief Pontiac in controlling British forts?” could be handled in a classroom in a way that does not promote creative and critical thinking skills. Look it up in a textbook. Google it. Answer it on a multiple choice test. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In jumping into this curriculum, my team teachers and I wanted to start with a project that would allow students to spend a bit of time on the context of the curriculum. Really, the crux of the curriculum, as with most history, is “Who are we and how did we get here?” Put in another way, “What changes have occurred in Canada over the past four centuries, and why? And how do these changes impact us?” So we wanted to focus on present-day Canada for a bit to take a look at where we are now.

The Game of Canada

We started with the idea of doing some centres focused on different aspects of Canada today, and concepts that would underlie students’ understanding of being able to understand what has changed from 1600 to present. This went through a few iterations, but then I stumbled upon Q Learning from the Institute of Play. I knew about gamification of learning before, but hadn’t tried it, and the design packs from Q Learning really helped me wrap my brain around it. In a nutshell, gamification is applying concepts from game mechanics to non-game situations. To be clear, it is not using games in learning - that’s a totally different thing altogether.

I had spent the first couple of weeks of school learning about who these kids were, and knew many of them considered themselves gamers. So, I gamified the project. Each centre was turned into a quest. Students would be working in Guilds, and would create an identity for their guild by making a coat of arms and a motto. They would work cooperatively to learn together.
Some of the coats of arms with the badges they earned.

Teaching Like a Pirate

And here’s something silly but something profound. In order to permit your students from taking risks in learning, you need to do it too. This was one of my main takeaways from the short, but infinitely inspiring book by Dave Burgess called Teach Like a Pirate. So guess what I did? Called myself the QuestMaster and donned a cape. Whenever we are working on the quests, I am wearing my cape. Let me tell you, I have gotten plenty of strange looks in the hallway. And a million people have asked, “Ms. Quinn, why are you wearing a cape?” to which I reply, “Why not?!” But who cares? I’m doing this to give my students permission to do it too. I’m laying the building blocks that will allow for creative risk taking as our year progresses.

Me as the QuestMaster.

Gamification of Assessment

It just so happens that this project aligned quite well with my school’s current shift towards outcome-based assessment. Some of the actual quests do not really require creative skills. Looking at the three types of creative learning designs, some of the quests would qualify as Type 1 activities: skill and knowledge acquisition, such as the map quest and reading a news article about a significant Canadian story. Some are Type 2 activities, like redesigning the Canadian flag to reflect its modern identity, and writing/filming/drawing the story of an explorer coming to Canada. Both these types of tasks are necessary. I think the beauty of these quests, though, lie in their assessment. I pulled curricular outcomes from the curricular document and translated them into kid friendly “I can statements.” For example, “I can examine different ideas and points of view expressed in a media message,” or “I can choose symbols that represent Canada and support my choices with research.”

The Genius of Angry Birds

When the guild thinks they are ready and have achieved the outcomes for the quest, they call me over and we have a look. We discuss the learning and notice where evidence of the outcome is. Through discussion, we come up with a number of stars out the possible three. This gamification concept may be familiar to you if you’ve ever played Angry Birds:

In Angry Birds, it is possible to pass a level if you get one star out of three. But you can also go back and replay the level to earn more stars. Likewise, with the quests, students can choose whether they’d like to continue working on a quest to improve it, or move on to the next one. What’s been really surprising for me to see is how many guilds opt to go back and try again. I’d say probably 80% of guilds who get less than three stars go back to improve it.

Mastery of Learning

This scenario probably sounds familiar to you: In the past when I was younger and greener, I would assign students a writing assignment, take it in, mark it, give it back, and give them the opportunity to improve it to hand in for a better mark. Maybe one or two kids would take me up on this offer. This is a good step on the right path towards encouraging mastery of learning, but the way these quests are assessed has been so much better. In reflection, I think there’s a few differences between the way the quests are assessed and the hypothetical redo of a writing assignment. First, the gamification aspect gives kids an entry point that is familiar and fun to them. Second, and I can’t stress this enough: conversation is the most powerful form of assessment. Through conversation, I have a clear idea who knows what they’re talking about and who doesn’t. I scribble as they talk and write down evidence of learning. For some guilds, we quickly run into our dead end. The assessment conversation sometimes ends up being quite short the first time because it is obvious that the students aren’t ready to be assessed yet. They go back and try again. Third, specific, clear feedback was given during these chats. I told (and wrote) the guilds exactly what they needed to still learn to earn more stars, and the feedback was immediate. They didn’t have to go home, read what I wrote, improve their essay or story on their own time, and take the time to hand it back in.

And the end result of this 80% re-attempt at learning? Mastery. Better learning. Persistence, grit. High levels of achievement across the whole class. Who wouldn’t want that?!

This type of assessment would lend itself extremely well to type 2 and 3 tasks as well. In fact, the last quest of the game is called Boss Level. The instructions are quite simple, “Create something to show your understanding of the Big Question: “What does it mean to be Canadian?” Students will use their learning from the quests to help them formulate an answer to this question and create something, anything, that shows their ideas about this question. We’re veering into Type 3 territory here, since students will need to apply the creative process in order to create something new and answer a significant, open ended question.

Creativity Breeds Creativity

So now we come back to the topic of this article: how does a teacher in a heavy-content area allow for creativity in the classroom? Maybe I’m oversimplifying here, but it really just involves being creative yourself. Looking at your curriculum with a creative eye will allow for a project like this one, one where kids have fun learning content as well as important creative and higher level thinking skills.


Please feel free to download the assignment and assessment sheets.

The Game of Canada.pdf
The Game of Canada - Assessment

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