A story of action learning that addresses real life community challenges!
I imagine Banff Community High School (BCHS) as a beehive of activity. There are 350 students mixed with community resource people, some adult learners, some parents of elementary school kids doing upgrading and teachers who now are learning advisors, facilitators, seminar leaders, coaches, mentors and sometimes yes they teach specific content to a specific group of students.
This is a community hub of learning with a life-long learning focus and students are tackling the real challenges that face Banff, Banff National Park, the Bow Valley, Alberta, Canada and sometimes global issues that affect everyone. The content – math, chemistry, biology, english, technology and media, etc is learned as students tackle these community issues and try to solve complex problems. The content is a resource not the focus. The focus is “taking leadership as we learn about developing our community”.
Education Focused on community development
A group of grade 11 and grade 12 students have tackled the issue of water quality and community responsibility. They are a project team – there are 7 students in this group and they have just presented their findings and recommendations to Banff Town Council, Parks Canada and the Regional Water Management Council. They have done a multi-media presentation that shows the improvements made over the last 5 years of collaboration between these agencies that included signficant citizen participation. Those improvements where the result of a water quality project team from BCHS recommending 5 key actions points 6 years ago and how their influence spurred action by Town Council, Parks, Banff citizens and resulted in the creation of the Regional Water Management Council. They want to keep moving so they have also identified the next 5 key actions points that be important to address new challenges that we have discovered based on recent work.
How did the students exert so much influence?
The students learned about water quality issues in the Bow Valley from Parks Canada scientists and from a special water conference sponsored by the Banff Centre, Parks Canada and Banff Town Council. Their Chemistry and Biology teachers initially helped them develop a set of questions to frame their study and to develop an approach to their research. A key first step the students identified was understanding the current state by having the Parks Canada scientists share the latest current data and assisting them with data analysis. The second step was the conference where they were introduced to the most promising new approaches to water quality through community action with projects and initiatives from around Alberta, Canada, and the world. In each step the students framed what the learning goals where, what resources were needed and which learning process would maximize their learning. This learning process occurred with guidance, coaching and facilitation from their science teachers. As the students learned they started to develop their desired approach to community engagement, advocacy and finally their presentation and recommendations. This part of the process also involved their Technology and English teachers who helped them frame their approach in a way that would allow them to have influence in the political system. Their Social teachers guided them in studying these systems and how they are best influenced.
Why Focus on real life challenges?
Students often ask “Why do I have to study math or chemistry – I’ll never have to use it again?” We seldom have a good answer to this question. Why? Because school is too often a holding area where we make kids wait and learn stuff until they graduate and then they move into real life and have to be “responsible”.
Watch a group of students age 13, 15, 17 – they can be quite bored and disengaged and we can easily label them as disrespectful or undisciplined. Then watch when it’s a school dance and the theme is hippie daze. They quickly find old pictures of their parents, look on the internet, start gathering costumes, and start talking differently. They are alive, engaged and learning. How can we tap into this natural desire to engage, work together, learn together, and to create through fun.
Kids care about different things – some care about water, some care about recycling, some care about adventure (biking, skiing) some care about music – we need to tap into what kids care about, what interests them, their desire to create, to work together, to have impact.
What do we need to do?
This isn’t a new idea – there are many alternative schools that use this approach and their students learn in this more chaotic way and they pass exams, are accepted to university and make their way in the world. Many teachers in our schools understand this and use this internal motivation and often they are stymied by curriculum and calendars that push us towards a mass approach to education. What we really need is a personalized approach that understands and responds to each student’s interests, needs and abilities and we have to free teachers up to respond in personal ways to student learning needs and to do it in a way that promotes collaborative team learning.
We need to have more community conversations to discuss the ideas that emerged from our Inspiring Hearts and Minds process. The 13 key directions already point to some of these ideas. We need to go deeper into these 13 key directions with community, parents, schools councils, teachers, staff, and students to see which are the most promising and which we should move on first. There are already many changes happening in the way teachers approach learning. We need to support these innovations and really take up the challenge of working the learning cycle (learn-do-assess-reflect-adjust learning and action – repeat often).
Interestingly at a recent Banff Ideas Bank event about the purpose of education there was a strong sentiment that students needed to tackle real life challenges and not just put in time in school till they grow and up and are ready to enter the business world and it’s difficult and complex challenges.
As a community with some leadership from the Board of Trustees we also have to influence changes in the education system to allow this approach (and others) by changing the guidelines around curriculum. The Inspiring Education process initiated by Education Minister Hancock has looked at a bold and innovative approach to education and the expectations are that we will take some leaps as opposed to small steps as we look at creating a 21st century approach to education.
Minister Hancock supports a community approach to education so now is the best time we have ever had to influence change!