Thursday, June 28, 2012

Perspectives on SS11

SS11 students re-creating a Great Depression Era experience for a weekend
A colleague from Ft. St. James asked me on twitter yesterday if I had any thoughts about BC Social Studies 11 curriculum review, so I thought I'd lay out some ideas in more than 140 characters.

Social Studies 11 is a fantastic course. Despite its many manifestations from class to school to district, it centres around the basic question of Canadian Identity. Who are we? What does it mean to be Canadian? We ask this of our students, they ask of of each other, their teachers, parents, elders, employers. We ask them to work this question through in terms of political choices, active citizenship, cultural expressions, societal change, historical evidence, environmental relationships, gender & race, international contexts, global issues, and the very history, identity, or experience of our students.

It is so important that our Ministry of Education and in some ways the entire province deems it (or something very much like it) as a requirement for graduation. The alternatives, Civics 11 and First Nations 12, ask the same big idea but with a specific focus on citizenship and Aboriginal identity respectively. We could probably ask powerful questions about Canadian Identity using variety of curricula or a reduced curriculum, but we (our province) have settled on 20th & early 21st century Canadian-centric history, civics, and human geography. I think we made a good choice.

The course is tightly packed (here's a sample course overview), so much so that some teachers complain about curriculum overload and having to rush through or survey topics rather than explore them in depth. There is a provincial exam at the end, a grad program requirement worth 20% of the overall mark, that has been in place for 8 years. Again many teachers complain that the exam drives the course, forces us to teach content over skills and deep understanding.

I'd like to call road apples on that. I think the course provides a challenging, creative, and fast-paced context to explore the big questions. The content areas can be broken down very well into powerful, focused inquiries, and that there is enough flex time for both meaningful projects, deep understanding of core topics, and the inclusion of current events. I have to manage my instructional time very carefully as a teacher, but I still have classes where we goof around, argue about the news, and watch stuff on youtube. I think an interrogation of Canadian Identity benefits from the backdrop of 20th century history, forays in politics & government, an empathetic survey of global development issues, and an ongoing effort to connect what students know and who they are with the story of Canada. This course provides it, and the students come away going wow that was intense and did I ever learn a lot. I'm serious, and I can say that because the same students don't necessarily say that about the other courses that I teach, and the students enjoy SS11 even when I'm not firing on all cylinders. When students come in with an agenda, a passion or deep interest (as many of them will given the space to do it), I feel the best way to abet their quests are with broad horizons of Canadian evidence across political, economic, environmental, and social landscapes.  Of course many deep interests awaken along the journey, so I'm glad it is not a short or easy path we follow.

I also think the exam is beneficial. The provincial exam features 55 well designed MC questions surveying basic curriculum (selective, not exhaustive), connections between important ideas, and short, precise opportunities for critical thinking. The questions use graphics like maps, cartoons, newspaper headlines, and quotes -- often to the embarrassment of old-school teachers who used to reward their students with 200 question text-only MC tests. They are balanced from each area of the course (Civics, History, Human Geography) and balanced in terms of knowledge (40%) and understanding (60%). The exam has 2 essay questions that require higher-level thinking and synthesis of learning from very broad topics in the course: French-English relations, standards of living, treatment of minorities, global poverty, international conflicts, climate change & water, the Great Depression, and so on. Some of the questions are worded in a difficult way, but the topics are not a surprise to the teacher or the students.

When the provincial exam first came out in 2004, many SS teachers across the province gasped and thought to themselves (or out loud) "you mean I'm supposed to teach this stuff?" Sorry to be cynical so close to the end of a school-year, but I'm embarrassed by how many teachers have never read the IRP or parsed the PLOs for the courses they teach, and stop with the textbook. The SS curriculum was revised in 2006, dropping PLOs from SS11 related to government structure, law, pre-1914 history, and aspects of human geography.  Some of these entered into the SS10 curriculum. This helped reduce the content/knowledge pressure without compromising the basic set of inquiries. Six years later (with a new, exemplary textbook) and some teachers haven't yet made this connection, as evidenced by the old course outlines and tests they work with. The exam literally kick-started an entire generation of SS teachers to re-examine how they designed their courses and gave them a once-in-their-career notice that fidelity to the curriculum was important.

With a tight curriculum that many teachers felt they now had to follow (because of the provincial exam), no doubt many things were dropped along the way. Like 20 hours of Socials videos!  Did I say that? Okay, like cool projects, such as the two-week long "build a sustainable city" project I saw in a colleague's class in the 1990s, or empathy building activities around important events (e.g. ties to Remembrance Day). Many other teachers started teaching population geography for the first time, and actually took the history course through the modern era in order to discuss contemporary Canadian issues. Others dusted off their government & law units and realized that the new curriculum was devoted to active citizenship and gaining insight into rights, social values, and our political system. There is still time for cool projects and presentation time in SS11, like the Depression-Era experience, the Echo Project, and Community Involvement Challenge (all involve home and class time), Letters from the Front (1 class) or the Rwandan case study (3 classes) placed before a "Canada's role in the world" activity (peacekeeping middle power vs peacemaking model power -- 3 classes). This year a colleague from Mackenzie built her WWI lessons around trench conditions... her class planned out and dug trenches in the huge Mackenzie snowdrifts and simulated a Canadian's day in 1917.  Garvin Moles, a respected Prince George/Nanaimo SS teacher (now-retired) and text-book author, told me he used to teach the courses he wanted to teach, and then spend the last week or two bending what they had done towards the exam, and actively preparing them for it.  Exams can be scary for students, but they are just one thing that needs doing in a course, and need not run the whole show.

The survey nature of the course allows us to work through what is means to be Canadian from multiple perspectives. This year alone I had students with family backgrounds that involved the Chinese head-tax, Komagata Maru, Ukrainian Sifton-era immigration, fighting at Vimy Ridge, Japanese Internment, Liberation of Holland, Aboriginal Residential School, and rallying with the FLQ. These connections came up precisely because our curriculum danced in and out of these topics, and because we made some time for Heritage Inquiry. Many of these student didn't know they had these connections until they both learned about the topics and engaged their families with heritage inquiry. Some needed the learning in order to know what questions to ask, and some needed to ask identity-based questions before they cared to learn about the content. The exam doesn't specifically exploit this learning, but it does say that our society values emerging citizenship so much that we're willing to apply standards and assess at a "grand" scale.

I do wish the exam "answer key" had a bit more encouragement for markers to look for personal connections to the curriculum like family stories and focused examples. Most markers are sane about this, but some are still looking for students to complete a checklist of facts and repeat what they were "supposed" to learn in a way that is easy to recognize. I also wish there was an opportunity to demonstrate learning with something other than an essay. Here's what two of my students wrote when I asked (on a closed notes test) what challenges were faced by developing nations trying to achieve a higher standard of living: example 1 and example 2. One of these girls happens to be a good writer, one is not, but I'd say they both have a great understanding of the issues behind the question. Without the provincial exam I'm sure we'd see a move to more diverse learning and demonstration of learning in the classrooms of our awesome SS teachers, but we'd also lose the healthy motivation to address a full set of learning outcomes. I think it is amazing that a group of young British Columbians (who more or less took SS11 from 2004-present) have a common expectation for being knowledgeable, active, aware, and empathetic Canadians.  Grab one off the street and quiz him... see if he feels the same way!

Perhaps we could tell an even more inclusive story of Canada by re-arranging the course, but I don't think it is the curriculum or the exam that needs shifting. I think we could do more with project-based learning (have you seen the cigar box project?), teaming with other teachers/students/courses (why not do the Rwandan Case Study in an English or Psychology class?), and simply beating down our PLOs into student-friendly focus questions and core skills. It is a hard habit for many teachers to break, but we also need to take perspectives out of the footnote category (women's history, for example), and start rather than end lessons with these. It would be great to sign stuents up for two senior Social Studies courses at the same time and mash the lessons together. I'm thinking about what SS11 and Social Justice 12 would look like taught together. The PLOs are different, but the curricular fodder is similar, so finding time for grand projects and inquiries would be natural. We could also conceive of Social Studies 8-11 as a continuum, in which we lay out goals around curriculum (e.g. Canadian history, environmental issues), skills (e.g. decoding images and interpreting evidence), inquiry (heritage connections, Canadian character), and themes (politics & gov't, autonomy & internationalism, society & identity, economy & environment), and relevance (heritage presentations, current events, community service, political/social action, interviews). Parts of these "classes" would be classes -- age-grouped, instruction based, content-centred but always aiming at higher level thinking. Parts of these "classes" could be cohort based and focused on the universal goals but responsive to current events. Parts of these "classes" could be community based, leveraging online/flipped/blended learning and centred around the themes and inquiries (more interaction with each other, for example, on "being Canadian"). Parts of these "classes" could be seminar-based and involve other disciplines, teachers, students, and even parents; I'm thinking about big project that tie many outcomes together and might span more than one year. Crazy ideas, yes, but not unprecedented in our province.  While I like that superintendent's ideas, the trick is make progressive changes to public education without allowing the personalization agenda to erode the parts of the foundation that aren't already cracked.

As you can see I'm looking more at education reform than curriculum review. I think our curriculum is fine as it is, it is just challenging enough to keep students and teachers alert and takes the fluff away from the corners of my lesson plans (so long, 6 page worksheets and Canada A People's History except for a few pieces involving Trudeau!). What needs changing (for some) is the approach, not the curriculum, and maybe the teacher skill-set at taking down what they perceive to be a mountain of material and learning outcomes and getting them to realize they can slow down and focus on fewer, stronger inquiries without the BCED plan or the IRP telling them to do so. The permission is already implicit in the existing expectations, and I think the exam doesn't ask much more than this.

Please, comment on what I've written, challenge it, and provide something from your own bias and experience. There are hundreds of ways of getting SS11 "right" and I know some of them are far more creative and successful than mine. I'm proud of how my students fare on the provincial exam re their class assessment and the provincial averages, but I'm way more proud of how they navigate through a challenging and engaging curriculum and emerge with sense of their own place in Canada past, present, and future. In particular, please share how you slow down on important outcomes -- these are the activities that tend to engage students and make me reconsider my arguments for a fast-paced course.


Anonymous said...

You are clearly a master teacher. What lucky students. I really like your point about education reform and I think it should be considered carefully. I would be very, very discouraged if our attempts to get get rid of the "factory model" of education resulted in students knowing and understanding less, in students being less engaged and less interested in the humanities and inquiry in general. I want more critical thinking, creative problem solving and communication. I don't want to sacrifice breadth of knowledge. Thanks. I'll keep thinking and checking back on comments.

@fbyrne33 said...

Thanks for the post Glen, it is a great overview of SS11 and a well constructed piece that invites conversation. I would perhaps add to your definition of SS11 centering around ....”Canadian Identity. Who are we? What does it mean to be Canadian?“ include: What is Canada’s role in the world? I finish off SS10 with an emphasis on Canada’s role as a Nation within an Empire; I continue this theme throughout SS11 and with the recent Queen's Golden Jubilee and the current world political climate what Canada’s modern day role is (a handy way of incorporating current events with the curriculum).

Your description of the exam and its balance is expertly summarized, however, your reference to an exemplary textbook neglects the fact that often this resource is not available. I have taught at two schools in the last two years and neither have had the new textbook available. Given the lack of availability (often funding related) of these resources, even six years after the curriculum change, I’m a teacher who doesn’t use the textbook very often as I find them often outdated with irrelevant visuals and examples. Also, given the digital age we now live in I foresee a future of printed social texts being a limiting factor - the idea of books published in 2010 being used 25 years later in 2035 gives me nightmares. Given the fiscal constraints of education I’m not sure investing huge sums in quickly outdated textbooks is the best use of money.

As a last note, you referred to the curriculum pressure felt by some teachers due to the exam and feeling unable to go in-depth on many topics. Given we are rapidly approaching 2014 and WW1’s one hundred year anniversary, how long can the curriculum remain 1914 to present without additional time to discuss modern political, social and economic concerns in depth (2000 to 2012 could take a whole semester)?

I think the SS10 and 11 curriculum can be tweaked and improved but completely agree that it is education reform that should be the bigger priority.

I also completely support your observation “We could also conceive of Social Studies 8-11 as a continuum” this should be mandatory. I see a continuum in learning as vital for student engagement and making socials relevant to students.

Thank you for your insight, willingness to share and twitter posts. They motivate and inspire me to continue developing as a facilitator of learning.

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