Sunday, March 06, 2016

Making the case for storytelling

Some recent thoughts and discussions have made it clear to me that something is missing from the new BC Social Studies curriculum. Up until now I was not sure if it was something personal and connected missing from the curricular competencies, a mechanism by which Aboriginal perspectives could enter more fully into the classroom conversation, or an practical extension of the core competencies into the learning standards. Turns out it is at the centre of all three. For those uninitiated into the vast realm of education jargon, I will explain these ideas bit using Social Studies as a context.

Curricular competencies are the skills and strategies that students develop in order to approach problems of history, place (geography), and other topics that come up in Social Studies. They include research skills and inquiry abilities. The competencies include variations of six historical thinking concepts that are well explained at The Historical Thinking Project and also at The Critical Thinking Consortium. These "Big 6" are sometimes described as establishing significance, working with evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, taking perspectives, and ethical dimensions. I believe there are two important things missing from these competencies -- language that extends historical thinking into the area of geographic thinking, and the skill/space/support for students to make authentic and meaningful connections to their learning, the Social Studies content, and the other skills they are developing. Regardless of the fine-tuning, the competencies represent an academic approach to the study of Social Studies, capable of being post-colonial and culturally sensitive, but nonetheless a modern (if not fully modernist*) incarnation of the positivist tradition in education. The curricular competencies, starting with inquiry and working with a variety of critical thinking concepts, get students to the edge of answering "so what" questions in Social Studies. *Update: an expert on both the new curriculum and Big 6-derived competencies has pointed out that the Historical Thinking Concepts have been profoundly affected by a turn towards post-modernism (presumably among the academics who developed them for use in education). This in itself is a interesting discussion but I'll leave it at that for now.

The new curriculum emphasizes the opportunity to include more Aboriginal perspectives and knowledge, in some ways a challenge to the positivist tradition and in other ways a means to embed alternate views and powerful stories alongside the empirical approach and a Eurocentric narrative. In parts of the curriculum these opportunities are made clear, and in others it is not. What is missing is some mechanism whereby this emphasis can be layered and interactive with the competencies -- and does more just establish a quota for Aboriginal content. There are many ways in which indigenous perspectives can become more responsive with the Social Studies class. I feel as if I am only starting down this path and have much to learn (see Q6/A6 on this post about Social Studies 9). A good starting point for teachers in the same position is the First Peoples Principles of Learning. If you want a interesting thought experiment, read these principles and then read the curricular competencies for a new BC Social Studies course. What's the connection? For me, it is as if the FPPoL represents the reasons why developing the competencies is important work and to end they should lead. Each Social Studies course could be subtitled with Principle 2, 3, 6, 7, or 8, e.g. "Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story."

In providing a framework for the new curriculum and "personalized" learning, the Ministry of Education and teacher teams developed the Core Competencies. "[A]long with literacy and numeracy foundations and essential content and concepts," these aver-arching standards "are at the centre of the redesign of curriculum and assessment. Core competencies are sets of intellectual, personal, and social and emotional proficiencies that all students need to develop in order to engage in deep learning and life-long learning" ( One of the three core competencies is Communication. There is obvious importance in all course and grades to the various ways in which students interpret prompts, engage in activities, express their understanding, show their learning, and collaborate with others. Where "Communication" could be more practical is at the level of curricular competencies, the discipline-specific skills and strategies that guide exploration of content in each course. What is an actual ability that can be employed alongside interpretation of bias, perspective-taking, and establishing chains of causality in Social Studies?

I believe that all three of these "problems" -- incomplete curricular competencies, inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives, and the need to explicitly apply core competencies -- centers around storytelling. This is skill, a competency, an arena for discovery, and a way of beginning difficult conversations, that has always been indispensable in the Social Studies classroom. I'd like to see storytelling included more prominently in the new curriculum. Read a few of the student stories on this blog post to see my own bias on the importance of storytelling. Maybe one day there will be a Storytelling 12 that leverages interdisciplinary learning from K-12 and allows students to tell their stories. I think it would be a fitting way to finish high school and honour their diverse paths towards success. For now, Storytelling will be an unofficial curricular competency and will be the main strategy with which teaching and learning in my Social Studies class get the heart of the three problems I have described above. For the visual learners out there, I have summarized and represented these thoughts in a graphic below.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Q and A on New Curriculum and SS9

Recently, I was asked some great questions about my draft/sample Social Studies 9 outline that I am using at the moment to pilot the new BCED curriculum. I've been asked "where's the French Revolution" by a few teachers, "where's the competencies" by another, and so on. I've gathered the various tweets, texts, and response emails in what I hope is a useful summary below.

Reference: an outline for Social Studies 9

Q1. Are there topics that have to be included in the new curriculum? Some expected topics are missing from your outline, like the French Revolution and Napoleon. 

A1. No, there are no required topics beyond the "topic areas" that are listed in the content learning standards. Although some teachers could conceivably structure a course that had no firm topics, perhaps around approaches to the study of society, completely based on competencies, or daily analysis of current events, we can be quite confident that many "familiar" topics will remain in BC Social Studies courses. Out of courtesy to fellow teachers, I think most course outlines will not stray too far or too often beyond the new course bookends of 1750-1919. Yes, my new SS9 outline does not include the French Rev and Napoleon (nor the American Revolution per se). These topics, like all the other content, are now optional. Teachers can pick and choose as many of the "old topics" as they wish to tell the story they want, to explore the themes/big ideas, and work out the competencies. Teachers can also add new content, such as other global revolutions or conflicts, if that helps them with their goals. I have explained this in some detail on the 11x17 "content shifting" planning documents posted at

Q2. How should teachers decide what to include, or how to set up a SS9 course?

A2. Much of the content will naturally be suggested by the course bookends of 1750-1919. However, the decision to focus more on Canada vs Canada/Europe or Canada/World or just World is up to the teacher. Teachers can pick four favourite or important topics and build a course from there, or they could take on forty topics if they want. Teachers may add topics from outside the bookends (e,g, current events) or from outside of formal history altogether, such as architecture, political science, or sociology. Teachers can work through content (and competencies) through talk-and-chalk, worksheets & assignments, press play on the dvd, project-based-learning, debate & discussion, whatever. Some teachers will have core content, and optional content to be explored by students (e.g. project topics). Some teachers will align topics to themes, the content learning standards, or the competencies themselves, others will stick with a sequential outline powered by the topics themselves. Say farewell to common department exams, unless your dep't has a solid history of doing things the same way. There will be good, bad, and ugly all over the place, not much different than now, really, but I think eventually there will be some consistency and productive models to follow. I intend to work towards that, anyways. 

Q3. Why drop French Revolution and Napoleon, but keep the Industrial Revolution? 

A3. My Grade 9 course has a Canadian focus, so, with the exception of the Industrial Revolution, I've dropped topics that don't directly involve or take place in Canada. The French Revolution is interesting, and so very important to European and World history (as are so many other events), but something has to go. I don't  want to teach a fast-paced, low-depth survey course. Ironically, by extending the historical bookends, the new curriculum does more to encourage "survey" vs" depth" than the old curriculum -- although that was not the intention. Our grade 8 teachers will probably not pick up the French Revolution, although it may be an optional area of study for either Grade 8 or Grade 9. A bit later in the course I plan to a short American vs French Revolution activity; more for the competencies, though, and less about the content, e.g. deconstruct some images and sources that either glorify or condemn revolutionaries from each country. I have included the Industrial Revolution because it is part of a truly global story, it is related to Canadian migration, ties to WWI, and is often ranked by historians as one of the top 5 influential events in history. Almost every object and many of the ideas that govern our society, gender roles, environmental issues, labour conditions, and way of life have a link to the Industrial Revolution. Students can wrap their mind around those kind of connections, far more so than some of the nuanced lessons of the Tennis Court Oath and the Reign of Terror. I started the course with the Industrial Revolution as the backdrop to a "skills bootcamp" -- using invention, factory age, results of enclosure, social conditions, and environmental change as ways of introducing competencies and getting students used to interpreting documents and sources, especially images but also graphs and maps. I keep copies of an aged little text around almost exclusively for these lessons - "Thinking about our Heritage: a Hosford Study Atlas" (example here). I also had a student teacher with me for these lessons and he produced some very effective activities and critical thinking prompts, and used some great media.

Q4. Why so you include virtually every other "Canadian" topic (in some form) from 1750-1919 carried over from existing courses? 

A4. The rest of my course is decidedly Canadian (with plenty on and about British Columbia) because I believe it is important in the few short years of Gr. 8-10 to leave students with a sense of the Canadian story, their place in it, and their agency in regards to its future. All other topics are interesting to me as a Socials teacher, but not mission critical for building active, empathetic, and informed Canadian citizens. It is also the Canadian topics that will help me provide an arc and consistency in the use of themes such as Aboriginal content and perspectives. Students can get plenty of world history and culture in Gr. 11 and 12 if they want it, plus some in Grade 8. I have truncated some Canadian topics and left others alone, mainly a reflection of which of my past lessons resonated with students and were fun to teach, or had good class activities to go with them. The topics in my course are also a reflection of the print resources and media that I like to use with students and that our school already owns. We have been, no doubt most school have been told, that there are very little funds for new learning resources. I try to build a course-long narrative that has a point to it; in the past it was part of our job in the class to decide together what the point was. Now we have "big ideas" to frame that discussion. Perhaps we need a new term to describe the blend of narrative, discovery, and repetition that form some kind of class goal. What is it that we actually expect from a successful Social Studies student? Beyond the ability to apply critical/historical thinking to problems and evidence, and the development of good Canadians (itself a problem worth deconstructing), I think we are well served by stirring students to become storytellers. The objective is as simple as students being able to talk about Canada's past, present, or future using emotion, humour, insight, and authenticity. Part of that ability is ease with which students can look at fresh material (like what's on the daily news) and have something interesting to say about it, something that connects with what they learned in the course. In my mind, that is as solid an indicator of readiness to move on to the next grade as is a test score. 

Q5. Why don't you include other (new) topics that fit the time period and big ideas? 

A5. For SS9 I have not yet planned for entirely new topics, Canadian or otherwise. This is my first time through so I will be recycling many old lessons and focusing more on designing new competency exercises and class activities than I will on new content. I am a busy guy with a 1000 interests and a beautiful family, so crisp topics will have to wait their turn. One of the interests I have, however, is developing curriculum. I am currently working with a group of teachers from the Pacific Slope Consortium on curriculum projects, but that is more a long term thing and does not help me out this semester. I find that without quality resources in place, taking on new topics involves too much internet surfing and photocopied materials. One topic that doesn't come up too much in the old or new curriculum is local history and geography. This is passion of mine and an area that I want to spend more time with in my courses. I am also loathe to add more content to an already full roster because I have designed a large chunk of my SS9 course to include project-based learning - a Heritage Connections project that involves ongoing inquiry, source work, interviews, and multiple classes for student presentation. Three other factors influence my choice of topics and will probably drive any further reduction of content in my SS9 outline: increased use of role-play/simulations and the added presence of WWI -- the kinds of things teachers and students can do with this time period could fill a whole course. The last is more practical; I have arranged my units so that I can use the "Crossroads" text for the first part of the course and make a clean switch to the "Horizons" test for the next part. I figure we can do the handoff with the Social Studies 8 teachers who will use the Crossroads text for the second part of their course, thus we don't need to purchase new class sets of texts while they are still useful and current.

Q6. Any suggestions for including Aboriginal perspectives and knowledge? 

A6. We have a few decent local learning resources in SD#57 related to Indigenous culture, issues, and worldview. We have a large and well-funded Ab-Ed Dep't with many staff that are available to advise or visit classes. They recently put on a successful Ab-Ed Symposium that gave over 700 local educators a sense of the challenges and possibilities ahead. FNESC; and BCTF have produced some great resources in the last couple of years. Check out this Project of Heart site and also this one: Like others, I have many existing lessons or lesson elements in various states of development on the Aboriginal cultures of North America (or Canada, or BC), Indian Act/Potlatch ban, residential schools (historical, modern i.e. TRC), land claims (process, results, protests), environmental issues that relate to First Nations, Aboriginal self-government, Aboriginal soldiers in WWI/WWII, 1960 vote, etc., etc. That's where I'll start -- include as much of that as makes sense, keep my eye open for critical thinking activities and continue becoming familiar with the First Peoples Principles of Learning and their implication for my classroom and students. Our union local's Aboriginal Education rep has also posted some resources here:

Q7. What's your take on the curricular competencies?

A7. I have been using the Seixas et al Six Historical Thinking concepts (significance, evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, perspectives, ethical dimensions) in one way or another for years, so they are not strangers within my lessons, although it has been hit and miss. While they were as good a place as any for the Ministry K-9 team to build their competencies, I feel as if they have squeezed geography in the process and go straight to the complex stuff at the expense of a few old-fashioned Social Studies skills like map-making, charting and graphing, making, and simply learning from a variety of sources and voices (as opposed to decoding them for bias, significance, etc.). I suppose if you teach/learn the core competencies alongside the curricular competencies, you can do it all. The Big 6 can be scaled, too, so that the process/outcome for students is basic... more like "thinking" than "critical thinking." The Gr. 10-12 Ministry team is working on some unique competencies for Geography 11/12 -- these will likely be similar to the six historical thinking concepts and will be useful for Gr. 8-10 Social Studies in the future, perhaps even incorporated in later edits (if that happens). Another area that seems to be missing from the core and curricular competencies is authenticity. Making personal connections to course material, using personal strengths to express learning should be considered a skill that can be developed, refined, and perhaps assessed (or at least self-assessed). Authenticity relates to quality of research, depth of inquiry, choice of strategies, plagiarism education, and acceptance in the learning community. Maybe that's just an extension of the three core competencies.

Q8. How will you use the competencies and how will they be assessed?

A8. It may not obvious from looking at my course outline how competencies fit in. My plan is to be more regular about using at least one competency-driven activity in each of my lesson. This could mean comparison of disparate sources, having students identify and explain turning point, do cause-and-effect webs, pick a position and defend it, debate issues involving ethics, etc. Some of this stuff I can just wing it -- there is enough of it in my lessons already, but some of it needs to be more deliberate, such as dropping direct/specific questions from lesson handouts and having more open-ended inquiry, perhaps around the image on the screen or an object in the classroom. Towards this end, the project I mentioned in A4 above will be useful -- one of the products we hope to end up with are "assessment boxes" with many source documents, laminated photos, and maybe some 3D objects that are meant to provoke thought, center discussion, and be the subject of competency-driven questions and activities. For example, the class gets a series of images of inventions and artifacts from the Industrial Revolution, with enough time or background info to figure out what they did, why they were important or what impact they had. These could be used for so many learning and assessment purposes, group or individual. Arrange in a timeline. Arrange in order of significance, based on criteria developed by your group. Guess (or find out) what technology this invention replaced and what specifically was improved. Predict the social or environmental consequences of the invention. Explain why YOUR invention should be on the cover of a museum exhibit brochure on the industrial revolution. Find one other invention that is related to yours and, with your new partner, explain the connection to the class. You see how this list could go on and on. Instead of having a test bank, we'll have a source bank that can generate fresh assessments simply by changing up the order or the activity. Combined with simple instructions and a couple of different assessment rubrics (e.g. formative, summative, self, peer), we think this method could actually simplify assessment and not take up any more time than the standard test. In our experience, we learn much more about a student's progress from these open-ended "explain your understanding" assessments than we do from ye olde multiple choice tests. I haven't dug into the TC2 resources in a while, or had a chance to read The Big 6, but there one can find many more ideas to drive work with competencies.

I wish all schools and colleagues the best as they wrestle with the many issues that come up with the new curriculum. Historical content remains important, and is a great hearth on which to spin a "Social Studies" narrative with your students and practice both critical and creative thinking, but it is not the only thing that matters in Social Studies. In addition to competencies, tend to the geography, tend to the broad themes of the Humanities and other disciplines that make Social Studies more than a history course. For those that are unfamiliar with the "elements of historical thinking" -- learn more at or sign up for their summer institute For those that use them all the time, challenge the notion that competencies begin and end with these elements. I encourage BC teachers to experiment with diverse course outlines and find a way to compare notes afterwards. Social media works fine for this. The word will eventually seep out to teachers who don't use social media.