Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Introducing the Capacities

Or, How to Think Like a River.

In British Columbia, we are about 6 years into 8+ year process to implement new curriculum in our K-12 schools.  The "redesigned curriculum" seeks to make some of the implicit goals of education -- communication, critical and creative thinking, personal and social responsibility -- explicit by identifying them and calling them core competencies.

Within each course, the curriculum is framed by Big Ideas. Curricular Competencies, and Content.  Depending on who you talk to, or which Ministry of Education document you read, or video clip from an expert you watch, these frames (the whole new curriculum really) are quite fluid...
  • Big Ideas can be rolled in or out, curricular competencies can be swapped out for others, and the content is merely a suggestion.
  • There are no standard assessments to measure success.
  • There are multiple opportunities to embed indigenous perspectives, but no detailed prescriptions for what this should look like.
  • There are entry points for community and place-responsive education, and a greater emphasis on holistic interdisciplinary learning.
  • There are implications for pedagogy, but no actual dictates about what that looks like or what paradigms should guide the "new teacher."
  • Having common course outlines within schools will be elusive -- choice and flexibility is where it's at.
  • The implementation was underfunded and lacked clarity, and the whole process has had political undertones related to government funding and control of educational agendas (i.e. as opposed to teachers' agendas).
  • Parts of the process were too slow or experienced punishing delays (e.g. piloting Grade 10 curriculum for three years in a row).
  • Some teachers are organizing their course and assessment using the Big Ideas, others are using the curricular competencies for this purpose, while others are sticking with content to structure units and guide assessment.
  • Most teachers will, of course, pay attention all three and aim at some kind of synthesis.
For better or worse, this is the plan for the next long while in BC. I am still rather excited to be part of this change, or at least parts of it, but very much aware of its shortcomings, its unintended consequences, and the challenges faced by teachers in making sense of it. I often work with new teachers, both in the local UNBC teacher training program and early career teachers in my school district. These are the ones who are thought to have been "trained in the new curriculum" but in reality they are more uncertain than the "vets" about what it all means. They realize that the "fluid curriculum" gives them creative reach and freedom to experiment, but wow would they ever like some modelling and guidelines.

Speaking of fluidity, I have given some thought to how to assess students in the this brave new curricular world. It is a competency-based system, and yet assessing competencies on their own is great for formative work (try, evaluate, reflect, revise, re-try) but not so great for summative (final standing, marks, and advancement).  For example, I don't think we want to start having report cards that say Johnny got an A in establishing significance but a C- in perspective taking. The curricular competencies work well for individual tasks, for taking apart problems and developing skills.

In the study of stream dynamics, we have a couple of terms to describe how rivers move sediment -- competence and capacity. Steam competence refers to the size of particles that can be carried; the higher the competence, the bigger the particle size. This is mainly the job of young rivers in steep terrain, rolling and dragging big stones and carving away at the valley walls. Stream capacity refers to the total volume of sediment that can be carried.  Rivers with high capacity have already seen the big particles broken down, and carry a big load of sediment in suspension and solution, and lay it down beside the river or cary it out to sea.

I love these terms as a metaphor for what happens in classrooms. At first we take on big problems, one by one, and start to see how it gets easier when the problems start coming apart. We erode the barriers, and build a unique channel through a challenging landscape. Later, we have the capacity to make broad connections between problems, to communicate what we have done, and take responsibility for the impact of our knowledge and understanding. This process is cyclical, happening over and over again in a class, a course, a K-12 education. Thus. I am interested in using my classes to develop both student competence and capacity.  While any individual task may practice and assess competence, when it comes to overall marking categories and summative assessment, as well as readiness to advance to the next grade, my focus in on capacity. For the context of Social Studies,  I have settled on four: Foundations -- this is knowledge and understanding of core content, Skills -- both hard and soft, like the ability to read maps, determine bias in sources, or organize an argument, Thinking -- application of concepts (mainly the curricular competencies) and cognitive skills to problems of history and geography, and Connections -- inquiry, synthesis, and activation of learning. Here is the framework I use to position "The Capacities" within the new Social Studies curriculum (and here is the pdf link):

This is my latest stab at trying to reconcile the various parts of the hidden and revealed aspects of the curriculum, and to provide a topography for student assessment. As always, feedback welcome via @gthielmann, in a comment below, or by email gthielmann (AT) gmail (DOT) com.

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