Kootenay Lake district superintendent Jeff Jones was the principal of a school in Calgary years ago when he witnessed one of his career’s best examples of transformational education. Having made multiple trips to the local zoo, he wanted his students to “zero in on a topic of inquiry.”
“The Grade 1 and 2 class wanted to study polar bears. Before long their questions began to morph into a study of their migratory patterns, which eventually led them to learn about the effects of global warming,” Jones told me.
He was speaking about the district’s recent decision to funnel another $110,326 towards transformational education initiatives locally, a decision that will begin to bear fruit in 2016.
“Their personal action was to write letters to politicians about what the children could be doing to address the impact of global warming. The teacher’s job was to help the children get to the place where they had a question, and then they had the opportunity to access experts in their field.”
In this class it was zoo staff, as well as a climate scientist, who came in to share their expertise with the youngsters. Through this experience, Jones believes the kids engaged much more deeply with the subject than they would’ve had they stuck to the basic curriculum.
“Who would’ve thought a trip to the zoo could lead to a project on global warming?”
‘We have a responsibility to look forward’
Jones has a reputation in the school district as being a visionary, something which inspires a polarizing response from teachers and parents.
There are those who think he’s thinking too big for a rural community, and those who would prefer if he focused on maintaining the status quo. But when asked whether transformational education is truly a worthy expenditure for Kootenay Lake schools, Jones couldn’t have been firmer.
“We have a responsibility to think ahead and to look forward. It’s irresponsible to prepare kids for a world gone by, or solely for the world in which we currently live,” he said.
“The reality is, if you listen to the grad speeches, the majority of these students are leaving the community. They might come back, but first they’re going into other places in the world.”
He believes the district must keep this in mind.
“To think we’re educating them to live here in a quiet, rural lifestyle is misleading them and misleading ourselves.”
He said the economy is changing, and education has to change in response.
“When we look at where our students are going to be employed, it’s not here in our community. They will be employed by multi-national companies and organizations, and that’s what we already see today.”
So preparing them for a rural, contemporary lifestyle just doesn’t make sense. And sticking to outdated education models won’t do them any favours.
“They have to have a sense of what the world is and how it works before we send them out there to find out for themselves.”
The future of education
Last year Jones’ contract as superintendent was renewed until July 2019, and I took the opportunity to find out his plans for the coming years. That was the first time he told me about transformational education.
“Rather than memorization of knowledge, I think we should be assessing student ability to demonstrate skills and competencies they’re going to need. We have to ask can they work collaboratively? Can they represent knowledge in many different ways?” he said.
As the school year progressed, I started to notice more and more projects taking place outside classroom walls. One of the first to catch my attention was Teresa Olleck’s South Nelson class, who spent the year working in the Hendryx St. Forest Garden.
“This is the future of education,” Jones told me, when I met him at Mount Sentinel Secondary’s Sustainability Day in October, in which students toured a neighbouring farm, had workshop discussions on community issues and discussed how best to embrace sustainability at their school.
(That initiative ultimately led to the #WeAreReady banner campaign that called for action from new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.)
“We’re challenging traditional paradigms by engaging students in deep inquiry into topics that really matter to them, and we’re helping them be thoughtful about how they’ll contribute and become leaders in the global community,” Jones said. “We’ve taken our students right out of the traditional timetable and gotten them outside their classroom walls.”
Principal Glen Campbell agreed.
“We’re trying to make learning relevant, and we’re connecting to the kids’ own families and friends. We’re trying to show them that learning isn’t just happening between the pages of a book.”
Opening up the possibilities
Jones said in the past innovation has been quashed by an over-reliance on curriculum, and teachers with exciting and effective practices often kept them secret.
He wants to encourage teachers, as well as students, to follow their creative impulses and think outside the box.
“We’re looking at a shift towards the teacher being the activator instead of the installer of knowledge. They’re activating the learning and engagement within the students so they can delve into the bigger questions. The students then become leaders of their own learning.”
And the way they share their discoveries can be idiosyncratic.
“One example is a student could show a panel of people through dance what they know about the impacts of poverty in the local community. Then we could work on how to apply that knowledge so they can assist in some way.”
Linking learning to community issues in this way brings the school district in line with the UN’s Global Sustainability Goals — another crucial aspect of Jones’ educational strategy.
“The global sustainability goals are essentially the hook for global thinking and participation that we can attach our current curriculum to.”
For instance, Crawford Bay received funding to support a local food initiative that saw them plant a garden and grow their own food. Since one global sustainability goal is to end hunger worldwide, he said the project fits nicely with their priorities.
“I suspect some students, as a result of their learning, will become members of communities that are looking at bringing food to all people in the world.”
Looking forward to 2016
Jones is immensely proud of some of the projects his schools have taken on, including a partnership with a school in South America started by kids at Canyon-Lister and a water project embarked upon by Redfish.
“They were studying a particular issue on the Harrop-Procter side of the lake and ultimately ended up making signs about the plants and wildlife in a special area for the community.”
He hopes there will be plenty of projects like these in the coming year. With the new budget surplus allocation, teachers and community partners can start pitching projects to him.
In other words: get dreaming!
For inspiration, Jones shared the story of Zach Bonner, a US student who started a non-profit to raise awareness and money for homeless children and youth. His life story was eventually adapted into the movie The Red Wagon.
“I think to myself: that didn’t happen in the confines of a timetable. They still today have what are called Zach-packs, which are backpacks full of teddy bears and food and everything a homeless kid needs to feel normal and loved.”
The biggest takeaway from this, according to Jones? That was the work of just one kid.
“That’s just one kid. What would happen if a whole school took up the work together?”