There they are, a group of students with high visibility vests collecting garbage off a beach or the local park. Their movements are slow and the dour looks on their faces exude neither excitement or contentment. A friend strolls by and poses the question: “Whatcha do wrong?” This is just a reanimation of the common mantra, where community service is seen as punishment. Sadly, it seems only inmates and defiled celebrities are accustomed to it, with brief ripples of excitement appearing in the media only with the latter. Perhaps you think my description pessimistic? Well, just wait and see what educationist Eric Sheffield has to say about the shortcomings of community service learning (CSL).
The prevalence of CSL in British Columbia's public school system is minimal. A study undertaken by Brown, Ellis-Hale, Meinhard, Foster, and Henderson (2007) determined that there has been little effort in Canada to coordinate CSL programs or even assess their potential academic outcomes. Indeed, the authors state “we have had only a vague and fragmentary idea of community service and service learning programming as it is practiced in high schools across the country” (p. 1). The picture is quite different south of the border, where the American school system has enjoyed nation-wide initiatives such as Learn and Serve America (www.learnandserve.org) and the Corporation for National and Community Service (www.nationalservice.org). But while there is more prevalence of these programs in the United States, their benefits to learners is a debated topic.
Sheffield (2015) is one such thunderous critic. He wonders “how is it that CSL has become the rather mundane curricular add-on typically utilized at P–12 schools, colleges, and universities to support student retention rates, satisfy state-mandated community service hours … rather than a deeply important pedagogy meant to engender personal and communal transformation?” (p. 46). According to Sheffield, there seems to have been a transformation of the original precepts of CSL away from community and towards the individual conducting the service. Indeed, he queries, “why has CSL devolved away from its roots as a pedagogy of status quo interrogation into a pedagogy of status quo maintenance?” (p. 2). Obviously, Sheffield is at odds politically with the current CSL model but he does raise intriguing questions that need examining before such projects begin to appear more widely in British Columbia's schools.
The proposed intent of CSL in schools needs to be explored. Are learners engaging in these activities to merely help improve the social fabric of their local community or is there an additional hope that education of the individual will also occur contemporaneously? In my mind, the entire exercise needs to be primarily framed in the learning outcomes of the CSL program. What use is picking up garbage off beaches unless there is a concrete knowledge structure associated with the activity? Concepts such as conservation, recycling, ecological footprint, and more all need to be well and truly cemented in learners minds before they set out. Only with an informational foundation and a created architecture for reflection will this experiential learning evolve into consolidated learning. And yet, even this does not go far enough for Sheffield!
An activity such as garbage collection or singing in a retirement home does not constitute effective CSL in Sheffield’s mind. Into this criterion he throws the prefix “radical” in that the “full potential [of CSL] can only be achieved in courageously interrogating the personal and communal status quo via difficult, tragic, traumatic, and catastrophic experiences—those being the ones from which hope is born” (p. 47). Obviously there is little in garbage collection that might cause disequilibrium within students. Additionally, can we expect elementary students to engage in the type of CSL activities that will engender these emotions? How will parents and superintendents react to Sheffield’s hope of “inviting the tragedy of human existence into educational practice with the understanding that personal trauma can transform, and ultimately reconstruct, lovely Knowledge” ? (p. 50).
Clearly, Sheffield is orienting his research towards the secondary grades but there are elements of his argument that hold me rapt and could still find effective employment in the elementary level. First though, in order to encounter this uncomfortable material, younger students will need the appropriate mental armor to deal with their experiences. In considering an activity such as the distribution of food parcels to the homeless in downtown cores, elementary students will require the learning of not only a basic survival skill set but also the spatial, economic, and historical geography of the circumstances they are viewing. But I agree with Sheffield, those most concrete memories of any individual, those will residual dexterity, are most often grounded in difficult or uncomfortable circumstances.
It is hoped then that in engaging in these uncomfortable experiences or radical community service learning, students will in their discomfort be afforded a learning experience that will not only abide in their consciousness but also prove to be a fountainhead for further questions and interests. Call it a domino effect, where discomfort leads to authentic learning and a re-invigoration of inquiry. In my mind, this could be a very effective tool in any teacher’s kit.
Brown, S. D., Ellis-Hale, K., Meinhard, A., Foster, M., Henderson, A. (2007). Community Service and Service Learning in Canada: A Profile of Programming Across the Country. Toronto. Imagine Canada.
Sheffield, E. C. (2015). Toward Radicalizing Community Service Learning, Educational Studies, 51:1, 45-56. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00131946.2014.983637
Is process as important as result? Should we entertain the concept that the work involved in creation is as important as the final product? It would seem that for much of human history, it is those who have produced the best that are most lauded. Proven theories, hanging masterpieces of paints and brush, and the perceived success of politicians are all the arenas where output has overshadowed process. Obviously, there is a commiserate relationship between the two in that the extent of the process is visible in the final product. But it is not over-extenuation to declare that the neoliberal, status-quo driven society of North America is fixated on the final product.
There is an overarching opinion that while one might be able to wax lyrically about hopes and plans, even spending hours on the process, it is only the final creation the counts. Perhaps it could be called “the put up or shut up” paradigm. Let us explore this by looking at two inventors. Ask any high school graduate what they know about Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Unequivocally, general knowledge of Edison burns bright while many may only associate Tesla with electric sports cars. It is of little consequence that Tesla envisioned the AC electrical system and was the basis for much of our modern mass communications systems; in the end, the public’s understanding of Edison’s final products surpassed Tesla’s. Here product outshone process. Tesla was so very close to finalizing many of his futurist ideas but fruition escape him and he died a lonely pauper in a shabby New York hotel.
How might this outcome have differed if process was as valued as product? A truly successful and sympathetic society might have given credence to Tesla’s ideas and valued his processes despite there being a delay to the final, dazzling trophy. Perhaps a society not so driven by capitalist hunger might have provided Tesla with resources while his own funding faltered. What might our world now look like if Tesla had been enabled to succeed?
And it is here, while examining process and product, that the important concept of growth mindset should be addressed. Essentially, the use of the growth mindset in the classroom is an approach where emphasis is placed on process. Rather than awarding and celebrating final products such as grades or superlative assignments, focus is shifted towards the effort required during the process leading to the end result. In other words, intelligence or the ability to achieve it is not set but can be developed. Learners are congratulated on the extent of their effort and begin to envision the potential of their future successes as being reliant on the intensity of their effort. In this way, learners begin to view the possibilities of their own achievements as limitless, dependent only on how hard they are willing to learn.
Despite it's ‘in vogue’ quality, the application of growth mindsets within school systems has in fact enjoyed some quantitative research. One important study that should be highlighted was conducted by Claro, Paunesku & Dweck (2016) and involved a nationwide sample of Chilean high school students. In this work, the effects of perceived growth mindsets among learners is compared against both their academic success and socioeconomic backgrounds. As demonstrated by prior research, the aforementioned study reaffirmed that family wealth is a primary determinant of achievement but also that a growth mindset can act “as a buffer against the deleterious effects of poverty on achievement” (p. 8664). Furthermore, it was found that “students in the lowest 10th percentile of family income who exhibited a growth mindset showed academic performance as high as that of fixed mindset students from the 80th income percentile” (p. 8664). This is remarkable and should hopefully have powerful repercussions in current teaching practices across the globe.
Another point to consider from the study conducted by Claro, Paunesku & Dweck is the finding that “the lowest-income Chilean students were twice as likely as the highest-income students to report a fixed mindset” (p. 8667). It would seem that this is a case of double debilitation. So, it would appear that students struggling in traditional classrooms are more than likely to belong to a lower socioeconomic order. In practical terms, other than ensuring these students are well-nourished, there is little else a teacher can do to alleviate this circumstance. However, it is well within the grasp of a practicing teacher to stimulate and encourage the development of a growth mindset. And it need not be an effort solely targeted on learners from lower economic means. Indeed, the benefits of such encouragement is a benefit to all.
While there are numerous courses of action available to begin implementing this growth in mindset, a departure from fixity needs an engaged process involving the prioritization of self-assessment, formative assessment, and an alleviation from the importance of the final product in learner mindsets. An interrogation of these psychological factors needs to be addressed frankly by teacher and students together. Only then will the classroom and its inhabitants emancipate themselves from the enforced limitations of outside socioeconomic influence. Academic stratification will hopefully dissolve into a community of learners who prioritize process over product, and the rewards should be generous.
Claro, S., Paunesku, D., Dweck, C. S. (2016) Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113, 31, 8664-8668.
The other day I attempted to measure the actual time spent by learners in my practicum classroom on focused work. Of course each student varied in their enthusiasm for the assigned projects but I felt a general idea was needed.
So, with eagle eyes I watched and with quick glances at the clock I came to the conclusion that probably only between five and ten minutes per block were infused in learning. There are around nine blocks during a day, mostly averaging around 30 minutes in length. Add it all up and I would say they spent a total of about one hour of actual, concentrated learning out of a potential 5 hours.
What were they doing then? Well, several learners I noticed were adept eraser monument builders and carvers (Stonehenge was given a run for its money). For others it was talking, in their mind their classmates had far more interesting things to say then the teacher. And of course drawing, coloring or doodling was another birthright of the class that few would give up despite protestations from the big desk up front.
No doubt these issues are common to all classrooms but to my mind, the most pronounced pitfall was the actual transition times between these blocks. And tiny blocks they are. Is anything really expected when 30 minutes is given to a subject while ten minutes of that time consists of learners wandering about trying to find folders, old assignments, pencils, and discovering the multitudes of detritus collected while searching through backpacks?
To me, standing there and observing this wasted time, transitions seem horribly antiquated with math, science, social studies all strictly divided with their own little books, assignments and folders. I thought we were entering a new world, an interdisciplinary world where different subjects flow and crash into one another like the spray and chop of an ocean tempest. So, in order to adjust to this new sphere of global knowledge, why not allow the classroom to mimic it?
Let it begin, say, with an exploration of rivers in British Columbia. Which are the longest, how were they formed, what biomes reside in them, and what threatens them. Now, here the teacher deftly directs the learner's along a path of discussion that introduces First Nation perspectives on rivers. A period of time is spent exploring this issue. Success! We experienced a transition in subject without the usual disaster and maybe even without the learners knowing. Next step, how might the First Nations have responded to American and British gold prospectors as they moved from the coast inland to the Cariboo during the mid 19th century gold rushes? Incredible, we just transitioned into social studies without digging out new books or worksheets. And to top it all off, let us consider the successes of these gold seekers by comparing the amount of gold in ounces retrieved from their claims. Did a gold miner in the Cariboo make more than a prospector on the Fraser considering the varying ounces of gold present in the two places and the costs of bringing supplies up from Fort Victoria? Yes, we just switched into mathematics.
This is how I would like my classroom to function. Sweeping from subject to subject in an manner that leaves students occupied and yet oblivious to the change in mental landscape. Perhaps those learners who are used to groaning with the appearance of math worksheets might instead become engaged in considering elements of math without even knowing?
I will end this hopeful rant with some words from Kerry Williams (2008): “Classroom management needs to be about fixing the classroom, not the students. We need to make sure the students get what they need. A classroom that allows them opportunities for autonomy, belonging, competency, and reflection is the place to launch everything else.” (23)
Williams, Kerry C. (2008) Elementary Classroom Management : A Student-Centered Approach to Leading and Learning. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Inc.
Above us the rain clouds were gathering, the sky bruising with splashes of dark grey as the clouds grew heavier. Raincoats and umbrellas were the accessories of the day. Not to be deterred, around ninety student teachers headed out in different directions to be guided through the varying opportunities for place-based learning in Nanaimo’s downtown core.
My small group had gathered before a recent installation on the Nanaimo sea wall. Our guide was City of Nanaimo’s Culture and Heritage Coordinator Chris Barfoot, a gentleman with an in-depth perspective on the vagaries of municipal art appreciation. As we ventured across the town under his tutelage, we began to examine different pieces from permanent installations to more temporary ones whose purpose was to push experimental pieces.
Ideas began to form and congeal in my mind as to the utility of public art in relation to place-based learning. In essence, whatever the art piece, it is intricately linked to its environment. The traditional home of art, the gallery, is still place-based but lacks the connectivity and linkages that art exhibited in the open enjoys. Questions learners could begin to examine might be: how does the form of the piece relate to the ground or place it is situated in; what are the artist’s intentions and how does the surrounding landscape’s colour compliment it; does the art piece relate to the specific history of the locale? While exploring this theme, the endless possibilities and avenues of learning came rushing out.
An excellent example of this type of connectivity between place and art came when we visited the Port Theatre to admire Phil Ashbee’s “Salmon Coming Home” mural. An expansive piece that soars above the foyer of the theatre, it manages to provide a linkage from this modern building to the aboriginal lifeways that existed here long before. For students, it would an excellent place-based learning opportunity to explore the history of the very land underfoot while also debating how it relates to the structure that houses it.
Following on from the art walk, we joined City of Nanaimo’s Heritage Planner, Chris Sholberg, to begin a brief inquiry into the architectural history of the core area. From our short journey down the old streets and inspection of brick walls dating back hundreds of years, I was quickly convinced of the ‘magical door’ city architecture could provided for learning. You may wonder how an old, slightly crumbling facade could direct learners into and exploration of the past? Well, consider the hidden stories within each building. Not only does the form of the architecture give us clues to building date but also historical records are easily investigated and could return to students the names of the families who once lived in these residences. Questions would no doubt flow: who might have lived in here when it was a hotel? What would the socio-economic make-up have been here in the downtown area at the turn of the century?
There is no doubt that place-based learning has a tangible, almost tactile element to it that could propel students to a higher, perhaps more sophisticated level of learning. But the groundwork must be laid. It would be ineffectual to simply let students wander the streets without a good grounding in the historical architecture and basic timelines for the development of Nanaimo. But if these are present, it is clear the learning will be sound. Overall, it was a wonderful and intriguing experience exploring Nanaimo’s cultural present and past.
17 September, 2017
A mad mix of standards and methodologies. A maelstrom of classroom techniques, management, corporal punishment and style. After twelve years inside the classrooms of eight schools across three continents, I have been exposed to a wide variety of educational approaches.
It all began in a small kindergarten in Sussex, England where through wooden toys, veils and imaginative play I was exposed to the pedagogy of Rudolph Steiner. My memories are dim but I do remember our happy group traipsing across dew covered fields on the search for fairies and gnomes, who were said to reside near the rabbit warren. The decision to have me in the Waldorf-Steiner school was the result of my parent’s rejection of the old models of education. They were drawn to Steiner’s holistic paradigm that extended beyond mere textbooks and spelling tests, instead prioritising the individual and the development of imagination. However, it did not take long for my science-oriented father to grow leary of the lack of chemistry laboratories in the upper years of the school. Also, to forego the instruction of reading and writing until students were at least seven years old took a great leap of faith on the part of my parents.
The void was too expansive and the leap did not come. I was withdrawn from the Steiner program and sent off to the local grammar school in a smart, pale blue shirt with grey shorts and socks. My overarching memory: the sense I had entered an alien world with incomprehensible languages and subjects. Math class involved me leaning over the shoulder of my neighbour and copying every iota of what was appearing on her page into my own illegible chicken script.
My next foray into the educational wilds was in Richmond, Canada. Instantly I was shuttled out of my assigned classroom into the remedial class at regular intervals. The teachers must have quickly identified my inadequacies. But perhaps ‘inadequacies’ is the wrong term. The Steiner school had a model that required the commitment of 12 years for fruition to occur. To participate for a fleeting moment and then retreat, well, it is not so surprising the result may be less than desireable. And yet, I feel the responsibility of all educational systems should be the development of the child in a way that should they depart at any time their achieved skill set should meet a basic standard. Anyhow, let us not stop the action. Again the wheels move, the roar of aircraft jet engines our soundtrack to another peregrination across the vast oceans.
A metallic crescent moon stood prominently above the schoolyard as all around me little uniformed children rushed off to their classrooms. It was a rainbow of ethnicities: European, African and Indian children, all lustily yelling outside before the enforced silence of the classroom. Incredibly, I had found myself in an Islamic school in a small town in Botswana. Again, it was off to the remedial classroom for me. I recall an echoing hall filled with those small, knee scraping desks upon which were seated children of varying age. The principal taught us with a stern manner and an ever waving, meter long ruler stick that on occasion thrashed an unwilling student. As those schools that came before, it did not last and this time I found myself standing next to a small trunk filled with all of my belongings before the doors of a private boarding school in the suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa. This was misery for me. My dominant memories were of loneliness, tear streaked pillows, canings, fierce Rhodesian teachers, scratchy collars, and again, loneliness. But apparently they offered the best education around.
Some years later I would have been found on a beach in a small village in the Western Cape of South Africa. Armed with a stick and with my younger brother beside me, we were both prodding at a recently deceased sea skate. Yes, we both agreed that it would make an admirable specimen for our dissection class. We dragged the small carcass back to our classroom. However, this was no school but our home and a new adventure into the realm of home-education. I could not have travelled further from the strict conformity of the boarding school. Here, under the guidance of my father, we explored our own interests, help fashion our own curriculum, and spent half our time directing ourselves. It was emancipation in the both the creative and moral sense. However, we were also surprisingly traditional. We had our own desks, a schedule, tests and grades. And yet, so many features of British Columbia’s new curriculum were present in our daily learning activities. Naturally our relationship with our teacher was strong, he was our father. But beyond that there was that focus on our own interests that led to passion and enthusiasm that had for so long been absent in my education.
Of all the years spent at desks, stunned by incomprehensible questions or maintaining chilled silences for fear of a corporal punishment inclined teachers, it was only during my experience with homeschooling that the joy and potential of learning came to the for. Of course with today’s demands of modernity, with every parent working and standardized testing, the possibility of children being able to experience home education is slim. Nonetheless, I firmly intend to draw from my own experiences and weld them into my practice as a teacher within the traditional school system. I want joy and spirit in my learners and to source this, to unleash it, will require incorporating elements of the home education experience.