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Students take control of their learning

School District 48 recently adopted new strategic plan, Pathways to Learning


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Imagine a public education system where the curriculum isn't dictated only by school administrators and teachers, but by the students themselves. A system that rewards students for their curiosity, creativity and personal initiative, not their ability to regurgitate information memorized from a textbook.

The concept, known as project-based learning, is not a new one by any means. In fact the father of the idea, American philosopher John Dewey, was born over a century and a half ago. And while it's a teaching strategy that is commonly used in private and charter institutions across North America, it's been slower to take hold in public schools.

But that could be changing in the Sea to Sky School District, where students from elementary up to high school are reaping the benefits of a new education plan with project-based learning at its core that was implemented last fall.

The five-year strategic model, called Pathways to Learning, was developed with input from teachers and parents across the province, and shifts the focus away from traditional curriculum and learning methods to a more personalized, project-based approach that gives students more say in their own education.

It's a strategy that district superintendent Lisa McCullough said will take time to fully implement in the corridor, but she's been more than pleased with the progress made in the first academic year of the plan.

"Public education is a very large system so change historically has taken a lot of time," she said. "I think it's remarkable the progress we've been able to make with such urgency and pervasiveness."

At Whistler Secondary School (WSS), students from Grade 8 to 12 have the option to pursue a project of their own choice provided it meets certain criteria. The projects net students between one and four credits based on the amount of time it requires (a typical 110-hour course is worth four credits), and can be completed in class or independently outside of school hours.

A learner may be inspired by an overarching idea presented in class that they choose to pursue further, or a project that has no direct correlation to course material, like the group of Grade 10 students who are writing, illustrating, marketing and producing their very own graphic novel, a dream they've had since elementary school.

"Project-based learning starts with what we call a big idea, so a teacher saying 'here's a time in history' or 'here's a concept in science,'" said WSS principal and project-based learning coordinator Bev Oakley. "In some cases the student has found that big idea themselves. The next step is, through a series of processes, is to figure out what within that big idea they're curious about."

After determining the "big idea," students will frame a question for their own personal inquiry, and research the subject to find content to support their position. By allowing pupils to engage with material of their own choosing, they're more likely to acquire and retain what Oakley characterized as "21st Century skills" like problem solving, creativity and collaboration.

"Project-based learning is not regurgitating information from the textbook or the teacher and putting it into a pretty format," she said. "It's authentic learning, the students are totally into what they're doing and they're pursuing their areas of interest, which is really good for student engagement."

The teacher's role is also transformed through project-based learning, Oakley said, with a move away from the traditional "sage on a stage" approach that sees instructors relaying information to a classroom full of passive learners, to a more dynamic, mentorship scenario where teachers can guide students in the right direction.

The student response to project-based learning has been overwhelmingly positive at the high school, according to Oakley, who said, "it's been really neat to see some students get really excited about what their project has developed into." The projects have even led to some of the school's older students taking on a mentorship role with the younger grades, like Zoe Moffett, a senior girl who presented her intensely personal history project to a Grade 8 class.

Moffett was given the option for her final project to choose a subject of interest from the year 1900 to present, and she decided to delve into her great grandfather's dark past as a prisoner of war in World War II.

A telecommunications officer, Moffet's great grandfather was captured by Japanese forces while stationed in Hong Kong, and kept an account of his experiences throughout his four years in captivity. For her project, Moffett chose to write a series of letters between her great grandfather and great grandmother using his 70-page journal as the main source material. She also compiled old photos, and interviewed her grandmother to hammer out certain details. It was a project that earned Moffett a final grade of 97 per cent, but the true reward was the impact it had on her and her family.

"My mom has always been a bit afraid to read into the story because it was quite horrific some of the stuff that my great grandfather went through," she said. "When I did go into it and told my mom about it, I think it meant a lot to her."

Now, Moffett said she plans to self-publish the booklet, which will be illustrated by her mother; a fitting tribute to her great grandfather that will also double as a family heirloom.

Another WSS student who epitomizes the ideals behind project-based learning is Grade 10 student Kayley Ogilvie-Turner, who's organizing an exhibit at this year's World Ski and Snowboard Festival that will showcase the high school's artistic talents at the event's popular State of the Art exhibition.

"My inspiration came when I was walking through last year's exhibit and there were so many great artists there, and I thought about all the great artists at my high school," she said. "Why shouldn't they get a chance to show off their art?"

Ogilvie-Turner had the idea for her exhibit long before her school approached her about turning it into a credit-earning project, and she's used her time outside of class to make the youth gallery a reality.

Armed with her own email address through State of Art event producer Watermark Communications, Ogilvie-Turner has worked closely with organizers, giving her "a really good view into the true professional world."

The 15-year-old's self-appointed duties include approaching artists to participate, commissioning art works and cataloguing the pieces before submitting them to the State of the Art curator ahead of the exhibit in April.

Ogilvie-Turner intends to organize the exhibit at next year's festival as well, and has appreciated the opportunity to gain some practical, real-world experience at such an early age.

"If you become a doctor or a lawyer, they're not going to give you all the information, you have to go out and find it yourself," she said. "One of the big pros to having project-based learning is that you're not fed the information, you have to go out there and create it, and that's what real life is like."