Posts Tagged Teaching with story-narrative

Big History and the Future of Education Conference 2013

Big History

I have been fortunate to attend the inaugural Big History and the Future of Education Conference, organised by the Big History Institute at Macquarie University, Sydney Australia.  I knew a little of the Big History story and had been looking into the student course. If its new to you have a look at the Big History course ( Big History Project ) it’s free and be aware there is a school version and a general public version.

The Future of Education Conference

At my current school we teach an integrated year 8 Science and Geography unit called Quest. I attended the conference looking for ideas about how to better integrate learning from different KLAs and I was hoping for some insight into the pedagogy that had been applied in creating the course  as well as  the process of designing the online learning pages and activities. My questions were answered beyond  my expectations and I left with some key principles that can be applied universally in education. I also came away inspired to implement the Big History program within a school context and my head is spinning with ideas about how that might be achieved.

Principles for Integrated Learning

We need to see the “big picture” of what we are learning and as educators we can help our students by connecting learning with a narrative.  The Big History Project connects us to the narrative of the universe.  One person I meet at the conference who illuminated this point for me the most was a year 9 student I had morning tea with. She has been participating in the course at her school and her comment said it all “It gives me a reason to learn.”  The pedagogies applied need to focus on critical thinking, that is aiming beyond surface learning, evaluating evidence and making broader connections.  Learning needs to incorporate collective, collaborative learning, with students sharing and building ideas.  The Big History Project achieves many of these principles by having inquiry learning and project based learning built into the fabric of the course.  Learning needs to seek to be hands on, thought provoking, and question forming.  Here is what was outlined as the observable practices of a Big History student:

  • Frame Problems for investigations – regularly question at many scales, including the biggest.
    • Set many problems
    • Drive the learning forward with questions
  • Select and use evidence / sources 
    • Close, analytical and synoptical reading of a wide range of sources: contextualise, corroborate
    • Critical thinking “claim testing”
  • Produce accounts – use multiple large scales and big ideas from many disciplines to write;
    • Narratives
    • Casual explanation
    • Consequential explanations
    • Arguments

Principles for Designing Online Learning (Beautiful Online Learning)

The Big History course site is beautiful, but part of its beauty is that there are clear design principles at work.  The site is designed to be intuitive and easily navigated.  The site remembers that you need to see the big picture before diving into individual elements.  These principles  struck me as they were the same ideas that the team I work with at school had been discussing as we reshaped our year 8 integrated studies online learning pages.

  1. The launch pages show the big picture, it is simple and easy to navigate.
  2. There are clear learning modules, that include easily identified components, content, video, activity etc.
  3. There is a narrative that ties everything together and this is made implicit.
  4. Everything is driven forward (at every stage/level) by questions.
  5. Keeping things visually simple helps make them beautiful

Implementation of Big History in a school.

How should Big History be implemented? At this stage I will only be able to talk in ideals. Every school is different, with different cultures, daily routines, community support, personnel …. the list is endless. What is encouraging about what is present i the Big History course is the built-in flexibility and the ease with which learning can be modified for individual students.  Everything comes in a Word document that can be edited, it is designed to be adapted into different contexts and there is an active and growing community of educators contactable within the Big History course.

Ideally, I think Big History needs to be introduced as a core subject/course.  In Australia it covers a significant amount of the Australian Curriculum (in Science, History and Geography) and it would pain me if this was taught twice within the school.   As this is an integrated course, I think it should be taught collaboratively in a team teaching situation with specialist teachers from both Science and History. The best cases of implementation on display at the conference were from schools that took a collaborative teaching approach.  If we are going to break down the artificial walls that separate and compartmentalise learning into separate subjects why not take out some of the physical barriers too.  Ideally I would run this course in year 9, the outcomes currently addressed link to Stage 5 in NSW, Australia. As a solution to timetabling issues I see two classes and two teachers occupying the same (large) space.

Taking big chunks of curriculum from subjects will mean a need for reprogramming of what is left, and maybe an opportunity for some other integrated courses to be developed in the process.

Leave a Comment

Reflections on ACEL2012

At the start of October I had the privilege of attending and presenting (about Experiential Narrative Learning) at the Australian Council of Educational Leaders annual conference (ACEL2012). I am not sure what I was expecting, but I came away thinking that it was better than expected. In fact I came away with my concepts about my role as a teacher and educational leader challenged and in some ways transformed.

Some thoughts on the conference as a whole.

I really appreciated the attempts at interactivity, including feedback from the twitter stream.  There were times I had thought ‘if not for twitter I would be bored out of my brain.’ Hearing the thoughts questions and feedback of collages brings an interactive dimension to a conference that deepens thinking and learning. The conference rooms themselves were a barrier to better interaction. Rows and rows of chairs is so ‘industrial age’ and does not promote the collaborative learning we are attempting to demonstrate and implement.  There is a place for rows in a keynote, but a workshop should be set up with some kind of natural grouping structure.  How do you get conference presenters to be better at interaction, well it’s probably the same as for in the classroom, model it.  Finding good workshops was hit and miss, but finding the best ones was heavily influenced by the tweets of others.

So what did I learn?

The first two keynote speakers did not tell me anything I had not heard or read before.  Education needs to change from an industrial model to something more engaging. Unfortunately I did not hear what that was from the keynotes. One message I did take away from Dan Pink was we don’t need to be looking overseas for best practice “The best examples of change in schools (for the conceptual/creative age) is happening right here in Australia and NZ.”  We need to look at connecting and collaborating with schools within our own context and culture. The answers we seek are probable happening in the school down the road. This was observable in many of the workshops I attended. The best of the workshops were from practising teachers that are seeking to implement student focused learning that strives to get their students motivated and thinking deeply about their learning.

The message that transformed my thinking as a teacher/leader was from the third keynote by Tim Costello.   I have been teaching globalisation to year 8 students in an integrated science/ geography unit called Quest, for the last three years.  But I now know I did not fully understand the concept or its implications until it was unpack by Tim Costello in his skilful use of telling stories. We are preparing students for a global community, but must help them to develop and nurture their own local communities. Thinking globally but acting locally has taken on new meaning for me. I will strive to get kids to think about their actions on a global scale but ensure they learn to act and connect within their own communities/ families.  I will be striving to get my students to connect and collaborate in classroom activities in a more meaningful way, encouraging all connections within local communities and the wider world. And finally Tim Costello reinforced for me the power of teaching/leading with the use of story. I will be striving to use thick and not thin stories from now on.

Comments (2)

A walk in the bush, provoking kids to think!

It’s Friday afternoon, it’s warm and it’s the last lesson of the day, and I have a restless year 9 Science class. Another teacher and I decide to take our two classes out to teach some ecology using a story. The story is a traditional dreaming story from the D’harawal people from the south of present day Sydney. It tells the story of three beautiful sisters, with golden hair and green eyes and the warrior who thought he was a ‘clever man’ who wanted to marry one of sisters. The sisters were very similar in appearance and to marry one all the warrior had to do was to find a way to tell them apart. After years of careful observation he fails, the sisters grow old and die and are rewarded for their faithful service to their people by being transformed into three different wattles which continue to provide for the people. The warrior has it revealed to him that the only difference in the three sisters was the shade of green that coloured their eyes, if only he had been more observant!   I have told this story before, with other groups, but usually I  tell the story while scratching aboriginal symbols in the dirt or sand on a bush trail, to represent the different characters of the story, and I pick leaves from different wattles as I walk and place them on my dirt picture to represent the different eyes. Today was different, the students were obviously suffering Friday afternoon, restlessness and we did a long walk to a shady spot on a rocky outcrop in the National Park, to help reduce the restlessness. With no dirt patches I resorted to getting students to act out the story as I told it.  The immediate result were the same as previous telling’s of the story; students were able to point out a number of learning outcomes for the story such as the importance of careful observation required to survive in the Australian bush, the complexity of bush land ecology and there is always a wise female student to point out the arrogance of the warrior and his need for humility. The thing that stood out on this occasion was not the different approaches to recounting the story, but the reaction of some students on the walk back to school. Having walked out further than we normally do, we had a longer walk back.  This allowed time for those students that wanted to know more to ask. I walked back with a large number of students wanting me to point out what there was to observe in the different plant communities along the track and to add as much information as I could. The questions and reflections of the students surprised me, the activity had produced far greater reflective thought than you achieve on most Friday afternoons. Months later students can still recount that afternoon, and often ask if we can get out and go for a walk, now all I need are some good stories that help explain atomic theory.

Leave a Comment

Learning using Narrative: Collaborative reflection, group feedback and individual records

This post describes the second part of an introductory lesson to our year 9 Ecology topic. It uses the technique of teaching with narrative. A description of the first part of this lesson is found here and an overview of the inspiration for using narrative teaching is found here.

In this learning session, students took part in three activities;

  • small group collaborative recount of the story,
  • retelling of the story to the whole class by each collaborative group and finally
  • personal reflection and recording.

In small groups students discussed the journey into the National Park; each member was able to build on the memories and reflections of others to help construct the whole narrative. As I wondered around the groups I was amazed at the level of recall that was present, including details I had not noticed.

The groups where then asked to present their recount to the whole class. But rather than doing this verbally they were ask to create a recount using only symbols. Some traditional symbols from aboriginal storytelling and explanations for them were given. Examples included animal tracks left behind in the dirt, the symbol for a human is also often a representation of the impression their bottom and tools would leave where they had sat on the ground, waterholes and campsites. Students were also encouraged to develop their own symbols using similar thinking process, but no words were allowed.  Each group then presented their narrative recount to the whole class.

Finally students were given time to reflect on the purpose of the narrative and record it how they saw fit in their workbooks or in a document on their digital devices.  In this case many students took digital pictures of the narrative they had produced with the symbols.

Comments (1)

Connections to the Land: Teaching Ecological Science using Narrative

Here is a description of the first lesson in our year 9 Ecology topic. It uses the technique of teaching with narrative. The lesson was split over two learning sessions. The first described here took the students on a journey into the national park that adjoins our school.

A note about context: Our school is on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Australia. Although there are a handful of students with aboriginal heritage the majority are representative of the area, being made up mostly of both recent and early immigrants with European cultural backgrounds. Most have had little exposure to indigenous cultures.

The journey into the national park started with an acknowledgement of the traditional indigenous custodians both past and present. Students were painted up with ochre on their foreheads and hands to acknowledge respect for the people and land we were entering. They were informed that it indicated we come with in peace and with respect,  we would not travel to places we were not meant to go or touch anything we were not meant to touch. This was reinforced with a reminder that we were entering a national park and we take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.

The group then made its way to a rock platform that has a permanent small creek flowing over the surface and off an overhang as a small waterfall.  Students invited to have sit on the rock and encouraged to scrunch up and role a gumleaf in their hands to release the eucalyptus oil, taking deep inhales of the oil and thus stimulate their sense of smell, an activity carried out by indigenous children to help retain memory of stories and lessons taught.  Axe grinding groves where pointed out in the creek and a description of aboriginal connection to place and the significance of fresh waters sources was explained. This was linked to our study of ecology and the interconnectedness of life.

Students were then invited to climb around and under the overhang where there are a group of ancient aboriginal stencils of hands and tools at the back of the cave. While these were being pointed out and examined by students again a further explanation of aboriginal’s connection to the land and place where emphasised as was the need for deep respect for such ancient artwork.

Finally as we returned up the hill to the school, aboriginal recognition of the significance of observational science was discussed, such as the use of plants for food and medicine and an understanding of approaching weather and rain that can be gained from observing ant behaviour.

Comments (2)

Aboriginal Science and Ancient Teaching methodolgies

Last year I had the privilege of spending half a day in the company of Frances Bodkin  (Aunty Fran), an elder of the D’harawal (an aboriginal language (tribal) group of south-western Sydney). The time spent with her and her husband Gavin Andrews was focused on her knowledge of the aboriginal uses of plants, but it revealed so much more. I think the thing that struck me most was the traditional knowledge they held and graciously shared, based on thousands of years of their ancestors’ observation, can be backed up and explained by today’s ‘western’ experimental science. Aunty Fran describes her people’s knowledge as Aboriginal Science, which I think is very appropriate, and I hope her dream to share this knowledge and have it fully acknowledged comes to fruition. Her book D’harawal Seasons and Climatic Cycles is a great starting place to begin to appreciate the depth of knowledge and understanding her people have to share.

Black science has observation and experience, white science has measurements and experiments. If we put the two of them together we’d get a much deeper science.
—Frances Bodkin, Dharawal Elder, NSW—

In the last 5mins of my time with Aunty Fran she discovered I was a school teacher and told me about a research project she had been working on in schools using stories to teach. Her methods were based on traditional aboriginal teaching methods, from an oral culture that had no written language other than the symbolic art  found painted in caves and engraved on rock platforms.

She outlined that in a typical 60min lesson she would take the class outside into the natural environment and engage as many senses as possible (touch, smell, taste, hearing, seeing, balance as well as common sense). She would tell a story related to key points in the curriculum and then ask students in small groups to reconstruct and recount the story. Students were not allowed to record any notes, until after they had recounted to each other what they learned.  Thus a 60min lesson is broken up into 20mins story, 20mins recount and 20 mins of recording. As Fran outlined this method and the success they had measures ( a year later students could recall over 50% of what was taught) it ticked off a lot of the learning theory boxes for me. The elements that struck me were;

  • Engagement: engaging with story – narrative, space and inclusion of  the senses)
  • Metacognition  and collaboration: reconstructing the story in small groups, produces deeper thinking and
  • Personalisation: recording your personal record of the learning.

These are all aspects that dominate the research literature on how people learn.  I have instinctively included elements of story or narrative in my lessons. I think  statements like “the way humans learn in the C21st has changed” are misleading. Humans now have an array of technology to assist learning, but my gut feeling is that at a biological level we still learn the same way we always have and that the reason narrative is  a part of all ancient cultures teaching practices is because that is how our brains are wired to learn.  The narrative helps us link new concepts to old and allows us to remember the important bits associated with the story. I would also make the bold claim that all children learn similarly and that taking an ancient aboriginal approach to instruction should also work with non-indigenous children. I have since experimented with my own classes and developed a unit around the ecology we teach to year 9 students. I will recount my experiences in future posts.

References

Bodkin, Frances & Robertson, Lorraine (2008). D’harawal : seasons and climatic cycles. F. Bodkin & L. Robertson, Sydney

A great introduction to Aunty Fran was produced by ABC Message Stick  :

Comments (2)

%d bloggers like this: