As a new school we get many visitors. There are two questions that always seem to come up. They are normally very politely worded but the essence of them is as follows.
This integration stuff, that will never work will it?
All of this is fine for the junior school but when you get to NCEA you’ll have to get serious won’t you?
As I say, these questions are phrased far more diplomatically than this but the intent is as above. In reality both are valid and relevant questions and raise issues that we, as a school, have debated as part of our continual self review.
As Term 1 ended though I had a number of experiences that really brought home just how integration works for learners and how it enables NCEA rather than work to restrict it.
We are starting to see genuine transferal of skills and knowledge across curricula and how these transferable skills allow learners to bring their knowledge [both skill and content based] to a variety of authentic contexts. Now I am not saying for a moment that the case studies that follow do not take place in every school regardless of how they choose to deliver learning opportunities what I am saying is that it is exciting to see our learners empowered with the skills, knowledge and confidence necessary to grapple with complex tasks in a variety of contexts. I could provide numerous examples of what we are observing but I have chosen a couple as examples to highlight how integration works and how it is entirely relevant with regards to NCEA success.
I should probably explain why a number of my more recent posts have featured examples of learner activity from Rolleston College. It is obvious that, as a nation, we are about the embark on a comprehensive review and debate on the nature of learning in our schools and what learning will look like in the near future. A considerable amount of this debate will be spent on espousing theories and possibilities. I feel there will be a need to show and provide examples of how some schools are already getting results and seeing the benefits of adopting more innovative and forward thinking approaches to learning. I provide these examples not to say that we are doing something unique or that we are special but merely to add some actual examples and evidence to assist with the debate as we all move forward.
Case Study #1
A Year 10 boy who as part of his integrated Connected study was looking at the Big Bang Theory and an examination of the differing opinions regarding how our Universe was formed.
As part of this integrated study he had to write an essay on his research findings. An extract of this essay is printed below.
“Described as the most convincing and most fitting explanation to the beginning of everything, the Big Bang is a theory that can explain the existence of all elements, galaxies and life. This theory – which is agreed with among scientists all over the world – rises above all the other theories and beliefs because of the extensive amount of research that has been conducted. With the advancement of technology, humans have been able to discover more and more scientific information about space that supports the Big Bang Theory, and until the possibility that the information scientists know is proven incorrect, the Big Bang will be the most logical and likely way the universe came into existence.”
The way he was able to write a well structured essay on a complex issue and combine written skills with his deep interest in the topic is by no means unusual. It is the sort of end product you would expect from a academically capable and engaged Year 10 learner.
What was exciting is the fact that when the learners were tasked to write a short story as part of the same integrated unit of work he, along with many others in the class, seemed to easily transfer the knowledge gained in the more Science related aspects of the unit across into his writing. It seemed that rather than see the differences between the Science study, the formal essay and the creative writing he has able to easily transfer knowledge and skills from one to the other. This resulted in him writing a lengthy short story that incorporated a compelling narrative that was placed in a convincing scientific context. In other words his creative writing was more authentic and believable because he was able to transfer his knowledge from one learning experience to another. I believe that this was made easier for him because all of these experiences took place in an integrated programme rather than a subject related, compartmentalized system.
An extract from his story is printed below.
Other Phillip began a confusing explanation; “You see, when your universe came into existence, It did start with a big bang. But it didn’t happen the way you and other scientists theorised. You see, when the universe began, everything was just there. There were the stars, the planets and galaxies, everything. Your scientists discovered clues that would explain a possible beginning to your existence. However, these clues threw the scientists off, and led them down a different path, making them believe one thing. But in actual fact, there is a whole different explanation out there. It’s called the multiverse. I’m sure there are many people on this earth with theories of it.”
“So there are more universes out there, where you’re from.”
“Oh yes, many more. An infinite number. And the strangest thing is, they all exist one after each other. At one point in time, there can only be one universe. But that universe can and does die, as quickly as it started. That makes way for a new universe – which is created immediately after. And this is where it gets weird. Like your scientists theorised, the universe slowly shrinks as it dies, until it only has the mass of a single atom. By this time the universe has reached a wall – the end of it’s journey. Then, as it has been discovered, the universe slips through a hole in the wall, and the remains of the universe then spill out into the next universe. This new universe thrives until it too, reaches the wall. This is an infinite process with no end. Pretty mind blowing huh?”
I am not saying for a minute that this has not always happened and that talented learners transfer knowledge across curriculum boundaries but what I am starting to see evidence of is that an integrated approach enables this transferal to be more natural and enables learners to make connections between the skills and content they learn in different domains easier than a compartmentalized approach allows. The result is some very rich written responses and some very confident writers. In fact there were numerous creative responses that came out of the unit that had a real depth about them and were more convincing because of the way they seemed to naturally draw on scientific knowledge when and where appropriate.
What interests me is that this transferal of skills and knowledge is becoming quite natural.
So how does this equate with the world of NCEA where we seem to have made assessment the new curriculum and reduced learning to a series of bite sized standards to be ticked off in a credit hunting race to the finish line?
Well quite well actually. It seems that the while Science realted learning was the context this student has easily met the criteria for the two Level 1 standards from the English domain, namely creative writing and formal writing. In fact both are at excellence level. So there are 6 credits straight off.
Obviously not all standards will naturally fall out of authentic learning experiences and, at times, we will need to adopt a more pragmatic approach but we need to be open to harness the naturally occurring situations when and where they occur and acknowledge accordingly.
Case Study #2
This need to be aware to make assessment fit learning and not the other way round is highlighted by this second little example. A Year 10 learner had, as part of her integrated studies, written a very powerful and effective poem on dealing with adversity. The impact of the poem came largely from the transition from despair to hope. Again this was easily at Level 1 Excellence, but this was not as important as the fact that she had written an amazingly powerful poem at such a young age. It was easy to then take her aside and ask her to perform it as an example of spoken prose.
Her performance was moving and mature. She let her words dominate and her performance was subtle with a controlled use of pause and gesture. At the point of transition in the poem she paused and a glimmer of a smile indicated that a change of mood was about to take place. The subtlety of her movement and gesture emphasized and focused attention on her words.
Again I am not saying that this experience is unusual or unique, there are poets in every school in the country and there are students who have amazing abilities to convey emotion and feeling via the spoken word, rap and slam poetry, what I am starting to see though is that a less compartmentalized approach to learning does release more opportunities to acknowledge these flowers of learning and let them blossom. In the same way why wouldn’t we say that she has provided the evidence for oral presentation and creative writing at Level 1, again 6 credits.
The exciting part of this is that she did not write and perform to gain credits she wrote and performed because she feels and has something to say. That is our job, let the flowers blossom and then seize the opportunities to acknowledge when and where appropriate. It is about reversing the order and seizing opportunities for the learning to inform the assessment not have the assessment drive and dictate the learning.
Case Study #3
This one is a work in progress. Two Year 9 boys with a passion for film making decided as part of their Quest [passion project] to make an introductory video about the school for visitors to see when they first arrived. I point out that this was after four weeks at school. The end result was a brief video that we have used on numerous occasions. So in discussion they decided that if we were going to use their work then they needed to make a more professional version. This they have nearly completed. What impressed me though was the professionalism with which they approached the task. The editing, sound recording, framing etc. all were very impressive. These two 13 year olds owned the job and we gave them the space to create.
In my mind I want to put them in a team with the poet described above to produce a video of her poem that combines the creativity of the poetry with the technical mastery of the film makers. Again it is about seizing opportunities for authentic learning experiences and then letting the flowers blossom not slavishly adhering to a content driven scheme.
No one is saying that knowledge and content are not vitally important. No one is saying that we will not need to be more pragmatic as we grow and no one is saying that structures and tighter scaffolding are not vital for less engaged learners but we must surely keep an eye on the flowers and letting them flourish.
All of these examples are hardly earth shattering, deliberately they are everyday learning situations, what pleases me is the regularity with which they are starting to come to my attention. So I would like to finish with the most ordinary example of all. A very small example of how learners can naturally start to choose and transfer the appropriate acquired skills to meet their learning needs.
Case Study #4
This case focuses on a learner who in Year 9 was a very shy, nervous student who had difficulty in engaging and lacked confidence/. A couple of weeks ago she stood in the Board room and gave a full and comprehensive presentation on her plan for an end of year EOTC camp. Her report, one of many, was detailed and was the end result of considerable planning and working on budgets, itineraries etc.
What impressed me though was not the detail of the work but her use of technology. Realizing early on last year that she was not the most confident of speakers she has progressively explored and mastered a number of presentation programmes in a number of situations. She is now at the point where she can produce sophisticated visual presentations that support her and take some of the pressure off her to be a dynamic presenter.
She has found a way to use technology to augment her ideas to ensure that she is heard and have her ideas acknowledged. Again she exists in every school and our job is to assist them to find their way to be heard and encourage them on this journey.
I guess what I am saying is that in all of these very ordinary examples young people have found their voice, written and oral, using film and technology, the vehicle is not the important thing but the voice is. I guess my hope is that as we move into this national debate about what learning looks like in our schools that we focus on providing environments where the flowers blossom and where we encourage the individual and not tolerate being part of any system that works on making the individual conform to its demands merely to ensure the perpetration of the system.