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  • Writer's pictureDerek Stoppels

How I Learned What Learning Looks Like

I found out that I would be teaching SBI3U for the first time in the first quadmester about a week before it started. I taught the course almost ten years ago in an alternate format and with another teacher, so for all intents and purposes, until now, I have never really taught SBI3U, and I’m sure some would argue that I still haven’t taught SBI3U. Funny thing is, I would agree with that last sentiment.

In fact, I will come right out and say it. This past quadmester, I only had one course, the other week I was on Virtual Support Duty. My timetable said SBI3U, but I certainly didn’t teach it. Before the quadmester started I asked some colleagues what were some of the main points with which the students had to leave grade 11 bio, so that I could make sure to focus on them. There didn’t seem to be much carryover from grade 11 to grade 12 and and long story short, I left that meeting thinking to myself: “Looks like I’m on my own here.”

I grabbed a textbook, went to my classroom and started cutting up the curriculum documents. SBI3U is an incredible course. There are so many connections within the units, to other units, and to life outside school. So many applications. It took about three days, but I finally had a plan. It was a rough plan, but it was something I could roll with.

The important thing for me in designing this course was that I already knew that I had a format that I liked. I build my courses around Big Questions, not content consumption. I was cutting up the curriculum documents to see how I could fit all these “expectations” into the Big Questions I wanted to ask.

I think it was the Friday before the quadmester actually started and Cam Jones calls me up. He’s got a cool idea. He directs my attention to the European Space Agency website and the Moon Camp Competition they are hosting with AirBus. So. All my work that I had done earlier in the week had to get thrown out the window. This opportunity was too cool to pass up, and I thought that since I had never taught this course before, and there wasn’t a precedent for a teaching in a quadmester before, I decided to throw out the baby with the bathwater and do something crazy. Best part was: It turned out to be an incredible experience!

The final product that my students were going to create was a Moon Camp submission to the ESA competition mentioned above. Cam was trying to connect with some guest speakers to “come into the classroom” to help answer some questions and develop the students’ Moon Camps with them, but only the education world works on quadmester time, so the guest speakers didn’t work out, but they’re lined up for my grade 9 classes next quad!

We started with the Plants unit and the students goal for the week was to answer the question: How do we grow plants in space? To come up with the best answer, students first had to do some research about how plants grow on Earth. I gave them the curriculum expectations and told them to use that as a guide for their research. It was up to them to find a place to start, and they could answer the question however they wanted, but they had to uncover the curriculum expectations on their own. We went outside every day in an effort to help my students realize that we are a part of nature, not apart from it. We let the bush behind and beside our school be the teacher, instead of me. Learning from nature, about nature, is a pretty cool way to discover that we really are in this together. I think the students got a pretty good idea of what kind of impact they, and humans in general, can have on the environment.

Over the summer holidays, our school was lucky enough to receive a CONVIRON GEN1000 growth chamber from the board. I had never used one of these things in my life, and never had much interest in growing plants before this, but I thought that this was too good of an opportunity to pass up. We planted some seeds and we tried to replicate the experiment that they are doing on the International Space Station by using as close to the same conditions as they were using. This was a total failure learning experience. The machine is loud, and it’s in a classroom in which I am not teaching. The teacher who taught in that class had to turn off the machine because it was so loud. Having to turn the machine on and off every day, put a lot of stress on the plants in the chamber, totally changed the design of the experiment and ultimately the results we got were not even close to what we were hoping for. But we learned from it. Furthermore, the students didn’t get any real hands-on experience with the machine because they weren’t allowed to go into the other classroom due to COVID-19 safety regulations. But, I spoke with my admin team, and next quad (and hopefully for the rest of the year), I get to teach in the same room as the growth chamber so that I can deal with the sound and the students can use the machine themselves.

I started each day with a question period where I was hoping they would bring their questions to me from the work they had done at home the day before and If I’m being honest, it wasn’t a total success. There were a lot of students who had a really hard time finding a place to start the project, and there was the curriculum checklist to look at, a rubric to look at, and the digital notebook, and just a lot of places to look for logistical things that took time away from actually doing the research and putting together a product they were going to be proud of. Lesson learned.

I took the next week to mark everyone’s papers, the ones that got handed in, and give them feedback on their work. I am very thankful to have had a “prep week” in the first quad while I was going through SBI3U for the first time. The next Monday I saw them in class, I gave them feedback, they gave me feedback, and I streamlined the logistics a little better...I think...I hope.

The Animals unit was next. This week they had a task: Design a Health and Fitness Centre for your Moon Camp. I wanted them to take a look at what space does to our bodies, with a focus on the human circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems, and design a centre that would help keep them healthy and well on their Moon Camp. The Canadian Space Agency wants to be leaders in health in space, so this was my first attempt to get my class thinking about ways to help our astronauts. Again, not a total success at first, because they didn’t get the feedback from the first unit fast enough, and didn’t have enough time to chew on it, so as to make the improvements. To mitigate this, I let anyone resubmit anything they wanted at any time. We’re still going to school during a pandemic and life is absolutely crazy for some of these young men and women. Eventually, after some feedback and some resubmissions, we started to see improvement.

To some students, one of the most meaningful learning experiences they had was the fetal pig dissection. I decided to take a chance, and give them the opportunity to do the only thing they’re really going to ever remember from grade 11 bio, and cut open a fetal pig. It wasn’t for marks. There were no worksheets. Just a guide for them to follow if they wanted, to provide them with at least a place to start. EVERYONE participated. I wish more people could have been in the room to observe the learning that was happening. The wonder that was happening. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard “Whoa, look at this!” or a version thereof so many times in my life. It was an incredibly fulfilling experience for me. I’d like to think that it went so well because there was absolutely no pressure. Even the students that finished early, cleaned up their workspace and materials and then joined another group to watch them finish and share their experiences. And yes. We maintained social distance.

One of the challenges, I think, for the students was the fact that there were no tests or quizzes and it was not what they expected for a senior science class. There were also no wrong answers, and that left some of them visibly uncomfortable. I left the projects wide open on purpose. And for some students, I understand that a little more structure, and scaffolding would have been helpful, but at the same time, I think by grade 11 this is a good time to start to try to do those things on your own. They were able to resubmit the work, and so I like to think that that took some pressure away from the fear of failure. The only way to fail the course is to not hand anything in. They weren’t used to having so much freedom and so they were unsure how to get started because they didn’t know what my expectations were. Eventually, I think, they realized I just wanted their best, whatever that looked like. And do you want to know what? They blew my socks off!

We really only had four weeks to get through the entire course, which came out to about ten days in class, and ten days at home. It was a wild ride, and I don’t think that this format by any stretch is a good one, but I am 100% confident that I made the best of a bad situation. I didn’t cram any information into any students, not once did I worry about “covering the curriculum.” Sugata Mitra said something like “If it's all on Google, how come we have to stuff it into their heads?” Einstein said something like: “I don’t need all of the information, I just need to know where to find it.” My goal for this course this quadmester was to give my students meaningful opportunities to find information. By that, I mean, I wanted to give them a reason to find information and then do something meaningful with it. It was a total success!

So by this time, we’re two weeks down, two weeks to go and three units to “cover” (I didn’t cover anything this semester). Plants and Animals were done, and we were moving on to Evolution, Genetics and Biodiversity. At the end of the day, it's impossible to talk about any of these units without talking about any of the other ones, so I mashed ‘em all up, and got them to relate what they were learning back to their plants and animals units so as to deliver a Moon Camp as the final product.

In talking with the students about the workload and the end of the quadmester in sight, we decided to scrap the Moon Camp Competition submission as a final product. We came to an understanding that they would still submit the theory behind what their Moon Camp would look like, but they didn’t have to actually design or create a Moon Camp and submit it to the competition. It was just a little too much for them to have to think about, so as a class decided to take that off their plates. I was a little worried that in agreeing to this, the students might lose a little steam in relation to the reason why they were learning, but as it turned out, those worries were all for naught.

For the last two weeks, I decided to ask a SOLE question a day. SOLE stands for Self-Organized Learning Environments and they were developed by Sugata Mitra. The idea was that I would start the day in class at 09h20 with a question period (which was something I developed using Peter Gamwell’s work in his book The Wonder Wall), and at 10h00 I would put the SOLE Question into the Google Classroom, the cohort at home would meet in Google Meet with the cohort in class, they would be assigned to random breakout groups and then move to Google Chat where they would collaborate about the day’s question.

The true nature of a SOLE (in a school setting) would be groups of four students working together around one computer to answer the question. I decided to roll with the philosophy, but adjust it to our learning situation. Every student had a computer and some of them were at home, and some at school. I made sure that each group had at least one person in class to report back to the group. In a “real” SOLE, students would be able to switch groups whenever they wanted and do some reconnaissance work if they thought it would be useful. This didn’t happen in my class, but it was the best I could do at the time, and if I’m being honest, it worked out beautifully.

After about 45-50 minutes of research and collaboration, or when I noticed things winding down in the group chat (and they started talking about what shows they’re watching right now), I would wrap things up online, and bring the group back together. I would write the question on the board, and they would tell me what to write as an answer. They would write their own notes. As I said to them all the time, I have the map, but they’re in the driver’s seat. One student told me he liked the SOLEs because his chromebook gave him access to so much more than a grade 11 student would normally be exposed to. So many of these groups took their research beyond what would normally be expected from a grade 11 student, and they were letting their curiosity take a front seat. And like Sugata Mitra says in his videos and in his book (The School In The Cloud, a must read! This is not a paid advertisement) the groups/answers are self correcting! When there are a group of students working on the same problem and talking to each other about it, they figure out what the good info is and what the bad info is. Or what the better info is. It was amazing. “Hey, look what I found…,” or “Do you think we could use this?” or “What does it mean when…,” or “Does it matter if we…” They were going down some rabbit holes, but they were learning.

The students would tell me what to write on the board, and after another 30 or 45 minutes we would have a new note on the board. I would take a picture of it, and put it in the Google Classroom, and they wouldn’t have to write anything down. And remember when I said I was worried they’d lose steam on the Moon Camp idea? They didn’t. It always came back to the Moon Camp, and they told me that they really liked having a theme to drive the course, because it helped them make connections and see the bigger picture. Mission accomplished! They were the ones telling me how today’s research related back to a question we had already answered.

Learning isn’t something you can do to a person. A teacher can’t have students copy a note and then synthesize the information for them. With the SOLEs, I could actually see, and hear, and feel, that the students were making their own connections, synthesizing the material to and for themselves in a way that made sense to them. It was magical!

I was talking to another teacher about how I do the SOLEs with my class because they’d never heard of them before and because they’re teaching SBI3U next quad, they were curious about what I was doing in my classroom because I was posting it all on Twitter. They asked me how I assess that each student met the curriculum expectations. And honestly, I didn’t. I’m trusting my gut and using my professional judgement this time. I decided to start with the end in mind (the Moon Camp competition submission) and tried to find ways to provide meaningful learning opportunities after that. Maybe I could have collected more data, but the emphasis for me was learning, not data. Especially when we’re going to school during a pandemic. One might ask the question “Yeah, but if you’re not collecting data, how do you know learning is happening?” Because I saw what learning looks like during the SOLE answer session.

Every student contributed, some more than others, and not everyone on every day, but when the students were in their Google Chat groups, they all added me as a group member, and so I can go back to those conversations now and see what they were talking about. Furthermore, they each submitted a Google Doc to me with their group’s work on it.

Driving a course with big open ended questions takes a lot of time to mark their work, and maybe I could have done a better job giving more feedback more often. But if the SOLE Question was good enough, the students would get immediate feedback from each other, but I might not have as many “marks” as some teachers might think I should have. But I can promise, with my heart of hearts, that I saw each of my students learning something. Everyone participated. I’m not going to be so arrogant as to say that everyone loves biology class, but I know they all did the work. Each student in my class, I can say with 100% certainty, left my classroom with a better understanding of the world around them than they had when they walked in. I might not have a ton of empirical data to back up that statement, but I’m interested in learning, not data. Sugata Mitra’s book is jam packed with data. I read it. I recommend it. But I decided to trust his process (I had to modify it a bit), and yes, I took some liberties with the unusual learning circumstances in which we find ourselves. It’s true that their grades may be inflated this quadmester, and I’m sorry if I’ve created some false hope for the students who might end up in a more traditional setting next year, but I actually watched learning happen. I can’t say it enough, and I can’t thank people like Cameron Jones, Derek Brez, Sugata Mitra, Eric Hardie, Rich King, Jess Packer-Quinnell, Tanis Haggerty, Erin O’Grady, Chris Hale, Robin Small and Peter Gamwell enough. Some people had a more direct impact on this quadmester than others, and some might not even know how they helped me, but this was a group project by any definition. Professor Mitra is the only author I mentioned by name, but there are countless others that have helped me develop my philosophy of education and empowered me to try crazy things and learn. But ultimately, the real thank you goes to my students. They were incredible. Their patience and enthusiasm did not go unnoticed as they let me try new things, take risks, and make mistakes. The quadmester ended too soon, but not because we had so much “curriculum to cover,” but because I was having so much fun learning from and with them. But all good things must come to an end, and I’ve got some pretty awesome opportunities lined up for my grade 9 classes next quadmester.


The big shift for me, especially this quadmester, was to stop worrying about the content. I know that there will be some students who took my class this quad who are not going to know what a zygote is. They are not going to remember what the formula for photosynthesis or cellular respiration is. They’re not going to know all of the parts of the digestive system. So if they were to write a test about all that stuff, they might fail. But if you tried to have a conversation with them, they’d be able to keep up. They could tell you about how the human systems interact with each other. They could tell you how plants grow, and some different ways to grow them. They could tell you how they feel about genetic engineering, how it happens, and why it may or may not be unethical. They could tell you if they think it will be an important thing to consider if humans decide to colonize the moon. They could tell you how humans, plants, and animals might change on the moon, and they could tell you if we’d still be the same species after a generation of living on the moon.

The timelines for this school year are nuts. It’s unrealistic to think students are going to “learn” everything you “teach” them. I said it on Twitter, but I’ll say it again, just because you’ve taught them something, doesn’t mean they’ve learned something. But if we emphasize learning, and not teaching, they will leave our classes with a) meaningful experiences and b) skills that they might not have started out with. If the pressure is to create something they’re proud of and not to get a mark their parents are happy with, we’re going to be helping our students deal with these trying times. If we take all the fun out of our classes because we have “so much content to get through,” what learning do you really think is going to happen? We’re just helping our students get better at playing school, not helping them learn, or develop skills that are going to help them here, now, and always.

If we’re using backward design to plan our courses, don’t start with a test or exam in mind. Don’t even start with a curriculum expectation in mind. Start with a product, a design or a creation. Then try to see how the curriculum fits...and if you’re a good teacher, you’ll find a way to make it happen. Ask the students a question that is going to inspire more questions. Get out of the way. It’s 2020, there is technology literally everywhere, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, and finding information is a finger exercise. Students don’t need us like they used to. Everything we teach is on the internet. There are digital copies to be found of just about every textbook. And so, since that is the case, and because as I mentioned earlier, we can’t do learning to someone, teachers need to get out of the way. Guide the students, don’t grade them (@derekbrez, Twitter, 2020). Give them a reason to be curious, to want to learn something (...grades are not a good enough reason). Inspire them. Teachers know that death by PowerPoint isn’t going to inspire anyone to do anything. It's outdated. It's irrelevant.


Part of me feels really bad for not being as stressed out as some of my other colleagues, and I know things are going to get a lot crazier for me next quad when I’m teaching 2 out of 2, but I have to admit, this quadmester went really well for me. I got a lot of positive feedback from my students as well. A lot of them came to me, on their own accord and mentioned that they liked the format because it was so different and it offered them so many different opportunities. One student even told me “You made me feel smart, and that’s not a feeling I have gotten in science class before.”

If we can embrace the change, trust the process, and listen to the young adults sitting in front of us everyday, we will be doing a service to our students and to our community. And ultimately, teaching is a labour of love to serve those we teach. “Covering the curriculum,” is self serving because there is nothing we teach that isn’t on the internet. If we can make our students feel good in our classes, feel good about themselves and feel good about what they’re learning, we will see what learning looks like.

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