What's the Big Idea? Teaching Kids to Think

Passion projects and Genius Hour are becoming quite popular.  I know I have been dabbling with them for several years now.  I think on the surface, many teachers are seeing them as ways for students to have fun while learning and to be able to think more creatively.  What I see is a paradigm shift.  I think Genius Hour will eventually just be known as SCHOOL.

While many districts across the United States have been and continue to be focussed on sets of skills, followed by testing of these skills, some places are slowly making the change over to a set of higher level thinking and interacting sets of skills that ideally would cross over all curricular areas and into life.  The big idea, not the acquisition of many skills.

This way of thinking about education allows for differentiation.  It's difficult for teachers to differentiate learning when there are so many skills to be covered.  Many students do not need certain lessons because they already know it, yet teachers are forced to have them complete the work to "prove" that they know it and so that they can be tested. Most teachers are intuitive and their sense of observation is highly skilled.  As professionals, many teachers spend time observing the students' work and can see clearly that they know certain skills sets.  Maybe it is in their journal writing.  Maybe it is in centre work or even in discussions with other students or as a whole class. It's there.  But some teachers cannot move forward with certain students due to testing and "evidence gathering".  I am not against evidence gathering. It is part of teaching. I am just saying that evidence gathering can take many forms and does not all need to look exactly the same for each student. (aka the standardized test) Moving students on from where they are currently at and challenging them laterally, increases their learning capacity and also prevents boredom!  We all know that boredom in the classroom can cause students to engage in behaviours that can disrupt their learning and the learning of others in the classroom.  One way to begin to learn about each individual is to ask them what interests them. I created this fun Brain Lift the Flap to make it fun for kids to showcase their "smarts".  You can grab yours here.

 The BIG Idea can be defined as "what is it that we really want students to learn"?  For example, if we teach children about money and counting coins, the ultimate big idea is that students will learn financial literacy.  We teach students to read, write, listen and speak. The big idea is that we want students to be come effective communicators.

Curriculum is evolving in many places to reflect this "new" way of thinking.  In Finland, schools are successful because of many factors.  One factor is that they have gone against the evaluation driven model. The national curriculum is only a set of "broad guidelines" - The BIG ideas.

Here is a great link from the Business Insider on why schools are so successful in Finland.

 In British Columbia, the model is quite similar in terms of moving towards big ideas and not over testing.  New curriculum is being developed incorporating the big ideas and breaking some of them down into subsets.  What educational developers are calling CORE COMPETENCIES are being woven into all academic areas in order to promote the development of the Whole Child.

Inquiry learning, genius hour, passion projects and project-based learning all aim to address these very important qualities of the modern day learner. Our classrooms are moving towards this mind shift and instead of having an "hour" to do this kind of work, it is slowly becoming the norm in some classrooms. But the process is slow. Change is slow.

Thinking skills can develop in a safe environment where students are shown that making mistakes are part of learning.  Thinking out loud strategies will help students begin to think more critically - especially if they are able to discuss their ideas openly with a partner or small group.  Creative thinking used to be referred to only in the Arts.  Now creative thinking can be across all disciplines. Reflective thinking has been shown to be very effective in helping kids and adults to process and make decisions based on experiences and lessons learned.  Journal writing has long been a way to be reflective.  Classrooms are now using class meetings to help students be reflective.  Mindful awareness is also being taught to help students reflect and react appropriately.

Social Responsibility and awareness refers to being aware of others' feelings and being a caring and responsible citizen. Cooperating with others for a common goal at the school, at home, in the community and in the environment are important aspects. 

I absolutely love to explore cultural identity with my students! It is important that students learn about their own identity and understand that all cultures are valued equally.  Students should be proud of their heritage and in my experience they are so happy to research, interview family members and share their culture with others given the opportunity.  It helps them to value and appreciate their ethnicity and not want to "fit in" as much. When we value diversity we build community, in our classrooms and beyond.

Communication skills are becoming a very important part of our curriculum.  It's very important for students to be able to not only communicate their needs but to be able to express their learning and solve problems effectively.  Some kids are natural communicators but most students need to be taught.  A big part of communication is active listening and non verbal communication.  Once students are comfortable communicating, they are much more easily able to collaborate and work cooperatively which a key goal once students graduate and go out into the work force. These skills must be introduced early. Another aspect of communication, digital literacy, is beginning to make an impact and it is important for children to learn to use technology efficiently and safely.  

As education moves forward with changes to society and technology, our students' skills need to change, develop and move forward too.  When teachers can teach the BIG ideas and spend more time differentiating and facilitating the learning of all students, it is then that learning can occur.  There is no place for over testing and packing so many skills into one set of curricula where the teacher isn't able to cover it all effectively and without a great deal of stress. The students are then engaged in skill over load and are not able to think on their own.  We want students who are critical, reflective and creative thinkers, socially responsible and aware, who have  a sense of cultural identity and who are effective communicators.

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