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Toronto Catholic District School Board

The journey really is a continuous one and with that in mind, we encourage you to visit the blog link for the most recent entries
A Self Directed Learning Journey
Boxes, ipads, flying hawks, students running through the hallways (and classrooms), and green screens. If that sounds like a really good episode of a children’s sitcom, the script for full length movie or just general chaos then you need to get over to St. Henry on a Friday.  This past Friday (Jan 18, 2013) was the start of the next step in our foray into self directed learning.
Thursday saw six or seven curious staff members and myself meeting to discuss plans for how we can continue experimenting with the self directed initiative. The ideas varied from having students bringing their own devices with which to research topics of interest to them,  to taking career inventory surveys (if life is about the work force, then students need to decide what career they are interested in learning more about), to looking at how student interests can be matched to the curriculum. Our curriculum we said should not be a hindrance to self directed learning but rather a blue print that allows us to start planning how to meet students’ interests. If there are two overriding roadblocks that staff see to self directed learning, it would be the need to deliver all components of the comprehensive Ontario standardized curriculum (pioneers in Gr. 3, energy in Gr. 5 and classification of animals in Gr. 6 to give just 3 examples), and the fear of the lack of structure in the self directed learning model (yes Ms. Reality Show Tv Star, I’m talking about you!). Based on what took place Friday, and will hopefully continue to take place on Fridays, we’re in the process of addressing both concerns.
The day’s plan revolved around our Gr. 5 and 6 students from Mrs. Rego’s and Ms. Poulin’s class bringing in their own devices to research areas that interested them both by accessing the website, and by searching for topics of interest to them. Curriculum connection? The pathways strand that is so key to all we do in the school system – finding a pathway for our students to follow. The other clear curriculum connection being in the language curriculum where we still see the greatest connections to be found – students are finding topics to research that fit into collaborative inquiry type questions. TCDSB language coordinator Teresa Paoli has suggested that we use a book called Natural Curiosity that details what inquiry based learning is all about. That’s what we’re truly trying to do – capitalize on the wonder and curiosity that students have. It’s what makes learning more authentic.
The authentic learning and curiosity connection took us to Mrs. Sullivan’s full day kindergarten class next. Armed with nothing more than boxes of all shapes and sizes, masking tape, scissors, foil and crayons plus one creative book to get our young minds flowing, 27 five and six year old children began the “It’s Not a Box project.” The lesson came courtesy of the book Not a Box and the desire of Mrs. Sullivan and her ECE Ms. Cook to engage their students in a more self directed approach. The book which is a must read shows the imagination that can come from seeing the many different  ways you can see and use a simple box. After reading the book and discussing what they thought a box could be, four groups were created. Before you knew it, castles, cars, rocket ships, and dresses were being created. Tape was flying everywhere (along with a few five and six year olds….no we weren’t experimenting with kindergarten flight and physics…that’s next week I think!), energy and excitement was alive (I think it likely always is in kindergarten rooms) and progress and lack thereof was evident everywhere. 
Curriculum connections?  Inquiry based learning – students identified what they were interested in and off they went. Structure? We started from a book, broke into groups and allowed divergent thinking to exist. Problems? Too many kids in one class. That’s a topic for another day but I can honestly say that it was a harrying experience even with four educators in the room – our kindergarten teacher, an ECE, a very qualified volunteer and a principal who can’t seem to stay in his office (this almost cured me of that problem!). How the team of two would have managed it is beyond me.
At the start I mentioned flying hawks and students running through the halls. No real self directed learning connection there, but our day included the start of our indoor roadrunner program as it was finally almost too cold to be running outside. One class used their self directed skills with their teacher and chose to run inside the class rather than through the halls – good on you Ms. Poulin and your Gr. 6 students. And lastly, at lunch our self directed student learning group met to continue planning out our school video and student written  play about what makes St. Henry such a special place to be. I’d say all of the above is more than a start for ideas for the play!
So are we on the road to self directed learning? Undoubtedly. Do we have a long way to still travel? Undoubtedly. There are many elements we have to  figure out and there are two ways to do it. One staff member has indicated to me that it makes more sense to talk things out before we move forward and jump in. Mrs. Rego (our Gr. 5 teacher)  indicated that it’s through experimentation, trying and failing that we’ll make progress. We’ve taken option two for now. Failure from our first day included an increasingly squirmy kindergarten group as each group presented their findings – that will be something we figure out for next time. Purists might also say that in having every kindergarten work with boxes as their base that we were limiting their creativity. I would counter that you have to start somewhere. And yes it’s true that some of the kindergarten students still weren’t engaged. Their five and six year old minds wandered off elsewhere at times and some wanted to do something else (true self direction mixed in with stubbornness).  At the junior level we know we still need to figure out how to truly engage our diverse group of learners to find the answers for the questions THEY want to learn on a more regular basis. Authentic and consistent assessment will also be a work in process. We have made Friday as our jumping off point for self directed learning. AICT (Academic Information Communication Technology) guru Anthony Carabache recently pushed us to let go of our need of structured timelines and just let students go on the journey. I am keenly interested in this but know that it will take a while longer until we get there.
One thing I can say with all certainty is that when I look back on the Friday we had yesterday, I can see several elements of what our goal as catholic educators is – namely the move towards Catholic Graduate Expectations – Effective communicators, self directed learners, collaborative contributors, holistic and life long learners, responsible citizens and yes even caring family members (not just in the need for the kindergarten teachers to model Herculean patience in our self directed session).    I could gladly detail how each of those elements were in evidence,  but my wife Lisa is calling out in the background saying that people will lose interest if I keep writing too long, (self directed reading?!) so I’ll close off here with one final comment.
There is someone somewhere who might be reading this saying …So what? You had some kindergarten kids do an art/building project, some junior grade students on ipads and netbooks doing a career survey, kids running through the halls for DPA and a student leadership group planning out a play and video. Big deal. That sort of stuff is happening all over. That person may be right in saying so, but I would optimistically argue that when all those things are approached with a conscious effort on leading to self directed learning, then we are in fact on the way to a different system – a system that’s worth blogging about, and a system that I’m grateful to be moving towards with a  group of committed educators. Thanks for reading and thanks for joining us for whatever part of the self directed journey interests you!