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Eureka! It works! Visible thinking in action at Dainfern College

| September 5, 2017 | 0 Comments


Twenty-first century education is characterised by innovation, creativity, pupil-directed activities, critical thinking, collaboration, communication and a diverse cultural offering.

A21st century learner (or teacher) needs to analyse and synthesise information, talk about information and ideas with others, get other perspectives and evaluate everything again. A 21st century learner or teacher has to look at information in terms of culture, aligning it with different aspects of history, literature, music and art. Teachers must creatively and purposefully connect information, whilst always taking into account that technology plays a role. In 2015, the Grade 1 teaching team at Dainfern College in Johannesburg, Gauteng, set out to accomplish a project that encompassed the many and complex elements of 21st century learning.

Inspired by the Reggio Emilia philosophy2 – which respects the child’s voice and the child as a researcher, leading the learning process in partnership with the teacher – the Grade 1 team set about incorporating thinking skills and tools, creativity, problem-solving, collaborative learning, research and literacy into a relevant and meaningful, rich task for their little pupils.

Changing the rules — let the challenge begin!

At the end of each year, it is traditional for the Grade 1s at Dainfern College to be part of the presentation to the Grade 0 parents – the incoming Grade 1 parents. They would, traditionally, model the uniform, talk about Grade 1, show off some of their work and read for the Grade 0 parents. Although always well received, this was teacher-driven. As part of our special project, however, the Grade 1 teachers posed a tentative question to their children. “Would you be able to help us tell the Grade 0 parents about Grade 1 and about Dainfern College?” The children were, of course, absolutely confident of their ability to meet the expectation, and were exceptionally motivated by having chosen to take ownership of the process. Accepting the invitation to get involved in a project that they saw as purposeful and relevant seemed to really ignite their passion.

The teachers discussed the idea of making a brochure about Grade 1 at Dainfern College to hand out to the new Grade 1 parents. The teachers explained that they would need to “think together”, as this grew the ideas and thoughts in the children’s heads. They loved the idea that collaboration could make their ideas better and help their brains grow. The teachers suggested walking around the campus, so that the children could be absolutely sure that they knew all about Dainfern College.

“The parents saw exactly what our vision of education looked like, and what kind of educational process and product we wanted to develop to make that vision a reality.”

A big learning journey for little explorers

The children set off with iPads and boundless energy to explore the college. They were absolutely delighted to discover science laboratories, offices they had never seen and a pastoral care space. They went into high school classrooms, chatted to the heads and explored the administration building to see what they did know and what they could find out. They asked many questions and gained a very real understanding of college life beyond their classroom and playground.

They thoroughly enjoyed being free to go anywhere they liked. (Of course, the school had been prepared for this!) They recorded their findings on graphic organisers (visual displays that demonstrate relationships between facts, concepts or ideas), inspired by the work of Ron Ritchhart,3 which gave them the opportunity to analyse and understand their findings, as well as to get satisfactory answers to the questions that they still had.

More to be learned from the matrics

The teachers then invited matric pupils to come and talk to the children and answer any questions that they had. The effect of this astounded us all. The matric pupils created a real vision that generated pride in and ownership of the school and gave our children tangible things to look forward to. The children’s questions to the matrics gave us insight into their thoughts and ideas and, once again, we realised how we did not give enough credit to the powerful thinking that goes on inside our little people’s heads.

Try these tools

They used a flow map4 to record what happens in a day in Grade 1 and a double bubble map5 to compare Grade 0 to Grade 1. The children interviewed each other about their Grade 1 experience, having prepared questions, and videoed their interviews. The children also conducted a survey in the Junior Preparatory School to gather data about the most popular tuckshop treats and sports at school. They divided into groups and used the Book Creator app6 to make a book about the extramurals, the campus and resources, and the core values of Dainfern College.

The Puppet Pals app7 was used to make a movie that could be inserted into the book. They used Ritchhart’s ideas8 to record their prior knowledge of their school and their new knowledge. They then used a circle map9 to think about what to put into their brochures. The brochures were creative and exciting evidence of a rich project, where children had learned through research and discovery.

A magnificent memory

On the big day, the interviews played in the auditorium as parents came in. The children opened the proceedings by singing three songs that they had learnt about how happy they were at school. On a big screen, the parents then watched the iMovies of the books that the children had made. After listening to my presentation, everyone went to tea in the function room, where the work that had led to the brochures and presentations was displayed on all the walls. Each parent was presented with a brochure. Each brochure was different, and each one was made by a Grade 1 pupil. The success of the morning was absolutely overwhelming.

The parents saw exactly what our vision of education looked Independent Education • Spring 17 53 like, and what kind of educational process and product we wanted to develop to make that vision a reality. They were amazed at how exciting education had become, and were completely overcome by what the tiniest pupils in our school had achieved. The parents’ chatter and later conversations about the project added to substantial positive conversations about current education.

Global ideas for Grade 2s

In 2016, the Grade 2 team at Dainfern College put together another exciting learning experience that was a perfect example of a project that engaged our little ones. It had them researching, collaborating, creating and communicating on many different levels! The team worked on a global theme, “Now and for the future”. This led to dialogue and research about our present behaviour, and if and how it affects the future world. The children felt a sense of ownership and relevance, as they realised that they could indeed make a difference on many levels. The journey was rich and meaningful as pupils explored and documented – using various maps and graphic organisers – designed to make thinking and learning visible in the classroom – what material can be recycled, why that is important and, ultimately, how to look after scarce resources on our planet for sustainability.

Fitting fashion in

Each year in Grade 2, as part of the children’s cultural experience, the Grade 2s do a fashion show. In the past, it has linked to fabrics, colours, uses and purposes of clothing, cultural clothing and even the history of clothing. In 2016, the Grade 2 teachers began with a question, “Could we make an outfit out of recyclables?” Essentially, could we recycle the recycling and turn it into outfits.

The children had already learnt about the importance of recycling, documenting their thoughts and ideas in various ways, and they were very excited about designing an outfit from materials they found in the recycling bin. They brainstormed ideas and recorded them on circle maps, they made lists of materials they would need and they planned their task on a flow map.

The lessons learnt were significant, as items broke and tore, and different materials and methods were explored. The project culminated in the fashion show, with the children displaying their outfits for their parents and the school. The moms and teachers, caught up in the energy, innovation and creativity of the project, decorated the stage with recycled items and it looked absolutely gorgeous.

Evidence of infinite ideas

The success of the project was epitomised for me by a comment from one of our children, who said: “Mrs Blackhurst, if we wore clothes made out of recyclables, we could recycle our clothes instead of washing them and then we would save even more water!”

Patti Blackhurst is principal at Dainfern College Junior Preparatory.


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3. Ron Ritchhart is currently a senior research associate at Harvard Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where his work focuses on such issues as teaching for understanding, the development of intellectual character, creative teaching, making students’ thinking visible and, most recently, the development of school and classroom culture. See, for example:
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9. See, for example: Centricity/Domain/107/Circle_Map.pdf


Category: spring 2017

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