We all know that young children are naturally curious and discover life by asking questions, experimenting and building on prior experiences.
It was this observation by Jean Piaget in the mid-1900s that made him a leading cognitive development theorist. However, the sad truth is that traditional schooling tends to quash this natural inquisitiveness with its structured, teacher-led expectations and rules about how and what to learn. Many children become afraid of doing something wrong and making a mistake, or of expressing their own ideas, or they learn to sit back and expect the information to simply be given to them.
Student-centered learning puts the ball back in the children’s court. It allows them to develop a growth mindset, learn from failures or mistakes, and learn at their own level of understanding and pace – setting them up with skills they can use throughout their learning and in all areas of life. This child-centered approach is becoming popular in many parts of the world.
It is high time that education be updated and modernised from the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ teaching style, particularly as we are educating children who will be living and working in a world that is very different from that of our grandparents. The current global pandemic has shown us that we can change and adapt how we ‘do’ school and we can draw inspiration and motivation from this to rethink teaching and learning.
A journey of discovery
Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) and Project Based Learning (PBL) are not new concepts, but they are currently becoming more and more popular as exciting, active pedagogies. At Cannons Creek Independent School in Cape Town, we decided in 2019 to trial a term of student-centred learning in the Intermediate Phase. At the end of that term, the teachers were so inspired and motivated that they unanimously chose not to look back! We have been on a journey of discovery ever since and the Foundation Phase has now come on board too.
The difference between IBL and PBL can be a bit confusing, and they seem to overlap in places. However, most people seem to agree that IBL is usually linked to scientific ideas. It poses a ‘big question’ that has a definitive answer, which the children discover by asking more questions, experimenting, experiencing trial and error and a process of elimination. PBL fits in more with the social sciences, humanities and life orientation. It also poses a challenge, which is usually a real-life problem, and the children grapple with this and explore ideas based on their prior experiences and knowledge. They then come up with a unique solution and find a creative way to present it to as wide an audience as possible. We incorporate both these approaches in our work and try not to be hung up about what name we use.
There are different levels of student-centered learning. They range from structured inquiry which is still very teacher-led; to controlled inquiry, where the teacher chooses the topic and provides the resources for discovery; to guided inquiry, where the teacher chooses the topic, but the students find the resources to come up with their unique solution; and finally, free inquiry, which is entirely child-led.
At Cannon’s Creek, we tend to move between controlled and guided inquiry, depending on the age and ability of the children to work independently. However, we also include a few ‘genius hour’ projects during the year, usually at the end of a term when marks are in and there is time to relax a bit. These are short (usually about a week), free inquiry opportunities for the children to choose their own topic of interest, pose a question or challenge, research it, and plan, design, make and present their solution.
How student-centred learning works at Cannons Creek
This kind of learning integrates school subjects in order to allow the children to look at the ‘big question’ from a number of different angles. We combine natural science and technology, history, geography and life orientation. They become one new subject, which we call IBL, and we dedicate up to eight hours a week to it. In this time, we also further incorporate English, mathematics and information technology (IT) where applicable. There are many areas of English that are used to enhance IBL work, for example, writing styles, reading, comprehension and oral presentations.
Student-centred learning is not essentially about content. In this day and age content can be looked up using something as handy as a phone. We focus on skills that need to be learnt and practiced. Recall of information is one of those skills, so there is still an expectation to learn work. However, content cannot simply be memorised by rote, it must also be understood, and the child must be able to apply it to a new situation.
When you move away from thinking that you have to test every bit of information you expose the children to, it frees you up to expose them to larger amounts, without having to worry about how much they have to learn. This extends those who enjoy and understand the more complex information. We have come to refer to this load of information as the resources. We then select and summarise those parts that we want the class to study for a test. This is done at a grade appropriate level.
There are many skills that we teach along the way during each term. We discuss these with the class so that they can identify the skills they are using. Some general skills are:
Communication skills: these are used in discussions – for defending opinions, peer teaching, public speaking for presentations, negotiation and collaboration.
Research skills: these are used to find facts, and to sort through them for relevance using critical thinking, then to summarise them, organise facts and make informed opinions.
IT skills: the use of various devices, apps and programmes, as well as using technology to present work.
Other important skills students develop are: problem solving, organising, planning, time management, and self and group evaluation.
When doing student-centred learning, the role of the teacher changes. Our role now is to prepare the material and structure and scaffold the learning; then to give the instructions to get them going – depending on the age and level of ability to work independently; thereafter to mentor, facilitate and guide the journey, observing the group dynamics and supporting and encouraging those who are struggling; and finally, to evaluate and assess.
Careful preparation required
Student-centred learning aims to encourage out-of-the-box thinking, problem solving and unique creativity by moving away from prescribed templates and worksheets where there is a single expected way of doing something. Tasks, presentations and expectations need to be age-appropriate, but progressive through the grades and also through the phases. This requires collaboration between the teachers.
When planning an IBL topic and the tasks to be covered, there is a cyclical process to bear in mind. There are various versions that different people prefer or that work better for different topics, but they all roughly cover the following actions: ask, investigate, create, discuss, reflect. The process is repeated over and over again as the topic unfolds and the discovery progresses.
Once you have decided on your combination of subjects and topics, plan a learning journey that will link the various aspects and then pose a ‘big question’ that the children will work towards answering at the end of their voyage of discovery. We start with an exciting ‘hook’, where we have an activity or visual that introduces the topic and explains the mission for the term.
As we progress, we teach students skills like following the scientific process when inventing something – scientific drawings; timelines; map work; ways to showcase their work; appropriate building materials and their properties and how to strengthen materials for model building; tech skills, and more. They will then use these skills in most of the IBL topics over the year.
We use Google Classroom or Grade Websites to post the resources they will need, as well as explanations for what they need to do during their various missions. Apps and programmes that we use include: Kahoot for competitive quiz games; Edpuzzle, which allows you to edit videos and add questions; Answer Garden, which creates word posters like a brainstorm; Google Forms for assessments, surveys and spot tests; Padlet, which creates an online notice board where children can upload their work; Go Formative, which creates quizzes; Scratch, which can be used to create animated projects; Stop Motion to create animations; and a Green Screen and Google Cardboard to immerse the children in a new world.
Bringing the outside in
Because this type of learning encourages the children to grapple with real world issues, we are constantly thinking of new ways to bring the outside world in. Some ways we do this are in the form of speakers or video links; by allowing the children freedom to engage with the world beyond the classroom; by conducting interviews and surveys; by going on outings; and by engaging with subject experts via e-mail. The children are encouraged to share their end product beyond the classroom – via the school radio, community projects, etc.
An important role of the teacher is to build in an appropriate and meaningful assessment programme. We include traditional tests where we give the class specific information to learn. Questions are based on Bloom’s Taxonomy and progress from pure recall to higher order thinking application of the work. To test the skills required, we do various practical tasks, with rubrics laying out the expectations. This is often the ‘final project’, where the children work on how they will answer the ‘big question’ and present their conclusions.
Much of this part is done in groups, requiring careful collaboration. We teach them about the Eight Smarts for Kids (multiple intelligences), allowing them to choose different ways of presenting their work that suit their personalities and learning styles.
So, if you are looking for a new, inspiring and interactive way to engage with your students, let them take the reins! There is nothing more rewarding for a teacher than to see the students loving learning.