The Ridge School goes full STEAM ahead

| March 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

BY NICHOLAS DIANA
Since the 19th century, schools have become recognisable places that work in typical ways. Many of the rituals of schools are taken for granted, largely because the school has been “like this” for a long time. Not all schools are “like this”, and schools don’t have to be “this” way at all.

The notion that the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics (STEAM) should not be siloed, but rather taught in 1 combination, is gaining credence globally.
It’s easier said than done for some. To reconfigure a curriculum that has stood the test of time, to change a fixed mindset into a growth mindset – not only for the children but the staff themselves – and to encourage buy-in from an already competitive and anxious stakeholder is a daunting task. But you can do it.

Rekindling the love of learning
In You, Your Child, and School: Navigate Your Way to the Best Education2, authors Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica express the ideas that education is broken and that there is too much pressure on children and teachers: too many tests, too much of an assembly-line approach to schooling. How can we reboot? It’s a continual battle to keep the curiosity spark alive. Robinson and Aronica believe that learning is as much a social as an individual process. Many young people find school boring – not because they don’t want to learn, but because the rituals and routines of conventional schooling get in the way. The majority of schools in developed countries still operate via fixed schedules, the ringing of bells, assignments, assessments and extracurricular activities. I’d like to share with you the way in which our students are now able to achieve at their highest level.

Preparation not for “something”, but rather preparation for “anything”
It all started in a room above our school hall at the Ridge School in Johannesburg, Gauteng, where a group of pioneering teachers were looking at making a difference not only in their students, but in themselves, too. They spent many hours putting together, pulling apart and ultimately recreating a curriculum that focused on the application of skills rather than the flooding of content.
We designed a composite learning outcome that encompassed the wonder of science, the craftmanship of design and technology (DT), the power of information technology (IT) and the beauty of art. The idea was a rough one. The way in which we were going to implement this new idea was challenging, too. Buy-in from all stakeholders was just as important as teaching the subject.
The plan was to begin in Grade 5: an investigative year (in some schools) within a prep school. We were fortunate enough to have five educators (known as mentors at a later stage), who each worked with 12 boys in groups. Teachers were seen as “meddlers in the middle”, rather than the “guides on the side”.
“I want to encourage other schools across the country to embrace change.”

What the “meddlers in the middle” learnt
Having worked together to plan an intricate syllabus that incorporated all the subjects into two-and-a-half hours a week was no mean feat, but learning from other teachers, watching them in action created a strong sense of cohesion and collaborative teaching that our boys witnessed and absorbed. We would start a session with the Grade 5 group, facilitated by one of our STEAM teachers. We would then break away into our mentor groups to continue teaching the lessons. As staff, we all learnt (the hard way, sometimes) to teach out of our comfort zones. We had to research how to use certain apps within a lesson, what it meant to create and build using paper mâché, and how to tackle scientific methodologies and drawing on canvas.

Through the implementation of STEAM, we also realised that we were not only empowering ourselves but also our boys. The focus had now shifted from a content-based curriculum to a skills-based curriculum – one in which they could apply skills from the lessons to real-life situations. We gave our boys the choice to allow for inquiry and a chance to foster creativity. Choice is a very powerful mechanism for change.
There were many challenges that we as a team had to overcome. Meeting times became difficult to manage, a continual shift from content to application of skills kept us on our toes and, ultimately, we had to move away from the dreaded “M” word… marks. We assessed our tasks through rubrics that were designed to focus on specific skills for certain points within an activity or project. In actual fact, we had worked out that by designing the rubric first, we were better able to understand what our task should look like. The beauty of this was that not all the boys’ outcomes were going to be the same. Conventional education uses the notion of a project for a student to complete, whereby they all end up with the same outcome. STEAM, on the other hand, created the opportunity for our boys to fashion, design and develop different outcomes through similar tasks.

Empowering boys and staff
I feel that STEAM has bridged many gaps between content and the application of skills, not only in our students but also in our staff. How often do you ask yourself: “Why did I get into this profession in the first place?” We did, because we wanted to make a difference. Amidst all the external factors, the bureaucracy, the curriculum, the “helicopter parents” – we are in it for our students. STEAM helps us to stand firm amidst the fads and the “next best thing”. We can rather focus on what works for our students in both a meaningful and relevant way in the long term.
One of the pivotal points raised in our STEAM planning was the importance of reflection, for both teachers and students. Each week, we have a 30-minute reflection session that encourages our boys to reflect verbally or write their reflections into a STEAM journal. This is discussed with the mentor group first, and includes a rubric for the boys to rank their understanding of the content and skills taught, and assesses their participation within the lesson. It also includes an evaluation on the lesson, for us to improve our teaching methodologies.

Learn, unlearn and relearn
Carol Dweck,3 and her growth mindset approach, linked very closely to the way in which we put together our planning for STEAM. It was evident that our boys needed to expand their fixed mindsets quite quickly for them to embrace challenges, learn from some their setbacks (failure was an option), engage with their reflections and criticism, and lead themselves into a place where learning was fun but stimulating at the same time. The only way in which mindsets could change was if both teacher and student were able to learn, unlearn and relearn the way in which they approached their lessons. It’s not as easy as it seems, especially for a group of teachers who teach, talk and stimulate in different ways.

Social and human connections
I mentioned earlier the importance of social and human connections. Tom Murray, director of innovation for Future Ready Schools,4 recognises the fact that “[e]very child in your class is someone else’s whole world”. What Murray is saying is that when we empower others through real-time collaboration and through sharing meaningful and relevant information, we bring learning to life. We also create the space for a social and human connection that involves relationships, and relational teaching. Teaching is about relationships, and the interconnections that result. The beauty of STEAM is that it is relational, and focuses on real-world examples and problems that combine 21st century skills that shape who we are, and what we do.

Nicholas Diana is deputy head: academics at The Ridge School.

References:
1. See:
https://www.pcworld.idg.com.au/article/621170/critical-
importance-steam-education/
2. Aronica, L. and Robinson, K. (2019) You, Your Child, and School: Navigate Your Way to the Best Education. New York: Penguin Books.
3. See: https://mindsetonline.com/abouttheauthor/
4. See: https://www.thomascmurray.com/

Category: Autumn 2019

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