What if our belief in the capacity of students involved challenging our assumptions about baselines; challenged our thinking about “learning loss” by taking one giant leap, I mean a giant leap like in the footsteps of a space program…?
What if we began in space and worked our way down from there?
Carolyn Johnston and a collection of educators from the OCDSB joined Homa Tavangar, and Will Richardson’s Big Questions Institute offering with Gary Stager, and Sylvia Libow Martinez in October 2020: “Teach Like the Future Depends On It”. The 2 session workshop brought to life Stager’s notion of learning adventures. For Johnston, this professional development was a game changer.
After the final session of “Teach Like the Future Depends On It” Carolyn decided right then and there that her vully-virtual class of grade 6 students needed to embark on a learning adventure. Not next week, or next unit, the next day. When we spoke she had exactly what she needed: a provocation and a willingness to let the learning evolve: this particular adventure began in space, and, later, bridged, to flight.
Johnston began her learning adventure by sharing a slide the next morning with her students:
“You are engineers at NASA – something has to deliver the astronauts home.” There were 7 groups and each group ran with the prompt in slightly a different direction: One group wanted to explore the use of parachutes; another group was optimistic that they could repair the spacecraft that they determined was broken – this group also imagined that the astronauts were on the International Space Station (ISS) and wondered how they would fix the programming error responsible; yet another group was curious about getting the spacecraft to earth without it exploding upon re-entry; another investigated combining landing on water with special cooling suits for the astronauts; another group was curious about how to repair the spacecraft by teaming up the astronauts and engineers on earth; another group of learners wanted to try to land on water, and they proposed a ground crew to run a simulation before having the astronauts attempt their return; and, finally, another group was frustrated: with the prompt, the lack of easy to find answers, and each other. As Carolyn and I discussed, trusting the process was not only a challenge for the adult learner, the younger learners needed some adapting skills also.
After weeks of inventing to learn, sharing ideas and thinking with various educators in virtual showcases, students determined that they would like to share their learning with a space expert. After connecting with Chris Kitzan (Director General, CASM) and Kim Reynolds at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum students were able to connect with a space expert to share their inventions and get feedback based on in-the-field experience.
Carolyn decided her class was ready to “pivot the learning journey” mid-flight – as Carolyn explained, the learning was “fresh and the students were ready” and so Carolyn decided in the middle of a connection with the aerospace industry about space that a seamless transition to The Science of Flight would follow.
Adventures are a funny thing: they are dynamic, they are messy, there is planning, but it is a planning centred in possibility rather than predetermining each step of the adventure. In short, adventures are a longer path to a far more profound depth of learning, because destinations are less the concern than the stops along the way: even when the destination is space itself.
“Our class learning journey in flight began with an invitation for the children to share their knowledge and experiences with all things that fly. Students shared their noticings and wonderings in a shared Google Slide deck.
The learning journey continued with an introduction to a paper airplane competition (this idea originated from the Skills Ontario Paper Glider Competition – developed into a competition that reflects the needs and interests of R6B). Through the inquiry process of designing, planning, building, testing, reflecting, improving and testing again, the children discovered the science behind flight (the 4 forces of flight). Some children conducted research, analyzing the designs from the greats in the world of paper airplane makers and fliers, while others cracked open books to guide them step by step. Change Logs were created to reflect the thinking and rethinking of the plane design and test flights.
The children realized the importance of sharing ideas and expertise in the development of better and better planes based on their test flights. Learners came together in whole class Meets to share design plans and step-by-step videos:
Data was gathered, recorded, analyzed/reflected upon and presented:
Through this learning adventure students were able to experience and relate to the challenges posed by the science of flight. They were able to interact with the forces of flight and make design changes that reflected real-world constraints.
At this point, most of the children had not developed the subject specific vocabulary related to flight, despite a vast experiential understanding that surpassed the curriculum, let alone my expectations. Through a series of videos from NASA, the children learned about the forces of flight and other factors that influence flight. The questions asked were designed to connect the content taught in the video series with relatable experiences students had in their paper airplane competition.
The next stage in the student learning journey in flight was a virtual museum tour in flight with Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Through a series of engaging and exciting experiment: the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum virtual tour deepened the children’s understanding of the properties of air and the ability of aircraft designers to use the science of flight as a means to innovating technology to harness real-world flight conditions and constraints.
At this point in the learning journey, R6B was ready to get creative once again and apply their new knowledge and understanding. Working closely alongside Ian Dudley (Orange STEM) students explored the application, Mecabricks, and learned about the important role of computer-aided design (CAD). Students explored designs related to flight and became familiar with the application before being encouraged to creatively design or build something that flies or is related to flight (ie. bird, cockpit, a model plane) using Mecabricks, real LEGO, drawing, or found materials.
Through an iterative, prototype design approach students began sharing their creative designs and reflections in learning (challenges, overcoming challenges, next steps in learning) with Ian and their classmates.
Next in the learning journey in flight… connecting with industry partners?”
The pedagogical orientation for learning adventures is both simple and earth shattering: children have an abundance of experience and understanding that we rarely make time to witness; in so doing, we often assume a baseline of understanding that is required for any sophistication to take place. In both the Space and The Science of Flight learning adventures, students reached well-beyond curriculum expectations learning advanced concepts in context: students began driving the learning to places that interested them and were central to projects they were working on.
The question we are left with is: how far can a learning adventure take our learning? The test is truly one of launching to see.
Stager, Gary (2020): Revisiting Learning Adventures in the Time of COVID-19