Can We Really Make A Difference?

This writing of this post has nearly been as drawn as the unit of work that I want to write about. But it needs to be documented as sharing what I actually do in my classroom is an important role of this blog. So, here goes.

I'm starting to feel a little more confident about using the Understanding By Design process when co-planning our inquiry units. I've always used Resource Based Learning methodologies in my classroom (later rebadged as Problem Based Learning) but have never really planned as meticulously and strategically as in the last eighteen months. This is all part of our school wide push that places inquiry and UbD as the cornerstones of delivering a large slab of our curriculum (SOSE, Science, some parts of English and Mathematics as well as Technology) and part of my role as the ICT Coordinator is to model the strategic use of learning technologies in these units of work.

I think I'm getting better at choosing the right tool for the right purpose (Dan Meyer's first vodcast drove home that point pretty clearly) and that helps when other teachers seek out my input on the effective embedding of ICT in their own unit plans. But the practice of co-planning teams planning and implementing our inquiry units has been driven by my progressively minded principal and our talented Assistant Principal who see inquiry as the pedagogical vehicle for managing our broadly defined curriculum. There is a scope and sequence planned that overlays the appropriate outcomes from Science, SOSE, Health and Technology tied to essential questions that guide the unit design.

Maria, my co-planning buddy and I have worked hard to make the last inquiry unit really effective. We have stuck as best as we could to the Backwards By Design principles in using the planning proforma and thought long and hard about the essential understandings and essential knowledge that the identified outcomes required. Our main question was "Can We Really Make A Difference?" and the unit had to cover the SACSA Science outcomes and SOSE outcomes of:

Science - Life Systems
Explains the interrelationships between systems within living things, and between living things in ecological systems. They relate these ideas to the health of individuals and to threats to the sustainability of ecological systems.
SOSE - Place, space and environment
Identifies and describes significant resources, explains the threats which endanger them, and suggests strategies to combat threats.
Interprets and represents data about natural and built environments, resources, systems and interactions, both global and local, using maps, graphs and texts.
Identifies factors affecting an environmental issue, and reports on ways to act for sustainable futures.

We identified the Enduring Understandings:

Students will understand that:
The behaviour of living things are interrelated and interdependent.
Actions by humans can have positive and negative impacts on the earth’s ecology.
It is necessary at times for human intervention to maintain a balanced, sustainable environment.

And the key pieces of Knowledge:

What students will KNOW
Definition of environment, ecosystem, interrelated, interdependent, sustainable, ecology.
Facts about Port River dolphins, their current environment, their anatomy and species, life cycle and identification of individual dolphins.
Facts about the Port River area and general history.

One of my key ponderings that I gained from my global collaborative wiki project with Doug Noon and his sixth grade classroom was whether students at this age might be better off grappling with local issues rather than making the big leap into international connections. He had reservations about the in depth understandings gained about our respective cultures and although my class learnt a lot about the use of wikis, and how to pose more effective questions, I would agree that a deep understanding of our counterparts' lives was not achieved. In fact, the most beneficial thing we did as a class was a day excursion into the city of Adelaide as the resulting documentation of our own immediate surroundings meant a clearer perspective of what worth sharing with others about life here in South Australia. So this year with the key question "Can we really make a difference?" we decided that looking locally was definitely the key to engaging successfully with the key ideas and knowledge behind this unit. My co-planning partner and I decided that the example of the Port River dolphins would be an excellent lens through which to examine the question and the whole idea of human impact on natural environments and existing ecosystems. We started in with a tuning in activity where student groups were given five topic related images that were sorted in priority order and then had to justify their choice back to their peers.

One of the initial catalysts for student engagement was our guest speaker, Ann, from the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Her knowledge and expertise were backed by skillful presentation skills and the students were "hooked" into the concept of human impact on these very social marine mammals. Ann also provided the link to Dr. Mike Bossley, an eminent local scientist who happily fielded questions via email. I also got my students to view some online topic-connected video and got them to draw out initial connections in their blogs.

By this point, the kids were gaining a fair bit of disconnected facts and concepts so it was time to it was time to head out for an excursion to make it all "real life". We took both classes down to the Port River and the Maritime Museum dolphin cruise - the kids were treated to more of Ann's expertise, and most importantly, headed out onto the water to hopefully view the dolphins in their own environment. You can see from some of the images taken by the students that the human impact along the waterway was very evident.

There were more lessons and sessions picking apart the concepts of ecosystems etc. seeking to unpack the ideas and knowledge we had identified as being important but eventually towards the end of last term, we were ready for the final assessment task, designed to see if the students could connect the knowledge to the concepts. Now, in UbD, the final assessment task(s) is one of the first thing designed - the whole point being that way, you are always conscious of the purpose of the whole unit but we did change from our original task as in typical teacher fashion, we were overcomplicating our ideas. Finally, the students worked in pairs with a selected image from the excursion and they had to write some accompanying explanatory information including the location of the photo, facts established by the photo and finally the connections between the Port River dolphins and those facts. It became a very accurate way of assessing whether the students had come to a deeper understanding about human impact on the dolphins.

Of course, all units could be better when viewed in retrospect, and the glaring element missing here isthat we didn't really get to determining whether we can "make a difference". Hopefully, that will improve in this term's effort but I believe that the students really did make headway towards a solid understanding of the big concepts of this unit.

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5 thoughts on “Can We Really Make A Difference?

  1. diane

    I found it fascinating to follow the development of this instructional unit – your thoughts and insights are particularly helpful.

    You’ve given me a good starting point for building a similar project to use with my Current Events class.

    Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Tracy Rosen

    Same thoughts as Diane – just want to let you know.

    Also, I really like the enduring understandings you’ve drawn from the outcomes. Good, solid, deep, powerful.

    hot.

    Reply
  3. Clay Burell

    Interesting reflection aside about your global project with Doug, and whether local is not being under-valued. I wrote about this recently, would love to hear your input.

    You’re making me want to crack UbD open again.

    I’m currently re-reading Vicki Spandel’s Creating Writers through 6-Trait Writing Instruction – my very favorite writing instruction book.

    Reply
  4. Dean Groom

    have you checked out Quest Atlantis? Check in with Bron, I think it would be a great add-on to what you are doing here. If the God of Firewalls and Master of Ports allows it.

    Reply

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