An Inquiry Approach to Senior Humanities

Students typically enroll in senior social sciences out of interest. While this interest might be satisfied or (hopefully) encouraged by 'receiving' the course knowledge, what if we gave them the power to follow their initial curiosity in the subject for themselves?

This question is not meant to imply that course-approaches like Project Based Learning don't provide a more dynamic learning outcome than good ol' fashioned lecture-worksheet-test, it's just that when you zoom way way out, the student's learning is still dictated by how the teacher frames the subject; which is often how they learned the subject. There is a great scene in the FX series "Archer" that comes to mind here, where Sterling and Rip Riley are flaming Noah the Anthropologist for his career choice of teaching Anthropology: "thus perpetuating the cycle of 'why bother'!"

Let's rewind a bit. This whole idea started while thinking about how my own approach to learning (and therefore teaching) changed in graduate school. My Master's degree is in Ancient Mediterranean Cultures. This program was a forward-thinking idea by the Classics and Archaeology departments at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University to consider the ancient world as the connected and multicultural place that it was.

In my first round of courses, I quickly came to realize that the world I had been learning about as an undergrad was vastly more complex, and that advanced studies in it were highly interdisciplinary. Want to study Roman banking? Better brush up on your Metallurgy, Geography, and Military History. Architecture? Hello, Geology, Politics, and Mythology. Each new term-paper brought a new host of subjects I needed a superficial knowledge of to keep up.

Returning to the present: the reason I enjoyed graduate school so much was that not only was I getting to choose from a wide range of assignments, I was getting to explore beyond the pale of the core subject in order to do so. It all came back to interdisciplinary, student-driven, project-based learning.

So how do I enable my 17 year olds to do it?

British Columbia's new curriculum is, in some respects, fantastic. One of the things it does best is get out of the way of teachers' individual prioritization. When you read the Prescribed Learning Outcomes for a course, the points are clearly written to be interpreted and applied in terms of how the teacher judges best to teach them. I pushed this a step further to see if they could be applied how the student in curious to learn them.

Humanities 12 at Coast Mountain Academy

Humanities 10-12 at Coast Mountain Academy are a year-long 8 credit (2 course) enrollment. In Grade 10 and 11 the two courses are set in order to blend English Language learning with Social Studies learning in a prescribed fashion with great outcomes in the 2 years so far. New for Humanities 12 in 2017-18 though, students take English 12 and then may choose among 5 of the dozen or so BC Grade 12 Social Sciences. Specifically, the 5 that I'm remotely qualified to teach: Philosophy, Economics, BC First Peoples, Comparative Cultures, and Comparative World Religions. They all take 20th C. World History from me in Grade 11.

To be clear, each student chooses a course for themselves. Meaning I end up with a class of 20 with potentially 5 different courses going on at the same time. How? Student-devised projects of course!

Humanities 12 is 6 units long: 2 English units that I teach with 'normal' activities in order to cover literature and poetry, 1 combined English/SS unit where students apply their chosen elective Competencies (skills) to the literature pieces I provide in activities I have designed, and 3 units where the students formulate and complete their own projects end-to-end to address 1/3 of their chosen elective and a bit of the English curriculum too.

Student are monitored and supported during these project units through scheduled check-ins, research-tracking tools, and clearly-defined 'deliverables' criteria. Ultimately though, I put the responsibility on the student for seeking my help if they get stuck. The projects' deliverables must be one each of: a research paper, a formal presentation, and a creative or interactive demonstration. Through these projects, the students investigate and demonstrate about 90% of the Social Science elective they chose.

The assessment criteria for the project are student-designed too! I translated the Learning Outcomes for part of English 12 (I teach and assess the rest in non-project units) and all of the 5 Social Science options into student-language "I Statements", and placed them into a grid. When designing their projects, the students must allocate marks to the different Outcomes they need to demonstrate to cover the course. Across the 3 projects all Outcomes for their elective must be addressed. This process requires them to think critically about their own learning and weight how it is demonstrated in their work. Although I need to see everything to some degree, they get to chose if a particular Learning Outcome is out of 1 mark (i.e. pass/fail) or up to 8 marks (i.e. here is where the money is).

Results in Year 1

I had an ideal opportunity to implement this idea this year. The Grade 12 class was only 5 students and had a full range of abilities from an ELL international student to a gifted high achiever. This group was incredibly flexible and welcomed both the challenge and payoff of what I was proposing. They were also very forgiving of the nuts-and-bolts bumps on the road to putting theory into practice.

Three of the students opted for World Religions, and one each for Philosophy and Economics. On the whole, the feedback was that this was a great way to learn.

Highlights of student-design projects include a mock Aztec human-sacrifice festival, a research paper comparing Aristotelian and Kantian metaphysics, and a scale model of a Ukrainian-orthodox Cathedral. Though they were all impressive!

Things supporting continuation of this

  • The level of student-agency and independence was recognized as an excellent university-transition piece
  • The flexibility for course-selection was appreciated in our typically-limiting small school context
  • The diversity of classroom activity when project units concluded and the group got to have a few days of alternating presentations and demonstrations on a wide range of topics created a dynamic learning environment
  • Depth of projects meant getting into 'real' academic knowledge on topics

Issues to address going forward

  • Scaffolding larger-scale project management is a must. Probably need to start in Grade 11 to set up properly
  • Deadlines and course-scheduling need lots of attention early in the year. I can't expect students to 'accordion' their time the way teachers do.
  • Need to build a reliable research-resource library so each generation is not starting from scratch
  • Student-created assessment criteria was "new and scary". My "I Statements" need refining.
  • Must develop integration with BC's pan-curricular Core Competency self-assessment requirement

So there it is! I presented this idea previously at the EduCon conference in 2017 at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy and so was very pleased to actually do it this past year. We'll see how it goes year 2 with a full class of 20.

This article is my 4th oldest. It is 1155 words long