Alistair’s Geography Unit: People, Places, Projections
School: Roma Mitchell Secondary College
Learning Area: Geography
Year level: 10
Alistair has been a teacher for seven years, working in the learning areas of History, Geography, and English, as well as being the Aboriginal Education Coordinator for the past two years. Alistair has always considered cultural and personal diversity as an asset and, being both Australian and Latvian, understands that a multi-dimensional point-of-view can be vital in all learning. Working at Roma Mitchell Secondary College in the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program (IBMYP) supports Alistair’s goal that his students are well-round, holistic learners, who embrace, value, and develop their own unique sense of learning and identity, and embrace those aspects in their peers.
Roma Mitchell Secondary School is a Year 8-12 high school located in Gepps Cross, in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. A total 1300 students are spread across three co-located campuses: Co-Educational, Girls’, and Special Education. Roma Mitchell Secondary College is a STEM school, offering a range of in-school and extracurricular activities in the field of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The school has a diverse and multicultural student population, with many students born overseas, speaking languages other than English at home, and coming from a variety of social backgrounds. The school’s values of Diversity, Respect and Excellence are an integral part of the school ethos and teaching on site.
Alistair’s Year 10 Geography class was highly diverse, reflecting the cultural diversity of the school. The class consisted of twenty-two students (8 female; 14 male), three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and nine students being born overseas in various countries including India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Many students in the class have also been identified and Gifted and Talented students, however, the class was not a Gifted and Talented specific class.
The pedagogical challenge
Alistair’s pedagogical challenge was directly influenced by the cohort of students he was teaching. After attending Culturally Responsive Pedagogy workshop sessions over 2017 and 2018, Alistair felt that the idea of embracing students’ life-worlds resonated strongly with his own teaching practice and what he hoped to elicit from his students. Alistair also wanted to challenge the status quo in his own classroom. Although he was teaching a cohort of students who fell into the category of Gifted and Talented, he felt that students were not being challenged in the areas of: Critical and Creative Thinking Skills, Multi-modal and ICT-rich assessment tasks, and working in unfamiliar circumstances. He identified that many students:
- were reluctant to work in pairs or groups
- felt uncomfortable is sharing their own ideas on certain topics
- were not engaging with topics at a personal level
- did not consider the perspectives they valued as important, or considered ‘right’ or ‘accurate’
Therefore, Alistair’s pedagogical challenge was to encourage his students to share and discuss their learning with one another with the intention that this would increase student engagement and higher rigour in the assessments that students submitted.
The focus of Alistair’s action research stemmed from the research by Bishop et al. 2007 around the Kaupapa Māori framework, with a specific focus on key ideas of learning is interactive and dialogic, connectedness is fundamental to relations. He also used readings to support his understanding of ‘place’ that would become embedded in his pedagogy:
- David Backer (2015) Listening for discussion: The conference method or Harkness pedagogy. In Leonard J. Waks (ed) Listening to teach: Beyond didactic pedagogy (pp. 97-112). New York, NY: State University of New York Press
- Robert L Kelly (1992) Mobility/sedentism: Concepts, archaeological measures, and effects. Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, pp.43-66
Links to the five key ideas
- view cultural difference as an asset
- offer high intellectual and social challenge
- connect to the life-worlds of students
The action research question
For Alistair to investigate this pedagogical challenge, he focused his action research on answering the following question:
How does structured peer sharing and discussion of ideas and life-worlds, linked to place, increase the rigour and engagement in the assignments students submit?
Doing the action research
To try and answer this research question, Alistair made deliberate changes to the class environment and pedagogies he used. Four key areas of change were addressed when conducting the research:
- Diverse classroom set-up
The classroom set-up was purposefully arranged to heighten student participation and discussion. The physical layout of classroom furniture allowed for individual, small groups, face-to-face and roundtable work. These set-ups were directly linked to the intended outcome of lessons; whether students were asked to collaborate in a group setting, work one-on-one in pairs to promote student talk, or work individually.
- Activities structured to promote discussion
The activities during the action research all had clear ‘rules’ and structure. Before the activities commenced, Alistair would explain the rules and what was to be expected, thus allowing all students to be on an equal footing with each other. The activities were diverse and always changing throughout the unit, asking students to be malleable and work in a more challenging and newer environment, instead of an old familiar one. The activities were also designed to elicit discussion and focused more on the quality of the discussion rather than answers.
- Promote diversity of groups
Group work was used throughout and was integral to the learning. Consistently using group work throughout was vital to promote positive group thinking, create class routines, and give students the opportunity to learn how to work in groups. This was a skill many students lacked, or did not feel comfortable participating in, and needed multiple opportunities for development and success. The way groups were created also changed with each lesson, and included: random selection, teacher selection, student selection to promote change and challenge. Group size was also changeable depending on the activity and ranged from individual or pairs to small groups our large groups.
- Assessment tasks that promote student sharing and discussion
Assessment tasks were designed to increase student discussion and decrease written components. This was purposeful, as many students only saw written assessments as important and worthy of time and effort. Participation and discussion also became an assessable component of the work, and students learnt that participation and discussion is as important as written assessments when gauging learning.
The assessment task was divided into three components as follows:
- Create a ‘new’ map
Students mapped a chosen place or space that was important to them and the community they were part of. The student could also choose what type of map they wished to use to capture this space or place (e.g. street, thematic, picture, topographic).
- Peer discussion
Students then participated in a class discussion about their maps. They created a list of ten questions to ask different members of the class about their maps. Students had to walk around and initiate discussion with one another.
- Cartographer’s statement
Students wrote a cartographer’s statement, answering:
- A definition of place and space
- An explanation of their space and key geographical features
- How they interact with their mapped place/space
- Why the place is located where it is
- The changing special characteristics of the place/space
- How this place holds meaning to you and the community who use it
Data collected during the action research included:
- Alistair’s written reflections after key lessons
- Records of significant teaching moments (including video, photographs, voice recordings, observation notes taken by researcher)
- Student understandings (including surveys, written feedback, formative assessment tasks, summative assessment tasks)
- Planning documents (unit plans, rubrics)
Over the course of the unit, many aspects of student learning changed. These changes included:
- Students felt happy and willing to work in a group setting. Even if not their preferred method of learning, they all actively participated and could identify the value in group discussion.
- Students appreciated their own funds of knowledge as useful information, and could see that their interpretation of place was as important as one the teacher, or another ‘expert’, put forward.
- Students interacted with one another in a more positive way, and built relationships with other students they had not interacted with before.
- Students saw discussion as a benefit, not a deficit in assessment tasks.
- Student choice allowed for higher engagement.
- The rearrangement of tables helped support student-to-student interaction.
- Students felt more comfortable sharing information and their opinions with their peers.
Over the course of the unit, Alistair reports that from this action research he learnt:
- CRP enables students to embrace their own and others’ life-worlds and see them as beneficial to learning.
- CRP allows students to consider multiple viewpoints and challenge the status quo for themselves.
- Actively embedding CRP-based pedagogies into learning does lead to student engagement and high-level outcomes, both academically, socially and personally.
- Students were more engaged when they had choice, had a voice, and felt they could contribute knowledge.
- The pedagogies needed to be structured enough to support learning, but flexible enough to embrace and support the diversity of students’ life-worlds.
- The focus needed to be small to initiate big results, meaning that the teacher needed to work with the individual class cohort and develop and modify pedagogies and learning activities specifically for them.
- Students can be assessed on their own life-worlds and interpretations, and can achieve to a high standard
- When building a culture of classroom CRP, both teacher and student feel invested in the teaching and learning cycle
The broader picture
Alistair’s unit of work made links back to Roma Mitchell Secondary College’s Strategic Directions and the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program framework:
- Improvement in student literacy and numeracy
- Continual development of new and up-to-date IBMYP
- Students embrace aspects of the IB Learner Profiles
- Australian Curriculum Cross-Curriculum priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures, and Sustainability were addressed
- Links to the school values of Diversity, Excellence, and Respect
Links to the school motto of: Shaping a better future, locally and globally
From conducting this action research, Alistair learnt that CRP is a beneficial and worthwhile pedagogical framework that can be used in all classrooms. He acknowledged that time and effort must be used in initial stages, but the results were highly beneficial to all students who participated. When approaching action research, Alistair found this made him reflect on his own practice and pedagogies specifically around sequencing and the ‘why’ of teaching a unit. He anticipates that data collection will be used in future to support his own teacher development and that of other staff in the school.
The impacts of his action research as part of the CRP project has led to Alistair using aspects of this model in his current and future teaching pedagogies.