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TDChristian students engage with ‘purple cows’

Written on January 21st, 2011

In addition to its innovative learning spaces, Toronto District Christian High School (TDChristian) offers a unique learning approach for students.

Multiple courses such as civics, careers and science are combined into “one blob,” as principal Ren Siebenga calls it, or chunk of learning, which is project-based.

“We put kids together for long periods of time with what I call purple cows, really really good teachers, that are passionate, that know the culture, that know the field backwards and forwards, and can motivate children and can allow children to dig down and to uncover with rigor,” says Siebenga.

He says a key benefit to this approach is that students have the opportunity to deepen their connections with one another and the teacher.

“When I see the kids in there, they build community with each other, they learn how to work together, they appreciate one another, their teacher knows them backwards and forwards, because they spend chunks of time together.”

Siebenga says he believes no teacher should ever have more than 50 student contacts per day. In most high schools, teachers connect with about 120 students daily.

Ensuring all students have good adult connections is a theme at TDChristian.

Along those same lines, the school has a mentorship program that sees students, beginning in Grade 10, connected with an adult in the community, usually someone who is in a role the student would like to explore.

Another design principle for the learning that happens at TDChristian is that it’s authentic learning that makes a real difference in the world.

On the innovation side, Siebenga says there’s an initiative the school is trying that he’d like to see evolved further.

The school has learning exhibitions, similar to science fairs, but the vision is for them to encompass all subjects.

Students share what they’ve learned in a particular course to parents and community members. There is a process they follow to reach a point where they are ready to exhibit, says Siebenga.

“Our hope is that eventually every course in the curriculum has those, and that they’re part of the final summative evaluation in the course,” he says, noting he’s not aware of other schools in Canada doing this.

The thinking behind this is that students have to present what they’ve learning in order for them to finish their learning in it, says Siebenga, adding it gets both teachers and students away from rote learning and also forces them to dig down and understand.

“Another piece in the whole thing is our push to develop authentic projects that actually make some difference in the world,” he says.

Asked about other innovations he’s seeing that give him hope, Siebenga says he expects e-learning to become a bigger issue in the years to come.

He adds e-learning can fit well with the ideas on learning TDChristian is currently exploring.

Siebenga says the school will need to be sure its design principles, for instance, the commitment to community and student/adult connections, are taken into account as e-learning is instituted.