I’ve been involved in social justice and equity work for a number of years now and every year I keep deepening my knowledge related to our Indigenous, LGBTQ, transgender, and racialized communities as well as individuals who have a disability (e.g., learning, physical, etc) against what society deems as “normal”.
When I was in the classroom, I focused learning around a big idea and a central driving question to develop my students’ curiosity and passion for learning. I had high expectations for them and I knew they were capable and competent to be able to handle talking about and investigating these types of issues. These issues not only centered around the concepts listed above but also issues related to our environment, child labour, gender, poverty, hunger, and inequality, just to name a few. Even though we have a curriculum, which we need to follow, I find it is open enough (although not as flexible as I would like it to be but that’s for another time) that I could introduce these topics to my students via good questions.
As an educator who taught from an inquiry mindset, I scaffolded the inquiry model of learning according to the four frameworks, which I discovered and developed on my own learning journey when teaching using this method (again, more to come on this as well).
I also discovered that much of what I did in the classroom aligns nicely with the United Nations Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs). There are 17 SDGs and the premise behind these 17 goals is to engage in relevant discourse and generate solutions to some our most pressing global issues. (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs)
One of the learning experiences I created for my Grade 7 & 8 students when they first started with an inquiry minded classroom was focused on the environment (i.e., big idea), which is rooted in our Language, Geography, and Science curricula. The big question I posed to them was, “What is the most pressing world issue we face today?” We started our discussion by generating a list of global issues and boy, was it long! I then asked them, “From this list, which one do you think poses the biggest threat to our world?” Now, this is where the power of inquiry lies – making a decision and defending your stance based on both quantitative and qualitative data. Now that’s not to say that one can’t change their minds; you definitely can based on new information and researched learned. My students used a ranking ladder to start their thinking around which issues were the most important to address first. It was fascinating to watch them talk amongst each other using strategies such as community circles, question periods, and placemats. During this time I did explicit teaching on how to ask good questions, how to formulate an effective speech, and the criteria for making powerful media messages (there is an often a misconception that inquiry involves “letting students go” with no direct teaching; inquiry is about both, giving students the freedom to explore and own their learning at the same time teaching them what they need in order to communicate and reflect on their learning). Students were given a choice on how they wanted to demonstrate their thinking but I ensured I was still an integral part of the process as I conferenced with them weekly against the success criteria we had created and provided feedback, which they then applied to their learning. This way, I could see firsthand how they used the feedback to improve their work and develop their skills related to critical thinking, communication, analysis, and synthesis.
As I mentioned, as I led my own inquiry about inquiry, I ended up developing four different frameworks or models related to inquiry, with one model being where students ask their own questions. In my classroom, this was usually based on a visual, video, or artifact. One example, was when I placed a chocolate bar in the middle of each group (students were in groups of four) and asked them”
- What do you see?
- What do you think?
- What do you wonder?
Now, I did preface by telling them that they would be able to share the chocolate bar at the end of the period so please don’t write down, “I wonder if Ms. Vohra will let us eat the chocolate?” We all had a good laugh and went right back to work.
They were to answer the three questions individually first and then I gave them time to share their thoughts as a whole group. While I was circulating, I was amazed at some of their questions; it not only demonstrated their growth in asking good questions but also in their curiosity, wonder, and their social justice mindset.
The answers to the three questions based on a chocolate bar led to an inquiry about child labour and the environment. A chocolate bar of all things!
- How was the chocolate bar made?
- Where are chocolate bars made?
- Who make the chocolate bars?
- Who harvested the cocoa beans?
- Does harvesting the cocoa beans have any impact on the environment?
Students started investigating and as they investigated they learned how harvesting cocoa beans leads to deforestation and how it has a negative impact on biodiversity. They were also shocked to learn that many cocoa bean farms use child labor and that these children work under deplorable conditions and are treated horribly. They were eager to share their learning and bring more awareness to these two issues (i.e., child labour and the environmental impact). As they continued to learn and explore these issues, they started a discussion on sustainable development and looked at companies and organizations that practiced child labour versus those that practiced sustainable practices.
And the fact of the matter is, I was proud of my students; I firmly believe that one of our goals as educators is to provide these kinds of learning opportunities for our children so that they can be the change, right along with us – how can we support them to use their voice to be social change agents and make a difference on a global scale?
There are many other learning opportunities I provided for my students based on big ideas such as “ethics”, “change”, “conflict”, and “justice” and I will be sharing them as I continue to write and share my journey.
It is our moral imperative to integrate these big ideas and SDGs in our teaching and learning. We need to be providing our students with learning opportunities that integrate these “life big ideas” in order to bring awareness to these issues and provide the right environment for them to learn, grow, share their thoughts, and find their voices.
Below is a sample of driving questions I asked my students based on the big ideas and what we now know as the SDGs:
- Do we have a greater impact on earth or does earth have a greater impact on us?
- Should our country continue to trade with countries that violate human rights?
- Is Canada a country we can be proud of?
- What role does ethics play in the advancement of science, technology, and medicine?
- Which diet is best: meat eaters, vegetarian, or vegan?
- Has technology really made our lives better?
I will be sharing more information about how you can effectively integrate social justice, equity, inquiry and the SDGs in your classroom in the months to come.
Any questions, please let me know!
United Nations Sustainable Developmental Goals Knowledge Platform. United Nations Sustainable Developmental GoalsRetrieved from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs