Hold it right there. We learn about black holes in Year 10, not in Year 8

This term my Year 8 class has been running Science News. Science News is where each student in the class takes turns in presenting a science news item that they have found interesting. They have to showcase  the science news item in a two minute presentation. The purpose of Science News is to expose students to the latest discoveries in science. I wanted them to know that science is everywhere.

However, Science News has also taught me new things and not just scientific things. One Science News item challenged how I was designing my learning for my students and how our education system designs learning for our students. Daniel talked about new discoveries on black holes. You can read Daniel’s speech to the class here. Right after Daniel finished his speech, half of the class’ hands shot up with questions.

“What exactly are black holes?”

“What happens when you go into a black hole?”

“I heard that time slows down when go inside a black hole. Is that true?”

“If we can’t see a black hole. How do we know it is there?”

“What is a light year?”

I was really happy that my students were so enthusiastic about learning more on black holes. So what did I do? I spent about 5 minutes skimming through the basics of gravity, dark matter and the speed of light and then I said, “OK. We actually learn about this stuff in Year 10. We need to stop now and continue learning about the ozone layer.”

While ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere is very important and Year 8s were also interested in ozone, I felt really guilty in almost extinguishing my students’ curiosity in black holes because the syllabus said that they should learn it in Year 10 and right now they should be learning about the ozone layer. I’m sure many teachers have faced this kind of situation before but it really got me thinking on how the current education system does so much to restrict the learning of our students.

Why do we have to learn about black holes in Year 10?

To be more accurate, students in NSW learn about black holes in Year 9 or 10 (It’s this thing we call Stage 5, which is Year 9 and 10). I understand that the need to learn age-appropriate concepts. For example, many early primary school-aged students may not have the cognitive ability to tackle abstract concepts (you know, because of all the Piaget stuff). However, I don’t see why if my Year 8s want to learn about black holes (and I know they will be able to), they can’t learn about it because the syllabus says they learn it in Stage 5. When you learn swimming, your age doesn’t determine what kind of things you learn, it’s how fast you are progressing and what you are ready to learn.

Why can’t we learn about black holes and the ozone layer?

Why couldn’t I have let my students go online on their phones and look up videos and websites that helped answer their questions about black holes and share it with the class, and then continue with the ozone layer? I wanted to, but I only have 3 hours with them a week and I only see them an hour at a time. Last year I had the same class for 14 hours a week in an integrated curriculum and I would’ve let them explore black holes and then continue with ozone layer because I had the flexibility to do so. However, now I am back to a more traditional and rigid timetable where learning starts and stops with the school bell. Previously I have blogged about the challenges of implementing project based learning in such a traditional school structure. The more I try to implement project based learning or anything that builds on students’ curiosity and passion or anything that personlises their learning, the more I want to knock down the existing school structure. A few days ago, I was in a workshop with Greg Whitby on teaching and learning in a Web2.0 world. He said the timetable is the one thing that is stopping effective learning and teaching. I couldn’t agree with that point more.

Greg also talked about agile learning spaces. I have to admit when I first heard of agile learning spaces a few years ago, I just liked the look of them. The bright colours and funky furniture looked particularly attractive when you are used to 1950s furniture in classrooms. But since I’ve started PBL, I get it a bit more. So going back to the black hole scenario … In an agile learning space style of learning, Daniel would’ve presented his science news to the whole cohort of Year 8 or a mixture of students from different year groups in one large space. The ones who were interested in learning more about black holes can go with one teacher and the others can go with the other teachers to continue to learn about the ozone layer. Teaching and learning is no longer restricted to one teacher teaching 30 students. Depending on the need, you can be teaching one student or 10 students or 80 students. The space enables you to do so. There are no walls that says you have to teach 30 students at a time. There are also no bells to tell you that you need to spend 60 minutes on learning something; you take as long as you need to. The video below gives you an idea of what learning is like in an agile learning environment.

And now I don’t how to end this post. I sort of feel disillusioned. I want to knock down the walls of my classroom but realistically that can’t happen. Not just yet anyway. So when the school week starts again, it will be back to the status quo. *Sigh*

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