Seeing the Forest for the Trees

I recently renewed my Wilderness First Responder certification – something that I do every three years and something that inspires and challenges me so much that I always leave energized and wanting more. This excitement and engagement comes despite long days filled with unknown, stressful scenarios and tests conducted with complete strangers, all while knowing that a ‘pass’ (80%) is needed to maintain my certification… and my position.

So why, under this intense setting, is my learning so powerful? No, it’s not the pressure of the test – believe it or not, I actually forget about the practical and written tests during the course. I have written here before about my love of learning so that’s definitely a factor –I’m fascinated with new ideas and challenges—however, it’s more than just intrinsic motivation.

I believe it is the purposefulness of this learning that makes it so rich. What can be more purposeful than learning how to save a life or prevent further injury? More importantly, though, is the use of systems thinking to understand and apply this knowledge that promotes my engagement, retention and enthusiasm for content that I have revisited many times throughout my life.

What is systems thinking? Can this be replicated in our classrooms? How can students maintain their excitement and engagement with content that is revisited?

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes rather than parts, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots, and for understanding the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character. Peter Senge


When confronted with a situation as a Wilderness First Responder, the task is not to see a static picture – a broken bone or a bleeding hand—and formulate a plan based on this snapshot, but rather to see the bigger picture and look for patterns of compensation that might indicate a less obvious, but more serious condition. But what does this have to do with education, Core Competencies, and student engagement? To answer these questions, I thought I’d use a Wilderness First Responder approach.

Step 1   Scene Size Up: Stabilize the scene by identifying the elements and numbers involved

I don’t think the education ‘scene’ needs to be stabilized but I do like the notion of sizing things up. What are the elements of this system today? There are many incredible actions that can define today’s scene:

  • planning inquiry-focussed lessons with a greater emphasis on student-driven questions;
  • teaching, sharing and implementing self-regulation strategies;
  • uncovering ways to explicitly teach and model critical thinking;
  • encouraging digital access to create, share and celebrate student learning

Who are the key players that are available to help? Students, parents, teachers, administrators, district leadership, and community members are all essential parts of this system that contribute to its overall ‘health.’ Identifying these people, their influences and their level of engagement is a key first step.

Step 2   Primary assessment: Identifying any problems with Critical Systems

In the human body, the critical systems are the circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems. They work together to ensure that health is maintained and they compensate for one another to allow healing to take place… or more likely, to indicate danger if balance isn’t restored.

For this analysis, I equate the Core Competencies to these critical systems; competencies that work together to promote and maintain the health of students. These are the intellectual, personal, and social ‘systems’ that permeate all aspects of the curriculum and represent a continuum of growth from K to 12 and beyond. If these ‘systems’ are nurtured and fostered, students can think more critically, better engage with others and with their learning, and adapt to new situations with ease and flexibility. As we move forward with BC’s new curriculum, all of the key players listed above will become better adept at using the language of the competencies in lesson planning, learning opportunities, and lifelong skills.

Step 3   Secondary assessment: Look for signs and symptoms. Understand the role of past history.

The secondary assessment allows the first responder to return to the bigger picture. Are there any hidden injuries? What are the signs, symptoms or past history that can help me aid the patient in reaching a better outcome?

In education, the secondary assessment reminds us to check-in with students in each curricular area – to find out their ‘symptoms’ or any past history that might be preventing them from reaching their optimal outcome. We can do this through conferencing, journal entries, portfolios, conversations, to name a few. Once we know this information, we have a better understanding of the whole child and their approach to learning.

Step 4   Treatment plan: List any problems, identify anticipated problems, and create a treatment plan

An effective treatment plan in wilderness first aid deals with and treats clearly identified problems but the plan does not stop at a ‘band-aid’ solution. A list of anticipated problems is also generated. These are problems that could occur in the next 24-48 hours and may often be more severe than the original injury. Knowing that these potential problems could occur allows us to determine a clear and thorough treatment/evacuation plan.

In the classroom, knowing potential problems can certainly help a teacher when planning lessons, such as a Friday afternoon Science experiment. What could go wrong? However, this treatment plan can also be used to identify benchmarks and to recognize when targeted support is required for students. Identifying potential problems can also help students see the relevance in learning new skills; skills that build upon one another and are needed to maintain good educational health throughout their lives.

Step 5   Monitor: Watch for signs of compensation or improved health

I think this is an obvious step in education as teachers use formative and summative assessment to help students reach their potential. Students should also be included in monitoring their own ‘health’ by using self-assessment tools and increasing opportunities to document and reflect upon their own learning.

Systems thinking can be used in a variety of ways to help understand the bigger picture—used by teachers, parents, administrators, and community members. But ultimately, through the redesign of BC’s curriculum with the Core Competencies and Big Ideas, students will begin to see the education ‘system’ as interconnected. They can use systems thinking to understand how the big ideas presented in one grade are part of a larger whole that connects this year’s learning with the curricular content and big ideas in previous grades. And they will develop the Core Competencies– the critical intellectual, personal, and social ‘systems’ needed to navigate and enhance their learning from K to 12 and beyond.

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