On October 22 a shocking event took place in Canada that made news around the world. For the second time in a week a Canadian soldier was killed on our own soil. The first, Patrice Vincent, was killed when a car was deliberately driven into him. The second, Nathan Cirillo, was killed by a lone gunman while guarding the National War Memorial. The gunman then entered the Parliament Buildings before finally being killed by Kevin Vickers, the Sergeant-at-arms. It was a difficult week for Canadians. This kind of event rarely happens here. How should a teacher handle such a difficult and complex topic? Some educators and boards have chosen to avoid the topic entirely. At least one board that I am aware of sent a letter out advising teachers not to talk about the event and to tell children that this is a topic that should be discussed at home. As an educator, I have to say this response disappoints me. It is our job to teach children to think critically and to help them make sense of the world in which they live. Exploring difficult ideas in a supportive environment that exposes and addresses biases and misconceptions prepares them to be citizens. Avoiding challenging topics does them a disservice. Teaching them how to think through complex problems equips them with
skills to face difficult circumstances in their own lives. If we want to teach children to think critically, we need to engage them in topics that matter. What could matter more to Canadians than an attack on our Parliament? What would those soldiers who died think about not allowing children to learn about and discuss the events?
Developing a Question for Inquiry
We began exploring the topic with a knowledge building circle. My grade 6 students shared what they’d heard and what they knew. During this stage of inquiry, it is important to acknowledge and accept each idea – even those with clear misconceptions – as these are the starting points for learning. It is from current mental models of the problem that understanding can be built. Creating a culture where students feel comfortable expressing half-baked notions is key.
When the shooting in Ottawa occurred, students had already been introduced to key concepts in Integrative Thinking. Students know that we use our schema to make sense of new information, that we construct ideas in our heads based on the information we pay attention to; that we select information from a vast data pool, and the information we select influences our interpretations, conclusions and actions. The tools of Integrative Thinking provided a framework for considering information.
From the initial discussion about the event, students began recording their questions.
Next we examined an article about the event where students realized that this may not have been a terrorist act, but the action of a person with mental health issues. This became the central question for our inquiry and it is interesting to note that the same question has arisen across Canada.
I then asked students to take a stance. Was this an act of terror or a mental health issue? Students stood up and placed themselves along the value line. At one end of the room it says:
At the other end, Strongly Disagree. Students are always surprised to find that their peers think differently. Some were at extreme ends, some in the middle, some tending towards one side or the other. Students then had to explain their stances. Once several students had spoken, the class was asked to consider if their stances had shifted and adjust their positions accordingly.
Students now had many more questions. It was time to seek answers which was not easy as the internet to our desktops has been disconnected since last Thursday.
As students read more and more articles, they constantly monitored their stances. Where were they on the value line? What information in the data pool were they paying attention to? How were their ideas changing?
We regularly came together to share new information and insights. This is essential in a knowledge building classroom. Students are responsible for building community knowledge. The knowledge of the entire community must advance. The sheet below represents student learning during this process. It was independently created by 2 students as a way to show their understanding. They are aware of conflicting information from various news sources. It also shows shifts on the value line. (bottom left).
As we constructed understanding, more and more questions emerged, but the terrorist/mental health question remained the focus.
Over the course of the week, it became evident that students were considering their stances carefully and becoming prudent with language. It is my job to remind them that they are constructing mental models, that they are only ever working with their current best idea, that they are selecting information from a vast data pool and that as they learn, the data pool expands and their ideas change or remain the same.
I was particularly pleased when a group of students called me over to a table to see what one of them had written. In her paragraph were the words, “Some sources say…” The group was excited by the phrase and admired it with an awareness that interpretations of the event are very different.
I attended the growing memorial at the Armories on James St North in Hamilton as well as the visitation of Nathan Cirillo to pay my respects and so I could share the experiences with my students. My students live in Dundas. We are part of the City of Hamilton, home of Nathan Cirillo. One of their classmates was in Ottawa the day after the shooting. Some have family or friends in the military. These students are curious and this is a powerful moment in their lives.
We also viewed scenes from the funeral. It was compelling and sad and something we as learners did not shy away from. As we watched, students felt compassion, sorrow and some cried. Once again they had many, many questions.
Some students are wondering how we could know if Zehaf-Bibeau was on drugs when he committed the crime, so on Tuesday one of the fathers, an emergency room doctor is coming in to answer questions. Students are also wondering how a whole city goes into lockdown. We’ve placed a call into the police to find out more, but haven’t yet heard back.
Today we viewed a recording from yesterday’s Power and Politics with Evan Solomon. The students saw that the question they are considering is being debated in the House and discussed on our national broadcaster. In the clip we viewed, one of the panelists mentioned the criminal code so I brought in Section 83 to find out the legal definition of terrorism. This was their introduction to law and a realization that our laws are written and searchable. We dug into the text and careful reading caused a few students to change their stances.
The question of extremism has come up and we’ve been careful in our use of language during this discussion. I began by asking them to think of historical events where people had extreme beliefs that caused harm. They came up with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, the story of Malala which we had explored previously, Residential Schools, the Crusades (my addition), the White Supremacy movement in the United States, 9/11 and ISIS. We haven’t dug into the topic beyond developing an awareness that some people believe that it is acceptable to use violence to bring about change or to force people to adopt a different belief system.
It has been a remarkable week of learning. The maturity with which my students are handling this very difficult topic is admirable. They have shown immense concern for Nathan Cirillo’s family and in particular his son. They are concerned that the death of Patrice Vincent is not being given enough prominence in the news. They are taking the responsiblity of thinking carefully seriously. Tomorrow I will ask what they think of students not being allowed to explore this topic in school. I have no idea what they will say.
I shared with students today that some educators have chosen to avoid this topic. Students understood why they might do this – it is a difficult subject. I then asked what they thought about having explored this event in a deeper way. By and large, students were appreciative that we had delved in. “Where else would we learn about this? No one else is talking about things like this with us. We need to know what’s going on in the world.”
One student expressed relief, “Last year we had to debate about school uniforms. We did that topic two years in a row. I was really glad to be learning about something I actually cared about.” This same student said, “I learned that bad things can happen in Canada and it is important to know about them.”
When I asked about the biggest learning for them one student said, “I learned that people think really differently about things and it’s important to know what information people are paying attention to and why they think the way they do.”
Another student said,”Usually we are not asked to think about how our thinking has changed. It was good to have to think about that.”
Another said, “I learned that people are always paying attention to differnt information and that they can jump up their ladders really easily.”
My students now know that very complex problems exist. Out next step will be learning how to find interesting solutions to complex problems. We will be drawing on our work in Integrative Thinking from the Rotman School of Management as well as the principles of Design Thinking. This is where unleashing deep thinking and creativity will begin.