Hats off to real-world learning!

As I write, I am watching a group of students preparing proposals to build a power plant on a fictitious island, as part of their year-end science assessment. It’s last period on a Friday afternoon (with a highly anticipated play-off hockey game starting in two hours) and I’m hearing things like:

  • What are the long-term goals for sustainability on the island?
  • How much debt are the citizens willing to take on to build a power plant? How long do they need to pay it off?
  • How many people will be employed at the power station?
  • Are the citizens willing to accept the risk of nuclear batteries?
  • What is the ideal location for a power plant?

They have been working on this project for about 3 hours a day for the last week and the level of engagement is still high. They are asking relevant questions, finding information, making choices and using information to justify their plan. It’s about as real-world as you can get when students are still too young to vote.

The strength of the exercise is that it is a cross-curricular project. In the humanities section, students each develop a persona who lives on the fictitious “Sabre Island”. Then, working together, they develop a community. They have to decide how the community, and the individuals in it, meet their needs. Meanwhile, in science, they are working in groups to form a power company that wants to build a power station on the island. They must present a proposal to the citizens of the island in order to persuade them that their proposal is the best.

Taking on two different personalities gets a bit confusing, and that’s where the hats come in. Each student has brought in a hat to represent their character – when the hat is on, they’re in character. We also have a couple hard-hats for students to wear when they need to think like power company executives.

Because they’re switching back and forth between hats – and roles – throughout the project, they are thinking of several issues relevant to chosing a power station. With one hat, they’re thinking about their individual values and how they meet their needs. With the other hat they’re thinking about how to build a power station that will meet the needs of the people and considering the impact of a power station on the local people, economy and environment. Having thought like one of the citizens, they are better able to consider the pros and cons of the power station and anticipate the concerns of the citizens.

Next week, the power companies will present their proposals and the citizens will vote on which proposal (if any) to accept. Within their grade 6 microcosm, they will have made personal choices, participated in civic decision making and evaluated a range of options based on their consequences with respect their themselves, others, the community, economy and environment. They have also weighed the pros and cons of different types of power stations and worked to balance  its effects with the needs and preferences of others.

The simple exercise of switching hats has facilitated a surprising level of empathy. If, at the age of 12, they are able to consider pros and cons, balance needs and wants, make a reasoned choice and justify it with reference to their research, just imagine what they will be able to do in six years when they are actually old enough to vote!

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