Fri, May 27, 2005
City race good way to learn

Somebody saw the kids in a restaurant. Somebody else spotted them on a bus.

But where were they now?

They were supposed to have showed up here in Springbank Park on this Wednesday afternoon more than an hour ago, but they're nowhere in sight. For all intents and purposes, 21 Grade 5 and 6 pupils have gone missing.

And that means just one thing: This test is going well.

Welcome to the Great London Challenge, an innovative race involving a group of pupils from University Heights public school.

But this is more than just an exercise. This is the brave new world of "authentic learning."

And if you ask me, it's arrived not a moment too soon.

"Authentic learning means doing real-life things with real-life roles," says Steve Revington, the University Heights teacher spearheading the two-day test that ended yesterday. "They have tasks that are purposeful, meaningful and relevant. They'll never forget this."

In essence, the Great London Challenge is an educational version of TV's Amazing Race. In groups of three -- and with each group accompanied by an adult who wouldn't intervene unless there were safety concerns -- the pupils complete tasks and decipher clues while trekking around the city.

On Wednesday, for instance, the pupils spent the morning digging for Iroquoian artifacts (this was the real thing). After preparing with an introductory course on archeology, the pupils analysed soil, dug, sifted, cleaned, graphed, measured and drew the artifacts in a real-life example of "data management."

After that, the pupils opened envelopes that led them to their next destination -- a meeting with a man dressed in War of 1812 garb who related a bit of local history. The pupils reached their destination by using transit maps, bus passes and -- in an emergency -- a one-time taxi voucher.

"The parents are the ones having some difficulty, because they're going, 'Ah, they're going the wrong way,'" says Revington. "But what's wrong with that? The most successful, self-made individuals are the risk-takers who failed, then learned from their failures."

Revington says the simple concept behind this test -- we learn by doing -- has been bolstered by recent research showing that when learning is done within a meaningful, multi-sensory and emotional context, the brain retains more information.

This is about learning how to learn.

"Process is far more important (than content), because the learning processes never really change," says Revington. "But the content will."

During the two-day challenge, the pupils completed a variety of tasks, including building water-bottle rockets and navigating around Boler Mountain. Revington says the lessons learned will likely have far more impact than the conventional "static learning" of a classroom setting.

Revington admits some teachers and parents were initially aghast at the idea of setting pupils loose in the city -- even with limited supervision.

"That's one of the biggest mistakes I see in our society," he says. "We've cocooned and insulated (children) so much.

"Some things are getting so compartmentalized that we're forgetting that the important thing is interacting with the real world," he says. "I see that where kids can't make up their own games. They've got to have everything done for them."

I couldn't agree more. As the father of three, I constantly lament the relative insularity of their lives. I spent my youth randomly roaming the edges of an urban environment with little supervision. I learned how to fix a flat bike tire, build a tree fort and abandon a sinking raft -- activities that most of today's kids never experience.

Today's kids are smart. But because they're being raised in a culture where every activity is planned, sanitized and supervised, I often fear they're falling short in real-world competence.

I don't think it was a good thing when my childhood buddy fell out of our tree fort and shattered his arm. But that arm healed.

I'm far more frightened by the prospect of a generation of sedentary, stimulation-dependent consumers who've rarely coped with real-world fear and failure.

If error and experimentation are the keys to success, then letting kids find their way across the city on a bus sounds like a good first step.