From little ideas… big things grow!

Leonie McLaren, teacher at Santa Sabina College in Australia

Student agency, inquiry, mathematics, visual arts and escalating enthusiasm converge for a student created sequence of learning experiences, illustrating connections made and providing demonstrations of authentic learning.

It started with an idea of students exploring the depth and diversity of places where mathematics is utilised in our world…

I am teaching a class this year who are creative and, with a desire to show them the beauty of maths and the connections between maths and art, I decided to work with both in a unit of inquiry. I have done this previously and the lure of art also helps support learners who don’t quite see the artistic qualities of maths as I do. Having more than one area allows the students to move between the two and keeps interest levels high. It also buys time in a very busy timetable.

Brainstorming links between the Human Body and different areas of maths

With a central idea of ‘Maths Helps Us Understand the World Around Us’and a focus on student agency, Year 5 students chose small groups and an area to research. These included: Architecture, Human Body, Water Parks, Opera House, Kitchen, Music, Technology, Space and Famous Buildings. As a class we spent time considering the big picture – we chose the transdisciplinary theme together: How the World Works. Key concepts and learner profile attributes were discussed and voted on, individual and group goals based on the approaches to learning were decided and connections to outcomes in the Mathematics Syllabus were made. Students also worked in larger teams to develop class rubrics, to be used to evaluate their research and delivery of mathematics and art lessons. After much collaboration and discussion, we were ready for the next step.

Each group started by recording many wonderings and questions linking mathematics and their area of focus. Other groups read these and added questions. Students looked at open and closed questions and combined and eliminated questions. They chose their three priority questions and the research began. Groups shared Google Docs so that they could record their questions, progress, ideas and reflections which varied between an individual and group focus.

With the knowledge that by the end of the term each group would teach two lessons to the class (one maths and one art) we backward mapped a schedule to ensure that everyone would complete their different research and lessons within the time frame.

Discussing the values of music notes as fractions and how to add and subtract them. This lesson was designed and delivered by students

In Mathematics, students had many ideas about what they wanted to teach. They discussed these with me and we looked at the syllabus and then they planned their lessons. They researched and learnt new skills so that they could teach the class. They planned, organised materials and finally presented their lessons to the rest of the class. We saw lessons involving chance and rolling dice; creating effective surveys, tallies and graphs using both technology and paper; calculating perimeter and area of squares, triangles and trapeziums; addition of fractions using musical notes; converting between centimetres and metres; practising multiplication; calculating the best phone plan; measuring each other; and using protractors to measure angles. No lesson was the same even though some crossed over as would be expected.

In the Visual Arts lessons, each group planned a lesson referencing a number of famous artists and art styles linked to an activity inspired by them designed to develop skills and create a finished product. Visual Arts lessons looked at a wide variety of artists including Monet, Ken Done, Frank Lloyd Wright, Banksy, Da Vinci, Arcimboldo, Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Hokusai and Michelangelo.

Planning a creative response to a task organised and taught by students

We all agreed on a very open interpretation of their focus areas. For instance, the Space group looked at a range of art installations as part of their research as well as photography of objects in space. This included the first photo of a black hole, and the use of an app to identify different stars, planets and constellations in the night sky. The Technology group shared photography skills and suggestions for better photos as well as the different uses of filters and a few editing features to improve final results using phones and iPad. The Opera House team encouraged groups to design a theme and images for Vivid Sydney 2020 with the Opera House as the backdrop. The Music group showed us a section from a musical and students were given a scenario and wrote their own song which they performed to the class. We sketched fruit, discussed proportion and drew heads. We also designed a building using only triangles. Creativity was everywhere – in the ideas of the organisers and the eager participants.

Delving into practical aspects of student agency has been an interesting adventure and one that I am going to explore further. I am reminded about how creative these students are, the way they like to learn, their group interactions, some great resources they found, the activities they enjoy, their strengths and weaknesses. I learnt a great deal about them as I participated in lessons alongside them. Time was not my friend and lessons ran over the allocated time but the learning surrounded us. What an exciting, at times stressful, and worthwhile learning experience this has been for all of us.

Leonie McLaren is a year 5 class teacher at Santa Sabina College in Australia and has 6 years of IB Primary Years Programme experience. She has had a variety of roles at this school and other schools. Leonie is passionate about encouraging students to ask questions and challenge themselves. She believes authentic learning is the key to sparking interest and wonder in our world and ensuring a strong foundation for life-long learning.

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