Re-centring classroom learning around social, environmental issues: The ENCORE Lab and critical action learning

By Perry King
September 21, 2023
CALE web
CALE is a community of educators who engage their classrooms in meaningful “critical inquiry” about environmental and social issues that are pressing to students. Photo courtesy ENCORE Lab

In 2019, Professor Jim Slotta and his team of students in OISE’s ENCORE lab began thinking about the challenge of student climate anxiety, in response to the widespread school walkouts, and the recognized epidemic of malaise among the current generation of secondary students. Teachers and parents were recognizing a growing dispassion and ambivalence about learning, as students cry foul about the mis-fortunate state of their world and the unlikeliness of a flourishing future.

In a conversation this summer, Professor Slotta recounted the origins of this work: “These students feel like the adults in their world have let them down. They talk about how the boomers have spent all the money and left the planet in ruins. They are worried about the economic impact of climate change on their world, and they don’t have positive images of how they will live in the world”

A professor in the OISE department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning – who is interested in media and their impact on teacher practices and the communities where teachers practice – Slotta’s interest in “positive climate action” resonated with doctoral candidate Renato Carvalho, who had entered the doctoral program with an interest in critical pedagogy and teacher learning communities. Renato had recently joined the ENCORE lab group, and began working on a new project with Professor Slotta to create a learning community for teachers, to support their design and enactment of curriculum that is focused on positive climate action.

“Both of us were envisioning the idea of teachers developing innovative kinds of learning, then, sharing, exchanging and supporting one another in a sustained professional learning community,” said Slotta, who holds the President’s Chair in Education and Knowledge Technologies.

CALE – the Critical Action Learning Exchange – was born from this collaboration, as an initiative of the ENCORE Lab, with an interest in research but also to provide a resource for teachers in Canada and other countries. CALE is a community of educators who engage their classrooms in meaningful “critical inquiry” about environmental and social issues that are pressing to students. Proudly funded by the Connaught Fund, teachers in the CALE community design and exchange lesson plans and activities, acquire useful resources, discuss pragmatic challenges in the classroom, and explore pedagogical approaches to engaging their students in critical thinking and action.

“This is a challenging and even an elusive vision,” says Slotta, “partly because you’re trying to design for people who will hopefully eventually show up and use your designs, but this essentially asks for them to add something to their professional workflow – not to mention the implicated change of practice, as many teachers will never have tried such pedagogical approaches.”

The challenge, the framework, the approaches

The ENCORE team began designing CALE by thinking about the first challenge: what it means to do critical action learning, including any existing examples that might already be out there in the world for teachers to consider.

Slotta was inspired by some of his colleagues in the field who are using critical pedagogy, in various forms. Professor Sameer Honwad, from the State University of New York at Buffalo, works with storytelling methods in rural India. ProfessorDeborah McKoy, from the University of California Berkeley, works in urban planning to bring students together with city planning departments in the participatory design of urban futures.

“We spent a good deal of time working with Sameer and Deb, expanding our understandings, and eventually articulating a framework that defines critical action learning, at least as it could occur within our CALE context,” said Slotta.

In 2021, the ENCORE team produced a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) about critical action pedagogy, with support from the the University of Toronto’s Digital Learning Innovations group, which has now engaged several thousand teachers, internationally, in exploring the CALE framework and doing some design work. This MOOC is currently being offered on the EdX platform as an e-learning offering, and continues to offer support to any teacher, free of charge. 

As a result of such efforts, and through 2022, the ENCORE team began articulating a set of “pedagogical approaches”, which now provide a foundation for the wider CALE community, including: storytelling, community-engaged learning, critical making, art-based critical action, and critical action games.

“For each of these approaches, we developed concise teacher materials, including examples, strategies, and a discussion of how it engages critical action,” said Slotta. “Taken together, the framework and approaches are important products of CALE, responding to that first challenge of ‘what is critical action and how can it work in a teacher’s classroom?’”

CALE web 2
Photo courtesy ENCORE Lab

CALE’s pedagogical approaches

CALE has curated five “critical action approaches” to support teachers in developing powerful new inquiry activities for their students. There is substantial overlap or interaction between these approaches, where one approach could readily make use of another. CALE has carefully expressed each approach with teacher-friendly write-ups, strategies, and examples.

Arts-based Critical Action leverages the deeply critical aspects of arts-based pedagogies for students to express their identities and tell their stories in an intellectually and emotionally engaging way. This can include a written and introspective component (such as an artist’s statement), to offer a vehicle for students to communicate abstract or complex ideas, and share insight relating to their artistic work. For example, a social studies teacher could employ a visual arts lesson that helps students take a critical perspective on social issues. Students could be asked to use physical or digital media to express their own culture and community, and to produce an accompanying written artist’s statement.

Critical making engages makerspace and related activities, using a variety of media, technologies, tools and materials from fabrication to coding to cooking to creating music – for students to develop their own voice and explore relationships between ideas, artifacts, processes and products. By making their ideas and values tangible and visible, students can offer a powerful visual means of critical action within their own communities.

Storytelling is a timeless method of learning and expression that appears in every culture. Students can be engaged as storytellers to empower them and allow for culturally responsive approaches. Many forms of storytelling could include graphic novels, podcasts, photos, multimedia presentations, and more. In CALE Storytelling, teachers guide students to give voice to their own perspective, values, and lived experience. Every story has an audience, either from classmates, the whole school community, or the wider public.

Community-engaged learning helps young people engage directly with organizations and members of their community to generate positive transformations and feel empowered by adding their own voices. For example, students could work with city planners or other stakeholders to offer their own design ideas to problems that directly concern them. Students could survey their own neighborhoods, looking for localized issues (potentially mapping them), injustices or disparities. They could measure environmental variables, participate in protests or community meetings, and much more.

Critical Action Games are a powerful means of engaging the entire classroom in structured activities that deepen students’ experience with, and reflection about issues in their world. Students can become an historical community and engage issues of race and class; or they can work as a functioning economy, or explore dystopian realities. CALE is developing critical action games that allow students to participate in a narrative while having fun and learning.

The CALE community is growing steadily each month, as new teachers join, add their own ideas and connect with peers. CALE is maintaining active partnerships with educators in India and China, where there are large groups of teachers designing and enacting critical action lessons.

For Slotta, this is all coming just in time to fill an urgent need in classrooms around the world.

“If the kids need this kid of deeper learning, then the teachers definitely need it,” says Slotta. “CALE lets us approach a teacher and say, ‘Hey, are you able to respond to all of the anxiety and uncertainty that is in your students’ lives, and in your classroom? We have a way for you to think about this, and respond, but it's going to take some work and it's going to involve some new ways of interacting with your students and leading them in activities’”

CALE is still growing and maturing in its vision, but Slotta and his team are confident that they are on a good course.

Says Slotta, “It starts by recognizing the need. Then we try to at least provide some way of taking small steps forward – for teachers and students. With our help, teachers can support their students in building a deeper understanding about topics and connecting those topics to their lived experience, their culture and their future horizons.”

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