CEGEP is a concept unique to Quebec: a general education public college that prepares students either for university or for the workforce. To be a CEGEP teacher is a coveted job for many: without the discipline issues of high school, or the research demands of university, teaching at CEGEP is a dream come true for many educators. Since CEGEP is a post-secondary institution, teachers are not expected or required to have teaching credentials; they are expected to be experts in their fields. Many begin building their teaching resume on their first day on the job. Innovation, and the use of new pedagogies, often happens by accident, as teachers experiment with the best ways to reach their students.
Our profile today is of an educator who has creatively used project-based learning in her geography courses. Stephanie Harnois is a geographer by training and an educator at heart who develops and designs her courses around her students’ needs and abilities. We biked over to the local tea house to chat about one of her courses and her approach to teaching.
I was curious to know about Stephanie’s educational philosophy, since she has over 12 years of teaching experience but not much training in pedagogy. Her answer is best listened to in the following clip (and while you’re listening, take a look at the diagram below).
As she spoke I was mentally checking off elements of project-based learning, 21st century skills, the 6 C’s of NPDL, and more deep-learning theory.
Stephanie’s Geography for Adventure Tourism course is a mandatory course in the Adventure Tourism program. It is a human geography course and as such focuses on the socio-cultural aspects of geography as they relate to tourism and the natural environment. In describing her motivation for her choice of pedagogy, Stephanie explained,
“It was important for me that these students be able to create partnerships with people in the Gaspé area.”
This year, Stephanie’s classes partnered with the directors of Berceau du Canada (Birthplace of Canada), a historical-cultural site on the waterfront in Gaspe said to be where Jacques Cartier landed and claimed the land for France (please check out the link; the site also acknowledges the Mi’kmaq nation and the other founders of the country, and their roles in all that followed…).
The students were to come up with, and present, ideas for interpretation and activities that could be used to animate the site from a cultural perspective. The final product would involve the students presenting their ideas to the board, to the local tourism board, the chamber of commerce, and to other key actors in the development of the site. “I think that’s what made the students put in even more effort, because it was concrete,” said Stephanie. “So it made it really official. The presentations were made at the site itself, so some of the students did their presentation outside and there was a real sense of place in presenting the project.”
Stephanie went on to describe the steps she took her students through and pretty much described project-based learning (PBL); although she didn’t have a name for that approach, she could have written the book on it! “There is a big part of intuition, and also experience that’s starting to sink in! I’m also getting more in touch with the type of students with whom I’m working…this is dramatically evolved from my first year of teaching twelve years ago!”
Confidence is a big part of it, too, according to Stephanie. “I spoke about this project to a colleague, and she said to me, ‘I would never have taken that risk! You are in front of people who will be expecting things, and what if the students don’t perform?!’ You know, those things never even crossed my mind. Of course! Why wouldn’t I be confident in these students? I said to my students, ‘no, you can do this! We can do this! I’m confident in you all, so let’s go, let’s do it!'” Stephanie was inspired by a summer school she had attended in which a similar project was expected of her and her peers.
Stephanie is not one to rest on her laurels and coast on a course plan or project that has worked in the past. She plans to continue with the approach but use different partners, projects and people in the Gaspe area.
I asked if she was worried about meeting the learning objectives of her course. She said that in fact, the students became so invested in their learning that they performed better than she expected on the final exam, all of them taking the full time allotted and leaving the exam with cramped hands! (These are students studying in their second language in a technical, outdoor-based program: not to sell them short, but they are not usually big fans of written evaluations.)
For teachers who want to get creative and innovative in their teaching, Stephanie had a simple recommendation:
“If you’re thinking about it, I would say, ‘just do it’! Anyone can be creative, and creativity is not necessarily taking a paintbrush and starting to paint. I find there is a lot of creativity in the work that we do as teachers, and there is no limit to it, and you’re allowed to make a mistake. Be honest with yourself, and transparent with the students. Tell them, ‘this is the first time I’m doing this; do you want to join me in this adventure?’