Thursday, November 1, 2007

A school visit in Toronto

Toronto: N: 43º 39.391' W: 079º 22.833'
Today I visited the Central Technical School in Toronto. This school is recognised as one of the leading Geotechnology school in Ontario and was a most interesting place to visit. It is no coincidence that Mark Lowry was the HOD of geography at the school before he moved on to the District Board job I discussed in the last blog. Mark has developed a geography faculty of GIS trained teachers who are doing some great work. It was great to see a geography faculty of 6 keen GIS trained geographers all doing some great geotechnology work from years 8-12. The school itself is massive (over 2000 students) and the buildings have a lot of lived in character (old and not pristine as I saw in the US schools). The school had a completely different atmosphere to the US schools, being more relaxed re: security and more casual like Australian schools. The atmosphere was further enhanced because today is Halloween and the students were dressed in all sorts of different garb. It was like a casual day with a horror/fancy dress theme. I spent some time observing the Year 11 Geomatics class and a year 9 geography class using GIS. The faculty members gave me copies of their practical learning activities using GIS which seemed to be innovative and meaningful to the student learning. I will have a good look at these when I get home.
I also spent a lot of time at the school talking to Mark about the structure of the curriculum and the school in general. For example
* the students had an hour lunch at 11.45 with no recess which I was surprised with (same starting and finishing times the same as us).
* The 4 key components of learning the students are assessed on are knowledge, thinking, communication and application.
* Assessment is criterion based with the measures being at 4 levels of achievement.
* There is state based testing of numeracy and literacy at years 3, 6 and 9.
* There are no senior exit exams with the universities doing their own testing.
* Compared to the US and its broad standards assessment in each state this system is more open to innovation in general but still is constrained by the developed criterion based assessment expectations.
On the GIS front Mark and I shared our thoughts on the difficulty of ESL students learning GIS. The Central Technical School has an incredible mix of ethnic groups, as does Toronto in general. These students find it very hard to meet the literacy requirement of following GIS instructions and Mark showed me a technique he uses at the beginning of the courses to help students to follow process. I was also shown the 100 gigs of data in the District Board server which all Ontario schools have access to. The data is amazing and their educational authorities make it all available via their webserver.
What was affirming for me were two things Mark emphasised:
1. We are not computer teachers and therefore not the experts. Again, the type of teacher required to show their vulnerability to students as not the expert.
2. The 3b4me rule he uses. That is all students to ask three others in the class before asking the teacher. This sanctions student cooperation and group work, the greatest by-products of GIS in the classroom.
Mark has also produced in cahoots with some of the staff at Central Technical School, a very useful CD titles the ‘The Geographers workbench’ for use in senior school geography. I have a copy and some of the activities and powerpoints will be of interest to teachers new to geography teaching.
In regards to Civics and citizenship, the Toronto District Board has developed a curriculum which is worth having a look at in South Australia. The Central Technical School has channeled much of their citizenship activities into programmes such as the Toscan Foundation, Free the children and Adopt a village ( and A practical and meaningful approach to citizenship education for students.
I really enjoyed the day with fellow geographers using GIS and as always learnt plenty of new things to try out with students.
Finally a useful resource I came across is the website of the Ontario Geography Association located at Also check out the Canadian Council for Geographic Education resources on the International Polar Year resources at
Also the ‘World in spatial terms’ website is worth a look at
Now a bit of a break until a busy week on GIS in London next week!

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