Real-life learning inspired by GeoCity project

Issue: Volume 99, Number 20

Posted: 3 December 2020
Reference #: 1HAFDe

Nestled at the base of Blenheim’s Wither Hills is a city complete with a resort island and a shipwreck that has entranced and engaged a Year 5 and 6 class for two terms.

When tamariki from Room 89 at Witherlea School returned after the Level 4 lockdown, their teachers PJ Muir and Phoebe Quirk were inspired by the creativity of a student and his family who had built miniature model houses from templates they found online.

“Before lockdown, our principal Andrea [Harnett] had said she didn’t want there to be any extra pressure on parents to be teachers, but that the focus should be on student-led learning and projects which let them explore and create,” says PJ.

“They were so free and wide-ranging with their choices. During lockdown we would be getting dozens of emails a day of what they had researched or found out. We saw one of the kids with a house template and thought: ‘We could teach geometry through it’.

“Phoebe and I were talking about the 3D houses after a meeting and saying: ‘we could do this, then we could do this...’. That’s when we said: ‘We could teach everything through this if we wanted to!”

The result was Skylands: a GeoCity on a rainforest island, which takes up about 45 square metres in a breakout space at the school.

Curriculum links

The learning helps students achieve in a number of curriculum areas, including literacy, numeracy, social sciences, arts, digital technology and global citizenship.

“We don’t want people to look through the window and say, ‘Wow, they’ve spent two terms on an art project!’. We wanted to make sure that we were connecting with curriculum links really well because this was our first foray into a project-based piece of work,” says PJ.

For the remainder of term 2 and all of term 3, the classes spent an average of two days a week working on the GeoCity project.

Measurement, position and orientation came easily when the town was drawn and planned on a grid.

“I would have thought we would have had to pull them out and do more workshops before we encountered the grid. But we didn’t actually end up doing that at all.

“We weren’t teaching them strategies to use, they were working out what strategies would be most sensible for them in that situation. I think that was really valuable – because that’s what real life is like,” says PJ.

What a town needs

The two classes built Skylands from the ground up starting with a local field trip to investigate their local town and spaces. Questions were brainstormed, such as: What do you think a city has to have? What’s important about a city? What could the population of a town or city be?

They researched the role of a council before forming their own local body, with each of the 57 students in the combined class having a role. There were two mayors (the class counsellors) and nine council committees, with a head of each committee who was responsible for more and paid more.

“Two boys came to us and said: ‘We think we should have a bank’ and we asked them for a business proposal: Why do we need a bank? What’s your job going to be? They went away and drafted a proposal about what that would look like, and why it was important. Then we thought we need a banking system and Phoebe found Banqer, which is perfect for this project,” says PJ.

When discussing a health hub, the health committee met with the class’s town planners and discussed what space allocation would be required for a doctor, a dentist, a hospital.

“There were a lot of them working out the references with the town planners. They decided the hospital needs to be close to the doctors and the bus stop. They wanted it close to the library and the retirement village as well. They wanted a library because if there were people visiting, they thought it would be good to have somewhere to read and take books to people in hospital,” says PJ.

Financial literacy

The children were ‘paid’ salaries and extra money for doing jobs around school. They learned about mortgages and automatic payments, were horrified when they learned the bank could take their house if a payment was missed, and gutted when they received their first power bills, say PJ and Phoebe.

“Early on, some kids would say, ‘The property price is too much so I’m going to go in with a friend. That does mean that I’m going to have to negotiate what we are going to purchase together so it gives us a bit more money’,” says Phoebe.

“Off they went, got their bank accounts up. If they were sharing a property, they split it 50/50 and had to work it out. We didn’t realise the maths was happening until we saw them doing the maths.

“I would be listening to a group and they would say, ‘We want to buy this, it’s $112.50; you pay half, I’ll pay half’, and I would watch them split it. A lot of the time, I would think: ‘That’s not what I would teach you, because in my head, you’re not at that level. But look, you’re invested and doing it’,” she says.

Learning across the curriculum

“You can’t emphasise enough the global citizen skills the children have learnt: communicating, negotiating, using their initiative and coming up with rules and laws for the town,” explains Phoebe.

“We had one group of children who were doing the roading and they said, ‘We need the space for the roading. Is it all right if we make a rule where children can’t go over the boundaries of their property?’

“We said, ‘Let’s research it – is that what our council does?’ They found that we do that here. And they had their rulers out and were issuing warnings and fines for children and they followed it up the whole way through – like they just had responsibility, it was theirs,” she says.

The children had to apply for jobs in the newly formed council and its committees and the teachers were very impressed with their applications.

“The quality was mind-blowing. We were going through these applications and we couldn’t have taught what they did just knowing they had to get a job which they wanted. Capital letters and full-stops weren’t an issue because they had that investment,” says Phoebe.

“They were going to each other in class and saying: ‘Could you please read over this and check it for me before I hand it in.’ They were proofreading each other’s work,” she says.

“They would ask each other: ‘Do you have some more strengths that you can bring to it?’ It’s not just adults that are afraid of self-promotion; students are exactly the same,” adds PJ.

Chance to shine

Every child was engaged in the Skylands project and Phoebe and PJ say they saw some students in a new light.

“We didn’t have children who disengaged from the project at all. We didn’t have to nurture our lower learners: the entry level for them was accessible. Often they were the ones who were just plugging the work – they’d say, ‘Yup, you give me a job and I will break it down and work it out’,” says PJ.

Children who are normally lower achievers, who may not shine in the traditional style of classroom teaching, became role models, says Phoebe.

She gives the example of a student who struggles in many areas across the curriculum. That student became a role model, worked hard and had the freedom to choose to be extended.

As the project came to an end, the children developed and ran tours of Skylands, which were attended by every class in the school, as well as whānau who were invited to a learning showcase day.

“We had one girl who came back into the classroom after a tour and I have never seen light shine out of a child like I did this wee girl. She’s a very, very quiet child and she led the tour. We talk to kids about doing things that they love and it was like she realised: ‘Wow, I’ve just worked out what I love!’”
says PJ.

Expert advice and support

The GeoCity project also saw children design a flag and a stamp with the assistance of library and resources specialist, Maree Turbitt.

“Two children who were quite interested in art and design came up with a stamp design with Maree. Then they started emailing Denise, my mother-in-law, who works at NZ Post’s Stamps and Collectibles in Whanganui. She told them what they needed to think about and so they emailed back and forward over a month fine-tuning their design; she printed them for them and they got a sheet of legal stamps,” says Phoebe.

The school’s caretaker, Anthony Atyeo, who has taken a year out from the NZ Police, threw himself into the project providing materials and helping students with the project. One day, he asked if he could talk to the children.

“He told them that for safety reasons they are missing lights and electricity and they need them. He gave us the materials and it became a big maths project because they had to measure out all the lights,” explains Phoebe.

“He wrote them a letter about the rules and regulations about street lights and electricity; he is a policeman so he’s very official. He’d help the kids out, provide them with tools if they needed them, give them some tips and skills. He definitely invested himself and the kids were thrilled about that,” adds PJ.

Future plans

The Skylands project grew from one template of a house organically and quickly. Both Phoebe and PJ say they could have kept it going and plan to do another GeoCity project in a year or so, possibly exploring an issue like sustainability.

“The saddest thing about it is, I don’t think we had enough time. We could have kept going. If we were to do it again, we would start in term 1; I think it would set the year up beautifully,” says Phoebe.

“The parents are very engaged in the school but they did get a bit sick of the GeoCity project. The feedback was, ‘Whatever you are doing, we’re hearing about it way too much at the dinner table’,” laughs PJ.

How does it end?

The students from Room 89 have been saving money. At the end of the year, there will be an auction and they will be able to bid for their house, or maybe part of the resort island, or a square of sea if their funds have run out.

“This is big-kid, play-based learning. You’re not aiming for right or correct or perfect. It’s just your imagination because it’s what you create and there’s no right or wrong: it’s relevant learning.

“As teachers, we are just so aware that they need to be happy, they need to be loved. If they think that we think everything they do is ‘awesome’, then there’s no fear of getting stuff wrong and we have found that what they achieve is amazing,” says PJ.

Tips for teachers on getting started 

  • Be open to the possibilities: the best learning isn’t forced. 
  • Don’t think of the end product: it begins with something small – like a house. 
  • Trust that there is learning within your projects: teachers are experts at embedding the learning. 
  • Have confidence to have a go, even if you are having doubts.  
  • You won’t realise the learning that is happening until you reflect or listen to the children. 
  • Respond to the children’s enthusiasm and interests. 
  • Work collaboratively: there’s nothing better than having a colleague to bounce ideas around with and support you on the challenging days.

Student kōrero

Education Gazette sat down with some of the creators of Witherlea School’s Skylands GeoCity and asked them what they learned and liked about the project.  

Many skills were learned such as applying for jobs, writing formal letters, scale, measurement, prioritising spending, loans, mortgages and banking.  

Leia (Year 5) says the mathematics in the project was challenging, but it was fun doing maths while building the GeoCity. 

“We had to figure out how many traffic lights had to be on each street and that involved a lot of maths. It was harder maths than we did in the classroom because you had to use your brain a lot more, but it was fun,” she says. 

Ben (Year 6) learned about scale.  

“I learned that you didn’t need a set of instructions to do something, you can do it just from your imagination and what you are seeing,” he says. 

Oliver (Year 6) was one of the instigators of the banking system. 

“I thought we needed a banking system, because instead of just learning about building, we could include maths. I learned a lot about designing things. Seth and I designed the cash using Canva. Sometimes it was quite hard with the technology,” he says. 

Learning life skills 

The students agreed that they learned many social and life skills. For some, communication was the most challenging aspect of the project and they learned a lot about listening. 

“I learned that you can’t have everything you want. When you listened to other people’s ideas, they were actually really good because they weren’t just the same as yours. Sometimes there’s a person who wants everybody to listen to them and they have great ideas, but then the shy person comes along and has good ideas as well,” says Morgan (Year 6). 

Communication was ‘definitely’ the hardest part for James and Oliver (Year 6).  

“It was a skill that I really learned and developed over the time we were doing GeoCity. I could communicate before, but I really learnt how to get it across to everyone, not just people in my friend group – because it’s really important,” says James. 

“I had a really good idea and you tell everyone and they don’t quite agree with you and it doesn’t always go your way. Sometimes I would be a bit annoyed that my idea wasn’t chosen but I got over it,” adds Oliver. 

“It was interesting to learn a lot of life skills like about money and creating houses. The most challenging thing was getting all my group together to do the building because sometimes there were arguments, but my group worked as a team,” says Ruruka (Year 6). 

Enjoyable and challenging 

The children all enjoyed a different style of learning. 

“I just really enjoyed the whole thing. It was quite challenging but also quite fun because we had to do everything ourselves; we had a bit of help from the teachers but not much,” says James, who says he wouldn’t get bored if GeoCity continued to be a big part of the class’s learning. 

“I very definitely enjoyed getting to try new things and learning in a different way because I don’t think we would have done GeoCity if you didn’t have lockdown. I knew that it wasn’t just building: we were doing lots of different things like maths, writing and art,” says Leia. 

Nathan (Year 6) agrees: “It didn’t feel like we were learning anything, even though we learned a lot.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:00 pm, 3 December 2020

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