• Newfoundland and Labrador teacher sitting in his office

    Brad Jones has been teaching for 15 years and has helped to shape the social studies curriculum in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Photo: Brad Jones)

Informed decision-making and open-mindedness are at the centre of Brad Jones' teaching philosophy. Jones, who teaches Grades 11 and 12 social studies and geology at O’Donel High School in Mount Pearl, N.L., was part of the team that rewrote the provincial curriculum with the goal of equipping students with problem-solving skills for the real world. In his classroom, Jones focuses on teaching students to consider opposing views and to work together to find solutions. He is also spearheading a project to build a self-sustaining greenhouse on school property. He spoke with Canadian Geographic to share some of the strategies that have worked well in his teaching.

On the capstone project that features worldbuilding

We look at wars, constitutions, politics, economics and everything that you could basically jam into a Grade 11 course and their final project is they get to design a country of their own based on whatever political system they want. They come up with their own constitution, their own currency, language — basically they get a blank piece of paper. The kids get so creative. It's a fun project and the stuff that we've gotten in the past it’s mind-blowing how cool it is and how it exceeded our expectations. This is one of the projects that we promoted provincially as a must for every teacher who teaches this course because what you're going to get back is well beyond what you thought was possible.

Word of mouth spreads around from kids who've done it in the past and kids will come in in September asking, “Are we going to do the country assignment?” It’s really motivating as a teacher that kids are excited about that kind of stuff. They get to create a map of their country, and they get to create the physical features on that map, which is something that they've never done in high school. In years past, we've given them the opportunity to have a trading partner, so they'll go find someone else in the class who has designed a country that they could possibly trade something with or maybe they share a border or a language with. It's a team-building exercise too and it gives kids a lot of empowerment because they're stepping outside their comfort zone.

On how he brings debate into the classroom

Perspective is one of the things that I really push in my classroom. I've taught in many parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, and my first three years of teaching was on a reserve in northern Labrador. It was an absolutely life-changing experience. I went for a year and ended up staying for three, absolutely loved it. We were in a community that was a fly-in-fly-out community. Within Newfoundland and Labrador there were so many social issues and problems that kind of get swept under the rug. We didn't necessarily have water issues because it was a brand-new community at the time, but the previous community that these people lived in had no running water and had uninsulated housing. For me, it was eye-opening as a Canadian, and as a Newfoundlander, that this existed in my own province. It changed my life. It's given me a sense of appreciation to see reconciliation from a different lens because I was on the ground there to experience what these people experienced on a day-to-day basis. A lot of kids are not familiar with anything outside their own community, province or even outside their own country, so perspective for me is a real big thing — opening their eyes to the world around them. 

A lot of times I'll plan a debate. I'm culturally aware, more so than I ever have been in my life, before I even do those sorts of things anymore. We have kids that are coming from many different walks of life and many different countries. I'll give you an example — I've got a young man from Egypt in my class, and his perspective of Canada is so different from what my students realize. So when we were learning about different forms of government, I asked him prior to the class if it was okay and he said he didn't mind talking about it. The first thing that he said was, “It's not corrupt here in Canada.” And the kids looked at him and said, “ What do you mean?” And he said, “In my country, if you don't conform and don’t pay the fee to the police officer, you could be murdered.” And that perspective was jaw-dropping for the kids to have. The kids will lead a discussion or debate in a way that I didn't anticipate it going, and I'm usually there just as the moderator to make sure it doesn't get out of hand.

On the shift he has seen in students over the years

When I first started teaching, I found kids were very apathetic about what was going on in the world around them. Kids are definitely way more informed and more informed at a younger age. And that obviously has to do with social media and the instantaneous news that we get. It kind of sparks an interest that wasn't there 15 years ago. They're asking more "why" questions now. This was a question that came up today: “Why would there be protests in Washington today? The election is fair, right?” They want to get answers moreso than me telling them the way the world works.

They're much more tech savvy, and that's good and bad. We try to teach our kids how to navigate in a digital world and be responsible. I have kids come up to me all the time that I've taught in years gone by and I see the work and the seeds that we planted back then and they've grown and turned into standout members of society, which, as a teacher, that's what you want.

On giving students tools to overcome challenges

Anxiety amongst school-aged kids as is through the roof. But I tell the kids that stresses in your life shape you into the person that you are, so while excessive stress is not good for you obviously, being worried is not always a bad thing. It's about how you respond to that issue, which is what we teach them. As teachers, especially in the new curriculum that we've written in this province, we give them the tools to solve the problem that they're having, whether they realize it this week or in 10 years’ time. That's what we're doing to the best of our ability. We equip our students to be able to deal with any issue, politically, socially, economically, and the tools to find the right way and navigate their way through that.