• British Columbia teacher won Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence

    Craig Brumwell, pictured here at Salt Spring Island, teaches Grade 10 and 11 social studies and Grade 12 geography at Kitsilano Secondary School in Vancouver.

Craig Brumwell has been continuously innovating his teaching approach over the past 30 years that he’s been at Kitsilano Secondary School in Vancouver. Technology plays a pivotal role in his classroom and a few years ago he created a mobile documentary game called “Kit’s Fallen” to teach his students about their school’s history during the Second War World. His outstanding work has been recognized with the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2018, as well as the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Government of Canada’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2015.

On his teaching approach 

I’ve always been interested in being outside and wondering about the world. I like the historical element, too — the traces that people leave in the landscape. I take an inquiry approach with my grade twelves and we have three terms. I call the first term geography bootcamp. We learn about geographic thinking and perspectives and the inquiry process. In Grade 12, they’re very obsessed with post-secondary, so I don’t necessarily have the kids very interested in geography, they’re just interested in the credit. But I think that buried in that is something that has moved them to be curious about the world and how people interact with the landscape and environment. It’s my challenge to draw that out of them and to have them drive their own interest and follow their own inquiries within a geographic framework.

I feel like I’ve done my job if by the end of the year, these kids have a concern about what’s going on in the world — climate change, freshwater issues, human migration, all these sorts of things. They do a team-based inquiry approach in the second and third terms, where they cultivate these authentic interests. By the end of the year, most of them feel like they have some agency in making a difference.

On activating that interest-based inquiry process

I start with them — they’re experts in themselves. For example, one of the first things we do is a family-geographic journey. I’m tech-heavy so I believe in bringing technology into the classroom, so we pull some GIS into it. They trace their family history of movement and migration, interview their family members, find out about different locations and their characteristics and learn about the push-pull factors going on that made them move from one place to another. It’s fun because they become the subjects of the inquiry and, inevitably, they end up finding out something they didn’t know. I’m always trying to cultivate that little sense of wonder and curiosity. That’s why I try to hook them with a geographic project that relates to themselves. Then we move on and we start teaching scale by doing case studies at a local and regional scale.

On how technology plays a critical role in inquiry learning

ArcGIS online is very slick and cool, and you can impress them pretty easily early on with what it can do, so that hooks them. They get "wowed" and want to know how to do that. The majority of delivery they get here is still traditionally lecture-based, and this moves them into a different way of learning. Geography becomes something that they’re doing and not something that they’re learning.

In terms two and three, we start asking, “What do you think is interesting to investigate and worthy of you doing six weeks of research?” They’re following the geo-inquiry process, asking big questions, collecting data, interviewing an expert — which they hate but then they’re really proud of themselves — and then they have to bring their information into ArcGIS and do some form of analysis and make an action plan. We culminate the whole thing with an online conference, where they’re presenting on big screens in the school hallway and swapping ideas and having discussions in an online forum. That’s when you get the kids that maybe weren’t that interested in the beginning getting caught up in the importance of what they’re doing. Examples of projects could be the fentanyl crisis and homelessness, which is a big issue here in Vancouver, or earthquakes and wildfires, all very real around here. They get it, and I think this approach gives them an excuse to care about it.

On how students engage with these projects

I think they feel very empowered. When they start thinking spatially and how things are connected, it’s a refreshing reset for them. And because they have to make an action plan, and they have to think about how they’re going to make a change, they get into this mindset that they can do something. They’re overwhelmed in term one. I get those looks like, “Is this a thing? Are we actually doing this?” I get a little bit of pushback. But I’ve been doing this for five years now and I know they’ll come around. Once they see that they have control over what they’re doing, their interest is guiding their own inquiry, they love that. It’s really fun when they get to that moment when the “have to do” gets taken over by the “want to do.”