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Future focused learning and the Olympics


Olympic rings.

Teachers around the world are planning to use the Rio Olympics as a context for learning in coming weeks. With an ever increasing range of Olympic themed activities and teaching resources available, it is easy for teachers to become overwhelmed and indecisive about what aspect of the Olympics to focus on.

This blog post has been written to encourage teachers to consider the “why” of learning about the Olympics. The first part of the blog encourages teachers to frame meaningful inquiries for students that foster the development of 21st century skills. The second part highlights a range of rich, future-focused learning opportunities based around the Olympic Games.

Effective inquiry learning | Future focused learning opportunities

Part one – Effective inquiry learning 

What are the understandings that we want our students to develop?

Before an inquiry takes place in the classroom it is important that the big ideas, understandings, and desired skills are identified by teachers and students in the planning phase. While the nature of inquiry learning can be fluid and dynamic, the overall aims of an inquiry need to be established from the outset with students' needs and interests driving the direction. 

Guiding questions Ngā pātai ārahi

When planning an Olympics themed inquiry, teachers could ask themselves:

  • What are the learning needs of my students?
  • What aspects of the Olympic Games interest my students?
  • What do I want my students to understand about the Olympics?
  • Why do I want them to understand this?
Vic Hygate talking about inquiry learning.

Vic Hygate from Inquiry learning - from knowledge to understanding

Select this link to open a text version of the image.

Moving students from knowledge to understanding

Innovation and the creation of new knowledge has become the mainstay of economic development in the Knowledge Age. To prepare students for life in the Knowledge Age, future-focused education needs to embrace a much more complex view of knowledge, one that incorporates “knowing, doing, and being.”1

Learning facts and figures about the Olympics is no longer sufficient. Teachers could provide opportunities for students to act on knowledge – relating knowledge to their own lives; sharing knowledge with others; and creating and using knowledge to find solutions to challenges.

Guiding questions Ngā pātai ārahi

When planning an Olympics themed inquiry, teachers could ask themselves:

  • What learning opportunities enable my students to do things with knowledge; to use knowledge in inventive ways, in critical ways, in collaborative ways?
  • How can I relate the Olympics to my students’ own lives?

The biggest difference for me as a teacher with ‘inquiry’ is it’s that shifting your students from knowing about their world to understanding their world - and understanding is so much more than knowledge! How do I get my children away from just this knowing, this filling up of facts, to actually having a deep understanding of how something works or what it means in their life and how that applies to them?

Vic Hygate, Windsor School

Developing 21st century skills

21st century skills are a broad set of skills, competencies, understandings, and dispositions that are believed to be critically important to success in today's Knowledge Age. The rapid changes in our world require students to think deeply about issues, solve problems creatively, work in teams, communicate clearly in many media, learn ever-changing technologies, and deal with a flood of information. Many 21st century skills can be linked to the Key Competencies. The following list of 21st century skills are given the greatest credence in literature about future focused education:

  • Collaboration and connection
  • Curiosity and creativity
  • Critical thinking and problem solving skills
  • Global and cultural awareness.

Guiding questions Ngā pātai ārahi

When planning an Olympics themed inquiry, teachers could ask themselves:

  • What learning opportunities can I provide to help my students develop 21st century skills?
  • Can I change or adapt an existing activity to ensure a greater focus on 21st century skills?

Part two – Future-focused learning opportunities based around the Olympic Games

What follows is a selection of teaching ideas based around the Olympic Games. The suggestions support students to be active rather than passive users of knowledge and incorporate the use of information and communications technology. They are designed to encourage students' development of 21st century skills.

Helping students connect and collaborate

Connecting students to the real world and to each other provides opportunities for them to develop the skills necessary to be successful in the modern workforce. Using tools that gather student voice and allow students to work alongside each other and share thinking is key to building connected, collaborative learners.

Connect with athletes
There is a free app available for New Zealand residents from Apple Store and Google play. The app provides bios and images of all the athletes, contains the full New Zealand team’s competition schedules, daily news and features and has an innovative way for fans to send messages of support.

Connect with your community
Do you have people in your community who are, or have been, top level athletes? Who come from Brazil? Who have been to the Olympics or are going this time? Invite these people into your school to share their stories, beliefs, and experiences.

Connect with other students
Tools like padlet allow students to brainstorm their ideas, adding links, images and videos and share them in a space where everyone can see each others' responses. Google docs allow students to work collaboratively in the same doc. If you have a class blog then take a look at Quadblogging as a way of connecting with other classes and blogs around the world.

Fostering curiosity and creativity

You don’t need to teach a child curiosity. Curiosity is innate. You just have to be careful not to quash it. This is the challenge for the teacher, to foster and guide that curiosity.

Sir Paul Callaghan

Create a wonder wall
Creating a wonder wall in your classroom gives students a space to share their wonderings and to value curiosity. Wonderopolis is a site with a wonder of the day. Students can explore wonderings and pose their own.

Innovate with drone technology
Drone technology is developing fast. How could drones be used for the Olympic Games? Create an answer garden where students post their answers to a given question and can see each others' responses.

Solving problems and thinking critically

Wicked problems
A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve. The point is not to solve the problems but rather have students work collaboratively towards finding solutions. Wicked problems related to the Olympics include the Zika virus, financial problems for Rio, drugs and athlete doping. Sites like Kiwi Kids News give students and their teachers insight into real world issues and allow them to be informed via a safe, educational, and entertaining website.

It is difficult to find simple, optimal solutions for wicked problems – not because they can't be solved, but because it is extremely difficult to reach agreement about what should be done ... Theorists have suggested that wicked problems can be addressed by bringing together disparate perspectives on the problem.2

Open-ended questions to get your students thinking, talking, and problem solving
The following list of Olympic-themed questions encourage students to research, think critically, discuss ideas, and justify their choices:

  • What would you pack in a bag for a NZ athlete?
  • What are 6 things you might see in the Rio opening ceremony, and 3 things you won’t?
  • What are 3 useful phrases, including one greeting, you could learn for Rio?
  • What 3 sports do you think should be included in the Olympic Games? What 3 sports do you think should be dropped from the Olympic Games?
  • Which Olympic value is the most important?

Persuasive writing
Some great ideas for persuasive writing or class inquiry are being shared in this NZ Primary Teachers facebook discussion thread.

Technology is playing a greater role in the Olympics. The following questions and supporting web page encourage students to engage in futures thinking.

Growing global and cultural awareness

Student pointing to New Zealand on a world map.

“Being connected” in the NZ Curriculum vision means students are:

  • able to relate well to others
  • effective users of communication tools
  • connected to the land and environment
  • members of communities
  • international citizens

Giving students opportunities to connect with other people, including students all around the globe builds all of these capabilities.

Connect with Rio
The official app of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games offers real time results. Users can access the games schedule, learn the rules of all Olympic sports, and access the image gallery. Google maps will take you inside the 25 indoor venues that will host sporting events in a few weeks.  

Connect with students across the world
Projects like epals and quadblogging allow you to connect your students with students from other countries. Now is a great time to do this with the Olympics in common. Mystery Skype is a 45-60 minute critical thinking challenge where your class Skypes with another class somewhere else in the world. Your students' goal is to guess the other school's location (country, state, city, school name) before they guess yours. Students do this by asking yes and no questions.

A teacher’s perspective and how to here

1. Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching: A New Zealand perspective, Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert, with Sue McDowall, Ally Bull, Sally Boyd and Rosemary Hipkins, New Zealand Council for Educational Research. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education, 2012.

2. Key Competencies for the Future, Rosemary Hipkins, Rachel Bolstad, Sally Boyd, and Sue McDowell, 2014, p 23.  

Share your own ideas ...

Hands typing on a laptop.

What Olympic themed units or activities do you have planned for your students? Is there a particular idea that you think is worth sharing?

We would love to hear what is happening in your classrooms. Please send an email to [email protected].