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Ministry grants encourage rural schools to embrace 21st Century Learning

Fifteen of the province's 46 rural school districts could receive up to $14,000 for 21st Century Learning projects thanks to a new partnership between the Ministry of Education and the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Education.

Education Minister George Abbott announced $300,000 for the Growing Innovation project in a press release issued last week, saying the grants will let rural districts explore 21st Century Learning, also known as Personalized Learning, and will ultimately improve educational outcomes in the region.

"School districts in rural locations best understand the challenges they face and are often already innovative in their schools because of geography or other unique circumstances," reads Abbott's statement.

"For example, at Lytton Elementary School, students connect with other students–hours away–to experience different teaching methods and share in their learning experiences as if they were working together side by side. This research will help more ideas like this come to life."

The project, led by Linda Farr Darling, the UBC Eleanor Rix professor of rural teacher education, is accepting applications until May 2 from teachers and principals who want to implement programs that meet the curriculum but would involve new methods of learning that will "push the educational agenda."

"(21st Century Learning) really does require a different way of thinking about how you're going to teach in a class because we've started to emphasize collaborative learning in a really big way," Farr Darling told The Tyee.

"In rural areas we've started to emphasize the idea that rural communities are only going to thrive if we start to think about powerful connections between our education system and the future of communities or the sustainability of communities."

This is the first year for the project, which will only award one grant per district despite accepting applications from all schools in the 44 eligible districts. The winners will be announced by the end of May.

Each of the 15 districts will have the option of receiving an additional $4,800 to cover the cost of a graduate student or researcher to assist with implementation of the project and answering research questions about the project's outcomes. For example, Farr Darling cites a school community garden project where students are the architects and landscape designers, helped by seniors in the community, with the aim of improving relations between the children and their elders.

"It could be that in your community, kids are not very well regarded by elders who don't have kids or no longer have kids in the school system, so they're not likely to support anything that's going on in the school, and they find the kids kind of off-putting and rude," she says.

"What the school decides to do is to work on intergenerational understandings through building this garden, and you want to see (with the help of a grad student) if that's made any difference through the process."

The projects will be implemented in the 2011/12 school year, with the ultimate goal of bringing district representatives to Vancouver next spring to present their projects to other districts from around the province. Farr Darling hopes this will encourage other schools to take a more innovative approach to their curriculum, with or without grant money.

"What we're hoping is that this can continue and that we can find other sources, and even without extra money schools can start to see ideas that they could implement for very little cost. Some of these innovations won't cost a lot of money, but could make a great deal of difference," she says.

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