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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The story of the da Vinci Program: a narrative study of an alternative learning approach Després, Blane Rolland


In the spring of 1991 I read The Walkabout Papers, by Maurice Gibbons (1990) in which he posits an alternative curriculum that includes experiential learning along the lines of the Australian aborigine walkabout tradition. This profoundly affected me and lead me in August of the same year to write a paper entitled “The da Vinci Files” which was the beginning of my attempts to bring about some radical changes in the way we undertake the education of adolescents. My intention was to implement Gibbons’ ideas that academic year. Following a staff meeting where this paper was presented and input was solicited, a group of four other teachers became actively involved with me in further developing the ideas. The group became known as the da Vinci team and the ideas eventually became clarified and solidified as the da Vinci Program. In the da Vinci Program the student undertakes six passages over the course of the final three years of secondary school in conjunction with course work, thus incorporating the student’s experiential learning in the curriculum. A passage is a particular learning event. The six passage categories are philosophical inquiry, physical challenge, practical skill, creative endeavour, career exploration, and community/global awareness. For each passage, the student must present a written proposal and negotiate it with a teacher/advisor and maintain a journal in order to document the experiences during the passage completion from which s/he will conclude the experience in a wrap-up. The culmination of the passage is a public celebration after completion during which time the passage experience is shared with the audience. The da Vinci Program is about learning in as complete a manner as is currently possible in the public school system. I contend that schooling is not complete, that it tends too much toward mastery of subject matter and that it tends to neglect the learner as an experiential and interactive being in the realm of daily existence. It is largely out of this frame of thinking that the da Vinci Program developed. Nonetheless, the inception, development and attempted implementation of this program at Chugalong (name altered) Secondary School, British Columbia, have been experiences of diverse proportions for me as the initiator and as a participant-observer. The foundation of this program (Gibbons’ [1990] Walkabout concept) helps students to articulate better their goals and to pursue personal interests that aid in the achievement of those goals while it demands greater interaction between school and community members (Gibbons, 1990; Bogard, 1992; Langberg, 1992; Horwood, 1987). The da Vinci Program, the adaptation of ideas from Gibbons’ writings (1990, 1991) and materials from Jefferson County Mountain Open School near Denver, Colorado, is innovative and radical in the context of the traditional approach to schooling that is prevalent in most public schools (witness the British Columbia Ministry of Education curricular innovation, Year 2000: A Framework For Learners [1989], which attempted to address public concerns about the nature of schooling). As the da Vinci Program developed and moved into the timetable as a curricular offering, difficulties arose that confinned issues and concerns in implementation as noted by Gibbons (1990), Miller & Seller (1990), Eisner, (1985), Doll, (1989), and Pratt, (1980). The problems due to the attempted implementation of da Vinci that I chose to examine were the challenges of change (personal, pedagogical and socio-political) as well as the curricular orientation of the Program in comparison with traditional schooling. As a teacher, the effects of these changes caused a shift in my thinking and approach to learning and living. Personal and pedagogical changes that I noted included my outlook on educating, interpersonal relationships with students, and a more critical interest in schooling. Socio-political changes that I documented and reflected upon confirmed Miller & Seller’s (1990) findings concerning temporal, social and institutional workings affected by an innovation that proceeds to implementation. Teacher reticence to change, structural alterations in the school program, community uncertainty about curricular offerings, and administrative ambiguity (in terms of roles, responsibilities, interests and actions) were difficulties that I noted and found supported by the literature (Provost, 1993; Hansen, D., 1992; Migyanico, 1992; Miller & Seller, 1990; Cornbleth, 1990; Doll, 1989; Mitchell, 1989; Steger & Leithwood, 1989; McCutcheon, 1988; Sergiovanni, 1987; Martin, Saif& Thiel, 1986; Brady, 1985; Knight, 1985; McNeil, 1985; Carson, 1984; Cuban, 1984; Eisner, 1983, 1985; Giroux, 1983; Wilson, 1981; Aronowitz, 1980; Baidridge, 1977; Gibbons 1976, 1990; Pratt, 1980; Hills, l975b). Problems associated with the challenges of change in education are linked to curriculum orientations (Miller & Seller, 1990), or ideologies, and as such demand an examination in the context of the da Vinci Program and its foundation. My choice of Miller & Seller’s (1990) treatment of orientations and meta-orientations was borne out of philosophical analysis of the Program. I found that the da Vinci Program tended to be a mixture of the Transactional and Transformational meta-orientations. I also posited that the foundation of the Program could be argued as a meta-orientation or over-arching guiding principle for curriculum in its own right. The discussion about curricular change and orientations via da Vinci lends itself, too, to comparisons with the traditional practice of schooling in North America. However, since the da Vinci Program was never “fully” implemented (which is to be understood as I speak of implementation throughout this thesis) at Chugalong Secondary, a complete analysis of the benefits or drawbacks is impossible at this point. Nonetheless, I have made some comparative points which are drawn from my teaching experience and from various research findings. The key points that I found were that, 1) traditional schooling practices have changed little over the course of the past century despite literature that challenges the traditional paradigm (Cuban, 1984; Pallas, 1993) and, 2) the nature of this traditional paradigm tends to be a function of economics and institutional convenience and needs to concentrate more on full human development (Chamberlain & Chamberlain, 1993; Ozar, 1993; Becher, 1992; Goodson, 1992; Harber, 1992; Gough, 1991; Levin, 1991; Mallea, 1989; Mitchell, 1989; Bacharach, 1988; Clandinin & Connelly, 1987; Tizzell, 1987; English, 1986; Gray & Chanoff, 1986; Oakes, 1986a, 1986b; Aronowitz & Giroux, 1985; Blackledge & Hunt, 1985; Cuban, 1984; Eisner, 1983; Sanders, 1981; Anyon, 1980; Apple, 1980; Kohl, 1980; Donmoyer, 1979; Madgie, 1979; Gibbons, 1976, 1990; Proctor, 1975; Freire, 1974; Illich, 1973; Lister, 1973; Collins, 1971; Coombs, 1967; Rogers, 1967; Withelms, 1967; Parsons, 1959; Russell, 1949). The information which I amassed in seeking to explicate the da Vinci Program was useful also in reflecting on the Program’s potential worth, not just for me or to me, but in the educational process as well. The Walkabout concept that Gibbons (1990) developed and that serves as the foundation of the da Vinci Program has been proven effective (Gibbons, 1990, 1992; Bogard, 1992; Langberg, 1992; Horwood, 1987). To speak of the worth of the da Vinci Program, then, requires looking at it through the Walkabout program, for example, in Jefferson County Mountain Open School. The development of the da Vinci Program resulted in a locally produced working document that can be utilized by educators to understand the Program and its potential effects, and to implement it. The nature of the da Vinci Program lends itself to a narrative explication rather than a statistical analysis. Curriculum innovation and implementation obviously involve elements that are not so given to quantification. The thinking process, the undergirding of choices made, the questions raised, the power structure and struggles, the nature of educating, the role of students, teachers, community and administration, all in the context of implementing this Program, are experiential factors that elude quantification. Yet, such elements are significant parts in the process of education. The narrative voice is one dimension of the academic experience that affords a means of furthering our understanding of the educational process and complementing the knowledge we have about curriculum innovation and implementation. I will be employing primarily my voice throughout this document. However, there are places and moments when the necessity of using the first person plural in reference to the da Vinci team should be evident In the chapter layout of this story I have employed the format used in the da Vinci Program itself: proposal, passage, and wrap-up. The Appendices contain documents that relate directly to the da Vinci Program from the initial presentation to the staff (Appendix 1, “The da Vinci Files”) to the working documents (Appendix 4), Passage examples by some of the students (Appendix 5), to a final report that was completed for accreditation purposes (Appendix 6, “Graduation Development Site, 1991/92 Final Report). In this way, I have sought to offer the reader not only reference materials for clarifying my experiences in the da Vinci Program, but also working documents whose function may serve to help in the implementation of a similar program.

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