Sandbox time: the importance of playing with technology

I was reminded again this week how important it is to allow students to play with technology. This connects back to the theme of allowing students to figure it out.

Anyway I’ve often felt it was really important when introducing a new program or a new task to allow students a chance to mess around with it. This is the period where they can make the mistakes. A high school teacher I once knew took it one step further. She wanted them to create a terrible version of the thing that they were supposed to create. This got them to think about what was the criteria for success in it. And then do the opposite.

So this past week I sent out a reminder to my students. It was an invitation for them to mess around. Some of them are having a lot of fun with it. Some have not engaged yet. But it is March break so possibly they have their own reasons.

Either way it’s important for me to remind myself how important it is for students to mess around and explore. This is one way for them to figure it out.


Parents: 11 Questions to promote learning over grades.


What if it isn’t about the grades?

Questions to promote learning over grades.jpg

This post originally started here, as a list of dreamer questions I came up with a few years ago and finally got around to posting. Once posted, I felt a few deserved a bit more thinking.

I’ve struggled with this problem for quite some time. I fear we’ve trained kids to do school rather than learn. And my personal problem within this is a seemingly hyper-focus on grades, driven either by the students OR we’ve taught them to value this as motivation.

For us within education, I know there are so many things we need to do to move the focus away from grades and towards the learning. Report cards, summative assessments, silo units, and reporting restrictions are just some of the areas we in the business need to address. However, these are for another time. This post is for the parents.

Parents: Here are 11 questions to ask your child to move the focus away from the grades and towards the learning.

How did you grow your brain today?

I adore the work of Jo Boaler – Stanford professor of mathematics – and her work bringing brain theory to the instruction of mathematics. Particularly exciting is her thinking about the brain’s plasticity and the idea that you can grow your brain. Basically her work tells us, as parents, teachers, educators, mentors to young people, that mistakes and struggle help grow your brain.

This question helps students focus on this struggle – and the positive outcomes of this struggle. Let’s celebrate the mistakes and struggle that grow your brain, and that aren’t celebrated in what Jo Boaler calls our “performance culture”.  We tend to focus on the end product: the tests, the games, the final point in the journey. Rather we also need to celebrate all the struggle along the way.

What did you struggle with today?

There should be a sense of urgency in today’s education. We have so much good work to do, and not a lot of time to do this in. If students aren’t working hard, and struggling, then we are wasting our time. Did your child waste their time today or did they engage in some meaningful struggle today? If they didn’t struggle, then why not? What can they do to make this happen tomorrow?

This question builds off the work of Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset. Growth Mindset is the attitude that seeks out challenges, that embraces mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn. Students with a Growth Mindset tend to be more resilient when facing obstacles and know that struggle leads to success.

This struggle has shown to connect to success in school. Students with a fixed mindset: those who believe that intelligence is fixed and pre-determined, that there is nothing you can do to change this (those who believe that there are “math people”, and therefore those who aren’t good at math), these students tend not to perform well in school in that they avoid challenges: they see these as a threat to there own intelligence. If you struggle then you mustn’t be smart.

Having a fixed mindset is limiting to students. We know that students who embrace a growth mindset will seek out struggles because they know that this struggle with help make them smarter. If you aren’t struggling then you aren’t getting any smarter!

What risks did you take?

Connecting these previous ideas of brain growth and struggle, to the ideas of innovation and creativity is this: taking risks in your learning is so important. Ask your child what risks they took: in what they created, produced, attempted, tried. Did they go outside of their comfort zone and try something new?

Our current fascination with STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) is really about getting students to solve problems, designing solutions and coming up with new and innovative products. This type of thinking involves taking risks.

These risks can extend to solving problems in math, creating writing texts, reading new-to-you books, etc. Taking risks is so important in today’s classrooms, and we need our students to do more of this.

What questions did you ask today?

Questions prompt wonder, inquiry, and an approach to our world. What were they curious about? What did they want to know? And then, what did they do with this wonder?

Our world is a fascinating place. Let’s together foster this wonder.

What mistakes did you make today?

This question connects to both Growth Mindset and brain theory. Let’s get away from our obsession with our Performance Culture, where the final event is what is most important. Let’s start valuing the learning journey, and celebrate these mistakes as opportunities to learn.

So this isn’t a celebration of failure, but rather a celebration of our response to these mistakes. What mistakes did you make today? What did you then do about it?

And mistakes are not about giving up – students with a fixed mindset believe this. Mistakes are a chance to double down and try something new. Students with a growth mindset relish these opportunities to try again – to improve and get smarter.

Did you fail forward today?

This question comes from education’s current love-affair with design thinking and the fantastic book Launch by the brilliant John Spencer and AJ Juliana. This idea of failing forward is crucial to the design process, but can be extended to just about anything in school. Did you try something and it didn’t work? What did you do then to move your process forward? How did you respond to this failure to create something better?

This could apply to a design task (the marble got stuck in the marble run; the car didn’t go as far as it needed to; the bridge didn’t support the necessary load before collapsing) or to a performance task (the free-throw didn’t go into the basket; the character in the short story doesn’t have a convincing problem). These failures are opportunities to move forward in the design process. Again – how did your child respond to failure?

What problems did you find today?

Teachers love students who solve problems: ones that dig into the challenges presented. However, moving towards an ever-changing future, we need people who will seek out new PROBLEMS to then solve.

I absolutely adore the work of George Couros – both his blog and is book The Innovator’s Mindset. His work is really for educators, but his thinking towards seeking problems is really inspiring. Let’s have kids embrace this approach: there are problems that need YOU to solve them. What are these problems?

As schools lean towards more inquiry, we are looking to students to identify these problems and fully engage in solving these. There are no shortages of examples of students finding a problem and then changing the world to solve it. What I love is the empowerment involved in solving these problems. We need our students to believe that they too can change our world!

What solutions did you try today?

Is your child currently working towards solving problems? What did they try? Did they work? Why or why not?

This thinking helps students look forward. This helps students think about their process, in a world obsessed with products. As an educator, I’ve moved from a product driven approach (now we’re all going to make a PowerPoint!) to a process-driven approach (let’s learn how to revise our work to better engage our audience!). I believe the process is the most important part of the learning journey. Let’s keep the focus on the learning.

Did you get any feedback today?

Teachers now are in the business of providing feedback. We know that student thinking stops when a grade is given. We know that learning never stops. Improving never stops. Why does the thinking stop?

Personally, I spend a lot of time giving feedback (both formal written and informal on-the-fly conversations) and I want students to apply that feedback. This feedback is designed to move the thinking forward. But if this feedback is given with a grade, students ignore the feedback and only focus on the grade – and then the learning stops. A grade for most means that the learning is over.

Again, I know we in education are guilty of fostering this love of grades. I struggle with balancing the need to let students know where they are currently, in relation to the standard (grades) and what they need to do to improve (feedback). I’m guilty of providing feedback along with a grade, though I know that this almost cancels each other out. In education, we know that the most effective way to deliver feedback is to give just feedback. We know this: “Overall, detailed, descriptive feedback was found to be most effective when given alone, unaccompanied by grades or praise.”

So let’s celebrate feedback. Let’s view feedback alone as valuable and something then to apply. Stop asking what grade did you get, start asking what feedback did you get?

Did you meet any of your goals today?

Some feedback is in the the form of goals – something to work towards. To have students fully engaged in their own learning, they should have goals that they are working towards. How are they doing in working towards these goals? Have they reached their goals? If yes, what’s next? If not, what are they going to do about it?

Did you strengthen any of your weaknesses today?

I’ve mentioned our obsession with performance culture before. We celebrate the end product, but little attention is often paid to the struggle along the way.

I’m convinced that we are moving towards what I call a “Harry Potter” culture. In this fantastic series, our titular hero Harry turns out to be a phenom the FIRST time he rides a broom – not only besting his nemesis Draco Malfoy (who presumable spent years on a broom previous to this) as well as jumping the cue as is and instantly making the Quidditch team, something rare for a person so young.

Our popular culture celebrates our American Idol winners, our YouTube stars, giving us the false impression that fame is something easier to attain, rather than acknowledging all the hard work that is necessary.

Sometimes our schools over-emphasis our strengths and talents and ignores our weaknesses. When I taught Grade 1, many years ago, I had a student in Kindergarten who was a reading prodigy. She was reading advanced novels and her parents were looking to have her put into Grade 1, skipping a grade. She spent a week in my class, after which I met with the administrative team and parents to offer my advice. I told them that her strengths were beyond my class, but her weaknesses were below Grade 1 level: She was reading beyond my students, but couldn’t yet hold a pencil or use scissors. This was a revelation to the parents, in that they were over-emphasizing her strengths and ignoring her weaknesses.

I see this today in my own students: students who avoid feedback, and tasks they perceive as difficult in favour of their strengths. We need to balance our focus to include the weaknesses of our students along with what they are doing to strengthen these weaknesses.

Final Thoughts

I know we have a lot of do in shifting focus towards the learning. For too long, grades have given us a quick short-hand way of understanding how students are doing in school. Let’s now look beyond the grades and focus on the learning. These questions will help us in education make this shift.


What If?

Been challenged to create a blog post under 200 words, responding to the following prompt for the IMMOOC course I’m taking:

3. Which “what if” question challenges your thinking in the Innovator’s Mindset? What would you add to the list of what ifs?

A few years ago, during a trip to the dog park, my brain was racing and dreaming, and I came up with the following “What Ifs” that I felt could push my practice forward. It is amazing to come back and reflect.

What if the classroom walls were for the learning?
What if I had nothing to prove?
What if math was art?
What if school was for self directed learning as well?
What if it wasn’t the child’s fault?
What if all students could be successful?
What if school was a place of challenge AND joy?
What if students ran to school?
What if school met the needs of every student?
What if school was a safe place?
What if we all looked out for each other?
What if the classroom belonged to the students?
What if students were in charge of their own learning?
What if mistakes were the most important part of learning?
What if we used technology to transform how and what we learn?
What if it wasn’t about grades?


Making Innovation Easier

What has changed in our world today that not only makes innovation easier to do, but is also necessary for our students?

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology lately, and specifically (as it ties into my MOOC on The Innovator’s Mindset) on how it fosters innovation in my teaching.

But specifically, I’m haunted by the pendulum allegations that cell phones have no place in the classroom. I get nervous when I hear public outcry against cell phones, and by extension, technology.

I’ve long since embraced technology. At the beginning, I foolishly thought it was a tool of engagement (if you use technology, the kids will pay attention!) but have since evolved this thinking into accepting technology as an integral tool in our lives – one that must be leveraged for sophisticated purposes. Now I feel myself moving towards DEMANDING technology use in our schools. How are we still having these conversations about technology use? These powerful devices, that a lot of our students have, that can fit into our pockets, that are more powerful than the technology used to put people on the moon – how are we still not embracing these?

So with that in mind, I wanted to think about HOW technology is making innovation easier.

But first, some background. Innovation, as defined by George Couros, is this: “Innovation as a way of thinking that creates something new and better.” I think this is important. Sometimes new isn’t necessarily better. But I believe that this act of creation is important, this act of innovation and imagination is critical. Yes, I believe that we are preparing our students for a world of problems that don’t yet exist. And yes, I do see the irony of this statement, having worked in the field of education that is preposterously slow to change. How is it that classes and schools still look like this?!?

So here are my thoughts on how technology is making innovation happen in my classroom.

1. Access to information

Students have incredible access to information. And this has fundamentally shifted my place within the classroom. This has been especially evident when I recently started teaching science. Being a science teacher comes with all sorts of expectations and baggage. I love fostering the inherent curiosity of our world, but I don’t know everything about everything – but I don’t have to. I do have to know how to access technology, how to foster inquiry, and how to ask un-google-able questions. My favourite part of my day is when I can say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out!”.

Now I know that having access to information doesn’t necessarily lead to innovation – but it should. Innovation isn’t necessarily creating something new. It could be taking an existing idea/product and changing it – presumably to make it better. A few years ago, I had a student that shared the same sense of humour – which was sealed by his insistence of adding Bluetooth to unnecessary products – often with hilarious results. We both recognized that sometimes unnecessary innovation was frivolous.

But sometimes looking for answers is a part of the innovation process. Which leads me to my next thought.

2. Process over Products

I need to be clear here. I too get excited about innovative products. But I still think the process of innovation is much more important – which can be seen in our current Design Thinking and STEM excitement. However, this goes back to our Science Fair days – when the process/thinking should have been celebrated, but too often it was the product.

Technology helps in this process in that it makes it easier. Publishing a writing piece is now easier when there are so many tools to help in the planning, research, revision and publishing stages. Though paper and pencil is important, leveraging technology makes this process easier.

In my writing focus now, we are looking at the process of revision: making big changes to improve the writing. So many were loathe to engaged in the rough draft/good copy nonsense – and for good reason. If they were using a document processor, how easy it to copy and paste paragraphs, move and improve ideas?

too much technology

This was my favourite moment of the week. This is a student using his laptop, iPad and phone (I staged the second laptop because I thought it was funny). But how incredible is this? This is one of the most innovative students I’ve worked with, leveraging his technology for very sophisticated purposes. He isn’t distracted because he is engaged. He’s engaged because we are working to create irresistibly engaging learning experiences for him.

Here’s to looking forward!


How I succeeded (and failed) at the #1st3Days Challenge

As of yesterday, I have completed one Day 1-5 rotation in the school schedule. I guess this means that the year is now up and running! One thing I really wanted to try this start-up was something I came across on Twitter – and now that I’m searching back throughout this hashtag, I’m not even sure if I’ve interpreted it correctly! My goal was to start the year talking less than the kids.

My goal this year was to start the year talking less than the kids.

In welcoming my new classes, I wanted to focus on building relationships and trust among the kids and myself. I wanted to have a “casual” start to the year, drawing inspiration from the Finish method, found here.

So we talked, we shared experiences. I showed pictures of my summer (to bridge and build connections, as most were concerned with figuring me out). We took breaks (a good thing, because it was so hot!). We went outside, we hung out, we talked, we sat quietly and we watched a movie. We held our first community circle.

Now there were unavoidable times where I needed to talk at the kids. We needed to be clear about some rules and expectations, there couldn’t wait. But I didn’t push it, and I purposely held off on curriculum – for the most part!

And here is where I think I failed. I’m teaching intermediate (Grade 7&8) science on rotary this year, meaning I see all 4 intermediate classes 3 times per cycle. So there was an expectation that I would “do science” when they came to me. So I thought I would jump into Design Thinking (thank you John Spencer and AJ Juliani!). I presented the challenges to the kids, and then let them have at it.

I had the following challenges for the students:

  • design a marble run on a sheet of poster board, using only recycled paper and glue
  • construct a tall free-standing structure using a length of tape (1m) and straws and scissors
  • design a machine that throws a mini-marshmallow, using only elastic bands and Popsicle sticks.
  • in 5 minutes, design a maze that takes someone at least 30 seconds to solve (paper an pencil)
  • using tape and straws, design a structure that supports a tennis ball


In coming up with these challenges, I thought they would be a fun and casual way to introduce students to the science class. I was not prepared for how deep and meaningful this teaching became!

These activities quickly turned into rich and valuable diagnostic data. I very quickly determined what the students did well with these design thinking challenges, and I also uncovered what we need to work on. This became so much more than just fun and causal start to the year.

We were able to build relationships and trust for each other, as the challenges were of no “real” consequence (in that they weren’t marked, as some kids are very mark oriented). We quickly understood the need to adopt a design thinking mindset, in that failures were a chance to keep learning, begging for new ideas and iterations!

So even though I wanted to hold off on the curriculum and teaching, I ended up failing at this (in science!) in that this became some of the richest teaching I’ve done!

I can’t wait to keep digging into this!