Mathland Reflections – Game Design

One of my blogging goals is to share more often about coding to learn experiences of the students I am working with at various schools. Case in point, on Friday, some grade 5 students were hard at work during their fourth session (our first was October 3) of game design using Scratch. In January, they will be challenged with a larger game-design project but, for now, they control all parameters of their game.

One student was starting to program a new game inspired by the growing snake game. He had the user interface complete (arrows controlled the movement of the snake) and was starting to work on how to make the snake grow longer after bits of food were consumed. (A copy of his project as it was on Friday is here.)

During the 60 minute session, I checked in with him four times. I was well aware of what he was trying to accomplish and sometimes we discussed new ideas or how certain blocks might work within the context of his goal. I recorded some video during the final conversation we had.

He is still in the early stages of designing and coding his game but he figured out a number of conditions needed to make the snake grow in size and have the body follow along in the direction the head was going. In so doing, he talked about variables, Cartesian coordinates, decimal magnitudes, and various problem solving strategies.


Snapshot of the code discussed in the video below

The reflections he shares in the video below illustrate quite well what I often see when coding is used by students in a meaningful and powerful way, over the long term, and used as a means to learn concepts and visualize ideas. You can hear various mathematical concepts and processes that were applied simultaneously and all within the context of a single goal, which he set for himself, during this session.

Turn the “Hour of Code” into the “Year of Learning”

It’s great that so many students and teachers I know, and many whom I do not know (but am aware of via Twitter) are checking out or other hour of code sites next week. There are so many great resources that always result in a fantastically exciting hour for students.

Coding has become the current term of choice to describe computer programming and/or computational thinking in education. My hope and suggestion is to let your hour of code experience represent the lighting of a flame that continues to burn for the entire year. Allow more (and regular) time for students to continue to explore coding. Design learning projects and activities that help them use coding to explore concepts and express ideas.

Coding is a highly effective method by which students can organize complex ideas and processes into visible, movable, discussable, shareable chunks of thought on a screen. In so doing, problems can be solved, games can be designed, concepts can be explored, art can be created, stories can be told, movements can be modeled, and most of all, excitement about an idea that is born in a child’s mind can be immediately put into action in their project.

Learning to code might be a cool goal but learning through coding is an incredibly powerful learning pathway which has been around for decades and has been, and continues to be, tried, tested, and proven effective.

I’ve started in a small way to contribute some examples of ways in which learning through coding can take place. I curate a Scratch Studio called Mathland Challenges and currently have 14 example projects with embedded challenges with direct connections to Ontario curricula:


Why do you want kids to code?


I made this because I think there is an important distinction between learning to code and coding to learn.  I think the focus with students doing coding in schools should be coding to learn. Bill Ferriter’s graphic called what do you want kids to do with technology was the inspiration for my graphic. I created this for the same reasons he created his. Coding affords a means through which some incredibly powerful thinking, making and learning can take place.

I am of two minds regarding the current fascination with the use of coding in education worldwide. I like the attention programming is once again getting in schools and I like that teachers and students are exploring it in a serious way. However, much of that attention is preoccupied with efforts to help students to learn to code. I think the focus in education should be the coding to learn goals listed in the green-blocks, not learning to code blue-blocks ones. Of course, just because the educational focus is on the green-block goals, that doesn’t mean concepts in the blue-blocks won’t be learned. The difference lies in the intention and emphasis behind students coding in schools.

I’ve blogged about it before and I am still troubled by the hype surrounding coding right now. If the goal is let’s get students learning code then my question is why? What is the purpose of those coding activities? There is large body of research, conducted over many decades, exploring powerful learning processes through coding and designing (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4). That’s nothing new. But if we are getting kids coding because says they should, or we need to fill a future skills gap, then I think the most powerful aspect of children coding gets lost.

Why play? Why inquiry?

constructionism-in-pracI’m reading this book. It’s hard, but it’s fun. I’m playing around with the ideas and it’s making me think a lot about teaching, learning, playing, and knowledge.

Play, making, exploring, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, maker spaces, and so on… these are all justifiable reactions against the arbitrary segregation of various subject matter in our curriculum. As teachers and learners, we know real knowledge is practical and personal and situated the very experiences that created the knowledge in the first place.

Disconnected knowledge is quickly forgotten. You probably remember the rooms you wrote your exams in better than what you wrote, right? Good teachers know that “learning by doing and making and playing” is not just a cliché; it is the essence of real, useful, practical, sticky knowledge. MIT has a graduate work group called the “Lifelong Kindergarten Group.” They’re on to something with that name.

Our precious early years of play should not give way to more and more so called “formal learning” or whatever euphemism you want to use. Sure, 7-year-olds will play with different things in a different way for different reasons than a 3-year-old, and a 9 or 12-year-old will play differently still.

I think the very essence of play is the process by which we, at any age, root our knowledge in experiences, and then connect new experience to our knowledge. I am playing right now as I write this. It’s fun; I am learning; I am sharing something I think is valuable; I am hoping to talk to people about these ideas; my new understandings will inform and guide my future interactions with students. It’s all interconnected and has value to me and is important to what I feel my purpose as an educator is. This isn’t an earth shattering idea but it is essential I think that we, as educators, embrace what play really is.

Play still has a negative connotation when applied, it would seem, to anyone other than a child. But play is a viable, defendable, powerful learning strategy useful at every age. I think educators are expanding our concept of play to include all things that we do that involve creating, making, designing, expressing, connecting, and growing.

I think all of the wonderful terms for strategies we are currently using – making, exploring, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, maker spaces, etc. – are just other ways of saying play and we are using them because we are expanding what play means and the role it has in powerful learning.


Teaching as a creative act

I think children learn best within a social environment in which the group of people genuinely know and care about each other. I strongly feel that this forms the foundation for the most successful classrooms. To me, Rita Pierson in her 2013 TED talk described the need for relationships in education most clearly and passionately: “Every child deserves a champion; an adult who will never give up on them,” she said and teachers have the opportunity every day to do just that.

I see relationships and learning as very closely related; both are creative acts. They are creative because every day they need to be nurtured, utilized, examined, improved, and remade. The heart of constructivism is that knowledge, skills and values are built over time in socially safe and growth-focused environments. Knowledge building is never done. Very new knowledge is often very wrong; take for example a young child’s explanation of wind: “wind is made by trees as they wave back and forth.” As we experience more, play more, talk with others, and as we make things and share things, knowledge gets improved; it becomes more accurate or sophisticated.

Highly effective teaching involves creating the conditions for learning and exploring that are not only developmentally appropriate but also are respectful of children’s personalities, passions, and dreams. Sir Ken Robinson said in his 2010 TED talk: “And every day, everywhere, our children spread their dreams beneath our feet. And we should tread softly.” I can’t think of a better reminder of the awesome responsibility of parents and teachers than this statement.

Thanks to @MatthewOldridge for this blog challenge!

Can expertise cause bias?

Can expertise cause bias in such a way that it prevents an expert from looking at new ideas with an authentically open mind?

I was inspired after reading this blog post about “calling BS” on educational bandwagons, trends and fads. It struck me after reading Dean’s post that, while I highly value the usefulness of skepticism, I wondered if I have put enough mental energy into exploring, in an authentic way, new creative ideas and innovations in education.

Don’t misunderstand; I think creativity and criticism are equally important in a highly complex professional endeavor such as education. My point is that I want to highlight two traps I have fallen into at times. First, I often jump quickly to questioning the validity and efficacy of new ideas in education, or even established ideas. Second, I often do not spend enough time and effort exploring new ideas in education, or even established ideas.

My guess is that both of these problems are not that uncommon in other educators as well. Not trying to sound clever, but I wonder if jumping quickly to skepticism is a sort of bandwagon, too. It can become fairly natural to develop and maintain a strong, questioning stance in the face of the continuous stream of educational ideas in blogs, books, papers, courses, and talks. Additionally, I wonder how well anyone can maintain a comprehensive knowledge of new (and old) ideas, theories, and other innovations in education.

I think I am quite well-versed in a dozen or so big ideas/theories but I freely admit that I have limited knowledge of many hundreds of others. Simple awareness or superficial understanding is not difficult. But true, in-depth knowledge takes time and effort. I don’t think anyone can have total depth or breadth but I think depth and breadth can, and should, be pushed.


Could the same be said of education?

Herein lays one of my key professional growth areas for this new school year. My theory is that my set of core beliefs and values, knowledge and skills is causing bias. I’m not talking about the normal epistemological bias that comes from professional practice, reflection, and developing competence. Rather, I am wondering if that core is making me jump to skepticism too quickly when facing new educational ideas and innovations. I am guessing that this is the case, probably more often than not. So, I want to start this year with the goal of letting more ideas pass through the critical filter so they can be examined with more of an open mind. I’m not saying that my core beliefs need to change; I am saying that I think I need to be more open to allowing for change.

Spiraling cycle of design in Scratch (#peel21st April 2016 blog hop)

This blog hop topic of ‘design’ could not have come at a better time. Students and I are in the midst of designing a game called ‘Peela’ or ‘The Yellow Bug’ game in Scratch (click to try it). This project serves as an example, challenge and provocation for students. There are so many decisions that go into designing a fun game: the user interface, the goal(s) of the game, how does the game require player skill, difficulty-based levels, balancing success and failure in user attempts to seek a high score, sense of fun and excitement, appealing graphics, sounds, music, rewards, and so on!


I think game design is an outstanding opportunity for students to engage in and be engaged by a spiraling cycle of design / critical-creative thinking process. I fully subscribe to the ‘Kindergarten learning approach’ espoused by Mitch Resnick (concisely outlined in his 2007 paper).


To me, game design affords students the opportunity to engage in a goal-directed project that is fun but hard, invites feedback and collaboration, involves continuous problem solving, and embraces a highly creative process. The learning is rewarding and brimming over with the development of quality knowledge building and skill development. Scratch is an ideal programming environment because it has been designed from the start to support a spiraling design thinking process while remaining very accessible and functional to young children.

This post is one of many in the April 2016 #peel21st blog hop. Check out the other posts:

What does global citizenship mean to you?

Recently, the Ontario Ministry of Education released “21st Century Competencies: Foundation Document for Discussion.” I think that the outlined skills on page 56 in the 6th box called ‘global citizenship’ are excellent:

I also really like the way the Asia Society discusses global competence.  Essentially, their central idea is that knowledge and skills that are explored and learned need to be explored and learned from a variety of cultural perspectives in order for students to be globally literate. I am not entirely certain that the 6th box pictured above really captures that idea. (An excellent reference document called Educating for Global Competence is available on the Asia Society web site.)

That is, in order to gain a more balanced, inclusive global perspective, developmentally appropriate strategies should be employed to help students to weigh perspectives, to understand and communicate to different cultural audiences, to confidently take actions to improve people and the environment, and to remain a lifelong learner who can continuously adapt and empathize with an always changing and evolving global society.

I’ve just finished reading an excellent book, called Four-Dimensional Education, that embraces this view and also proposes a workable, four-part framework for curriculum redesign. If you are ready for an in-depth examination, check it out!

4dimed - Copy

This post is part of the #peel21st March blog hop! Please check out the other great blog posts in this hop:

Five useful tools to support music education

Here are five of my favourite apps/online tools that can be used to create, share, or listen to music. In the list below, click on the name of the tool to visit the web site and find out more about what it can do and how to download it.

Explain Everything (iOS & Android)

This versatile, open-ended app has no limit to the way it can be used in educational settings.  It has all of the features of a slideshow app, a screencasting app, and a whiteboard app.  For music, it could be used to record sounds of instruments and/or voice, ear train, annotate performances, create graphic scores, etc.

Example use:


GarageBand (iOS) 

This Apple app succeeds at making the creation of music accessible to people who may have little musical training, or even none at all. The app can be used in different modes and can support various levels of competence in musical composition. In the video below, the actual GarageBand tutorial starts at about the 4:00 mark.


Noteflight (online tool)

This free, online tool for writing standard musical notation is one of the easiest to use. Users can create scrores and have the ability to produce publication quality scores. Or, students can have fun freely exploring their music ideas; it’s easy to experiment with notes, rests, clefs, signatures, mordents, tempos, and so on. The tool has a built in playback mode so that users can listen to how their composition sounds.


MadPad (iOS)

This app lets you “remix your life.” That is, you can make recordings of various sounds you make or hear to create a custom percussive pad. You can create rhythms and beats from the sounds of your life. Users can also record specific performances and export the video to the camera roll.


NAXOS Music Library (online resource) 

If you are a PDSB student or teacher, you can access this resource at school quite easily by clicking on this link: If you are at home, you can access this resource for free by using this link: and then entering the correct username and password. The login information is available at your school.  This resource contains over 1.7 million music tracks in every musical genre!


Bonus App:  VidRhythm is not free but it is enormous fun. Once in the app, you choose a song from the list and then you choose a style of video (the way it will look and be put together). At this point, the app guides you through the words, sounds, notes, and so on that you need to record to have the building blocks of the song. Finally, the app creates the video and autotunes your pitch (if necessary) so it that sounds great. Students won’t learn a ton of music theory using this app but it is fun to play with. Your kids will be highly involved and laughing.


#peel21st Blog Hop

This post was part of a blog hop organized for #peel21st in December, 2015.  Please check out the other blogs in this hop by clicking on one of the links below:

Memorable learning moment (#peel21st Nov 2015 blog hop)

A grade six teacher and I had co-planned a series of sessions with her students around coding with Scratch. In one of the later sessions, I was working with a boy who was frustrated with the game he was making and told me he wanted to start over again.  In age appropriate words, I reassured him that programming involved working in a continuous state of problem solving. In fact, fixing coding errors in programming has a special word: debugging.

Scratch "Game challenge"

An example maze game in Scratch.

I pointed out that it appeared to me that his code was progressing quite well. He accepted my offer to help him. I modeled the problem solving process of isolating chunks of code that might be causing the error. Akin to breaking a complex problem into more manageable parts, this strategy helped him fix his code because he was able to test his code bit by bit rather than all at once. Because he could now pinpoint where each problem was, it became far easier to see what the problem was.

At the time, I felt he was operating with a fixed mindset, at least initially. Without doing the actual work of solving his problems for him, my goal was to talk out loud, using growth mindset language, and model some strategies that might work.

There were three bugs in his code and he fixed each one by isolating the problem and stepping through his instructions one by one. I wasn’t surprised that he became very enthusiastic and confident about his program. What did surprise me, though, was how effective it was to simply alter my language so that it consistently reflected growth mindset thinking.



Check out these other blog posts in our first #peel21st blog hop of 2015-2016:


%d bloggers like this: