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: http://www.constructivisttoolkit.com/home/explain-everything-ear-training


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: http://peel.naxosmusiclibrary.com/ If you are at home, you can access this resource for free by using this link: http://naxosmusiclibrary.com/ 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.


Source: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html 

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


Kids and coding: What might Seymour Papert say?

(Updated August 2016, May 2017)
I am very pleased that there is a growing sense in the education world of the connection between coding and cognition and learning. There is a mountain of research examining the various beneficial cognitive effects of learning computer programming. Great! But, I believe Seymour Papert would say that students learning computer programming is only part of the vision for higher quality learning today. I believe he would emphasize that when children learn computer programming, it should be used a vehicle for exploring, expressing and sharing personal ideas and passions. Used as such, programming is a versatile, personalizable approach… and chunks of code are created as constructable, interlocking objects which can be used to build things that can be shared and remixed.

In his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, he does not say that coding or programming per se is the answer to higher quality thinking and learning. But he does outline an environment, called a microworld, as the place where powerful ideas and strategic thinking can be developed. I see his microworld learning environment as the marriage of three key ideas (more detail here):

  • the concept of ‘objects to think with
  • the discipline of computer programming
  • the theory of genetic epistemology

Papert believed that learning about concepts within a microworld learning environment would result in much higher quality learning, that is, a deeper understanding of concepts would result, more so than traditional learning environments. All microworlds must contain a ‘object to think with’ that serves as a focal point of thinking. Decades ago, Papert designed a robot, called a Turtle, that students could relate to both physically and emotionally. Students wanted to teach the Turtle new words in the microworld, such as SQUARE or CIRCLE, and, in so doing, the Turtle could move in more and more complex ways.

Usually, students ‘played Turtle‘ first by moving their bodies in the way they wanted the Turtle to move. Then, they tried to cause the Turtle to move in the same way that their bodies moved. As they broke down the steps in their own physical movements, this knowledge was captured and translated into code (in a programming language called LOGO) which was typed into the computer that controlled the Turtle. Initially, the Turtle did not move they way they wanted.  They altered their code and the Turtle started to move more and more in the desired way. This cyclic process of continuous improvements in the code resulted in continuous improvements in the Turtle’s movements.  Eventually, their initial movement goal was realized.


In this example, the Turtle is the physical object to think with, programming with LOGO functions as the cognitive tool, and the whole rationale for the activity is based in Piaget’s theory of how new knowledge is created in the mind (which he called genetic epistemology). In this case, the knowledge being built is knowledge about geometry. In a microworld, there is always a meaningful context for learning.

Another aspect that must be pointed out is that Papert is clearly making the case that as children are constructing their programs in the real world, cognitive structures are being constructed in their minds. And, in a way, vice versa. Additionally, children share and discuss their ideas which makes them more exciting and multi-dimensional. This kind of approach to teaching & learning is called constructionism. (For more about Papert’s enduring contributions to education, take a look at Mitch Resnick‘s tribute in his keynote from Scratch@MIT 2016 or this excellent TEDx talk by Gary Stager.)

Now that “coding” is once again popular, I am once again worried:

My constant worry is that the educational world will fixate on purely coding and programming.

Papert’s ideas are neither inaccessible nor out-of-date; they are worth learning about; they can be a powerful influence on the way we teach and the way we think about how children learn. There are already modern versions of the Turtle, such as LEGO Mindstorms, and modern versions of the geometry microworld, such as Scratch that students and teachers can successfully use in schools. One of my primary goals in educational technology is to promote the notion that if you want powerful, high quality learning, then technology must always be used in the service of learning or making or creating or designing. Coding for coding’s sake does have cognitive benefits but those benefits can be multiplied if coding tasks are contextualized, within a purposeful educational design, and within an effective learning environment.


Over the last few years, I have been trying to put together some example challenges that are directly connected to the Ontario curriculum. In this way, teachers might see how using the Scratch coding to learn environment can be directly, and deeply, connected to the real mathematical concepts underlying the intent of the curriculum.

Example Mathland Challenges:

Studio link: https://scratch.mit.edu/studios/3456807/

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 9.56.12 PM

A final thought:

Further Reading:

The SAMR model was not created to classify apps

SAMR-thingThe SAMR model was not invented as a way to classify apps.  This poster continues to be circulated widely among educators over the past few years. Unfortunately, it also continues to perpetuate a misunderstanding of the SAMR model.

I use this poster and others regularly in professional learning workshops as a provocation. Discussion about the possible merits of the poster and its accuracy are very instructional. However, in the end, the poster is misleading.

The SAMR model is one possible way to think about how technology is used within a given instructional design. There are ample resources, videos and presentations online about the SAMR model and how to use it, not the least of which are those of its creator, Ruben R. Puentedura, on his blog.

However, this graphic seems to suggest that the apps pictured can only be used at certain levels of the SAMR model.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Also, there is no indication of an original task.  You cannot classify the way an app (or any technology) is used within the SAMR model without a context and none of the apps pictured are contextualized in any way.

In fact, this graphic is one person’s arbitrary estimation of what app might be applicable at some given SAMR tier within some given context. Any one of these apps could be used at any level.  It’s not which app that’s important; it’s how an app is used.

For example, I have seen the Educreations app used in a large number of different contexts and at all four levels of the SAMR model. It all depends on the original task and how the app was integrated within the instructional design. I would even go so far as to assert that each and every one of these apps could be used at any of the SAMR model tiers.

10 Good Things

Thanks to a challenge from Tina and Jay, two of my #peel21st colleagues, I wrote a list of ten good things about my professional practice right now. As Jay noted, it’s always tempting to be critical but it always helps to consciously reflect on the good things that are happening.

So, here is my list of ten good things going on right now for me professionally.

  1. Professional relationship with teachers – nothing really exciting happens unless a trusting, positive relationship is in place. I am so fortunate to work regularly with so many educators who are as excited about their own learning as they are about their students’ learning.
  2. The students in our school system, as Neil Postman has said, “are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” I am grateful to be reminded every day that they are the reason to take our job seriously and always remember that we are shaping the future with every interaction we have with each student.
  3. As far as I can tell, Twitter is continuing to be the perfect tool for connecting educators. They love it because it they can join and participate in conversations quickly and because of the way it works, they can take just a few minutes out of a busy day to catch up on some tweets or invest a few hours to participate in chats and share ideas.
  4. Similar to Jay and Tina, I do love blogging and wish I could write more than I do. Even as I type this, I am hyper aware of the five draft posts that sit in my blog waiting more attention. I do need to try harder not to be so perfectionist before I hit the publish button.
  5. My team of ITRTs never fail to support, inspire and inform each other. I am grateful every day that I am part of this team. We all love the role we play and I sometimes wonder if it’s because we are constantly challenged to learn new things and look at circumstances from the perspective of others so that we can support them better…
  6. Mobile technology has the potential to really make a difference for students. I am grateful for how this technology is flooding into every aspect of our lives and becoming the norm. It brings new challenges, I know that all too well; but, I think, it has the capability to personalize learning and shift more control into the hands of learners. The trick is working hard to make that happen. That’s why I love my job and why I am so lucky to be involved in edtech at this particular point in time.
  7. Participating and presenting at conferences, such as ECOO/BringIT and CONNECT, are also highlights each year because it can mean new connections with educators, face to face conversations/lunch with educators already in my network, and learning new things about pedagogy and technology that I can take away and share with the teachers I support.
  8. I am grateful to Seymour Papert for being a constant inspiration to find really exciting, engaging and effective ways to use technology in a way that impacts learning at the deepest levels. It’s amazing to read his decades-old books and articles and to realize that they represent a powerful vision that has yet to be realized in education. But, I think recently, we are making real progress.
  9. Tim Hortons plays a significant part in my professional development by providing refreshment every day and ‘roll up the rim’ fun every February. I do think we need a Tims location attached to every Ontario school facility. They are already in most hospitals. There’s the precedent. How about it, Minister Sandals?
  10. I am grateful for ‘tomorrow’ because it always represents a new beginning, another chance to connect and work and play and learn together with my colleagues and their students. As corny as that sounds, it’s true. And, at least for me, thinking in that way always makes it easier when one has a discouraging day. Tomorrow always holds as much potential as one can imagine.

I’m sending out a challenge to my other ITRT colleagues (Dave, Ed, Samir, Graham, & Tracy) to write their #10goodthings post!

Learning in the 21st century: What does it mean to you?

Every day I read or hear about a new tool, app, web site, kit, toy, or device that is reported to have a significant impact on student learning. Actually… none do. The way they are used… might.

So-called “21st century skills” (such as collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking) have been arbitrarily chosen… and they existed long before the new century. These skills, and many others, have always been important in education.

However, the ever growing potential to use powerful technologies to facilitate thinking and share learning is empowering, invaluable, irresistible. So, to me, learning in the “21st century” means that students are learning how to effectively use technology to better think, create, analyze, learn, and share.

Of course there are many people far more eloquent than I:

Thanks for reading this post! It was part of a #peel21st blog hop that transpired on November 18, 2014.  Please take a look at the other posts in this hop.  Each author had to respond to the question “Learning in the 21st Century – What does it mean to you?” in about 100 words.

Susan Campo
Jim Cash
Shivonne Lewis-Young
Greg Pearson
Phil Young
James Nunes
Donald Campbell
Ken Dewar
Graham Whisen
Heather Lye
Lynn Filliter
Debbie Axiak
Alicia Quennell
Jonathan So
Jim Blackwood
Jason Richea
Tina Zita
Sean Coroza