Does Your Curriculum Allow Enough Play?


“The best questions are the ones that create the most uncertainty.”

The quote, by Beau Lotto comes from a recent TED talk called: Science is for everyone, kids included. It’s about the importance of play. Uncertainty and ambiguity are naturally uncomfortable for humans, but he says that play has helped us step into that zone of uncertainty. Science experiments are in fact games (play with rules), and scientist and creative types have always embraced this while others have been a little more wary.

In this talk, he describes working with a group of 8-10 year olds in developing an experiment from a question the students had. They are also the youngest group to have a peer-reviewed paper published. It’s an example of experiential learning at its best and includes a lot of great educational topics: risk/failure/problem-based learning/collaboration/inquiry/intrinsic motivation/etc. He also brings out Amy O’Toole (now age 12) one of the original researchers to speak about the project as well.

Here’s a link to the paper.


More Principals Who Blog

I’m just about done putting together a presentation for one of the sessions in our regional annual conference at the end of this week. Topic: Sharing why I blog and why I am beginning to use social media to learn more about education, teaching, and myself.

One of the main reasons I blog is to learn more about social media. Whether twitter or wordpress will be around in 10 years is hard to say, but social media and blogging are not going to go away. Like it or not, kids are going to have to find ways to use it responsibly and avoid pitfalls like cyber-bullying, or being glued to a screen. How can we teach these things, if we’re not doing so ourselves,  and finding ways to use these tools productively?

As I was working on my presentation, I came across a great blog post by a superintendent in West Vancouver who talked about the need for more school leaders to use social media.

Here’s a quote from his post:

“We often talk about the many changes happening in education and how we, as leaders, need to model the change.  We want students to take the risks, own their learning, be ready to make mistakes but to learn from them as well,  and to create content for the digital world.  We can help by modelling all of this.”

He also highlights all the principals in his district embracing the idea of blogging with links to theirs. You can read more at his blog here.

I stumbled upon the above post while reading a blog I enjoy a lot called Connected Principals. It’s a group blog written by many principals (both independent and public) who reflect, tell stories, and try to model the changes happening in the world so they can learn alongside their community. The post had a very provocative title: The Power to Kill Innovation.

It was Canadian Thanksgiving last night, and after a decade of American Thanksgivings, it just seems so early. Nonetheless, I’m very grateful that I work in a school that has allowed me to take these risks, make mistakes, and celebrate successes in my pursuit to learn and model what I teach.

Only When We Risk Failure, Can We Adapt

A couple of evenings ago, our school held their annual curriculum night, where parents come to hear the teachers talk about what to expect in the coming year. It was a great night, and I know it’s going to be a good year as every student had at least one parent represented.

It’s not my favorite event though, as I have an irrational fear of public speaking. Yes, I teach all day, but it’s different with kids. A year ago, I decided the best way to overcome a fear is to do what you fear. There’s nothing to lose but one’s ego. Yet, risking failure certainly is not an easy task. Children want to do well, and the idea of doing things outside their comfort zone scares them. It scares most adults too. Yet, making mistakes and failing are part of the learning process – that is assuming one adapts.

I began addressing my fear by introducing the keynote speaker at our fall regional conference last year. I completely botched it. I had written it all out, edited it, practiced, and printed it. It was also only going to take a couple of minutes. I got up to the microphone and realized I couldn’t read what I had written. I used too small a font. One thing I learned: print bigger.

Rather than letting that be the end of it, I sent a proposal to speak at this year’s fall event, and it was accepted. Now instead of 2 minutes, I have an hour. Yikes! I used my 45 minutes talk on curriculum night to practice some of the things I learned: don’t rely on the script, but don’t veer too far either – and get to the point. I’ve also been reading a lot about ‘death by power point’ so I limited myself to 20 slides with no more than 2 words on each slide. I’m still way behind the times, though. I’d like to incorporate video of the children learning, but I’m just not there yet. This exercise also helped me realize that I interject fillers like “…and stuff,” at the end of my sentences, and I need to remember to stop just before that and remember that silence would suffice.

When it comes to kids, we need to acknowledge their fears, but then provide support so that they feel comfortable enough trying. They may not succeed the first time, but if they keep trying and adapting after each one, they eventually will.

I just finished reading the book, Why Success Always Starts with Failure: Adapt by Tim Harford. It’s a great book. “Being willing to fail is the essential first step to applying the ideas of [the book] Adapt in everyday life.” Hopefully, I can help kids see that a skinned knee can make us stronger and more resilient (Wendy Mogel).

The three principles in the book are:

  1. Be willing to fail a lot.
  2. Fail on a survivable scale.
  3. Spot a failure and fix it early.
Of course, it’s not human nature to do this. There is a lot of fear when it comes to trying new things. The mission statement of my school begins with “Through innovative teaching …” If we are too afraid to try new things how could we possibly be innovative teachers? Of course, some of the things we try will fail – I tried Kahn Academy with my second graders last year. Some loved it, some didn’t bother, and I didn’t find it as useful as I had hoped. In other words: I failed. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. In fact, I think the idea of the flipped classroom is a truly innovative idea. The concept behind Sal Kahn’s approach is novel and may work for some. It just didn’t work for me and my students. It may mean that it’s not the right tool for second graders, I didn’t use it as well as I could have, it’s too early to adopt, or it could be a myriad of other things. Here’s the thing – I was willing to fail, it was on a survivable scale, and I’m looking at those failures and how I might fix them for my class this year.
Anyway, if you want a great short synopsis of the book, this youtube trailer is brilliant. It’s only 3 minutes long.

Learning From Mistakes

Following up on my last post, I wrote that as adults, in order to learn, we too must take risks, fail, and then learn from them. There’s no point in fearing the risks, nor in failing without learning.

Well, this week included several risks for me as well as blunders. Hopefully, I will learn from these and move forward stronger and more resolved. Making mistakes or failure is difficult for most adults, and I am no exception, but I put myself out there, and know there are lessons to be learned. Let’s hope I learn them quickly. As mentioned in my last post, there’s value in being wrong sometimes, you just have to recognize it and move forward with your next iteration.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation don’t care if a project of theirs fails, so long as they have some sort of data that they can learn from. Obviously, they’d like the project to succeed, but it’s clear they have a culture of learning embedded into their organization and that’s what’s important.

Apple computers had the Newton – remember that? If you don’t, it was because it was, in short, a failure. That didn’t stop them, did it. Below’s another one. I think they learned from this.

Being Digitally Resilient

Last week, I was having issues with my school laptop. The trackpad and keyboard suddenly stopped working. A child brought in a disc with photos of her Flat Stanley visiting an out of town friend. She wanted to project those pictures for the class to see while she talked. How would I access the disc without a keyboard or mouse. I suddenly remembered I had a mouse app on my cell phone and used it to get her disc going.

Later in the day, I got a USB mouse and keyboard and things were going well until, at some point, I tried to show the kids the first 5 minutes of a National Geographic film on the Nile River. I wanted to use their visual and auditory skills to get a sense of the animal and plant life of the Nile. After about a minute, my computer froze, leaving a lovely still image of a water buffalo sipping water out of the river.

An important tool for any educator is the ability to quickly assess the merits of the technology you’re using with the objectives of the lesson. Though I have seen technology increase the motivation of many students, it isn’t always reliable. For my class website, I’ve used Weebly which is a great simple site for creating web pages, but what if it gets purchased by a big company or goes under. Then what?

Education Leadership this month has a great short article about being Digitally Resilient. Technology can sometimes be frustrating when it doesn’t go according to plan, but teachers need to have a plan B or C or D, whether that’s moving on to another lesson and returning later or modifying it with low tech instead. With regards to the frozen film clip, we decided to go the low tech route and pull all our Ancient Egypt books we had borrowed from the library. The kids found plenty of information.

We met our main objective, but I think we met a few unintended ones as well: being resilient, flexible, and able to trouble shoot by looking at multiple ways to reach our main goals. The ‘tech fail’ turned out to be a great teachable moment.  If we expect students to feel safe enough to take risks and make mistakes in order to learn, they need to see us do it from time to time.