Leading by Learning – Building a Hut

flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

I’ve spent the last few days on Year 4 Camp at Camp Sunnystones. It was a fantastic opportunity to connect with students while completing a range of unfamiliar activities. With this, exploring what it is they care about. Having spent so long focusing on feedback and growth, it was great to explore the human element in it all. Instead of dwelling on progression points and achievement standards, the focus was on mastering the particular task at hand and how we could support each other to get it done.

Although there was some focus on the environment and sustainability, the current learning focus at the moment, many of the conversation came back to the school’s four core values:





Another significant opportunity that arose though was the opportunity to be a meddler in the middle. Although we may not consider ourselves as ‘sages on the stage’, the structure of curriculum, instruction and learning spaces means that there is a tendency to manage the learning more than allowing it to happen. Camp provided a space for this as there are not many teachers with a background in archery or orienteering. A particular example of leading by learning was during the hut building exercise.

The activity involved working in teams to build huts with the materials lying around. The only requirement was that everyone had to be in sight of the camp fire. This meant that the camp guide always had an eye on where groups were at. It would have been easy to spend the few hours wandering between groups, discussing how the huts were going and providing advice. Instead, we decided as a group to place ourselves in the learner’s shoes and build our own.

We started with an idea, to find three trees with forks that we could somehow connect in order to make a roof. Although we could have spent time debating which idea was best, it was important to get behind one idea early and adapt from there.

As with many ideals though, we soon had to compromise. Either the good spots had already been taken or such a space did not exist. We did find two trees which we felt offered some potential. So we found a fallen limb and put in place our first support.

flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

The problem was that we could barely reach the beam and decided quickly that it just was not going to work. So we went back to looking.

We finally found a new space with a set of trees which seemed to offer some prospect. Although not ideal, we all felt it had some potential. So we all split up and set off to gather materials for our hut.

flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Beginning with two strong limbs, we proceeded to assemble our humble abode. This process involved taking different roles, sharing reflections and providing suggestions. Although we had a clear purpose, the hut was a constant negotiation, cycling through the iterative process.

flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

What was interesting was the inspiration that it had on the students. Some visited to see what we were doing, others took it as a challenge to better what we were doing. One student told us that we were too noisy and weren’t very good at keeping secrets. While many adapted some of the aspects of our final pitch when they presented their huts. What was fantastic though was that, in the end, everyone benefited. That is the power of the room, or in our case, the bush.

For me, this activity represented what Jackie Gerstein describes as a model learner, where not only do educators share the process, but are open and conscious about the steps involved.  This is coupled with a willingness to fail in order to succeed. I was also reminded of the measurement for collaborative problem solving.

What about you? What experiences have you had where you have modelled the learning? Flipped the learning by leading the way? As always, I would love to know.

Published originally at Read Write Respond

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Students ‘Making Up’ Their Own Minds

“The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves.”

–Marvin L. Minsky (from Society of the Mind, 1986)

Human Brain Drawing itself

I want students to be busy building their own minds.

As an educator, this is my main goal. I want students to be in charge of their own learning—to be effectively constructing their brains. We must focus our work so that they have both the opportunity, and the skills, to do so. This is the professional mission in my life.

Ethereal? No.

Although it may sound rather ethereal if we talk about students building their own minds, it is not. The reality is exactly that! Whether we take an historical view based on Jean Piaget’s work or adopt a current neuroscience perspective, the reality is the same—brain structures are being altered as we learn and we can control that both quantitatively and qualitatively—to a greater or lesser degree.

Don’t worry! I’m not going to get super technical about all that. I’ll leave that to those more expert than I.

Jean Piaget and ConstructivismPiaget

Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist who studied learning in children. He articulated various stages of development and developed a theory of constructivism. He spoke of schemas or mental structures. If we encounter something new, we either assimilate it into a previous pattern of ideas and knowledge—our schemas—or we must accommodate it by changing what we believe, therefore adding a new schema. Or maybe we just discard the new information as irrelevant.

…we either assimilate or accommodate new information…or toss it out…

Consider, for example, a schema that a young child might hold for a fish. Fish live in water and have tails and fins with which to swim. She then sees many different kinds of fish—large, small, single coloured, multi-coloured and assimilates them all into her schemas for fish thus increasing the richness and texture of the fish schema. The first time that this child encounters a whale, she might call it a fish. Once her caregivers explain that it is a different animal called a whale and that it breathes air by coming to the surface of the water and that it is a mammal, the child will accommodate it by creating a new schema for whale. All of this is driven by the human need for sense making—for reaching a state of equilibrium or balance with no dissonance.

…the human need is for sense making—for reaching a state of equilibrium


Let’s consider new learning from a perspective of neuroscience—that of brain plasticity. Neurons sprout dendrites and send and receive thousands of signals with other parts of the brain thus creating neural pathways. Any new experiences and new learnings reorder neural pathways in the brain. In the same way that a piece of film must change in reaction to an image coming through the lens, our neural structures change whenever we bring in new information or experiences. Any neural pathways that are not frequently used simply disappear and new ones are continually being created as we develop new skills and knowledge.

…our neural structures change whenever we bring in new information or experiences…

Dr. Norman Doidge defines neuroplasticity as: the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and its function in response to thinking and acting in response to mental experience—in other words, in sensing and perceiving and what we do.

We are literally building our brains

Regardless of whether we think about this in Piagetian or in neuroscientific terms, when we are learning, we are literally building our brains.

We, as human beings of free will, have the option to build, and to mold, the structures of our brain.

I have spent a career questioning, exploring, discovering, and predicting how technologies can assist students in ‘taking charge of their own learning’. What ideas do you have?


Published originally on The Construction Zone

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Why Are They Disengaged? My Students Told Me Why

Originally posted on Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension:

I used to think that when students were disengaged it was their own fault, and while sometimes that is still true, I have found in my years of teaching that a lot of the fault lies with me as the teacher.  Yet, realizing that I may be the cause of my students disengagement is hard to swallow.  It certainly has not done wonders to my self-esteem, and yet, there is something liberating about realizing that while I am a part of the problem, that also means that I can fix it.  Or at the very least fix the things I control.  Student disengagement is something I can do something about.

But why are students so disengaged?  What lies behind the restlessness, the misbehavior, the bored stares?  Every year I survey my students throughout the year, and particularly on those days where nothing seems to be working.  I ask them simply to explain…

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What Can I Give?

It’s the start of another new school year, and this is a time, while although filled with anticipation and the urgency to get things ready, it is also a time of deep reflection as I look back and think about what I want to leave behind from the previous year and what I want to carry forward into this new school year. In my reflections I’ve been asking myself, “What can I give?” Last September, I was starting at a new school and the last year has been one filled with adjusting and learning (hence the lack of posts on this blog!). There were days where my confidence in myself was completely shaken, yet I still had to press on, because my very rational self knows that they only way to get through, is to keep moving forward. Now, as I begin my second year, I have that gift of hindsight that comes when you come out the other end –  I now know my colleagues and there is a wonderful comfort in returning to familiar faces, places and routines. It’s amazing what a difference a year can make and I am grateful for all that I learned in making this change. Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work in many different contexts, while also being able to maintain continuity through my work with supporting teachers and implementing curriculum. My teaching roles have ranged from K-10 including both classroom and specialist roles, I have been a curriculum coordinator for more than half of my career, I facilitate workshops for teachers through International Baccalaureate, I have been a vice-principal, and now I will have the opportunity to take on a partial role in the library. In short, I am a collector of educational experiences. In my deepest core, I know that each of these experiences has helped me to embrace change and ever-shifting paradigms, and they have ultimately shaped me as an educator as I continue to be challenged to grow and learn.

Over the years, I’ve had some conversations with colleagues that have left me feeling sad. Sometimes a colleague will share that they’ve given up – not on their students, but on the wider school (e.g. their colleagues, administrators, or all the change that happens). Somewhere along the way, their outlook shifted from one of giving to giving up. It is a sad, but true reality in our schools. A conversation like this can really bring you down, but you can’t let it keep you there. (I put on what I call my “iron panties” in these moments.) I listen with care to my colleague who is sharing and I offer support and encouragement, but ultimately, I can’t fix their problem, only they can. However, I can help them by giving my support and understanding – I believe it’s what’s guided my personal success over the years.

So, back to my reflection/question, “What can I give?” As I look forward to this new school year, here are some of the ways (not in rank order) I know I can give to my school:

To students, I can give…

  • my genuine care and personal attention
  • my best, most creative self (even if I am having a bad day)
  • my flexibility
  • my enthusiasm about what we are learning (even if it it’s not one on my favorite things)
  • my genuine support and encouragement by being their biggest cheerleader as they experience bumps on their road to success
  • my vulnerability by taking risks and letting them see me learn from mistakes
  • them honest feedback
  • my time
  • my gratitude for the privilege of sharing in their learning journey

To parents, I can give…

  • my time and attention
  • them an authentic ear
  • a thoughtful response instead of a reaction
  • honesty and respect
  • my partnership
  • my support and understanding when their child is experiencing challenges on their road to success
  • them my excitement and gratitude as I celebrate their child’s successes along with them

To colleagues, I can give…

  • honesty and respect
  • my care for them as people
  • my appreciation for their unique strengths, areas of expertise and passions
  • my support and encouragement in working through their challenges along side them
  • boundaries by not engaging in unhealthy thinking or dialogue
  • neutrality and objectivity
  • my sense of humor – everyday needs a little laughter!

It’s a simple truth, what goes around does ultimately come around. If we have a giving outlook instead of a getting one, that will come back to us ten fold. The more I give, the more I am gratified. So, I challenge you to ask yourselves, “what can I give?” and then start giving!  (Orginally posted at: http://www.piedpyper.wordpress.com)

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Developing Independence and Inquiry

It’s a new school year, and our family is in a new school. After being comfortable in our previous school for 6 years, we decided it was time to shake it up. From Japan to Bangladesh, here we are.

We expected the country to be different, and it is…completely. There’s a separate blog coming out all about the experience. Our new school, though, is a PYP-DP school, though, so same curriculum as my previous two schools.

I love the PYP. I’ve been teaching in the program for 8 years and like the philosophy. Throughout the years, I’ve seen students flourish in the educational setting. They are intrinsically motivated, curious, engaged, excited, thinkers and caring people. They are open to new challenges and people and want to help others and the world.

It’s not all the students that are like that, but it’s a majority of students I’ve worked with…at least the last 6 years.

This year’s kids are very typical 5th graders in many regards. They like to play video games and soccer/football. They like pop music, being with their friends, and they still like their family.

However, although it’s only been a few days, I notice a difference. These students feel as if they’ve always been directed. They are already asking me to solve small problems. Today, when given the task to think about what their classroom should look like, feel like and sound like, they quickly fell into silliness.

That quick lapse into complete silliness was yet another indicator that these kids haven’t been in charge of their own learning. It was too scary and a lot to ask. They’ve already told me about behavioral systems that were in place last year. Tidy tables got points that accumulated toward candy. Red, yellow and green cards marked students’ names depending on their behavior for that day. I cringe thinking about it, but I tell myself it’s a different place and culture.

Today students asked me to help them put their water bottle in their bags and to rescue a paper airplane from the top of the cabinets. A secondary student came to me at recess to tell me a 3rd grader had been picking on him. Students came in to the classroom and sat at their desks without much energy.

I had a lot of eye rolling today (in my head) and am settling in to the fact that these students will need encouragement to take charge of their own learning and their own selves. Although I think all schools should encourage students to take charge of their own learning, there is definite justification in a PYP school.

Here are some things I want to do to provoke independent thinking–some questions for the students:

  1. When they start to ask me what I want, I turn it around to always ask: What do you want?
  2. How can you solve it?
  3. When asked if it’s good enough..ask: What do you think?
  4. When there’s been a checklist of things to include, ask them about those things and have them point to examples of when they’ve done those things?
  5. Ask them about their classroom and what they want in the classroom?
  6. What are your strengths?
  7. What are your challenges?
  8. Ask them about how they want to organize their day?
  9. Reflect on each part of their learning and learn from that.
  10. And…questions, questions, questions…They’re asking. The teacher is not answering.

It’s going to be a long road with many of these students, but I feel excited to begin the journey. I think having some more independent thinkers around is a pretty important goal.

~First published on Solid Ground

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Negotiated Learning

This post is in response to a wonderful post by Derek Pinchbeck. He asked some thoughtful questions at the end and this is my way of trying to answer one of them. Cross posted at The Lead Learner.

How much choice do your students have about how and what they learn?

I like this question. When working within a system like PYP, sometimes I feel as if the UOI are too limiting. Then, we create a unit that really blows that idea out the door and lets kids explore and play and inquire.


SYSTEMS; How we organize ourselves
CENTRAL IDEA, Systems can make life more efficient
LINES OF INQUIRY; A system is a way of organizing (form, function), Systems can direct how we act and go places (connections)


The animals got stuck in the vacuum of space and needed to be rescued by our brave astronauts

This unit was very broad and open. The knowledge and content was not dictated. It was driven by concepts. The teacher who was leading this class (the teacher is the Lead Learner of a collective) was open-minded and allowed the unit to flow with the children, rather than against them.

It ran for most of the year, along side another unit on CHANGE (which crossed over and linked many times, but that is another post). The kids started looking into class routines and how they were systems designed to make the classroom run more smoothly. They then applied these to the school at large. From there, they went out into the world. They looked at postal system, traffic, trains, buses (all locally connected to Kyoto and Japan). They inquired into gardening, sports, recycling. They ended up in space learning about the solar system, how the planets move, and what life on the international space station is like.

There were many more provocations and places where this unit went.

They created systems to play in (sharing routines, centers, etc). They pretended they were buses drivers and pasted bus stops all over the classroom (trains too). They were postal officers delivering mail. They went on a recycling spree and cleaned up the school, separating garbage into different types. They created a class garden with systems to care for plants. They looked into the human body and how it works. They turned their classroom into an international space station.

Literacy, math, art, science, etc… all weaved into this. Creating stories, writing letters, doing math in the garden, practicing fine motor skills, etc, etc, etc. Within this is choice, how the students are going to represent their learning, what they are going to do. Sometimes, the child gets to choose, other times they do not. There are skills to practice, and it is the teachers responsibility to provide a space for them to practice these skills. For the most part, students, even very young ones like these, can understand that learning these skills are an important part of their learning.

This unit was all based on the students interests. They noticed systems and named them, expressed their interest, and the teacher framed it into educational goals. We need to have students driving the bus (so to speak) and taking charge or their learning. We need to have the inquiry to be child-directed.

However, we also need the teacher to be framing this into the appropriate skills and curricular expectations. There is an article in The Hundred Languages of Children (Chapter 14, Negotiated Learning through Design, Documentation, and Discourse, Forman & Fyfe) which has been fundamental in the way we approach our Early Learning program.


Through the Design of the environment and the learning tasks, the Documentation of the learning that is happening, and the Discourse that the students (and teachers) are having, the teacher can frame and let the inquiry evolve.

Screenshot 2015-06-13 at 9.28.31 AM

I don’t use the word play as much as I used to. To me, it is inseparable from learning. However, it doesn’t mean that the teacher isn’t involved and the children are free to do what they wish. The teacher is very involved. The teacher listens, reacts, adapts, and then frames (or re-frames). We design learning engagements (taken right from the students discourse) that encourage discourse and then document the learning. This discourse creates newly designed provocations, which are in turn documented.

It is iterative and ever-evolving.

How much choice to students have? Well, choice is a simplistic word that does not represent the complexity of a classroom learning environment. Choice is negotiated, adapted, and re-framed.

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Do we have the confidence to allow students to be playful learners?

This post originally appeared on my own site http://www.thirstforthinking.org/thirst-for-thinking-blog.


In his seminal work, Play of Man, (click on the link to download a free copy) written in 1901, Karl Groos proposed that there are certain universal types of play which all children engage in and which help children to grow into fully functioning and effective human beings.
Groos argued that whilst the exact form of the play is impacted by the culture around the child the categories of play cross cultures. So for example whilst play fighting occurs in all cultures playful sword fighting only occurs in cultures familiar with swords.

These categories of play are:

  1. Physical Play
  2. Language Play
  3. Exploratory Play
  4. Constructive Play
  5. Fantasy Play
  6. Social Play

These types of play do not exist in isolation and as Peter Gray points out in his thought provoking book Free to Learn ” A lively outdoor group game may be physical play, language play, exploratory play, constructive play, fantasy play, and social play all at once.” Gray goes on to make a definition of what play is and defines it in five ways:

  1. Play is self chosen and self directed
  2. Play is an activity in which means are more valued than ends
  3. Play has structure or rules that are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of players
  4. Play is imaginative
  5. Play involves an active alert, but non-stressed frame of mindWhat leaps out to me about this list is that if we replaced the word play withlearning virtually all educators I know would agree whole heatedly that this was a wonderful list of what we seek to achieve in our classrooms.

Why is it then that so many schools are unable to build upon the natural playfulness of children and too often learning becomes:

  1. Entirely teacher directed
  2. Valued only as a means to achieve a grade or other external reward
  3. Has a structure and rules emanating from the minds of the teachers rather than the students
  4. Lacks imagination
  5. Involves passive students in a stressed frame of mind

I would not go as far as Gray does in his book in rejecting notions of traditional schooling, and would question whether the success he attributes to the alternative schooling system at Sudbury Valley, is not, in part, due to the Cultural Capital that the parents and students who go there possess.
I do however feel that all educators need to look reflectively at how we can promote a playful state of mind in our students. Why is it that so many students and adults alike view learning not as play but as work.
I would argue that often the reason we are unable to achieve this is that, whilst intellectually we may agree, on a core level many people do not accept Vygotsky‘s argument that , “A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action.”
As adults we have to resist our impulses to intervene too early and allow children time to explore and play with ideas. Whilst observing closely and being supportive we need to trust that given this freedom children will push themselves to the limit of their ability.
Too often this lack of trust is obvious in the place where free play should be the most valued, the playground. In particular teachers concern about rough and tumble play where,“the roughness of play is perceived by teachers and playground supervisors as potential problems. However, the potential benefits, such as conflict resolution training and motor skills training, are overlooked by many teachers.” (On the Child’s Right to Play Fight), means that even in the playground play is heavily regulated.
Once in the classroom the time and space to play with objects and ideas is often limited or closely prescribed leaving students to feel that learning is something that is done to them not something they do.
Don’t get me wrong I am not arguing that teachers should not have a clear idea of where they will take student learning (see my previous post Four implications of structured inquiry). What I am arguing is that learning can be done most effectively if teachers have the confidence to give the students increased ownership over their learning and time to play with ideas without fear of the final product being ‘wrong’. In this way students will be empowered to go above and beyond the intended learning of the teacher and really reach their maximum level of achievement.
Whilst important things like high stakes external exams do place limitations on how far this can be achieved, hopefully the playful mindedness questions below will help you reflect upon this in your classroom, whatever age of student you teach.
I’d love to hear back from you whether they have enabled you to move learning in a more playful direction or whether you have other questions to provoke playful learning.

  1. How do I let my students know that I have confidence in them as self motivated learners?
  2. How much choice do your students have about how and what they learn?
  3. Is the learning space your classroom or the students classroom?
  4. How much input do students have in setting up the rules and norms of the classroom?
  5. Is there time and space for students to ‘play’ with objects or ideas?
  6. How is it clear that imagination and creativity is valued?
  7. Which word do I use most in class ‘play’ or ‘work’?

If we could all make our classrooms a little more playful I think we can move closer to having the happy motivated learners we all desire.

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