Shifting Gears

Change is a given. The necessity for continuous change and growth is not only a constant in the realm of education but also in most other areas of life. It is a time of great change in the world around us and as educators, we need to stay focused on innovative practices that support our students for success in their future in these changing times.

When we talk about innovation in education, this is not a new concept. Since the beginning of the school model teachers have constantly strived to find “new and better” (GCouros) ways to improve the learning of their students. In today’s very dynamic context, some teachers may feel uncertain of how to best approach innovative teaching and learning practices.

When we look to the world of work for the top employability skills which are desirable in the employees of today and tomorrow, the same skills top the list over and over again; problem-solving, teamwork, communication skills, creative thinking, risk taking etc. How do we ensure we are best creating innovative learning environments that foster the development of these skills?

Below is a slide I often use in my work with teachers around changing practice from a more passive learner approach to one that is more learner-centred and active. When we put students in the driver’s seat of their own learning and give them more opportunity to solve problems, think in creative ways, work together and share their learning, not only are they more engaged, they are also often empowered to own the learning in a new and powerful way. When we offer an opportunity for voice and choice, we support them as problem solvers and reflective, critical thinkers who take greater responsibility for the direction they go. When we shift gears away from the student as mere consumer and move towards student as creator of their own learning, we inspire more independence and autonomy.


The example above is related to a grade one science unit on the Senses. The worksheet activity on the left, or one similar to it, maybe an example of something teachers do with students to address learning outcomes related to this unit. Although there may be learning intent behind the activity, as well as a time and place for it, there are additional ways teachers could approach the outcomes that inspire deeper learning. Instead of there being just one right answer to which students “comply” we can look too much more engaging activities where there may be many “right” answers and students drive the learning in a more active way.


In the example in the middle of the slide, the students are doing a community scavenger hunt with devices or digital cameras to capture images of things in their school or community that they see, smell, touch, taste and hear. They then use these photos to create a digital presentation about their senses by voicing over the images, “I see a _______”, “I hear a ________” etc. Their final products could be shared with classmates, parents or even beyond on a classroom blog or Twitter. I have done this learning sequence with many groups and it is always well received and very engaging for students.


In the final example on the left students were tasked with looking beyond just the role of the five senses and asked to develop a device to protect one of the five senses. This prompted them to have to think critically about things that might harm a person’s  senses, choose one of these things and design a device that would then offer protection. This learning opportunity offered choice, encouraged voice and empowered students as problem solvers and inventors.

Rethinking tasks and opportunities to engage and empower students through active learning is one entry point into fostering an innovative learning environment in our schools and classrooms.

The students designing the sense protection devices above were encouraged to look beyond the four walls of their classroom to how their thinking could impact the greater world. When we empower learners to explore and learn how to make an impact on the world, we inspire problem solvers and innovators (K Martin) of the future.


Be the Lobster

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In Katie Martin’s new book Learner Centred Innovation, one of the sections is entitled Are Traditions getting in the way of Innovation in Education? This is a question I have thought about a lot. In fact, as a reflective activity, a colleague and I share a Google Doc entitled “100 Things Schools should Stop Doing”. We are at number 54. This “list” and our conversations around it are a continuous work in progress and center on examples of practices both teachers and schools continue to implement that are potentially done merely out of tradition and are no longer effective in today’s educational context.

Traditions are hard to break and humans are creatures of habit. Teachers who may have  been tasked with doing a “ten mark title page” to start a science unit  as student themselves years ago, perhaps now assign their own students the same task without really considering the intent and whether this is the best use of a class period or if there is much deeper and more meaningful way to approach a new topic of learning.

You don’t have to look far into popular culture to see how the traditional notion of “school” is preserved. Movies, tv shows, advertising, and books… all further perpetuate the idea of traditional practices by continuing to depict schools as places of desks in rows, with a teacher at the front of the room lecturing with students carrying around their textbooks/notebooks, and cramming for exams.

When considering how to redesign a culture for learning and innovation in a shifting world and the evolving role of the educator within that, there is much to be considered. One large piece of that is letting go of some of the traditional practices that no longer serve the best interest of students in today’s context. In Learner Focused Innovation, Katie Martin discusses this as the need to “shed” outdated practices and improve teaching and learning. Reading this idea framed around the word “shed” jumped out at me. It reminded me of a metaphor used by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski  who makes a parallel  with lobsters and the need for growth and the effects of change below

Rabbi Twerski suggests: A lobster is a soft mushy animal that lives inside of a rigid shell. That rigid shell does not expand. Well, how can the lobster grow? Well, as the lobster grows that shell becomes very confining the lobster feels itself under pressure and uncomfortable.

So it goes under a rock formation to protect itself from predatory fish, casts off the shell and produces a new one.

Well eventually that shell becomes very uncomfortable as it grows…I think the lobster repeats this numerous times. The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. So, I think, what we have to realize is that times of stress are also times that are signals for growth. And if we use adversity properly, we can grow THROUGH adversity.

Change, growth and taking risks are what keeps life interesting. Yet, in contrast, there is much comfort in doing things the same old way, knowing what to expect and the solace of the “known”. But as suggested by Grace Hopper, The most dangerous phrase in the language is, “we have always done it this way.”

Change is inevitable. Change is necessary. And change is crucial.

Many educators recognize the need for change, but sometimes it can be a daunting task considering where to begin. We must start with being open to change, being willing to take risks and being open to new possibilities. It takes a shift in thinking, a shift in mindset and a willingness to let go of practices we have traditionally done while being open to new ideas, new connections, and new learning.

For a classroom teacher in order for this to happen, it must start with reflecting on what is currently happening in our classroom. There are often things that teachers do with students that are tried and true. We do them because they work and we know they are effective or “best practice” in meeting the learning needs of our students. However, there are often other practices in place that may fall into the category of that’s the way we’ve always done it .

Considering taking a calculated risk and changing something that may fit into this category of #TTWWHADI is the first step. Imagining a better way is necessary and an exciting opportunity! For some, the key may be to start small and not bite off too much at once. The biggest mistake we often make as teachers is to take on too much change at once and end up doing many things superficially and not as well as we could be. Approaching change through the lens of, “ an inch wide and a mile deep” is often most effective in the long run.

This might look like changing the methods in which we present information or material to students. Dave Burgess’ book Teach Like a Pirate; Increase Student Engagement, Transform your Life as an Educator and Boost Student Engagement offers a myriad of suggestions of what he calls “hooks”, or practical ideas for crafting engaging lessons, along with prompting questions to get you thinking about your lesson and units in new ways. Or it might mean reenvisioning the way we teach something by offering students more choice. When we try doing things a little differently and give over some of the control over to our students, we model risk-taking for our learners and feel affirmed by our own stretches. Change begins by choosing ONE classroom-based initiative that pushes us a little out of our comfort zone. We certainly don’t need to change everything but we do need to change ONE thing and build from there. This might be using Lego Story Starter to generate writing ideas, implementing novel engineering instead of our usual Literature Circles, trying out vertical non-permanent surfaces for problem-solving instead of the math text questions or offering flexible seating options for students. Maybe it’s implementing Hour of Code, digitizing our monthly newsletter to parents, or introducing a new powerful app.

When we start small, and build on our successes, in turn, our confidence grows inevitably making it more likely to drive further change. When we endure the discomfort that letting go of traditional or habitual practices can evoke and instead invite change and innovation; we are empowered to continue moving forward. As we see with the lobster it is through shedding or letting go of some of the old and embracing the potential of the new that true change and growth can evolve.

Creative Society

This weekend my daughter went to a three-hour class learning how to use Chalk Paint to refinish furniture. She learned so much and came out with a beautiful distressed chair she had created herself to go along with her new (old) desk for her bedroom. The other “students” in the class were three or even four times her age, yet she fit right in and just threw herself and all of her creative energy into this new learning adventure. I stuck around to see Sarah’s work in progress and so enjoyed my time spent there and meeting Michele and Angie Zubrin, sisters and co-owners of a new Winnipeg business, The Painter’s Cafe.

I loved this sign that was posted in the studio there outlining “the creative loop”. This creative process serves as a succession of steps, the rites of passage and an essential part of all that we do when we create something.

In his book Lifelong Kindergarten, MIT‘s Mitch Resnick suggests that as we have shifted from an industrial society to an information or knowledge society that “the pace of change in the world continues to accelerate. People are confronted with the neverending stream of unknown and uncertain and unpredictable situations, and they need to learn how to come up with creative approaches for dealing with those situations”.  Mitch Resnick refers to this as the “creative society” we are immersed in today. In a time in which creative thinking has become a necessity, it only seems natural that our understanding and insight into what it means to be creative must come more into focus.

John Spencer offers insight into this topic in his Sketchy Video entitled “We Need a Bigger Definition of Creativity”

When you hear the word creative you might think of a painter, or a playwright, or an author, or a photographer, or a filmmaker, or a chef. In other words you might think of people who make things. I think it’s what we mean when we use a label like creative type, but there’s no such thing as a creative type. We are all creative every one of us. We just need a bigger definition of creativity. Yes creativity involves making things but it can also mean mashing up ideas in innovative ways. It can mean thinking differently about data and finding unique solutions to practical problems. It can mean hacking systems and tweaking things in unusual ways it can mean exploring ideas and navigating information until you become an expert curator. It can mean designing systems that empower the creative work of others. It can mean creating change in the world by speaking truth and leading movements and interacting with people. You see each of these creative approaches shape our world in profound ways and the more we see the creativity all around us the more we are able to appreciate the creativity inside ourselves.

John’s definition offers greater insight into what creativity can and does look like but, in a world that demands more and more creative thinking and problem-solving; how do we best prepare our students with this necessary creative and innovative mindset in turn helping them grow into the prepared learners, leaders, citizens, and employees of tomorrow?  How do we best support our students in developing the skills of risk-taking, resilience and reflection necessary to successfully navigate the “creative loop” above, over and over again in a variety of contexts.

Ultimately as schools, our job must be to create a culture that supports exploration and the development of creative thinking.  Mitch Resnick also talks about the barriers that we need to break down in schools in order to ensure forward movement and success in this area;

  •  Barriers across disciplines–  provide more opportunities for integration of math and science and engineering with art and design using an interdisciplinary,  more project-focused approach to learning
  • Barriers across ages –allow children of all ages to learn with and from one another.
  • Barriers across time– provide opportunities for children to work on interest-based projects that take days or weeks or months or even years, rather than trying to constrain projects into a classroom period or a curriculum unit.
  • Barriers across space– integrate activities with school with those at home, at community centers and in the greater community.

In recent times we have seen trends in education supporting the breakdown of these barriers. In a number of classrooms and schools, we see shifts from a one size fits all, passive learner model to a more personalized learning approach that is more active and learner focused. We see some educators embracing a STEM or STEAM multidisciplinary pedagogy and maker focused classroom cultures. We see curricular reform focused less on content and more on competencies; less on siloed subject areas and more on big-picture thinking.

Times are changing but we still have a long way to go. However, as educators, we are not alone in this journey. As the fourth bullet above suggests, preparing kids for the future is a joint effort between home, school, and community. I was reminded of that this weekend in meeting Matt Thomas, Technical Director of the Manitoba Soccer Association.   This individual who has helped mold and develop many players and coaches in his many years supporting soccer organizations across Canada and internationally is a true testament to the powerful role the greater community can have on supporting students in developing the skill set and positive attitude necessary in today’s world. It takes a village….Supporting kids through the “creative loop” is not only necessary in classrooms but also on the soccer field, on the basketball court, in the studio, in the kitchen, in the workshop, within digital contexts and beyond. When we all work together to help our learners become active and successful participants in our “creative society” we all come out ahead!


Playpens & Playgrounds


I love hearing new grandparents talk about their grandchildren. I have had many tell me what a different experience it is from having their own children and how much more they can enjoy the experience being able to slow down the pace and savor every milestone and moment in a different, more thoughtful way. They explain how in contrast to the busy pace of parenthood, how much they enjoy and appreciate watching their grandson or granddaughter just PLAY, explore and learn about the world. Watching young children play is truly a gift.

Albert Einstein once said Play is the highest form of research. Our children learn about their world through play. They get a sense of their own abilities, discover their likes and discern dislikes. They learn both fine and gross motor skills. Through play children imagine alternate universes, create imaginary friends and think the sky’s the limit. They encounter boundaries, push limitations, face fears, and build both confidence and relationships. Play truly is the research and work of childhood. There is much to discovered, experienced and learned while at play.

In Lifelong KIndergarten by Mitch Resnick, he says the following:

If we really want to support kids developing as creative thinkers, we have to focus on play, not as an activity, but as an attitude, a way of engaging with the world, always being ready to try new things, to experiment, to test the boundaries, to take risks. So if you really want to think about kids and learning and play, I think the most important question to ask is how can you help kids develop a playful attitude and a playful approach to everything that they do in the world.

He goes on to describe the work of Marina Bers, a professor from Tufts University, who came up with a powerful metaphor in regards to play, that being the difference between playgrounds and playpens. While they are both designed to support play, they encourage different types of play and ultimately different kinds of learning. A playpen is a more restrictive environment. When a child is in a playpen, they have a limited area to move in which means they have more restricted possibilities to explore. They have a more finite scope of opportunities. On the other hand, in a playground, children have much bigger opportunities to move about, to explore, to discover, to learn about their world and encounter others. When you watch kids on playgrounds you will often see them coming up with their own games, and inventing new possibilities. Playgrounds encourage creative thinking.

So if we want our students to be creative thinkers, how do we ensure our classrooms and schools offer creative opportunities as “playgrounds”?

Don’t get me wrong. There are a time and place for “playpen” type learning in schools. At times students need boundaries and criteria and scaffolds. At times they need instruction and modeling and structure. There are times when students need playpens. However, schools and classrooms also need to give students the chance to learn on the “playground”. At times students need the option to explore and discover and drive their own learning. At times they need opportunities to make decisions, make mistakes and make learning happen their way. Students need opportunities to learn through creative play. They need to play with toys and games. They need to play with materials. They need to play with ideas. And they need to play with others. Students need “playgrounds”. The structure of this playground type, more student-driven learning can take many different formats at different levels, some of which I explored in a blog post earlier this month entitled, Find your Passion.

In the end, today’s students need a balance of both “playpen” and “playground” learning opportunities in order to become the balanced, layered, skillful learners they need to be in our dynamic world. If we want creative thinkers and innovative problem solvers then we must set the stage for these characteristics to flourish. In the wise words, of Kay Redfield Jamison, Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.

Team 109-Building an Innovative, Flexible, Creative Learning Environment

Recently I have been thinking a lot about flexible, innovative learning environments. As the world of work changes, along with the digitization of so many aspects of our day to day life, how are our educational environments also reflecting these shifting times?

I have been participating in the Learning Creative Learning MOOC through MIT looking at the book Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitch Resnick. This week we are focusing on the concept of “Peers” and the collaborative nature of learning. Being asked to consider a specific learning space and how this particular environment supports peer learning

furthers my own thinking around how deeply the design and culture of our learning or work environment drives our thinking and daily experiences.

Designing the Optimal Learning Environment

Today we see more and more innovative workspaces surfacing and the image of the office of the 21st century has shifted. Many companies are doing away with the traditional, rigid and compartmentalized office space of the of 20th century and moving towards more open, collaborative and multifunctional workspaces with hopes that these more open environments foster the teamwork, flexibility and creative thinking employers are looking for in their employees. “Hot desking” in which employees have no set workspace or desk and rotate or use spaces as needed is becoming more and more popular. Digital workspaces are also more prolific. More people work from home and have flexible hours. The importance of well-being at work and the large influence physical workspace has on it, has a strong correlation with developing a positive, effective work environment, employee productivity and performance. How have classrooms in our elementary schools and high schools emulated this same shift in thinking?

In my own school division, more and more teachers are moving away from traditional seating plans and moving to a flexible seating model in their classroom. Shifting from the more traditional model of compliance of the past, where a teacher tells a child where to sit and moving towards more flexible seating and diverse work spaces where students choose the learning space that works best for them, creates an opportunity to honour student voice & choice, encourage collaborative learning with peers and empower students as independent learners. Flexible seating environments vary and offer diverse options in the way of groupings and work spaces. Seating is often diverse (low seating, standing desks, soft spaces, traditional desks, Hoki stools, rockers, stools, carpeted areas etc.) moveable and gathered in small groups to encourage teamwork and collaboration. Teachers aim to create learning spaces that best provide for all types of learning and all types of learners.

The graphic below from Core Education in New Zealand, based on the article Campfires in Cyberspace by David D. Thornburg, encourages teachers to create the metaphoric environments outlined below to best support all different kinds of student learning in their classrooms or within the school as a whole. It is an interesting and valuable exercise to consider what each learning space might look like in our own classrooms, schools or work environments. Even more valuable is considering the impact environment and design has on teaching practice and pedagogy as well as on student learning, achievement and success. How does how we organize our classrooms impact how we structure learning for our students and vice versa; how can the choices we make around teaching and learning drive how we set up our learning environments?

For example a classroom setup with desks in rows facing the front lends itself towards a stand and deliver, lecture format in the of way of classroom instruction and would make it more difficult for students to work collaboratively. Setting up learning environments, while keeping the metaphors above in mind, would allow for all types of teaching and learning methods to take place including; mini-lessons, collaborative work, student creation, small group instruction, independent work, reflection, whole class discussions etc.

A Culture of Trust, Caring and Respect

Mitch Resnick suggests that in developing a positive learning environment we must also look beyond physical space to the essential component of fostering a culture or working/learning environment of trust, caring, and respect. He suggests it is through “collective action” and creating a community of learners who work in a “make it together place” that we can accomplish much more than we can on our own. When we emphasize the social side of learning, work as a team and truly collaborate; we are more likely to take risks, thereby pushing thinking and learning forward. When we feel truly “a part of something” and supported by our peers; true creativity and innovation can flourish.

I am lucky enough to work in a learning environment that is both innovative in its physical design but also in its exemplary supportive and collaborative culture . I have the pleasure of working alongside my officemates (Team 109) when I am not out working with teachers and students in schools. Our team truly exemplifies an environment of respect, caring and trust. We support each other unconditionally. We push each other’s comfort zones and encourage new ideas, new opportunities and new thinking. These are people I trust to always have my back, always tell it like it is and always work together as a team.

Our physical environment supports this collaborative learning model. Our work space includes a variety of areas including; standing desks, a variety of seating options and vertical non-permanent surfaces. We have a lego wall and creative space with numerous maker focused materials to help model innovative teaching and learning materials, while also inspiring creativity . We have a soft seating, “watering hole” type, collaborative area in which the chairs are on wheels for easy re-configuration. A large mounted TV monitor allows us to easily display shared presentations, documents, videos or other resources. We use Google Tools to share our workflow and collaborate constantly. When a teammate has to be away for a scheduled meeting we easily improvise with a Google Hangout and use the shared screen option. For Team 109, the physical environment is a constant work in progress and encourages our supportive, dynamic, collaborative team culture through the creative work we do together.

When considering the workplace as well as a classroom, both the physical design and the culture of our environment are hugely impactful in driving the learning, thinking and work that we do. Knowing this, we must be mindful and strategic in setting up the physical spaces we teach and work in, with intent. We also must ensure we set the stage for collaborative, empowering, valuable teamwork in order for a culture of respect, trust and caring to flourish.

Find your Passion

In the book Lifelong Kindergarten, written by learning expert Mitch Resnick he suggests that the rest of school (even the rest of life) should be more like kindergarten. The main premise is the book is the idea that in order to thrive in today’s dynamic world, people of all ages must learn to think and act creatively —and the best way to do that is by focusing more on imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, just as children do in traditional kindergartens. The book is structured around the four P’s: Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play and the important role each plays in cultivating creativity.

This is a book that speaks to me from beginning to end. If you know me or have read any of my previous blog posts, you know that the second P-passion, is a topic I am personally “passionate” about, so much so that it inspired the name of my blog, “The Meaning of Meraki”. Meraki is a Greek word defined as “the soul or creativity you put into something; the essence of yourself you put into the work you do.” Although there is not quite a direct English translation of the word “meraki”, the closest we can get is the word PASSION. Leading a life filled with meraki or passion is a gift.

Definition-Passion: a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept or a strong enthusiasm or interest.

If you know any kindergarteners, you can speak to the often unbridled enthusiasm they bring to all that they do. They are passionate about their learning; engaged, curious, and eager. Yet we know as students move up the grades this initial enthusiasm and interest in school often diminish. Research shows that as children advance through the grades engagement levels decrease significantly. The 2015 Gallup Student Poll, Engaged Today, Ready for Tomorrow defines engagement as student “involvement in and enthusiasm for school”. After surveying over 900 000 US students the study shows engagement levels steadily drop as students move from Grades 5-12. The poll indicates that while over 75% of 5th graders are engaged in school, this numbers steadily drops to 34% of students being engaged in their learning by the 12th grade. The Canadian Education Association (CEA) 2011 study looking at intellectual, social and institutional engagement in schools entitled, “What did you do at school today?” shows similar trends. These decreasing levels of engagement tell us something has to shift. How do move schools towards a culture in which students maintain a similar interest and passion for learning that they enter with in Kindergarten?

Quote by George Couros

One of the ultimate goals of schools is to prepare students for their future and the world of work. Starting in their early days of high school students begin to make choices that may determine their life path. They choose electives, course levels and vocational programs that may come to influence or determine whether or not they go to post-secondary education, whether or not they finish high school and what direction life may take them. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t. But what if this were different.

Imagine if schools were places where starting from an early age, students were regularly given opportunities to discover and uncover their interests, skills, strengths, and passions….

In the book Lifelong Kindergarten, Mitch Resnick, creates a spin-off of a Ben Franklin quote to make his own suggestion, “An investment in interest always pays off with the best knowledge”.

When we invest in our students and give them time to be creative and the opportunity to uncover their passions and interests, we allow them the chance to develop insight and knowledge about themselves, and we allow them the opportunity to invest in their own future.

Imagine if all schools honoured more student voice and choice when structuring learning opportunities and learning was, in turn, more personalized, active, student-driven and gave students the chance to explore something they may ultimately become passionate about.

Fortunately, we are seeing more and more schools implement models honouring this approach and fulfilling our students’ need for more choice and voice in their learning throughout the grades. Check out examples of some of these inspiring educators and schools below:

  • Genius Hour/ Maker Initiatives

More and more classrooms at varying levels utilize a Genius Hour kind of format which allows students time to explore their own passions through maker space or project-based learning initiatives which encourage creativity and student-driven learning in the classroom. Sue McFarlane Penner, a teacher in Winnipeg, Manitoba, uses a variation of this approach with her grade 1,2,3 multiage class. Her students develop “Workshops” on topics they are passionate about ranging from basketball to piano, to chess, to video making and in turn her students teach other students about their passions, including their older Grade 5/6 Learning Buddies. Not only do students have the opportunity to research and share their learning about something they are passionate about, they also learn presentation skills, communication skills and build confidence as young learners.

Some places structure more personalized learning options for students to explore interests and passions using a school-based model.

  • Ecole Garden Grove School IDEAS Initiative

Ecole Garden Grove School also in Winnipeg offers a school-wide initiative called I.D.E.A.S which stands for Innovative Design Exploration Activity Stations. IDEAS provides students in grades 3-6 with the opportunity to explore personalized learning opportunities. It is a chance for all students and staff to have fun, while discovering, learning about, & creating new things. All learners have the opportunity to design, create, work together, try new challenges, take risks, fail and try again, all while building community and connections with students and teachers they may have never had the chance to work with before.

IDEAS is scheduled in for two one hour slots, twice weekly and each block typically lasts for 4 weeks. Past focuses in IDEAS sessions have been on: Robotics, drama, pottery, electronics, clothing design/sewing, woodworking, coding, Lego 2.0, geocaching, comic book design, scrapbooking (Cricut), Little Bits, audio sound engineering, outdoor education, claymation/digital animation, magic, quilting, tinkering, photography, space/rocket science, batik, culinary arts etc.

Workshops are determined based on student and staff interest. Staff plan and prep for their activity stations, students choose their top interests using Google Forms, groups are made and workshops begin. Reflection is an integral and critical part of the IDEAS initiative. Students are asked to reflect on their learning stations each session through the foundational educational tenets of the initiative including; 4 C learning (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication), having an innovative mindset and design thinking.

This innovative initiative encourages both staff and students to step outside their comfort zone, try something new and potentially find areas they are passionate about. It has been embraced and highly valued by all stakeholders and also maintains great community support.

Lake Trail Middle School Electives and Flex/Quest Time

Similarly, Lake Trail Middle School in Courtenay, BC offers personalized learning opportunities for its grade 8-9 students through electives and what is scheduled as Flex or Quest Time. The staff was surveyed and asked to create courses they thought would be meaningful for students and that fit their own personal skill sets. These electives (46 in total) range from the more typical options found in middle school settings related to athletics, art, music, foods, woodworking and textiles to a wide variety of more personalized options including: African & Aboriginal Drumming, Art Installation, Film, Audio Engineering, Global Foods, Gender Equity Alliance, Marine Biology, The Music Business, Cooking with Fire, Coding, and Community Leadership/Engagement to name a few.

The Flex or Quest component scheduled into timetables gives students the opportunity to explore an independent project that they are passionate about that may or may not be connected to their chosen electives. To start the year teachers scaffold the thinking, planning and requisite skills needed to support this sort of individualized student work, and they serve as mentors as the work continues. Students are also connected with further mentors, if applicable, within the greater community.

The teachers at Lake Trail were encouraged to expand their own learning and model risk-taking by imagining the possibilities, building on their own strengths or interests, teaching something they may have never taught before and facilitating learning using methods that were new to them. Through this expansion of available electives and increased exploration time, students were offered an abundance of personalized options, encouraged to take risks, explored new interests and developed a new valuable skill set as independent learners!

In many ways, the 2 examples above may seem parallel to personalized learning initiatives such as Genius Hour, passion projects or Inquiry time, because they are. However, often those types of learning opportunities take place in certain classrooms and are driven by individual teachers. School-wide initiatives such as these two examples ensure empowering, personalized learning is in place for ALL students, develop common understanding across classrooms, and builds on independent skills throughout the grades in a school.

  • We can also look to examples of entire school philosophies making bold shifts away from traditional models of teaching and learning and reinventing what school can look like:

Schools like High Tech High, Connect Charter, Big Picture Learning Schools, The Pacific School of Inquiry & Innovation, PROPEL and countless, countless others are imagining the possibilities and turning their innovative visions into realities as they look to alternative approaches to; school organization, programming, meeting standards and curriculum, assessment, and reporting . These types of initiatives all have one thing in common; a more student-focused approach to learning.

There is much to be learned from the schools above and the plenty more like them. However, there are also many examples of schools and classrooms still stuck in very traditional, teacher driven, merely content focused models of teaching and learning. As suggested by Mitch Resnick, “finding the right balance between freedom and structure is the key to creating a fertile environment for creative learning”. We owe it to our students to find this balance. We owe it to our students to create learning environments where deep learning, and passion thrive. We owe it to our students to provide rich learning opportunities that allow them as individuals to explore and discover where their interests, strengths, and passions thrive. These learning environments may look similar to the ones outlined above, they may be an iteration of something parallel or they may be something brand new. The possibilities are endless and may vary greatly depending on the level, the learning context, and the learners themselves. Yet, ultimately all classrooms and/or schools need to find an entry point to ensuring both choice and voice are honoured for students in the form of engaging and empowering personalized learning options, in some way. Our students may not be passionate about everything in school, but they should be passionate about something. As teachers it is our job to help them discover their “something”.

It’s All About the Process



Week 2 Prompt: The Creative Learning Spiral is a way to think about the creative process. How would you describe or draw your own creative learning process?


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Creative Learning Spiral

I have always been a firm believer in the power of a process. Students need scaffolds to support their learning. They need structures and guidance to keep them on track and help them to be successful. Learning processes such as steps for problem-solving, the scientific method, the writing process, inquiry process or creative process are all examples of ways we can best support our students and their learning.

In recent years, I have done a lot of work with teachers and students using the design thinking process below. Design thinking is another example of a creative process that has universal, ubiquitous application regardless of what learners are creating, whether it be building a sculpture, designing a bridge, coding an animation, writing a poem, animating a game, composing a song or painting a picture.

Creation is a powerful way to put students in the center of their learning and design thinking is a framework to support students in that creative process, serving as a guide to approach any task, challenge or problem. It is a way to approach curriculum, standards and learning outcomes across the disciplines in meaningful ways.

Design Thinking can involve both short-term and long-term projects. It can end in an idea, an initiative or a product. It can involve both high tech and low tech supplies. It can be analog or digital, involving a pencil or a device. The possibilities are endless…

Identifying steps and using a process for design can help guide students through a creative problem-solving process and supports student learning in the areas of literacy, numeracy and the content areas in an engaging, empowering way. Design thinking can support learning across all curricular areas and promotes an interdisciplinary approach.

Identify → Imagine → Plan → Design → Refine → Share



When we give our students regular opportunities to use a Design Thinking Process to solve a problem, to face a challenge or approach a task, it just becomes the way they do business. It develops a problem-solving skill set and mindset that will serve them well moving forward. Students are given an opportunity to be self-starters who in the end learn how to think, and how to learn. The creative process helps makes learning more visible each and every step of the way.

Childhood Objects



I love this line in the early pages of Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitch Resnick:

My nomination for the greatest invention of the previous thousand years? Kindergarten.

I loved Kindergarten. I still do. When I visit any school, my favourite place to visit is and always will be KINDERGARTEN. Kindergarten is a place of wonder, joy and endless possibility. The most challenging part is holding onto these important qualities as we make our way through the grades in school.



The Week One prompt for the LCL MOOC says the following:

Think about an object from your childhood that interested and influenced you. What was special about it? How did it affect the way you think and learn?

My own objects from my childhood quickly came to mind. As a child, I loved my Fisher Price Little People.  My favorites were the castle and the schoolhouse. Still today, these objects sit in a box on the top shelf of my garage, played with by own own children and now awaiting the next set of imaginative child minds and hands.

I spent countless hours playing with this castle and schoolhouse, the furniture and the many “people”. This is where I first took on the role of mother and the first inklings of Shauna the teacher came to life. These toys were so special to me as they offered endless possibilities; no two rounds of play looked the same- one day the castle was battling a snowstorm, the next a burglary and then the next, the scene of a wedding. One day I may have enacted a day of school in the schoolhouse and the next it may have been a shelter during a tornado. The Little People offered opportunities for both reenacting reality and prompting make-believe. These toys were where the magic happened. They opened up a world of possibilities for me as a child and promoted imaginative play like no other. These toys helped develop my creative, imaginative side and the collaborative play I did with others brings back fond memories.

It warmed my heart to see my own children play with these toys in their early years and we added many Little People sets to these as they grew. We have also added to the boxes of these toys in storage; these are childhood objects worth hanging on to!


The Art & Science of Innovation

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In mid-November George Couros wrote a blog post entitled, “How do you focus on being innovative while still teaching the curriculum?”, which also prompted the powerful quote above.  

The curriculum tells you “what”, not “how”. The “how” is the artistry in education.

This post prompted A LOT of rich dialogue among educators with literally thousands of retweets, and replies. In it George Couros goes on to explore a common perception or perhaps misconception of educators around teaching and innovation, that the curriculum is on one side of the spectrum, and innovation is on the opposite side. He goes on to suggest:

What I try to get people to understand is that how we teach the curriculum, often, is the innovation.

As educators, we often don’t have a lot of control over the “what”. We have student learning outcomes to plan for, formative assessment to consider, and reporting mandates to meet. One might look at these pieces as “the science” that drives our role as educators.  But in preparing for our work with students, we do have a lot more control over the “how”.  That is where the artistry comes in. We may not have a whole lot of say into “what” learning outcomes we need to focus on with our students, but we do have a lot more say into “how” we are going to get them there and the learning opportunities we provide to set the stage. That is where we can often be more creative in our approaches.

Realistically, even the “how” can be fairly prescribed for some educators in some contexts with particular program initiatives and mandates.  As suggested later in George Couros’ blog post, teachers must learn to #innovatewithinthebox.  If it feels like much of our time with students is highly prescribed by things that are out of control then we will need to make the small amount of flexible learning time we do have really count! We all have boundaries, policies and hurdles to work around. The creative problem solving we use to power through and work around these obstacles is once again where the true artistry comes in. We must focus on what is important.

Innovative teaching and learning is about always looking for a better way to do things. It  is about upping the ante with our students and ensuring we are offering them the most meaningful, enriching and empowering learning opportunities possible that meet their needs as individual learners.  Innovative teaching and learning is about moving away from a one size fits all model of instruction that often puts students in the place of passive learner. It is about finding more frequent opportunities for students to be active learners in turn building the skill sets necessary in today’s shifting context.

Innovation in education is about looking closely at “the how” we do business.  One might argue that even more importantly it is first and foremost about “the why”, but that’s for another post…stay tuned! The chart below offers some specific examples as ideas to shift “the how” from a more traditional approach of the past to a more innovative, student centred, creation driven approach moving forward.

           SHIFTING” THE HOW”→Innovative Approaches

Student as Passive Learner

Student as Active Learner or “CREATOR”

Students read assigned chapters of a novel, and do end of chapter questions


The teacher reads a picture book, class discusses the protagonist’s problem and predicts solutions that might occur later in the story

Novel or Picture Book Engineering

  • STEP 1-  Student or class reads the book
  • STEP 2- Student creates a character sketch or profile
  • STEP 3- Student identifies a problem or goal the character faces
  • STEP 4- Student ideates 3-5 solutions for the character’s problem
  • STEP 5 – Student chooses one and creates a prototype
The teacher provides information information on an Ancient Society in a lecture format. Students read sections in a textbook and answer questions in their notebooks. Students are given some guiding questions to investigate on an Ancient Society. In groups they determine an area of interest and decide on what they are going to create to show understanding of their topic (3 D model, video, art pieces, skit etc)  They present their learning  to the class.
The teacher does a 4o minute lesson on the board on a math topic. Students are assigned 20 textbook questions as homework. Students are given a math topic to investigate after the teacher does an introduction. They are tasked with watching videos from a list of resources (i.e. Khan Academy) to build understanding then given a handful of problems to solve. They are asked to show their thinking and create their own video using an app like Explain Everything or another screencasting tool.
The teacher shows videos and demonstrates different types of simple machines. The class discusses examples. Students do worksheets on simple machines.At the end of the unit there is a test. Students ask questions about and then investigate simple machines. As a group, they are tasked with designing a Rube Goldberg machine to complete a simple task, that includes 3 simple machines, which they must explain in their video documenting their learning.
Research Project- students are assigned a topic to investigate, given a list of questions to answer and told what format they must present in. Genius Hour- students are invited to take on a project of their own choosing based on their own individual questions, interests, and/or strengths. With guidance they plan all elements of their own learning focus.
Teacher scribes the story of a reluctant writer during Writer’s Workshop after the teacher has done a mini lesson on parts of a story . Student uses Lego Story Starter to build a beginning, middle and end of story. Student takes pictures of lego scenes using an iPad and inputs the pictures into an app such as Adobe Spark.  Student tells his or her story orally to go with pictures and creates a video in minutes.

There will always be a time and place for teachers to use a more lecture-style format, offer mini-lessons, and use direct teaching, but in today’s changing world we know that our students also need more than that.  Innovative teaching and learning is about finding a balance that offers our students more regular opportunity to play an active role in their own learning.  When we open our minds in regards to “the how”, and imagine the possibilities, we can drive innovative change in our own practice. That is where the artistry comes in and that is where innovation begins.