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”.

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The Makerspace Movement

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Makerspace, or focusing on a “maker mindset,” involves learning and spaces where students gather to create, invent, and learn. Makerspaces are often found in libraries or other common areas in a school. They are also set up regularly in classrooms and flexible in their design or use.

Ultimately, a maker culture focuses on design and opportunities that both engage and empower students. This creative learning can vary greatly and may include both high tech and low tech examples such as;

  • writing a fairytale using Lego Story Starter
  • coding using an input/output device such as Makey Makey
  • designing 3D imagery with a 3D printer
  • creating a stop motion animation using an app such as Smoovie
  • inventing something brand new from “take-a-parts” or cardboard.
  • composing a song to show understanding of a concept
  • producing a movie using green screen and a platform such as iMovie
  • working collaboratively with a team to build a bridge; as long as possible, in a limited amount of time, using a finite amount of materials
  • creating a beautiful piece of art using a variety of mediums
  • designing a campaign to solve a school-based issue or concern
  • recreating the setting of a novel in Minecraft Edu
  • building a replica of a famous structure

Establishing a making mindset in schools provides for endless possibilities all built upon imagination, creation, collaboration and innovation in an engaging learning environment.

The idea of students as creators is nothing new. Classrooms, libraries, art rooms, dance studios, theaters, band rooms, and industrial arts labs have served as “makerspaces” for our students at varying degrees and in a number of different ways for many, many years. But what is new is the urgency to ensure that our present day classrooms invite a making culture and that moving forward all classrooms shift from a passive learner model to one where students are at the centre in a stance of active learning. This is essential as we strive to meet the diverse needs of our learners in our ever changing world. We know we need to change our focus and our approach in order to meet our learners’ needs and the demands of our society. We need to support our students in becoming the globally aware, creative, adaptive, resilient, digitally fluent, flexible thinkers necessary in today’s reality. Initiating programming that prioritizes students as makers is one opportunity to do so.

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Makerspace is not about a “space” and it is not about “stuff”:  it is about a “making mindset”.  A focus on ‘making” pushes past the traditional structure of student as consumer of information. It is a culture focused on student as creator. It is about ideas. It is about the joy and exhilaration of putting something new into the world and the rich learning that goes with the experience of doing so.

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Makerspace is not about a one size fits all model where all learners are doing the same thing: it is about honouring our students as individuals, differentiating our approaches and valuing the opportunity and structure of having kids learning and doing different things at different times.

Makerspace is not about being stuck in the perspective of “that’s the way we have always done it” such as following traditional instructional structures. It is about shifting that lecture, that worksheet, that textbook assignment or those end of chapter questions to learning opportunities that are more active, more student-focused, and more creation driven. It is about flipping those traditional approaches and opening the door to creativity, critical thinking and problem solving for our students early on and giving students the opportunity to learn THROUGH the creative process.

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Makerspace is not about “sage on the stage” or teacher as the imparter of all knowledge: it is about the teacher as facilitator, “guide on the side” and coach, ultimately putting students in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Makerspace is not about learning fitting neatly into subject areas and prescribed learning outcomes: it is about offering our students a number of possibilities, putting the appropriate materials and opportunities in their reach, and helping them make the connections.

With a strong basis in the theory of Constructivism (Vygotsky & Piaget), Constructionism (Papert) and Inquiry-based learning, hands-on learning such as makerspace initiatives offer students unique learning opportunities in which they can construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. Using a Makerspace model allows a student to ask questions, find ways to answer those questions and carve their own path while producing something to demonstrate their new learning. Teachers can not only step back into more of a role as facilitators or coaches but quite often as learners themselves.

Supporting our students in developing a maker mindset also gives learners the chance to develop a special skill set that is so necessary in today’s world. These skills include critical & creative thinking, project management, flexibility, agility, innovation, risk taking, and resilience. Giving our students more opportunities to create builds essential skills and competencies which are embedded throughout the curriculum. Learning focuses less on specific content related outcomes and more on drivers of learning, and key essential skills.

We can look to 4 key pillars that serve as foundational pieces of a learning environment that emphasize students as creators:

  • 4 C, Competency focused, Deep Learning – a focus on Critical & Creative Thinking, Communication and Collaboration
  • The Design Thinking Process – steps in a process which students use that has universal application, regardless of what they are creating (bridge, sculpture, poem, tower, campaign, animation etc.)

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  • Reflection & Metacognition – reflective practice gives students the opportunity to think deeply and reflect upon their own thinking, doing and learning and plan for next steps.
  • Personalized, active, inquiry-based learning – students’ individual strengths, interests, skills, driving questions and passions direct their own learning experiences

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When we personalize learning opportunities, let students take initiative and focus on building knowledge through creation instead of only consumption we support learning for ALL. We can look to the example of the Ecole Victoria Albert Learning Commons Makerspace for inspiration. It recently received an Honourable Mention for the CEA Ken Spencer Innovation Award and is a flagship for makerspace development for both Winnipeg School Division and the province of Manitoba as a whole. Vic Al’s diverse community of learners has benefited greatly from the makerspace in their school building. This dual track school of 400 has a high mobility rate and one of the largest newcomer populations in the city Winnipeg. About 70% of the school’s students are EAL and 25% are First Nations. They received 60 Syrian Refugees in 2016 alone.

Renee Sanguin, Inquiry & Innovation Support Teacher at Victoria Albert School explains, “The programming at Victoria Albert School promotes access to learning which is deep, inclusive, equitable and empowering for all. It opens doors for learners in a very personalized and experiential learning environment. The foundational tenets of deep learning driven by Makerspace have transformed the school from a traditional teacher-directed model to one where students are at the heart of all planning and learning. The focus is on “learning skills” that will prepare students for the future of change that is their reality.

The Victoria Albert initiative is an example of a transformative learning environment aimed to help support and prepare our learners with the modern literacies, skills, competencies and attitudes necessary for students today.” (Sanguin, 2016)

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 2.41.30 PMPhoto: http://cea-ace.s3.amazonaws.com/media/CEA-2016-Ken-Spencer-Award-Finalists-Booklet.pdf

When we focus on learning through the creative process we can approach curriculum and learning outcomes in an innovative way. We can support numeracy by making connections to problem-solving, computational thinking and reasoning. Through coding, robotics and game-based learning students are able to utilize a number of math skills in relevant and engaging platforms. Students also can practice and consolidate a number of math concepts and applications in meaningful contexts while estimating, measuring, building, revising, constructing and applying numerous math skills in real world situations.

In the way of literacy, the possibilities are endless. Using Lego students can build a beginning, middle, and end and incorporate all elements of a story in this unique medium before capturing their story with images, text, and written or oral documentation. Students can ask questions to drive their learning and then find answers by researching, interviewing, reading, viewing and listening. Students have opportunities regularly to capture their work and the steps they have taken through procedure writing.

Learners read instructions. They write instructions. They draw diagrams. They label parts. They storyboard, write scripts, perform and do retakes. They reflect deeply through writing, sketch noting, video or apps such as Adobe Spark or Seesaw. They network and connect through social media, digital portfolios, video conferencing, blogging and more. In a making context, the visible learning that takes place in the way of literacy learning and beyond is endless.

When we offer students opportunities in our schools and classrooms to learn through making, inventing and creating we promote student ownership, student agency and developing autonomous, self-directed learners. It is an opportunity for students to manage their own personalized learning in an active, student-driven, empowering environment. It is a chance to support deeper thinking and foster curiosity with minds-on, hands-on tinkering, and constructing. Makerspaces or promoting having a “making mindset” is a powerful learning opportunity for our 21st C learners as they become creators, critical thinkers, problem solvers, collaborators, communicators and most importantly life-long learners.

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