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.

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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”.