Brain Research, Inquiry, Mindset, Play

Let Them Explore Their Passions!

Passion.  It is one of my favorite topics when it comes to education.  I know that there are people who will say that asking kids about their passion is a fruitless task – they are kids, what do they know about passion?  I tend to move away from those people and ask anyway.  I think kids are DEEPLY passionate about things.  As teachers (and as parents) one of our biggest challenges is to not get in the way and to allow for their passions, their curiosity, their sense of wonder, and their natural inquisitiveness rise to the surface. 

Last year, I worked with a small team at school on exploring the concept of authentic inquiry through Genius Hour.  Ultimately we decided an hour wasn’t enough and as a school, we will be looking into the idea of incorporating Genius Hour into every hour, every unit.  I have no idea how it will work, but I am excited to work with teachers to give it a go and see what we can come up with. 

To that end, I was intrigued when I read an article tonight titled, “Four Skills to Teach Students in the first Five Days of School” via Mind/Shift.  Here is one of the points from the article:

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This is a different take on the idea we grappled with all last year, but I like it.  I think like anything different, it will take some getting used to and some won’t know what to do, where to begin…but they will.  And in doing so, they will learn.  Lots.  About being self motivated, setting their own goals, or even learn how to ask for help when they need it.  

I love structure but I also love the freedom of an idea like this. As I throw around all of my beliefs about the importance of play, of collaborative learning, of cooperative learning, of finding your passion, the more I am becoming convinced that learning comes not as a result of pre-determined criteria and one way of showing what you know via an electronic flip-book or 3D sculpture.  

Learning is messy.  Learning sometimes is when things don’t work.  Learning is hard work. 

Thankfully, we were born to learn. 

Born to Learn

I know some people will argue that putting up posters,  or creating these sorts of posters with kids, or adding self affirming statements to papers or posters, and discussing the idea of a growth mindset with your kids will not do a thing.  Some people will even go so far to say that it feels fake, forced, artificial.  I disagree.  The idea that individuals can shape their destiny and that learning is real work are important things kids need to know to help them through the parts of their passion journey that aren’t so smooth.  

It will be tough.  You may want to quit.  Don’t do that. Today is just the first day….

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Brain Research, Mindset

One Step Towards A Growth Mindset

A lot has been said of developing a growth mindset.  Carol Dweck is a great person to start with if you are unfamiliar with this term.  Essentially, it means that:

people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. – Carol Dweck

The Khan Academy have jumped with this idea and are incorporating one simple step within their already fabulous program that has  led to a 5% increase in problems attempted, proficiencies earned, and return visits to the site.  What is this step?  One simple line of text added to a page with a math problem on it:

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Research indicates that our brains have a high degree of plasticity and as teachers, we should take every chance we can to tap into that.

What could this look like in your classroom?

I have followed the Khan Academy example and added a growth mindset quote to any printed work I hand out to kids.

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I know this is only one small step, but hey, if it is good enough for Sal Khan…

What else can we do? Everything from framing your questions, giving kids more information about HOW and WHY we are doing what we are doing, and framing your classroom with statements for the development of a growth mindset such as these examples from MindSetWorks

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Brain Research, Math

How To Learn Math

Thanks to my new colleague, I learned of a free class offered online by Stanford titled How To Learn Math. 

I started the class and am on to the third lesson.  Each lesson comprises of short video clips with questions in between.  Your submissions are peer reviewed and you play your part in reviewing others responses to the same questions.  Some of the submissions are self-reviewed – more of a reflection on what you have just watched in the video.

The following ‘definition’ of a mathematician was given in one of the readings that does not use the word ‘numbers’ but paints a different picture of the way in which a mathematician ‘works’

A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. ~Paul Lockhart, A Mathematician’s Lament

The above quote made me think of one of my favorite mathematicians (after Sal Khan, she is my favorite!) – Vi Hart.  I think to begin a year with some of her videos is to expose your class instantly to whole new mindset on math.

The first lesson also talked about the power of direct feedback and with prefacing your feedback (critical commentary on learning) with the statement: “I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you”. Research showed a greater acceptance of the feedback and improvement by the student when they felt that the teacher believed in them.  The suggestion is not to preface every comment with this statement but rather to recognize the power of relationship, honesty, and trust between student and teacher.

The second lesson spoke of math and mindset and taps into the work of Carol Dweck on the subject of mindset.  Again, research shows that three weeks is the time period it can take your brain to develop new pathways when learning something new.  This was interesting to me as I am sure that before the three week period is up, I will often convince myself that I am not an X person, or I can’t possibly do Y.  Armed with this information, I hope to look into hanging in there a bit longer when I next tackle something new.

I have until the end of September to complete the eight session course.  I am motivated by what I have learned thus far and by the fact that I know some of my colleagues are also doing the same course.  The format is easy to follow, the information interesting, and the chance to get feedback on ideas from like minded students, teachers, and parents who are also doing the course is fascinating.

If you are interested in this free open learning opportunity, click here for more information.   As I thought about extending my own learning and in light of the day looming near in which students are about to return to school, I found this poster which sums up my feelings on learning and what I want to foster in my class this year – which is why learning is something I am choosing to do now.


Brain Research, Creativity

Are You Creative?


I just read a really interesting article on creativity.

The well-known known illusion above can be seen in two ways: as both a duck and a rabbit. Which do you see first? And if you see one, can you also see the other?

Most people see the duck first and can flip between the two representations, but the question is: how easy is it for you to flip between them? Does it require real mental strain, or can you do it at will?

The article suggests that the ability to see both the rabbit and the duck and to flip easily between the two is an indicator that you are more likely to be creative in your thinking. To test this idea, researchers gave participants a limited time period to come up with novel uses for everyday objects: a chair, a brick, a paperclip. Those who could see both animals in the illustration could come up with five novel uses for an object.  Those who couldn’t, could come up with two.

While I am now incredibly curious to try this with my kids, I am also left thinking:

  • would kids have an easier time of thinking with greater flexibility than adults?
  • how do we grow our ability to look at problems from creative perspectives?
  • is this inherent or learned behavior?

As I was thinking about this, I was also thinking about a creative solution to a real world problem that my friend’s fifth grade class encountered. Some may say that picketing and boycotting and protesting are not creative solutions, but when you are in fifth grade and the people you are standing up to are tenth graders from your school, I would say it was not only a creative way to express their point of view, but a very brave one too. Check out their story – it is a fascinating read.

As teachers, we need to be prepared to flip the duck (or rabbit) and challenge ourselves to see things differently: our kids, our curriculum, the assignments we give out, the expectations we have of our kids.

Equally, it is probably a good idea to ask the same of our parents.  School as we knew it shouldn’t be the same as school today. At least, not a school I want to be a teacher at.  Many parents are more than receptive to this, if we share our why with them: why we are making changes, why school is different, why we are pushing something new.  One of my blog posts on this subject was recently reposted on the IBO Sharing PYP Practice blog. To me it was reassuring to hear the feedback from parents: once our reasoning was explained to them, they were more than receptive to the change.

Sometimes it is really hard to change our focus from the rabbit (or the duck) but that doesn’t mean we should stop looking or stop challenging ourselves to look at things from a more creative perspective.If you are ready to take the challenge, here are some cool tips to rid yourself of excuses for you lack of creativity (this is going up in my classroom tomorrow!):




I ask you again: Are you creative?

Brain Research, Innovation, Inspiration, Internet

We All Could Do With a Little More “Happy”

A parent of one of my students recently sent me this video:

Shawn Achor encourages us to think differently about the correlation between success and happiness. Many people would say that if you become successful, you will be happy.  Achor argues that if your focus is first on being happy, success will follow and your happiness will be longer lasting as it is built into the fabric of who you are, rather than pinned to reaching your latest goal, target or sales figures.

Students in the fourth grade class next to me, have recently watched this video and started a 21 day happiness journal via Hapyr. Each day the students choose to write three things they are grateful for and/or a happy memory they had in the last 24 hours.


I have recently become a big fan of TEDEd: Lessons Worth Sharing.  This is a great resource for teachers who want to find a video (from TED talks or on YouTube) and then create a lesson for students by ‘flipping’ the video = providing guided content after watching the video that students can do at their own pace (at home or school). One of the great things about it, is that if you find something you like but the creator hasn’t asked quite the questions you were hoping to have your students dig into, you can ‘flip’ the lesson yourself and rework it to suit your own class.

Here is the TEDEd Lesson I created using Shawn Achor’s “The Happy Secret To Better Work”.

Here is a SKITCH screengrab explaining the features of TEDEd:

TEDEd - Happiness

Have you used TEDEd or Skitch? What are your thoughts?

What is ONE thing you could do RIGHT NOW in order to be happier?

Brain Research

Energy Busters!

First day back. Awesome kids. Loads of energy! Solutions?

Brain Breaks.

I think I know these as Brain Gym.  Either way, putting some movement in the classroom sounds like a great idea to me.  Some of them in the first list below might seem a little cheesy (I am not sure it is possible to pull off a chicken impersonation and maintain your fifth grade swag?) but they do sound fun and a way to keep engaging body and mind. I really like the dice roll sheet.  Quick, snappy, independent.  Just like my kids.



How do you help kids engage their bodies and brains?

Brain Research, Inspiration, Tech, Writing

A Traffic Light, A Band-Aid, and A Passport: 3 Back-to-School Essentials

Traffic Light



We started the year with two days of writing training.  Among other strategies, we looked at Step Up To Writing. This method utilizes a color coding system and a traffic light analogy to guide children through the process of writing a topic sentence and expanding on that idea with enough detail and information to engage their audience.  It is also a way of helping organize thoughts orally when used to guide students as they share their ideas.  Once a main idea has been shared, having that student elaborate is a great way for them to continue to think and share their ideas with the class. As a school, we have agreed to implement this strategy pre-K through 5th.  I am looking forward to seeing how this works – and how my students do at self-initiating this thinking process as the year progresses.

Band Aid

This morning, I was on Pinterest and my friend and fellow teacher, Kim, had pinned an interesting post from a first grade teacher’s blog about differentiation.  Her story goes that on the first day or during the first week of school, the teacher asks her students to pretend they have a “boo-boo”.  She asks each one in turn to describe where they are hurt (cut my finger, scraped my knee, stubbed my toe etc).  Regardless of what the child says, the teacher places a band aid on their upper arm.  Despite cries of “But I don’t need it there!” everyone gets a band aid on their upper arm.  She explains she is treating all her students fairly by giving everyone the same thing.  At least one child will exclaim that they don’t all need the band-aid there – they all need it in different spots – at which point she shares the moral of her story: that fair does not mean equal.

I love this analogy – especially as I head into a new year with new students who each have unique needs.  Some kids I may spend time with taking dictation from what they say while others write out their own ideas.  Equal? No.  Fair? Absolutely.

Digital Passport

Earlier this week, I came across an online Digital Passport curriculum for Grades 3-5.  Created by CommonSense Media, the passport program can be customized for your students to guide them through responsible use of the internet.  A brief overview of the curriculum offered includes the topics of communication, privacy, cyberbullying, searching and giving credit where it is due.  This is a solid, basic foundation of skills regarding appropriate digital use.  I can see the need to add to and customize as the year progresses or if a particular issue arises but for a pre-packaged, FREE program, this looks pretty impressive.  Students can pace themselves through the activities, work independently or collaboratively and the responses to the questions can be completed online in game form and offline via discussions, drawings, writing and even role-playing.

If you are looking for a dynamic solution to kick off your connected year, I think this looks like a pretty good place to start.

Educator Guide PDF



Brain Research, Innovation, Leadership

Blooming Orange and the Magical Number Seven

I love the color orange so of course, anything with “orange” in the title is going to catch my eye.  The people at Smart Tutor have been busy creating a new way of looking at Bloom’s Taxonomy with the creation of the Blooming Orange.  Now, Blooms’ Taxonomy is not new but this is a fresh way of looking at it.  Here is what makes it different:

  • the stages of the taxonomy are typically presented as steps or as a hierarchy.  In this diagram, they all take a spot on the outer circle to signal that most of the time, these skills do not occur in isolation but simultaneously alongside other skills
  •  careful thought has gone into choosing the verbs that fill each segment of the orange. The list is by no means definitive but serves the purpose of clearly articulating what you would see someone doing if they were “understanding”  or “applying” in their learning.

You may have noticed that there are seven verbs in each segment.  This number was decided upon purposefully as a result of research into how many discrete pieces of information the human brain can contend with at one time.  Newer research would say that the number seven is too high – that it is more like 3 or 4 – but the Smart Tutor folks felt that seven was a good number and would ensure all could be recalled.

Download the pdf’s here:

I think it is a good idea to share these types of things with students.  I also think they are good tools to use as a self-assessment of what you are asking of your kids as a teacher. What segments get the most of your attention?  What do your kids spend the most of their time doing?

Today I got some great advice from Simon Sinek in my mailbox that in the light of our Exhibition, I not only endorse and believe in, but I know to be true.

And isn’t that what school is for?  I asked that question during our Fifth Grade moving up (to Middle School) ceremony.  What is school for?  In my opinion, and to quote myself from my book “Imagine a School…” our goal should be to nurture

“passionate, persistent citizens, who are fearless and strong”.

Nothing there are being compliant, checking of boxes, waiting to be asked.

We need people who will take initiative, look for responsibility, lead without regard for title or power and care more than is necessary.  With that being said, how do you assign responsibility in your classroom? How would you answer the question,

“What is school for?”

Brain Research, Inspiration

Care More. Even through Change. Care MORE.

Care More. 

If you do nothing else, click on the link above and read Seth’s post.  What could be more simple? In a world where “the economy” has become a scapegoat for callous disregard for humanity, it is a good reminder to us all that people matter more than money.  When change occurs, this can be hard to remember.  People matter. Sure, money matters too, but people should always, always matter more. Think of your classroom and your kids – if you could add something to your day: more grading, more math, more technology or more caring, what would you pick? How would you choose to help “your people” bloom?  If you were to ask “the brain guy”, John Medina, what the single most important thing the brain requires to learn, he would tell you a feeling of safety. How to do this?  By building  a safe, stable and caring environment to nurture growth and development.

Change, however, is inevitable.  What then?  Disillusionment or this?  As we approach the end of the school year, this message would be one worth putting out there as a way of honoring all the great and amazing things that have happened as we move on toward the next chapter. Change is never going to be easy. Make sure that during times of change more than ever, you care more.

Brain Research, Creativity, Inspiration

Portaging Into the Wilderness of Creativity and THUNKS

A friend of mine is reading a book.  She sent me a quote from the foreword.  It is brilliant.  I decided when I started this blog that I would try to illustrate my quotes with my own photographs (another passion) and with that in mind, I did laugh when I read the quote!  Here it is:

      (For the record, the photo is an intricate light fixture in a tiny burger restaurant in Tokyo near the train station that we went to after a long day in the city).

The title of the book is called, Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book About Creativity and it is by Phil Beadle.  I knew nothing of the book or the author until a few hours ago and I am now hoping to read this book very soon!  What I did read was a fabulous articleby Ian Gilbert on the topic and the book and its author.  And that article made me want to read the book even more.  Why?  Because I am hopeful that it will help fuel further ideas that are currently zipping around my own head for ways to build, structure, plan for and create ‘creativity’ within my own classroom.  I have read a lot of the ‘why’ about educational reform.  I have bought in.  I have signed up.  I’m committed.  Now what?  I am hopeful that this book will spark my own creative process.  Why do I think this book might do that?  Here are a few words about the book and it’s author that have me excited:

Phil isn’t creative to make the world a nicer place. He’s creative because sometimes the world sucks and you need to give it a kick to make it suck less…In this little book, Phil’s first for the Independent Thinking Series, you will find many, many creative ideas to cut out and keep for your classroom or staff training session.  Some ideas are quite straightforward. Some need the leap of faith that by asking different questions you will get different answers. Not always better but genuinely not what you expected. But giving you ideas is only part of what Phil – and the rest of Independent Thinking – is about. The name is the clue. What is more important is that you start to come up with your own ideas. This is where this little book can really help you. Yes, some of your ideas might fail.  Live with it. Creativity and failure are bedfellows, Look at Jonathon Ross. On the other hand, they might succeed. Catastrophically, to borrow a phrase from the White House. Whatever happens, your world will start on that journey to upside down and you can screech to a halt in your grave with the universe well and truly battered. – Ian Gilbert

Sounds great, right? I hope so!  Having posted about creativity quite a lot in this blog already (such as here, here and here) I was equally engaged by Gilbert’s take on how creativity ‘works’. He recounts a five step plan by a man named James Webb Young that was published in a book in 1939.  On the value of the first step (gathering raw material), Gilbert has the following to say:

Part of the first step that we often overlook, however, is the need to feed our brains with all sorts of ‘raw material’ and not just the sort most related to our work. If all you do, as an educator, is read education books then you will never be very creative. You will never succeed in doing what Steve Jobs, the creative genius behind Apple (amongst other things) calls making a ‘dent in the universe’. Genuine creativity needs a collision of ideas, something that will never happen if all your thoughts travel in the same direction. Arthur Koestler in his seminal book on creativity, The Act of Creation, talks about ‘bisociation’. An idea travels in one direction and then suddenly is broadsided by another travelling in a different one. It is used in humour all the time. What’s blue and white and climbs trees? A fridge in a denim jacket. That sort of thing.

I read this and I loved it. It reminded me of the comment left on a previous post recently:

I say ‘get out there’.  Yes, engage in PD within your own like-minded group of educators, but mix it up a bit too.  Be creative!  Make a ruckus! (my new favorite Seth Godin line). A couple of months ago I added a few different sources into my Twitter feed, which  up until now, was almost exclusively teachers.  It is now teachers, authors, thinker, curators, artists and the like thrown in and the new ideas that in turn are reflected in my teaching have been brilliant.

But back to the practical aspect of creativity: where can you start sparking creativity in your classroom? Here’s something you can start with: THUNKS. Part of the Independent Thinking toolkit (registration is quick and free), THUNKS have been described as “thought hand grenades” and are designed to get kids thinking by posing a question with no right or wrong answer. Check out a sample of Thunks, buy the Book of Thunks, or look for more at the Thunks website.

  1. Is there more future or past?
  2. Is black a colour?
  3. If I switch the lights off does the wall change colour?
  4. Can you cast a shadow into a dark room?
  5. In a dark room what does a mirror reflect?
  6. Can you touch the wind?
  7. Can you touch a rainbow?
  8. Is a broken down car parked?
  9. Is there more happiness or sadness in the world?
  10. Can you feel happy and sad at the same time?
  11. If I read a comic in a shop without paying for it is that stealing?
  12. If I swap your pen for one exactly the same without telling you is that stealing?
  13. If I pick up your pen by mistake and put it in my bag is it stealing?
  14. If you ask me if I have your pen and I say no because I don’t think I have, is that lying?
  15. If we borrow every single book from a library is it still a library?
  16. If we move the entire school and everything and everybody in it to Africa would it still be the same school?
  17. If we took the school building and moved it to the other side of town but left the people and things exactly where they were where would the school be?
  18. Does lined paper weigh more than blank paper?
  19. Is it ever OK to cheat?
  20. Was Theseus a cheat in the labyrinth?