Collective Knowledge Building

I am writing a paper for my M.Ed at the moment on the collective in the classroom.  My basic idea is that the collective (your classroom for example) should be taught as a group, not a group of individuals.  Drawing on metaphors from complexity science and systems thinking, I am trying to make the case that what is good for the collective, is good for individual.

Once the paper is finished I will post it here and you can attack it like carnivorous dinosaurs. ;)

I designed this activity to try and tap the collective intelligence.  This is my summative assessment for our Forces and Motions unit.  Afterwards, we debriefed about the activity, and each student agreed that the answers they created as a group were far beyond what each of them could do as an individual.    The Collective is more Intelligent than the sum of its parts.


Central Idea Surprise

After reading a wonderful discussion on PYPthreads, my own musings on the subject, and having some great discussions from Edna; I have decided to try something different with my next unit.  Instead of revealing the Central Idea at the beginning of the unit and then trying to deconstruct and figure it out it, I am going to keep it hidden, and then have the students try and work it out and  together the threads to see if they can create their own central idea.

Through-out the unit, they will be writing their ideas about what the central idea is, and then continually updating and revising them.  At the end, I will show them what my central idea was, and have them compare it to theirs.

Not sure what will happen, but something will.  There is so much to learn from taking risks and trying something new.  I tell my students this all time.  I may as well embody it.




Abstract Art and Science

Abstract Art and Science

I started this project with the hope that it would be a fun way to tell a story and apply our learning of gravity to something new that we could create. I chose Abstract Art as the medium because I think it is a powerful way to look inside of yourself and re-imagine what you know. At the end of the day, you are making an artifact that is not for anybody else, but rather just for you.


Carol Dweck - Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck - Growth Mindset

PYP; Questions and Statements

I finally figured out what it is I dislike about the way PYP units of inquiry are organized.  It is the implicit associations involved with having the Central Idea as a statement, rather a question.

When you have the idea as a statement, you are creating a goal, an endpoint where we, as a learning group, are trying to get to.  We want to figure out and understand what that statement means.  We want to ask questions, but only questions that allow us to understand the statement we are trying to decipher.  It is focused on one big idea.  That is our goal.  That is where we are trying to go.

On the flip side, if you put the central idea as a question, there is no way to predict where the learning will go.  It grows and changes and evolves and moves and slides, etc. Questions begat questions, and soon enough, you are travelling in waters that you didn't plan for.  It is organic, and the answers will be different for different kids.  It is about the emergence of what is possible and what may happen.  There is no goal, because the question is open-ended and open to interpretation.

Personally, I like the question model.  I don't think learning and knowing are linear processes, and I think we want our students to flourish and grow as creative, open-minded people; we need to provide an environment that adheres to those ideas.

What do you think?


Can I use a coat hanger?

I have a giant tangle of coat hangers hanging in my room.  We used them for a creative thinking activity earlier in the year (what else could it be? game)  and then my kids tangled them up and hung them from the window of the classroom.  They have been sitting their staring at us for close to three months now.

[caption id="attachment_955" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="How do I turn my pictures around?"][/caption]

Since Decemeber, on three separate occasions I have heard the question, can I use a coat hanger?  The answer has always been yes.  When in the midst of a puzzle or a problem, human eyes immediately scan the environment for something that may assist them.  This form of consciousness would have an evolutionary beginning in what Merlin Donald calls Episodic Consciousness.  It is primitive, yet it is very much a part of us.  Those coat hangers have proven useful three times so far this year, and helped a student out of a jam.

First, it was a math problem.  A student was trying to figure out how find the area of a circle and needed a circle template to move from place to place.  She made a circle out of the coat hanger (not an easy task in and of itself!).

Second, it was making a model airplane out of cardboard.  The coat hanger was substituted as a bone, similar to a bat wing.

Third, a student was trying to think of way to make a model of a planet with a moon.  She used the coat hanger to hold up the planet, and a paper clip to hold up the moon.

A colleague asked me, why do you keep that big tangle of coat hangers around?  I responed with; first, I think it looks beautiful.  And second, you never know when you are going to need a coat hanger.


In a sense, Didactics is the study of how to transform utilitarian disciplinary knowledge into learnable disciplinary knowledge .

... which involves (among other elements)

  • mastery of explicit disciplinary knowledge

  • strong sense of where learners fall apart

  • wide range of responses to student difficulties

  • awareness of implicit associations (PCK)

  • a willingness to be improvisational

  • an attitude of willingness

  • vertical and horizontal connections between curriculum

  • a responsibility to knowledge and a responsibility to individual students

Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one's subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations – in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others.

– Lee Shulman, “Those who understand” (1986)




Learning by Accident

Sometimes things happen completely by accident in class.  A thought drifts into the collective through something that flashes by the window, or a voice in the hall.  A plan to do one thing turns into a plan to do another.  A spill on the floor leads to an impromptu lean-up session that leads to a conversation that leads to a brainstorming session that leads to a new project idea.

Sometimes, learning happens when you aren't expecting it.  How do I become more aware of the complexities that exist in my classroom?  How do I stay on-top of the whole system?  How do I be mindful of the environment and the characters that inhabit it?


Workshop Week - Freedom to Learn

This week, I am running my class like a workshop, a free flowing artists studio. We are not constrained by a schedule (except for the time we arrive and the time we leave; and a couple specialist classes mixed in!). I gave the students a list of the projects they had to complete by friday. We have been building up to all of these projects for the last five weeks:

i) Gravity Painting and Reflection on Voicethreads
ii) Famous Scientist Digital Picture Book
iii) Motion Model and Science Fair and Keynote presentation

I gave them the list and said they have until Friday. I am here to help, but how they use their time is their own responsibility. This is my experiment with how a decentralized classroom in Elementary school would run. I was inspired my our High School Art teacher, who lets the kids in her classes work on whatever they want, and she just offers support. Each kid is responsible for their own learning, and she helps with the specific skills they need to bring their vision to life. Not quite the same as this situation, but we will see how they do with the freedom (I am also constrained by other forces in the amount of freedom I give).

I hope they really take responsibility for themselves and use this as an opportunity to grow and push themselves.

We will see how it goes. If the first morning is any indication, it will be an incredible week (and messy!).



It is great to try something new. Something that you never thought you would ever try. Maybe you will hate it? Maybe you will never do it again? Maybe it will become a passion? If you don't try, you will never know. Grade 5.6 had a great time today trying something new.

It was not connected to anything we are studying, we lost three periods of regular study, and it was worth every second. Doing something new for the first time is worth a week of math classes, in my eyes. Schools should have more random field trips to try interesting new activities.

Many thanks to the guys at ZiBox for a great morning.


Everything We See Is History

I have been reading Mindset by Carol Dweck.  One of the key differences between the Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset is the attitude when faced with a problem that is above one's level of understanding.  The Growth Minded people see it as a challenge, while the Fixed Minded people see it as a potential for failure.  Learning opportunities present themselves everyday, and taking advantage of and acknowledging them would be a key to life-long learning.

With that in mind, I thought I would challenge my class with Einsteins Theory of Special Relativity.  We approached this concept in much the same way that Einstein did as a clerk in a patent office; thought experiments (which by the way, are a powerful tool for children in all aspects of education).  I walked them through his early thought experiments asked some probing questions, and we built up to a more complete view of the final theory.  I didn't plan any activities, but we did several along the way to help us understand what we were thinking.  It required me to be on my toes and aware of how they were interpreting the ideas I was presenting.

Here is a SlideShare of our lesson:


Probability and Playing Cards

This was fun little lesson we worked through this afternoon.  I gave each kid a deck of cards and their instructions on the screen.

Playing Cards Probability

This led to tons of problem solving and mental math.  They had to work out how many cards were in the deck at each stage of the problem, and then calculate the probability of pulling out various cards, or sets of cards.

[caption id="attachment_924" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Notice my Sumo cards?!!?"][/caption]

This took them a while, but having the deck of cards in front of them provided some real engagement with the problem.  It took the abstraction out, and made it concrete.

Of course, I allowed them to use calculators.  In this case, the calculator provided no extra benefit to solve the problem.  They still had to visualize the problem and figure out what numbers would be used.  The calculator simply added a level of technology with, well, calculation.  A good friend of mine once said, 'if the calculator allows them to easily solve the problem, then it is not a very good problem.'

Highest Wins

Once we finished this, we played a new game.  We dealt out a whole deck of cards and then everybody put down one card.  The rule, whomever put down the highest card won.  If there was a draw, nobody won.  However, as we were playing, we would keep the previous cards face up, so we could figure out the probability of what was left.  Not a terribly complex game, but it was fun, and the kids actually applied what they learnt from the previous work.


Sir Ken Robinson and the Complexities of Education

This is a lengthy talk that is full of great ideas. I would do it injustice to try and summarize it into a couple of paragraphs. I highly recommend watching the whole thing. Very enlightening.

I would like to comment on a couple of points he raises. I love the fact that he is starting to use the language of complexity.

19:41 - Education is not linear, it is what is sometimes called a complex adaptive system

Yes, it is. The field of Complexity science, Chaos theory, and fractal geometry are full of ideas and metaphors for learning and education. Yet, we can take it one step farther. If Education is a complex adaptive system, then would it also make sense to say that learning is also a complex adaptive system? And a classroom of students (a collective) is also a system in and of itself? There is a great deal of academic research (both theory and practical) based around these ideas.

23:34 - A better word for subjects is disciplines.

Knowledge is dynamic, not static. Back to the language of complexity. A classroom is an ecosystem. This needs to be dominant metaphor of education in the 21st century.

25:11 - We teach children in groups, but not as groups.

Focus on the group as a complex adaptive system. The class is a collective of learners, which is capable of more than the sum of its individual parts.

I have been a fan of Sir Ken since I saw his famous TEDtalk so many years ago. It is great to see that he is now speaking the language of complexity. I believe it is a powerful metaphor for education.