the power of doing it again

I have written before about this strategy. It is partly inspired by Making Thinking Visible, and a vague memory from a poetry workshop with Larry Swartz. I have adopted it to my own needs.

Here is how it works:

The purpose of the activity is two-fold;

First is to investigate and define a term that we have been playing with and inquiring into. A student created definition, which we can then compare and contrast with other definitions (wikipedia, dictionary, journals, books, etc). Often the terms we are defining are not terms that are easily defined even by experts. There are common elements, but the details are murky. That is what we are after. Murky details.

Second is to tap the collective intelligence. We are more capable as a group than we are as individuals. We can accomplish so much more as a collective of people (if you doubt this statement, think of wikipedia for a moment). I am very explicit about this section. At each iteration, I want them focusing on what aspects have changed from the original definition. I want them asking why. What influenced my decision? How did another persons ideas affect mine? Is the new definition something new, or just a combination? Where did the ideas come from?

The Power of Doing it Again

This is a strategy that I have been using a lot this year. I will admit that some visible thinking strategies I have only used once or twice. Not because they aren't good, but just because this class seems to be gravitating to different ones. Growing Definitions is one of them (as is See-Think-Wonder). During our current unit on eco-systems, we finish off each week with this activity, as we define a different principle of ecosystems.

It has become part of the class thinking toolkit. We reflect on our thinking before we start, during the activity, after each stage, at the end, as a collective, about collectives, by ourselves, and about ourselves.  I only have to say, write a definition for (insert word), and the kids know what we are doing. Not only do they know, they get into a space of thinking where they prepare themselves for sharing and reflection. At the outset of using this strategy, I used to think that the final stage was the most important because that was the final product. But now I think that the first stage is the most important.

I see them getting into sharing mode, ready for collaboration. They bring so much attention to this first stage, and they try so hard and make something that is thoughtful and well-written. They obsess over grammar and spelling, because they want their individual definition to be strong. At first I figured this was because they wanted to be right when they met with a partner. However, I see how quickly they discard the original and jump into the next stage. Like all that work they put into this definition was only a step to the next stage, and they are completely comfortable with that.

When we finish and create our class definition (which can be a bit hectic and disorganized at first, but over time order emerges if they have control of the process, my involvement in this stage is scribe, I write down their ideas and try to keep my mouth shut) they immediately go back to their first definition and compare. An interesting thing happens. Some of them are comparing to see how close they were, while others are comparing how far they have come.

There is a huge distinction between the two. I hope by the end of the year they can discover why.


thinking about making pedagogy visible

Over the last two years, I have made a big effort to make thinking visible.  For the last couple of days I have had this idea in my head about making pedagogy visible to the learners.  Inviting them into the space and rational behind the process of their learning.  Explicitly.  Having them reflect on the pedagogy the class is using.

I wonder, am I already doing that?  Does focusing on thinking dispositions, inquiry process, and meta-cognitive positioning open the pedagogy to the learner?  Is it out in the open?  It is named and discussed?  Do teachers need to explain their rational for the strategies and activities?  Will this allow students to be more self-aware of themselves as learners?  Will it create a space for the teacher to allow the students to alter and affect their explicit pedagogy?   Would it empower students to take control of their learning?  Is this an essential part of learning to learn?

Any ideas?


Inquiry into Learning Systems; Nested Systems

During the next six weeks, my class will be inquiring into ecosystems.  We will be using the Core Ecological Concepts by the Center for Ecoliteracy to orient our exploration.  While the students are inquiring into the patterns and processes that sustain life on earth, I will be following my own inquiry into our learning system.  My guiding question is; how are classrooms like ecosystems?

Nested Systems
Nature is made up of systems that are nested within systems. Each individual system is an integrated whole and — at the same time — part of larger systems. Changes within a system can affect the sustainability of the systems that are nested within it as well as the larger systems in which it exists. For example: Cells are nested within organs within organisms within ecosystems. (Center for Ecoliteracy)

From a systems perspective, there are many systems playing off each other, iterating, folding back on themselves, and expanding. These multiple systems affect one another and are affected by each other. The parts make up the whole, and the whole is made up of the parts. Each series of nested systems is unique to its own sense of time and space. They are systems within systems.

Think of a child. I’m thinking of Kyle, a boy in my class who is incredibly adept with mathematical facts and problem solving. A tall boy, kind of awkward, but in a strangely confident way. He can be a bit short with people, not always polite, and he gets frustrated working with others. He prefers to work alone, and when very engaged in a task, needs a great deal of personal space.

He is a system. Each child in the class is their own system with their own history, their own minds, and their own sense of self. Put those minds together and we have a collective of learners. That collective is its own system, a classroom. It learns, it affects each individual member. The teacher is part of this learning system, connected to them.

Moving outwards to the next system, we see that the elementary school in which we reside is its own system. We have different schedules, different approaches to pedagogy and different levels of language and understanding. Our elementary school has its own, unique feel different from the whole school, with its overall culture. The culture of the high school and the culture of the elementary school may be different, yet when they come together, they create their own space, and have their own culture. They are two systems nested within a larger system.

Since we are not a public school, we are not connected to a local community of schools. Instead, we have a co-evolutionary relationship with the other international schools in Japan, of which there are many. These schools communicate with each other, they influence each other, and they provide a space for learning from each other.

Each one of these circles is a system. You could study each of them in detail, and learn how they operate individually. However, you would not fully understand each individual system without seeing the larger whole in which they are embedded. The effect that each system has its subsystems is determined by the proximity. 

You see, Kyle left in April, went to a new school and a new challenge. The effect on the grade ⅚ collective was huge, like a missing finger. We adapted, moved on, and a new sense of what grade ⅚ is has emerged. The effect on the elementary school was also present, but not as deep. We miss Kyle’s leadership and ability to peacekeep solutions to disputes at recess. Moving out to the whole school level, since we are a small school, we feel it every time a student leaves. However, when one leaves, another arrives, and the overall effect is not as great. As for the outer level, I am sure the international schools in Japan are not reeling the lose of Kyle, they would hardly notice. 

The time scales and levels of effective relations are dependant on the proximity of the systems. Each system is complex, and each system is made up of agents, be it students, classrooms, or schools. The whole of all these agents allows a greater form to emerge. These agents make the whole so interesting and unique, because they are different, and they way they interact with each other opens new paths to emergent possibilities. The collectives at each level intertwine and wrap around each other and create new levels.



We played frolf today.  I don't often get to teach PE, but when I do I tend to love it.  Today was so much fun.

Frolf - Frisbee Golf; start at a designated start spot and throw the frisbee to the cone.  Count how many throws it takes to hit the cone.  Record your score.  At the end, record your total for all the holes.

Team Frolf - each member shoots their frisbee and then they choose the best one and then everybody shoots from that spot.
Speed Frolf - the score is irrelevant.  It is a race.

Rich Data

Getting sets of rich data makes math classes so much more dynamic.  Even better when the students collect it themselves.  It is so easy to do.  Set up a simple activity, time it, record it, and then you can play with it in a number of ways.  They are invested because the data represents them, they see themselves in it.  Once you have this, and it doesn't take long to gather, you can manipulate it in so many ways, and record your strategies.  Plus, it enforces the skill of gathering data, using tables, and how general organization will aid you down the line.

Simple Ideas to record your data:

- put 20 multi-link blocks on the table with a stopwatch and have them put them together in a straight line and record the results
- use a reflex tester online and record trails
- timing physical activities like jumping jacks, saying the alphabet, squats, running laps etc.

Simple Ideas to manipulate your data:

- make a graph
- pool them all together
- categorize the data by gender, age, hair color, country, etc
- add up the totals
- subtract the best from the worst
- find the average
- look for patterns


Group Writing

If you have never tried to write a short story with your entire class, I highly recommend it.  Set a theme, agree on some guiding points, give the first sentence (or not, but it sets a nice poetic tone if you can come up with something filled with images and symbolism), project the document onto a shared wall, and then let the maddening cacophony of noise and ideas take over.

Your job is to type.

And criticize.

And provoke.

And probe.

And challenge.

Be ruthless.

Demand something better.

Take it one sentence at a time.

They will deliver.  And the result will be a collective voice that is more powerful than any individual can accomplish.

Read our story HERE.

It is amazing, I can look at any sentence in this story and tell you where the idea came from.  Who suggested it, who modified, and how it emerged.  Simply a fantastic way to spend an hour.



Inquiry into Learning Systems: Networks

During the next six weeks, my class will be inquiring into ecosystems.  We will be using the Core Ecological Concepts by the Center for Ecoliteracy to orient our exploration.  While the students are inquiring into the patterns and processes that sustain life on earth, I will be following my own inquiry into our learning system.  My guiding question is; how are classrooms like ecosystems?

All living things in an ecosystem are interconnected through networks of relationship. They depend on this web of life to survive. For example: In a garden, a network of pollinators promotes genetic diversity; plants, in turn, provide nectar and pollen to the pollinators. (Center for Ecoliteracy)

Three Types of Networks


Centralized - all members of the group (or species in the ecosystem, depending on what kind of scale we are talking about) are connected to the central node. This type of environment is great for communication, but is only as robust as the center node. If that falls down, then the rest will fall with it.

This is a wonderful example of the teacher-centered classroom. The teacher stands at the front, lectures to the class and the students interact with the teacher. Also, in school administration, we see this when admin makes all the decisions and then dictates to the rest of the school how it will be.

Distributed - This is a very informal network, where each agent is connected only to the agents next to them. It is a very strong network, that has great reach and breadth.

I can remember sitting in rows in school and passing messages along to friends. This is how they travelled. It wasn't a maze, but it wasn't the most efficient manner either. Information can take a while to travel along these paths, and there are many "stops" where information can be changed, misconstrued, or mis-interpreted. Like a game of telephone. Learning can also be hampered in this type of network, as misconceptions can spread.

De-centralized - This is a network where information can spread the fastest. Clusters connecting to clusters. This type of network is found in living systems and in ecosystems. They can also be useful for describing structures and connections between concepts, metaphors, and other visible thinking strategies.

These networks are all over schools. The way ideas move, information spreads, classes and individuals learn, and concepts evolve. I see them everywhere I look. Twitter is another great example of a decentralized network.

Questions Spread Like Wildfire
John is sitting at his table and working on a fractions problem. He is trying to determine how to cut a submarine sandwich fairly so everybody gets an equal piece. He gets stumped on how to cut a ⅓ piece into fourths. Does he multiply ⅓ by ¼, or does he divide? Puzzled, John asks his neighbor this question. The neighbor isn’t sure either. One person at the table thinks it might be multiplication, but they are not sure. The question is posed to a different table. This table is also unsure, so the question travels in two directions; left to yet another table, and right to the final table. Quickly, only a couple of seconds have elapsed since John made his question audible, the entire class, all four tables, are thinking about the problem. There are several theories, but nobody knows the answer. I happen to be listening at the time, and I am able to orient attention and ask questions that will challenge their theories and led us closer to the goal.

This type of situation happens all the time in a classroom. Information spreads along informal pathways, until it reaches the entire collective. The very act of John posing this question forces every students attention onto this problem. It is impossible to not think about it. If I write a blue and white lion wearing a pale pink wedding dress here in text, the reader will picture in their mind. You can’t not picture it. The imagination is a cognitive mechanism that happens whether we want it to or not.

A couple of things are very interesting about this scenario. First, John asked the neighbor. He did not put his hand up and ask the teacher first. This is because he knows the teacher will prompt him to ask the neighbor. This is deliberate design. I am attempting to create a decentralized, or distributed network of intelligence in the classroom. If all the questions come directly to me, then the network will be centralized. There are many reasons why I do not want a centralized network. It is a great form of communication, but it is only as strong as the central hub. This moves the purpose of learning to helping kids find the central hub. Teaching is finding experts to answer your questions for you. I do not want them to spend their lives searching for a person who will answer all their questions. I want them to search them out for themselves, and generate their own theories and thoughts.

A more efficient way of asking questions is to ask the person is your immediate vicinity, and to let the information travel along the necessary paths. When John asked his neighbor, the other people at the table also heard. Their curiosity was piqued and they chimed in to help. The information then spread to another student at another table, who spread it her entire table, where it then spread to all the other tables. In this model, the information was spread in a decentralized manner, quickly spreading the width of the classroom in a few short seconds.

Ironically, nobody in the decentralized network knew the answer, so the entire class then turned to the centralized hub (the teacher). When I said earlier that I did not want a centralized environment in my class, I was not suggesting that a centralized network is an evil network to be avoided. On the contrary, it is incredibly useful and powerful. What I do not want, is the centralized hub to be the default network. As a teacher, I can now orient attention to the fact that the classroom collective tried to help, but now the class is falling back to the more robust node in the network. This is another example of teaching as consciousness of the collective. Not only orienting attention to the content that is being discussed, but orienting attention to how the collective is learning and operating. We can also begin to address the content of the question, and I can be the robust centralized hub that helps them to find their way. Once the question travelled along this path and got to me, I can switch the network from decentralized to centralized. Lets assume for a minute that one of the students was absolutely sure about this question. The centralized hub, would be unnecessary, and the kids would have solved the problem on their own, through their own networks.

Finally, this is a powerful example of the emerging technologies of the 21st century. This is precisely how the internet works. A question is posed, or a resource is shared, via Twitter, and then it spreads informally over a network. Certain nodes in the network will spread it to more nodes than others, but the message will travel until the nodes stop interacting with it. Perhaps, if the historical tendency to equate metaphors of learning to the dominant technology of our time holds (the mind as printing press, the mind as camera, the mind as movie camera, the mind as radio tower, the mind as computer), the internet will be a more robust and acceptable metaphor. This is not to suggest that other metaphors are now invalid, rather, they are no longer the default network.

Relationships and Networks

I admit, viewing the learning system (classroom) as a series of networks can seem to a bit devoid of emotion and human connection. Is there a problem in the vocabulary of systems thinking, referring to children as agents and nodes in a decentralized network? Does it devalue and disconnect the relationship that are involved in that network? Is it a new way of seeing a class a complex clock, rather than a complicated clock?

I wonder. Language is a powerful force, and the words we use and the metaphors we live by have powerful repercussions on our cognitive minds.

George Washington Carver said that all learning is understanding relationships (from Rita Pierson's wondrous TEDtalk). I could not agree more. When I look back on my early classes and reflect on what were the strengths and weaknesses of my early teaching career, I am struck by a thought. During the early years, my relationship was primarily to the subject matter. Teaching “space” to grade sixes, “natural disasters” with my grade four/five class, “reptiles and amphibians” with my grade twos. There were some great activities and some great learning going on, but what I realize now was the lack of personal relationships. That is not to say that I did not have any kind of personal relationships with my students. Of course I did. What I am suggesting is that the relationships was not my explicit focus. The focus was on the content.

A relationship between a student and teacher is a complex thing. In order for learning to take place in an ecosystem such as school, there needs to be a relationship between the one who is determined as the teacher, and who is determined as the learner. Of course, it goes both ways. A teacher learns from the student, and the student learns from the teacher. The teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher. This is an intimate relationship, and when embodied in a classroom, requires a shift of perspective. The underlying purpose is not the content, the mathematics or the understanding of multiplication, but rather the focus of teacher-student relationships shifts to the relationship itself.

Looking back at our types of networks (centralized, decentralized, distributed) I wonder about the role of networks in the building of lasting relationships. Perhaps, what we are looking for is a teacher-student relationship that is centralized at first. The student directly connecting with the teacher. Learning about each other, getting to know each other, building a common language and a mutual respect, a sense of trust, and dare I say, love. Once that relationship is formed, and that sense of love is understood, perhaps we then start to shift that sense of relationship into a more decentralized network. This would increase the sense of collectivity and collective-awareness of a group. The respect and love starts to flow around the room, and every student begins to build lasting relationships with each other. As a result of this, the barrier between content and relationship is enveloped in fog, allowing for an environment that is more conducive to deep, meaningful, life-long learning.

This would not stop in the classroom. It could continually expand outwards, into the communities that the students find themselves embedded in. These lessons of respect, love, and relationship building would be as valuable as learning to multiply integers. More valuable. These relationships would not apply only to human-to-human contact, but may apply to larger, or smaller, systems. If a learner needs to have a meaningful relationship with a teacher, then can it not be also said that a learner needs to develop a meaningful relationship with the subjects of study? Read a book about why writers write, or why painters paint, and in there somewhere will be a relationship between the medium (or discourse) and the agent. Mathematicians don’t do math simply because they are good at it, they do it because they love it, they respect it, and they have a deep sense of attachment to it.

What if students grew up in an educational environment where the explicit process of education was about forming loving relationships, with people and ideas? What if networks were seen as the dominant metaphor for education?


The Marshmallow Challenge

Since watching the TED Talk on the Marshmallow Challenge, we have been doing it once a month this year.  I thought they would tire of it, but if anything, the enthusiasm has risen as the year progresses.  One month, when it slipped my mind, they insisted we do it twice the next month to make up for lost time.  A week doesn't go by when somebody reminds me that we still have to do the marshmallow challenge this month.

It is amazing how many lessons have emerged out of this.  It kicked off a really interesting inquiry into shapes and construction early in the year.  In December, we spent the debrief time making a list of the roles people play while working in a team; the listener, the idea-generator, the criticizer, the worker, etc.      It also creates a space for powerful self and collective introspection, paying attention to themselves and their role in the group.  Every month, the groups are randomized, so you never know who you are working with until the day comes.

A colleague of mine in Calgary did this with her High School Calculas students and sent us along their height.  My kids were pretty impressed that their best scores were much higher than high school students.  Of course, we have had a bit more practice...

This activity, from my perspective, has a two-fold perspective:

1) Get them thinking about collaboration.  What roles do people play?  Why do people play those roles?  Do you switch roles?  Why do you switch?  Do you play multiple roles at the same time?  Are some roles more helpful than others?  Which roles do effective groups play?  Do you ever get the feeling that nobody has a role?

2) Have an awareness for where ideas come from.  Who suggests ideas?  How do they change?  Do others tweak the ideas?  How many different ways could you twist an idea and make it something new?  Why do some ideas work and others fail?  How do you test the ideas?  When ideas have been twisted and changed many times, whose idea is the final outcome?

Yesterday, we did it yet again.  One of the three groups completed their tower (at a record breaking height of 64cm, we track each months progress on a graph) and the other two crashed at the end of the 18 minutes.  After a brief moment of craziness, where they debrief with their groups and talk about what they did wrong, and come up with ideas to fix their problems next time (this moment is like a force of nature, they need to get these ideas out of their system of they will burst), I brought them together as a group.

I introduced the verb enthralled to.  I gave a couple of examples of how people become enthralled to an idea and cannot let it go.  Then, I asked them what ideas they were enthralled to in their construction of the tower.  Things that they just assumed they had to do.  Here is their list, and the lessons we learned:

a) Pyramid Base. They see towers all over their world (Sky Tree, Tokyo Tower, Eiffel Tower, etc) and they have a pyramid base (square based or triangular) and they assume they have to copy it.  Each time, they start with their pyramid base and then as the tower sags under the weight of the marshmallow, they try and solve problem after problem to fix it, without going back and re-examining what might be a core problem.

Plan ---> Test ---> Refine

They were getting stuck in this cycle of testing and refining, and they were not re-examining the core plan.  Several students mentioned that they did mention this, but the other members of the group dismissed their ideas.  It was a powerful lesson in listening to all members of the group, and the importance of discussing the plan before jumping into something.

b) The Tower must be standing straight.  Everybody tries to build a tower that is aesthetically pleasing, symmetric, and straight.  That is how towers stand!  But those towers are designed to stand that way because their purpose to get as high as possible.  Their purpose is to stand above, to be commanding and powerful in the sky.  Is that the purpose of the marshmallow tower?  No.  The purpose of the marshmallow tower is to hold up the marshmallow.  Who cares what it looks like?  They were using the design to create something pleasing and beautiful, and forgetting the purpose of the design.  The problem you are trying to solve should never move to the periphery, but always be straight in front of you.

c) The Marshmallow must be at the top.  Of course if it is at the top, it will be higher, but when you put it at the top, the weight of the marshmallow is amplified.  It creates tension on the rest of the structure.  If you could move that tension elsewhere and leave the marshmallow lower, it might allow the structure to stand.  It causes you to re-imagine the shape of the tower, and to re-design it to account for the marshmallow.  Usually, the tower is built and it is assumed that the marshmallow will be stuck at the top.  Thinking outside the box would allow for more interesting designs to emerge.

I love this activity so much.  I love just sitting and watching.  For 18 minutes, I get to watch them solve problems, work together, and think out loud.  I just sit there and observe.  I notice so much about each kid and learn so much about them.  Some of them have really grown and matured this year, and are learning to take control and be assertive, to fight for the ideas that they believe in.  Others have become more passive and better listeners, where at the beginning of the year it was my way or the highway.  This allows me to take watch, listen, take notes, and give individual constructive feedback to each child about how they work in groups and collaborate with others.  In the past I have sat at my computer and send emails to the kids as I noticed things.  Short simple emails like; Dear K, J suggested an idea to tap the string to the table and you dismissed it without even talking about it.  These are not meant to criticize, but rather get help them become self-aware of the collectivity around them.

I would love to start collecting some kind of database of pictures, student reflections, and tower heights from around the world if anybody else out there tries this wonderful activity.

Email me.