There are always things to learn

I used to teach in the Japanese Public School system. After about 7 or so years of it, I don't want my son to go through it. Too rigid, too focused on content, not enough differentiation, etc. I could go on. I am happy that he will experience international schools, be surrounded by other kids like him from diverse backgrounds, be exposed to a diversity of ways of being, etc.


There are great things about Japanese schools that I miss dearly. Things that we can use and adopt and modify. I don't know which of these are cultural (I live in both cultures, so it is hard to separate the two) and which would not work and which would. 

Still..... we could try these... (couldn't we?)

a) Recess Time - There are no teachers on duty. Kids are encouraged to solve their own problems without the help of adults. Play without people telling them what is dangerous or inappropriate. At the end of recess, music plays over the loud speaker and kids run inside by themselves and get themselves ready for the next lesson. No lining up. No centralized control. Kids taking responsibility for themselves and their own actions.

b) Cleaning Time - everyday the kids clean the school. They sweep the floors, clean the toilets, wash the blackboards. They know the schedule, they know what they have to do. They just do it. They take pride in their school and ownership of the facilities.

c) Teachers Room - the teachers have a desk in their classroom, but they plan and spend their prep time in the teachers room. They collaborate. They ask each other questions. They drink tea and just chat. It is a wonderful atmosphere. They are not married to the classroom. The classroom belongs to the kids. The specialist teachers go to the kids, not the other way around. The principal and assistant principal and coordinator all have desk there are well. Everyone shares the space. And, the kids have full access to it. They can enter whenever they want to (they must follow the rules of politeness, and say shitsureshimasu, which means excuse my interruption, and make a bow when they walk in), ask teachers anything, and have full access to any room in the school.

Does your school do anything like this? Is it worthwhile? How much of it is cultural? How did you transition to this approach? Is some of this cultural and just would not work in a school with a western mindset?

Just curious.

Go Spy!

My class has a lot of energy.




Luckily, so do I. It has been my desire from the beginning of the year to use that energy and, I don't know, aim it? I don't want to delimit this energy. It is a resource (I tell myself that on nights when I collapse onto the sofa with exhaustion).

Brainstorming is something we need to do. To get better at. It is a skill. One of the main reasons to brainstorm is to get ideas from a diverse set of people, in order to push and challenge your own thinking. In this regards, the group is more intelligent than the individual. I wanted to illustrate this principal, so I came up with this activity to make it visible.

Context: We were looking at two pictures, one of a weeping willow and the other of a ginkgo tree in full fall bloom. They were brainstorming descriptive words to describe the physical appearance. We will use these words to analyse a poem and write our own.

Go Spy!

1) Get with a partner. This partner is your home-base
2) Brainstorm words together
3) Spy! Wander around the room and steal ideas from the other spies (trade information, peek a look, eavesdrop, etc.)
4) Home base! Report back to your partner and tell them what you have learned
5) Spy!
6) Home base!
7) Repeat as desired

This strategy gave them a couple of things to think about and reflect upon, and we had a great discussion.

Could you have produced this list on your own? What does it mean to steal ideas? Is it really stealing if we are all working together? How is this game like reality? How is it unlike reality?

Try it. Good fun. Great thinking.


Solve Real World Problems


Here is an excerpt from the class math textbook. I rarely ever open it. Every time I do, I am reminded why. This is what passes as real world examples of finding perimeter, according to Math Expressions published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The context is my biggest complaint in this post, not really the numbers. However, I think that giving kids the numbers from the beginning, without having to work for them, is a poor approach to teaching math. It is separating the calculating form the measuring, when actually these two things go together. Through the process of measuring we discover about the concept of perimeter, area, etc. Separating these things is simplistic and robs students of the usefulness, and beauty of mathematics. The fact that these problems are under the Solve Real World Problems section of the textbook is quite sad.

One of the major complaints people have about their math education is that it was too abstract, and not connected to real life. That is the complaint I have about my math education too. It is no wonder when you read the problems in the text.

These textbook problems are nothing more than preparation for standardized tests. They are teaching math as a way for you to solve problems, but rather teaching math as a series of problems that you need to solve.

15. Brain was tiling a patio and ran out of tiles.
(Because kids nowadays are often tiling things)

16. Rylee knows that the area for the face-painting station is 166 square feet. She knows that the length of the rectangular area is 12 feet. How wide is the area?
(Does Rylee work at the face painting station? Why does she need to know the area? What will she do with this information? Is that important to mathematics? No application or reason, just calculation?)

17. Coby needs to know the area and perimeter of his farm property. The length is 1/12 of mile and the width is 3/8 of a mile. What is the area?
(There are many reasons why a human being would need to know this information. Perhaps, you could give us one?)

18. The area of the dance floor is 45 square feet, and one side is 8 feet. What is the length of the other side?
(Why do I care?)

19. Margo wants new carpet and a new wallpaper border for her bedroom. The room is 5.4 meters long and 4 and 7/8 meters wide. About how many square yards of carpet will she need? About how many yards of wallpaper border will she need?
(This is not bad, still not something a kid would do, but this is my favorite of all these problems)

20. Tomas has a garden with a length of 2.45 meters and width of 5/8 meters. Use benchmarks to estimate the area and perimeter of the garden.
(Now you're actually restricting me in the methods I can use, and still not telling me why I care about the area of the garden)

21. Laura has a rectangular piece of wood that is 7 inches by 4 inches. She wants to cover it with strips of ribbon that are 1/4 inch wide. What length of ribbon does she need to cover the wood?
(I actually like this one, but not as a math activity. It would be a great writing provocation, why in the world is Laura covering a piece of wood with ribbon? Tell the story. I bet students could come up with some very creative ideas!)

Every time I look at these books, lining the shelf of my class, I think, 'that could have been a couple of iPads, or imagine the amount of picture books I could have bought with that money.'

There is nothing wrong with these problems as exercises in practicing certain skills. But, don't label them Real World Problems when they are not. It confuses students about the process of using mathematics. Call them what they are.



If you could re-write this text book, what types of problems would you include instead? Leave a comment and let me know.


Big History and the Building of Cathedrals

A couple of ideas that I have been turning over in my head collided recently. Not into a neat little package, but rather, into more questions.

It started when I got to Germany. My wife and I are not religious people, but we love the architecture of cathedrals, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, shrines, and other religious institutions. They are so well crafted, with love, and filled with symbolism and a sense of mystery (for us, as outsiders to that world).

It is amazing to read about some of the grand cathedrals of Europe, and the story of their construction. The people who designed the overall plan and laid the foundation knew that they would never see the finish product. They knew that these buildings would take much longer than their life to complete. Yet, they still applied their craft as best as they could (possibly because they needed the work, or possibly for more romantic reasons). They also adapted to changes in the world around them and changed the plans for their buildings, letting them grow with the times, rather than just following the original blueprint blindly.

Then, the other night I was watching this TED talk on something called Big History. This is looking at the whole span of life in the universe, from the big bang until the present through a interdisciplinary lens; finding the patterns, searching for the threshold points, and using that to see into the future. It is way of making the complexity more visible and understandable, and finding the place of ourselves in this much larger scale.

I wonder how much of our education system is focused on the present (or the past) and how much if it is focused on Big History? How much of teaching is like the cathedrals, something that will be visible long after we are gone? Are we comfortable with that thought? Should we be focused on the now? The past? The future? All of the above? Should we, as educators, have a sense of the Big History of education (or possibly the universe), where it started, where it has gone, and where it might go?


A bit of Wonder....

So, our next UOI is about technology, its impact on the world of work and leisure. At first I had planned to have each student research and prepare a narrative story about the importance of a technological innovation that they thought was the most important in history. They, we would edit all of them together with pictures into a kind of History Channel Presents type video. That was MY plan. I know the kids in my class, they would have loved it. It would have been a great chance to integrate some tech skills like sound editing and movie editing. We would have had to use to learn CC images and cite our references. The narrative part of the story would have been good work on taking factual events and intertwining them into a narrative. It would have been a great introduction to Historical Fiction.


We are reading Wonder at the moment (awesome book) and in the book the kids talk about this ancient Egyptian museum night at their school. Each kid created a museum display, and then the parents came with flashlights and whizzed around the gym looking at all the artifacts, with the kids playing as experts. They were all dressed up in costumes.

One of the kids in my class said, "Oh, we should do that for our technology unit!"
"Yeah, we could turn out the lights and have them take a trip back in technology past."
"Or we could dress up as inventors and talk about our new inventions."
"We could make models of important pieces of technology."
"We could perform a drama about the invention of a technology."

They were spitting out ideas faster than I could write them down.

Normally, I am a proponent of summative assessments that are simple. Zen-like. I find these big summative assessments that take ages to organize are stressful, and they distract from the actual learning, and focus on the product. I like things like this:
  • How has your thinking changed? List all the reasons and expand on them
  • Define the term at the beginning of the unit and then redefine at the end
  • I used to think but now I think...
  • Guess the Central Idea

This is their idea. It came from them. They are excited about it and they have taken control of their learning. So, I have to go with it.

However, this is NOT the summative assessment. The summative assessment will be revisiting their definition of Technology, reflecting on how their thinking has changed.

I'm not going to manage this project. They are. I am going to focus on learning. They are going to organize the entire event. I will merely attend.

I told them this and gave them time and space to start planning the evening. I sat in the back and let them generate a whiteboard full of ideas. Some were focused on the big picture, others were smallish details, others were more about aesthetic and mood. I can take these ideas, and generate an overview that is focused on learning, not on the product.

I hope...

The Post

This was a fun little craft activity that had no connection to anything except I thought it would interesting. I was reading a list of formative assessment techniques from David Wees. One of them in particular caught my eye. Write a postcard explaining how you are struggling, or three things you didn't know (could be used to ask anything really). My wife is a post nerd. She loves letters and stamps, and she loves everything postal. Especially the design, like the logos and the design of the mailboxes in different countries.

I had a couple of parents come in and volunteer to make post cards. I designed the cover to be a picture of the famous landmark in the city we live in here in Germany, the school logo, and a place for a stamp. the parents cit them all out and glued them to some card stock to make it hard and durable. I wanted them to feel real, not like some fake little flimsy piece of paper that is pretending to be a postcard. A REAL postcard.

(On a related note, I hate asking parents to do this sort of meaningless task. I like them to engage with the kids. I felt really bad, but they thought it was great fun, and they said they really didn't mind. Still, part of me really doesn't like it)

Then, I made a postbox with all the logos from all the countries of students in the class, and put it in a central location in the class. When they finish their postcard, they have to mail it by putting it in the box.


Do you know the countries of origin for these logos?

The little details make it special. It is part of our classroom now. I have given the postcard activity several times, and each time their reflections have been excellent, very detailed and very descriptive. Good thinking happening. It is a great little activity to check up for understanding.

It makes me wonder though; it I had given them a piece of paper that was standing in for a postcard, and then asked them to just put it on my desk when they are finished, would the effort be as great as it is? Do the details that make it look professional and realistic matter?

I wonder...


Arguments as Enthusiasm, and Ideas that Come from the Grey Zone

1. Great excitement for or interest in a subject or cause.
2. A source or cause of great excitement or interest.

One of the PYP Attitudes that is easy to apply to any situation is Enthusiasm. It is kind of the fall back for reflection. Well, the students were engaged, and they had fun, so they must have been showing Enthusiasm. It is easy to notice, and easy to bring forth with a little creativity. For the most part, in my experience, getting primary school students engaged and Enthusiastic has never been a problem. Like I said, it is the easy PYP attitude to apply to any situation, and I rarely gave it any critical thought.

Until today.

Today I noticed a different type of Enthusiasm. It showed itself through high emotions and anger (through a class debating activity). We are starting a new inquiry into technology and its impacts on work and leisure. We tuned in by doing some brainstorming. I asked the students to list what IS technology by writing examples on a piece of paper.

It started nicely, as expected. The usual answers came flooding in, as you expect from this generation. iPads, iPods, smartphones, Playstations, Xbox's, Nintendos, etc. Most them began to think of the home, and all the appliances we associate with our comfortable lifestyles came out; toasters, microwaves, TVs, etc.

And then...

...as the ideas started to thin out, people started to take more risks and the group ventured into unknown waters. This is always the case, once the obvious black and white choices have disappeared, things start to get a little grey. It is in this space, that real questions come out. These are types of questions that can drive inquiry to new and exciting places. The types of questions that have no obvious answer, but have kept people awake for centuries trying to answer them. These types of questions get at something deep about the world, and make us question and wonder about our very existence. One of the main pieces of advice I can give to teachers is just wait, give them time to brainstorm. When the black and white ideas are gone, and the obvious solutions are thought of, keep the session going and let the wacky, off the wall ideas come alive. Sometimes they will get you nowhere. Other times, it will be glorious.

Once the ideas started to get more 'out there', the passion and Enthusiasm started to turn up. People, even young children, get very connected to their definitions of the world. When that idea is challenged, they can react with anger. As a teacher, I see it as my job to perturb and make unclear these things we take for granted and assume as known.

Today, I let them get angry. I let their blood pressure rise, and their voices rise. I saw the passion behind what they were saying, and I saw a real Enthusiasm to engage with difficult questions. I could have asked them to treat each other with respect, use an appropriate voice, not cut people off, listen to all sides of the argument, etc. etc. But there will be plenty of time for that later. Right now, at this moment, the Enthusiasm to engage with the tough questions is what I am looking for, not the polite matters of formalized debate. The passion needs to be there before the structure.

The form that Enthusiasm took today was not a smiling face and a proud posture, but rather a fierce and angry defense of what they believe about the world.

That is great place to start a learning journey.


no goals for me thank you

“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don't set goals. 

I find goals to be limiting. When I focus on one piece of the puzzle, I miss parts of the whole. True, it is possible to focus on pieces and still be reflective about the whole. That works for some people. 

Not for me. That is the thing about goals. They are incredibly personal things. A goal is meant to be something that you achieve, that makes you a better person. How we achieve those things, how we grow as individuals, is dependent on our own personal philosophies of life. 

I am a wanderer. I need to be free to move around and let my mind follow the path it wants to follow. If I am focused on one aspect of something, I feel boxed in. I feel like I am being led by something else, instead of letting the feeling of the moment I am in be in control. That is what I crave more than anything else, being in the moment, with my eyes open and my feelings clear. It is an open way of being with the world. 

That is not to say that it is the right way to be. Rather, it is my way.

Of course, my philosophy on goals has a clear connection and impact on my philosophy of learning. Its all connected. What is learning? Learning is about being in the moment, paying attention to where you are, what you are doing, reflecting, and knowing yourself. Being awake with curiosity and wonder. Sometimes a path opens up, and I need to explore it. 

If I have a goal set (or set for me), then I may have missed all the possible paths. And those possible paths are the moments that I love. I love finding myself in the unknown. I love the process of re-orienting myself. The challenges of figuring it out as you go. The excitement of a new inquiry that leads you to new place. The wonder at tracing your steps back and seeing how everything is connected, and where you fit in this giant web of wonders.

Rather than set goals, I like to think of it as playing with ideas. Like a cat with a ball of yarn.

I take an idea
stretch it,
analyze it,
dissect it,
change it,
adapt it,
modify it,
take it apart
put it back together.

Where does it end? I have no idea. It just grows, and moves to something else. Sometimes it comes back to main ideas, centralized nodes in the network. But the network never stops. It is never complete. The original ideas just become woven into the whole, and then the growth continues in a decentralized manner, outward and inward.

If you don't know where you going, you'll never get there. This is the defense of goals. And it works for some.

But I say, If I don't know where I am going, I am bound to end up somewhere.

Notice how I changed the you to I. Again, it goes back to the personal side of it. Goals are meant to be a very personal, intrinsic endeavor.

I enjoy the process far more when I don't know where I am going, and I am far more engaged. Wandering is my way.

What's yours?