Constraint


creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by graymalkn

Constraint:

  • something that limits or restricts someone or something
  • control that limits or restricts someone’s actions or behaviour

For a while now I have been a strong advocate for student voice in their learning and choice in what they learn. I have written about our four Innovation Weeks, and proselytized at length about the power in turning over control to our students, and the resulting learning that has occurred as a result. The push back against relinquishing control of our classrooms is dwindling, and I find far less resistance to these ideas when I present them at conferences or post about them here.

During one of my last conference presentations, the question came up about why I thought Innovation Week was beneficial to student learning, and how I felt it compared to other similar ideas like the wildly popular and fantastic Genius Hour. My response was that I find great value in the experience being limited by time, and that the deadline pushed our students to do amazing things in just that one week. I feel that the constraint of a one week time limit (5 days really), pushes students in ways that force them to deliver on their ideas (see fantastic Seth Godin video on “Shipping”), and that it helps focus what might otherwise become aimless or unmotivated without an end-point.

I read a fantastic post about Google’s ATAP team (Advanced Technology and Projects) a few weeks ago and in the article it talks about how the two-year time limit imposed on these ATAP teams motivates them to achieve great things because with every week that passes they are 1% closer to the deadline. I loved this quote, and it inspired a few posts (here and here) about how we should create similar research and development teams in education.

There is a sense of urgency, you don’t come to build a career. You come to do a project, to do something epic, and then you go.”

Since my last conference presentation I have been revisiting some ideas I had, and trying to look at them through the lens of constraint. I am starting to think that building in constraint can be just as effective as building in choice when we look at creating learning experiences for our students that challenge and grow their imagination. I was reminded of the scene from Apollo 13 when the NASA engineers had to create a solution to get a square CO2 filter into a round hole:

I believe that working to find a solution to a problem while navigating the restrictions or difficulties is an authentic means to fostering creativity, critical thinking and innovation in our students. We have no doubt done this already with spaghetti bridge building, shopping on a budget, and Rube-Goldberg machines built with things you find around your house. Where I think there can be some growth in this area is instead building a learning experience around a constraint rather than adding a constraint to an already developed learning experience, as I would suggest all of the above would qualify as.

Maybe one of the following may have potential, and maybe you can help me turn them into great experiences for our students with some suggestions:

Guerrilla/Ambush Learning – excuse the cheesy title, it is a work in progress. The idea is built around the constraint of time and limited preparedness. Students sign up to participate, and on a chosen day, all participants are shuttled into the gym where we have tables and chairs set up. They are handed a coloured card and asked to sit at the table that corresponds to their colour. Once everyone is in, a problem is shared with the group, and the challenge is given to each table to develop a solution to the problem. A clock with let’s say 5 hours on it starts to countdown. The groups have to work together to come up with a solution to the problem and have it ready to defend at the end of the 5 hours. Sample problems could be clean drinking water in a third world country, inner-city literacy rates or limiting cars into a city centre. As long as the problem is big enough to tackle and a problem that exists somewhere in the world, I believe the task would be engaging and meaningful.

Helping Hand – again, cheesy title that will be improved by someone (anyone?) out there. The idea is built around the constraint of space and limited resources. The idea initially started as lunch boxes to a 3rd world country but with some help from my colleagues (Thanks Courtney, Dana, Brad and Carson) we refocused this on cloth grocery bags for homeless people. The idea is that students have to come up with the best use of the space provided by one cloth grocery bag. The question would be what would be the most effective way they could fill the bag to provide to a homeless person with the most beneficial contents they could come up with. The limitation would be that they would have to actively seek out the donation of all contents. Whether it was medical supplies, a blanket, non-perishable food items, toiletries etc. they would have to contact a business, explain their project and then convince the business to help them out with a donation. I think with some work done behind the scenes before the project you could probably get some businesses or associations on board to help.

For the helping hand project we are thinking of doing it in January or February when it can get very cold in our neck of the woods, and after the Christmas season, when the shelters get a great deal of help from people already. We hope to partner with a shelter that can not only act as a resource for the exercise, but can hopefully facilitate our participating students in the handing out of these bags.

Whether the limitation or constraint you put on students is real or imagined, creating this type of experience challenges students to be imaginative in their finding a solution. Just as the best way to foster resilience in students is to give them a meaningful reason to be resilient, the best way to foster innovation and creativity is going to be to challenge them in ways that force them to be imaginative and innovative.

In a great article that Whitney Johnson wrote for the Harvard Business Review entitled Why Innovators Love Constraints, she talks about how constraints can push us, and how in the real world this type of thinking is required. I think this quote does a good job of connecting this type of learning to the type of thinkers our world is going to require, or already requires:

A tightly-lidded box can stifle and suffocate. It can motivate us to figure out how get outside the box. To make choices about how we will expend the resources we do have available to us, to find cheaper, more nimble ways of doing something as a person – and as a corporation. Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.

As always, I’d love your thoughts, comments, or recommendations.

I Just Had To Share

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I’m sorry I just had to share these…

Yesterday one of our new teachers was teaching wrestling with some younger students and having them explore ways to tip over someone who was on all fours. After they experimented for a while he asked the kids what worked? The first boy said “I pulled one of his arms and pushed him over.” The teacher thought that was good and then asked a second boy who responded “I tickled him”.

Today during a Skype session our Grade 6 students had with Diane Cockle, a lead crime investigator from Vancouver, a student asked her what the weirdest piece of evidence she has ever found and her answer was Cheese. She explained that a serial break and enter case was solved because at each house the robber would pull the cheese out from the fridge and take a bite. The fingerprints they got off the blocks of cheese were used to convict him.

Later on in the Skype interview a student came up and asked “Do you use the scientific method and if so, what parts do you use”. Diane chuckled and said “Great question, you’ll make a great defense lawyer!”

I have such a great job.

Why I Am An Educator


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Jeff Sandquist

I am very excited to be part of the School Admin Virtual Mentor Program, and this post marks my first participation in the program. I have been lucky enough to be connected with a great mentor, Jason Markey, who I have been a follower of for some time and recently started to connect with. I have appreciated every interaction we have had, and I look forward to having more frequent and more in-depth interactions with Jason. I also look forward to connecting with my two fellow “mentees” Rebecca Kelly and Sue Tonnesen, and I know I will learn a lot from all three of these educators, along with many other participants in the #SAVMP.

We were challenged to write a post with one of two themes: “Why do I lead?” or “Why am I an Educator?”. I kind of feel like I am still developing an answer to the first question so I decided on the second, maybe this program will help me with that.

Why am I an Educator? To put it simply, it is what I am passionate about, and I found that out on the driving range…

I was still in high school, and our local golf club was without someone to run our junior golf program. Along with the help of one of our senior members, I was helping to make sure the program kept running, which meant once in a while I worked with some of our younger members on the driving range. While working with a young golfer, I helped with a fairly simple change he could make to his swing. He was frustrated that the ball was traveling along the ground, and wanted desperately to see the ball fly through the air, the way others were doing all around him. After a hand full of balls, it happened. The ball flew off his club and soared through the air, but it wasn’t that sight I remember, it was the look on his face as he turned to see my reaction.     

It was in that look, and in numerous moments since then that my decision to be an educator has been reinforced. It started with sports, as I coached numerous teams, camps and activities, and then as my teaching career began, it continued with math problems, science labs and daily interactions with my students. I have a passion for helping people discover and learn, and I am a junkie for those looks – those moments where they are surprised by what they are capable of and they can’t wait to see your reaction as well.

In this SAVMP program, myself and all of the other “mentees” get the opportunity to be on that other end, we get to be the ones finding what we are capable of.  We all have our mentors in our schools and divisions, but its so great to get to have the opportunity to connect with others who will bring a different set of experiences and great advice as we develop as school leaders. Many thanks to George Couros for making this happen, another one of his great ideas and a wonderful opportunity for Rebecca, Sue, myself and all of the other “mentees”.

  


If it’s Good For Kids

Draft Week

At different times over the past three years, I have written posts, or started to write posts, and for some reason I haven’t been able to work some of them out. For one reason or another, the idea wasn’t finished or at least not at the level where I felt it was good enough to publish. I have recently had the desire to go back and finish some of those posts, so this week, I am going to finish 5 posts that have been sitting in my draft folder for a while, in some cases, over two years. I picked five that I wanted to finish, maybe not the best, but ones that I needed to work out and take the time to finish because they meant something to me. Today’s post was originally written on June 14th, 2013, and ventures into a topic I believe will become an area of interest for me, professional development. All week, whatever I had written will be in italics and then I will add to the post to finish it. Kathy Melton is joining me in this week long return to posts we never finished, her blog can be found here.


cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Penn State

We have been bouncing around a lot of ideas about change and innovation in education this year, and having great conversations about where we might go next. I find that there come times in conversations about education where we lose our steam and we come to a lull. I also find that the best way to invigorate the conversation, if you haven’t already done so, is to ask what would the students say about the topic? Sometimes we forget that what we are doing has a lot to do with our students, and considering their thoughts about what we are doing is vital.

As we plan for our Educator Innovation Day, I have been thinking about applying the same desire for change and innovation we have for our students education to our own learning. Collaboration, Choice and Flexibility are words that come up as we brainstorm ways to change education, maybe these are key to changing professional development as well. 

What can I say, it was June and I got busy. So this is where I will continue…

What I hope to see in professional development is that we practice what we preach. We need to help make the learning personally meaningful, connected to a wide and authentic audience, and flexible in its delivery and setting. We want to be supportive of risk taking, and motivators of active research from our staff. We should be modelling these aspects of learning and sharing in our own professional development as well.

If it’s good for kids, it’s good for us, because learning is learning. I believe that when we get together as professionals to talk about where education should go, we should always consider what students would say about it. I also believe that when we come across a great learning experience that our students are participating in we should also ask how we could apply that to our professional learning. Is this a valid point? Can we apply the way our students learn best to our own learning? What are your thoughts?

Let The Learning Boil Over

potnolid

 

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” T.S. Eliot

I know, its a very eye-catching and thought provoking image to open up this post with isn’t it?

It all started with a conversation I was part of at ConnectEd Canada in Calgary with George Couros, and a small group of people as we prepared for a session. We were talking about rubrics, and George brought up that he wasn’t a fan as they can put limits on the learning, innovation and creativity. He talked about how the top end/side of a rubric puts a stop to where the learning could go. The more I thought about it, the more I thought he was right. While I am not a big rubric user, I am not against them either. Some people there were big supporters of rubrics, and as George’s session took place, the topic came up organically again, and some people really defended the use of rubrics.

That was more than a month ago, yet the conversation stuck with me. I started discussing rubrics with a few teachers at my school, and the more we talked the more the conversation kept coming back to a pot. Yes, a pot. The kind you cook things in. The metaphor that seemed to work best, when talking with my co-workers, was that of a pot on a stove:

potwlidWhen we think of a rubric that has an end point for learning, we are talking about a pot with lid on it. The learning is contained, and limited to the “pot” that it exists in. It doesn’t matter if the rubric is co-created with students, or comes directly from the teacher, if it has an endpoint, it can limit the learning. Maybe this picture would help:

Rubric Pot

Our final area on our rubric, marked here in green ends up being as far as most students will aspire to go with their learning. Unless some very deliberate teaching has been done, or the student is keen to push themselves further, the rubric says “This is far enough”. We know this happens all the time, we have all heard students ask “Is this good enough?”, and this has to be what we try to avoid.

So what if we take away that last line of our rubric? The one that puts a “lid” on “Excellence” or “Mastery” or whatever is at the top of your rubric. What if we take the lid off the pot and ensure that our students don’t ever feel like we are putting limits on where their learning could go?

Rubric Pot 2Maybe they take their mastery of writing persuasive essays to convince their local politician to stand up for the rights of child workers in another country. Maybe they take their excellence in understanding aerodynamics and build their own hovercraft. Wherever their learning, creativity and innovation might take them, I don’t know, but I do know one thing is certain, we don’t want to be the ones limiting where that might be.

“Good Enough” is learning for someone else, and we don’t want our students to simply aim for something that is not going to challenge them, or has no meaning to them. Thanks to George for this, and the first quote, as they seem to be right on the mark:

“Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.” Les Brown

So let’s continue to do everything we can to let the learning boil over, even it is simply ensuring our message is clear by making a simple change to the rubrics we use for assessment.

 

You Don’t Want To Hear From Me Today


cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Ceridwen

Today, it is very true. You don’t want to hear from me. I am not good today. I am tired, I am feeling a little stressed, I am worried. I am clearly not at my best. But today is a chance to look in on someone who has not done what is necessary to be at their best. Today I can tell you what it is like to have neglected balance.

My principal, Carolyn Cameron, has been on me for some time to be cognizant of what I need to maintain the balance that will keep me effective at my job, and in my life. I coach basketball at a small local University, often get home after midnight from practice, and struggle to get to bed before 1 or even 2 in the morning. During basketball season we practice and/or play 6 days a week. I have a one year old daughter who has, at times, found 3:30am a great time to get up and play. I find it hard to find time for her and for my wife when I get busy, and the guilt can be tough. I rarely exercise as I am often tired or unwilling to make the effort. Sometimes the lack of sleep, the strain of living in two worlds, and the difficulty with feeling like a good father/husband wear me out.

Busy has always been my style. I rarely say no to an opportunity, I am always looking for more challenges and I look at sleep, and even eating regularly, as “hopes” not “musts”. I have paid for it. I get sick more than most people, I get run down and ineffective for short stretches and I can neglect important parts of my life more than I should. I have never had the impetus to make lasting changes because it has never caused me too much grief. I still believe I am good at my job, I believe I am able to make time for the ones I love, and the only one that suffers is me. I always thought Carolyn was right, but I also thought it would never really catch up with me.

This week, it has caught up with me, and because of that I have learned the most important lesson about balance I believe I ever will learn:

If you aren’t in balance, you never know when it will affect you, but eventually it will affect you when you can least afford it.

We are only two days from the beginning of Innovation Week 2, tomorrow I am presenting to our school’s parent community about our plans for technology, my daughter currently has chicken pox (and is miserable), and our school is winding down the year and enjoying all the usual fun that goes with that (PC enough for you?). This is the time I NEED to be at my best. This is the time balance is crucial. I guess I am lucky to have gotten by for this long without it really biting me in the behind, but I sure hope this lesson will stick with me. It’s time for me to make changes, well actually its long overdue.

How do you ensure balance in your life as an educator? As your job, or family situation changed, how did you make the appropriate adjustments? Have you had similar experiences with balance? I would love to hear some feedback, if not for my learning, to know there are others out there who have dealt with this as well. Now… off to bed!

Educators Innovation Day


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Sean Kelly

Ok. It’s OUR turn.

After having our first Innovation Week and with Innovation Week 2 only days away, we have put together the plan for our Teachers to have a chance to be innovators.

On Tuesday, August 27th, 2013 the doors of Greystone Centennial Middle School will open to Educators who want to get the same experience our students have had. With the theme of “Improving Education” the teachers will have a chance to spend the day working on their own or in small groups to come up with a project. At the end of the day, the only requirement of participation is that we will all get together and share what we have come up with.

Now, with only a day to do the project, we expect most people will do a little bit of work beforehand to prepare, and of course that is ok, but we don’t want people to bring canned projects. A big part of the learning is in the experience, and the constraint of getting the project done by the end of the day is part of the experience.

While I said we developed this to help our teachers gain experience that will help them work with our students on future innovation projects, this is not limited to just our Greystone teachers. We are opening this to any educator that is interested in taking part, so if you would like to join us fill out the form and plan to be there!

Educator Innovation Day Application Form

We also want to thank Parkland Teachers ATA Local #10 and the Parkland School Division for their support of this event, and to everyone who is helping to make it happen!