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.

On The Right Track

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Beautiful picture don’t you think? It is the brilliant art work of Emma, a student at our school in grade 8. Emma didn’t do this work in her art class, or as part of a school project, or even during one of our Innovation Weeks. Emma did this at home, on her own time, in fact during her very own Genius Hour. A completely self directed project, exploring an area of interest and producing something wonderful. 

Her mother Carrie, a Kindergarten teacher, was proud of the work her daughter had done and wanted to let us know at school, so she sent us this tweet

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Carrie let me know that Emma has also turned to You Tube to research and learn to play the piano and guitar during these “Genius Hours”.

Projects and initiatives come and go in education, and it can be hard sometimes to know if we are doing what is best for our students. I am fairly certain that we have the right initiative when we see students doing them at home. I think we can be sure we are on the right track when students choose to learn on their own time. If lifelong learning is a goal, its examples like this that show us the way to the desired result.

Shouldn’t this be what we are aspiring to? We live in an age now that kids have everything they need to learn from anywhere. They can explore their passions and satisfy their curiosities without us being there. I believe Genius Hour, Innovation Days/Weeks, and Passion Projects help students realize just how capable they are to learn independently.

On the eve of our second Innovation Week, I can’t help but be excited to see what our students will learn about, create and share. I have seen and heard their excitement as we have prepared for the coming week, and having students excited about learning at school is so rewarding. I hope it will lead to even more examples like Emma’s, of students who can’t wait for us to help them so they take the initiative themselves to learn outside of their time at school.

This is my Genius Hour, This is my Passion Project

IMG_2734After a week immersed in Innovation Week, setting up our new site, getting prepared to moderate the first #iweekchat, and sharing many resources with some excited educators getting their own projects started, I was kind of getting burnt out by it all. I was also getting over being sick, and was pretty bored of sitting on my couch. That’s when my friend Jim called.

Jim is a carpenter, and he is currently building his own house. Numerous Spring Breaks and Summers I worked for Jim as a framer, and it was a wonderful way to spend my time off and make a little money on the side. I love framing. I am not great at it, and often need a lot of guidance from Jim (thank goodness he is patient), but it really is something I love doing and love learning.

So when he called me, I was able to head out to his site and help him build the landing for the entrance into his new house. It wasn’t a long time, just a few hours to frame and sheet the floor, but it was exactly what I needed. I had the same feeling when I used to work with Jim. (These are pics from the work we did)

When I would return to teaching, after a break spent building houses, I would always be rejuvenated and excited to be back at it. I would share with my students stories about my time framing, especially the stories where I did something wrong and learned the hard way – like shooting Jim with a nail gun! It was a great way to connect with my students, to model for them that I was a learner, and show them that I wasn’t afraid to do something I wasn’t “the best” at.

All this talk about Innovation Week has naturally led to conversations about how we can get Educators to participate in the same experiences. We are having Educators Innovation Day this August, and it will be great to have teachers come up with great projects to improve education in that short period of time together, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that we all have our own Genius Hours and Passion Projects. We have our own interests and passions that we dive into for periods of time away from work, and we are all better for having those experiences, not only because of what we get from them, but from what we can share with our students.

Framing is my Genius Hour, something I am engaged in when I am doing it, an experience that challenges me, and time spent learning about a topic I am genuinely interested in. When I go back to my job I am better for having spent the time, and I am a better teacher for having modelled and experienced learning.

I think as teachers and as leaders, we need to do a better job of not only embracing these interests and passions of our colleagues, but finding ways to empower these educators to incorporate them into their teaching. The more ways we can connect with students the better, and the more we let students into who we are, more chances for connecting will occur naturally. We will be able to show them another side of who we are, and other great characteristics of ourselves that they can be inspired by.

Framing is my Genius Hour, but this is my Passion Project:

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And it’s a whole other part of who I am that will make me a better teacher, better leader and better person. Don’t underestimate all the other parts of your life that make you who you are in the eyes of your students. I am a teacher and a coach but I am also an amateur framer, a lover of music, an aspiring writer, a sports fan, a movie goer, a husband AND a new Dad. Every one of those characteristics offers me a way to connect with my students, and every one of those aspects of me will shape the impact I can have as an educator.

What unique characteristics do you bring to your teaching? What are you doing to bring them out in your lessons, your conversations with your students and parents, and the time you spend at school?  What are you doing to bring out the passions and interests of your staff in your school?

 

Stuck


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by sean dreilinger

I spent this past weekend in Banff at the Middle Years Council Conference where I did a session on using technology to improve communication and make our learning public, and listening to a number of good presentations. The two speakers that inspired this post were Phil McRae and Shelley Wright, as they both helped me tie together a few ideas I have been having trouble connecting.

Phil McRae spoke about where education is going in the future and talked about two specific areas we need to be concerned about – Technology and Parenting. The point I took away from his talk came at the end when a question was posed to him about how we can best focus on helping our kids for an ever-changing future and Phil’s response was that we needed to teach them Resiliency.

Shelley’s talk was amazing, she told great stories of the work she has done with her students and the power she found in giving up control of her room, her classes and her teaching to her students. It was an engaging 90 minutes, and the point that really hit home with me was when she talked about how her kids worked so hard and gave more than she had ever thought they could because the work they were doing had Meaning.

During our Innovation Week, there was a common theme we found amongst the really special projects our students were able to complete. We found that when the students took on a really challenging, but meaningful project, they all hit a moment where they were Stuck. A point in the project where the progress hit a stand still and the group or individual was put to the test. How would they move forward? WOULD they move forward? What we found in those that created great work is that they did find the motivation, or inspiration, to continue and to find the answer they needed on how to progress. In the end, they would all talk about how they didn’t know what to do or where to go, but that they kept at it and in persevering, found the path to success.

Resilience. We have all heard that its an important attribute to instill in our students, but how often has that comment been followed by “… and this is How”. Its very easy to say Resiliency but a heck of a lot harder to figure out how to introduce it, teach it, develop it, challenge it. I am not writing this post to tell you I know how, but I think with our Innovation Week project, we have found one method to create the opportunity for students to develop resiliency. I believe that one way we can foster resiliency is to create learning opportunities that follow this progression:

 

A) Start with Excitement

We need to create learning opportunities that get kids excited. Listening to Shelley talk about the projects she had done with her students, and the amazing results they were able to achieve just reinforced this idea for me. When we give our students the chance, they will exceed our expectations, but we have to provide them work they believe is exciting.

 

B) Get Our Students Stuck

We have to help students get stuck. This is a big challenge, and maybe one that you end up failing more than you succeed at in the beginning, but worth it if you are able to figure it out. We have to help students find projects that are challenging enough that they can’t just breeze through it, and not so difficult that they could never find success. With our Innovation Week, there was definitely a selection of student groups who were able to find that key zone of challenge, one that pushed them to the edge but that they were able to persevere through and complete. Yes, there were groups that fit on either side of this zone, some who chose work far too easy and some who tackled tasks that were a little beyond their abilities. When it comes to the ones that found that right level of challenge, maybe it was just luck, or maybe it was that these students had a very developed ability to judge their own potential. Maybe with more opportunities, the rest of the students who didn’t quite find the right challenge would develop this awareness as well. Maybe, if we know our students well enough, we can help guide them towards projects that are the right level of challenge for them, remembering that we WANT them to struggle.

 

C) Meaningful Enough To Work Through

Now that we have them “stuck”, what is going to happen? Well I believe that if the work is personally meaningful enough to the student, they will do what it takes to keep going. If the work isn’t meaningful enough, there is a chance, probably a pretty strong chance, that the student could shut down or walk away. We have all seen it in our classes, I know for me the clear memory I have is of trying to teach a class Trigonometry and a student being so frustrated by not getting the ratios that he blew up and ended up having to be removed to the hallway. So how do we make the work meaningful enough? My best bet is Choice. The reason that projects like Genius Hour are so successful, and that we see the best work come from our kids during these projects, is that inherently there is always meaning for the student doing the work. Innovation Week for us provided our students the meaning in their work to push through challenge and literally practice resiliency.

 

If we are going to teach students to be resilient we are going to have to have them practice being resilient. We want them to know what it feels like to be frustrated, to feel lost or helpless, to feel like they are at a dead end. That is not pleasant, and if we don’t give them the meaning in their work to want to see it to its completion, they won’t persevere. We found our Innovation Week provided a solid blueprint for this type of practice, but what has worked for you? I’d love to hear what lessons or activities you find provide your students a great experience in resilience.

Engagement is Enough!


cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Ad@mK

I love when a metaphor is so clearly portrayed in a picture. We have all heard this one… parent spends an exorbitant amount of money on a toy for their child only to have the child get more out of the box itself. The parent always tells the story as a funny but frustrating anecdote, and with a sigh, laughs at the silliness of it all. In the end, they have a happy baby, excited to play and that’s all that matters.

I have been spending a lot of my free time reading and discussing a number of innovative projects being done by people all over the place. I’ve spent time discussing Genius Hour on the hashtag #geniushour and today, was lucky enough to hang out with the first lady of Genius Hour, Gallit Zvi (tomorrow I am spending the morning in her class for their Genius Hour!). I have been reading about Passion Projects and Fed Ex Days, and of course Innovation Day/Innovation Week. My morning today was spent at the Inquiry Hub with David Truss, hearing how they are able to provide students with the time and space to really take ownership of their learning. Speaking with Gallit and David, you can see their pride in their students and the amazing projects they are doing. They are eager to share just how driven their students are when working on work they care about.

As I read and converse more and more with other people considering these projects, I often hear questions about how the projects are assessed and how they connect with curriculum, and while these are valid questions, they always seemed to irk me a little. I felt like people needed to experience these projects for themselves to see the real power they possess, and if they did, they might not be so worried about the assessment or curricular ties. You see the real power in these projects is the engagement that results in our students when they are given the power to direct their learning. I saw it during our Innovation Week, and I have read about the same reaction is students experiencing Genius Hour, Passion Projects and Fed Ex Days. Kids get excited about learning.

To me, that is reason enough to try one of these projects. After our innovation week, there was excitement residue all over the place. Students talked about their projects, and what they were going to do for the next innovation week. Innovation-style activities started popping up all over our building as teachers embraced the energy from the week and re-created it in their rooms. If we can do projects that get students excited to come to school then we are creating a culture in our buildings of eager students who value learning. Isn’t that a good start for any building?

Eventually, we can add the curricular connections we want our students to make, and we can find appropriate ways to assess their learning, but it doesn’t have to be the driving force behind every learning experience we provide our students. Creating a passion for learning, an engaged young person will pay dividends for us in every lesson we teach so for now Engagement is Enough. We get our excited student the same way we get the excited baby happy just to play with the box, and we can be ok with a student who is just excited to learn as well. If having students excited to learn and engaged in the process is something important to you, think about giving one of these projects a try. While it may not hit the outcomes or end up with a grade on it, I am willing to bet it will be one of the most enjoyable experiences you’ll ever have as an educator.

Let Them Discover


cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Tinkerbots

I spent some time on my spring break going back over things I favorited on Twitter or put into my “read later” places. One of them was a great interview by Jeff Herb on his podcast Instructional Tech Talk, where he interviewed Jessica Pack and John Stevens about their 20% projects. It was great to hear the two of them discuss how they set up and ran the 20% project in their buildings and the wonderful results they saw with their students. I was lucky enough to attend a Google Apps For Education Summit in Edmonton in February and saw a session by Sean Williams on Google 20% time. He shared stories of people doing similar projects and had a teacher from California connect with us over Google Hangouts to share his story as well. Their are a number of great posts out there on why Google 20% time is beneficial in education (here and here) as well as posts about how it is going in schools all over the place (here and here).

The Google 20% model has a lot in common with what Gallit Zvi is doing with her Genius Hour projects, and what Josh Stumpenhorst is doing with his Passion Projects and Innovation Day. Students having choice in what they learn about, freedom to learn in their own way, not limited by schedule or structure, and students excited about the learning. Josh’s Innovation Day inspired us to run our own Innovation Week this past December. It was an overwhelming success and every day I am at school I am asked by at least one student when our next Innovation Week will take place (Innovation Week 2 coming this June!).

I don’t think there are many educators out there that are surprised by the success of any one of these initiatives. I believe most of us are well aware of the power in transferring the responsibility for learning to our students, and the impact that it has on the engagement of our students when they are given the responsibility. I do think that some educators are afraid of giving up so much of the control of the learning in their classroom. Most have made the transition from stand and deliver to guiding the learning, but this goes even further. We have gone from providing the information to providing the right questions, but with initiatives like these, we want the students to be asking the questions as well.

So what is it that we do as teachers when we undertake one of these learning initiatives?

What I believe we do is we help students to discover whatever it is they are passionate about and are excited to learn about. I believe our job goes from crafting the powerful questions that challenge our students to helping students find ways to challenge themselves. Katherine von Jan recently wrote in her post entitled “Pursue Passion: Demand Google 20% Time at School”:

Real break-through happens when we are free from others’ expectations and driven by individual passion.

I believe this includes us when it comes to the “others expectations”. We can’t judge what our students are passionate about, but we can help shape the experience to improve the chances it will have real depth and meaning. Katherine speaks eloquently to this idea as well when she says:

For example, if a child is inspired by bridges, why not start there and let the learning follow their curiosity? They may need to learn calculus to build a bridge, but then they have a reason to love and seek calculus, rather than calculus being a requirement. They may need to understand the history, policy and politics of getting a bridge approved. Or team-building to get all the right talent on board.

Our job can be to find the connections to deeper learning in the questions that come from each development in the project. During our Innovation Week, the single greatest commonality among all of the best projects was a shared moment of struggle. Every group that was able to take their Innovation Week project to amazing places found some time where they were stuck. What each of these groups also found was that they were able to overcome this impasse and stagnation by finding a way to solve the problem. It was in these moments that they sought out a new solution, consulted teachers, classmates, websites, pictures etc and they developed a plan.

Our group that built the functioning hovercraft began with a plan to use a lawnmower engine to power it. When they constructed the hovercraft and found it would not float, they tried increasing the number of airholes on the bottom, and they tried altering the position of the engine, but nothing worked. They realized after multiple tests and failures that the engine was too heavy, and in developing a new plan to use a lighter leaf-blower engine they learned far more than just physics. When our students choose topics they are truly passionate about, they will show greater resiliency than we could have ever expected. They will seek out further understanding and they will find solutions to problems that we may not have thought our students could solve.

We talk all the time about how our students can show us so much when given the chance, but then we subject them to learning that never provides that chance. What these projects all share in common is the ability to provide our students with as a great a challenge as they are capable of. Sure, it also provides us with just as many opportunities for our students to fail, but we all know these experiences are just as important as the successful ones. I think this is even more powerful when we distance the assessment as far from the project itself, as we can. We should assess our students skills and competencies during these projects but through observation and through the assessment of their reflections NOT by assessing the actual success of the project. If we can help our students understand that we want to assess their learning, and that failure is just as much a part of learning as succeeding, hopefully these projects can instill a passion for risk-taking, creativity and innovation.

I know how powerful these activities can be. Our innovation week was the most eye-opening and invigorating 5 days of my education career. I also know from experience that it can be a bit scary to undertake one of these activities. It all comes back to the idea of modelling for our students that we are learners too, and that we aren’t afraid to take risks and to chance failure if it is going to provide us the chance to grow. I know that if you are reading this, you are someone who wants to see the best education for our students, and knowing what these initiatives can provide them is reason enough to give them a try.