creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by graymalkn


  • 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.

Innovation Week 4 – Day 2/3/4

What a great three days we had this week as students put their plans into action, working hard to make their visions for their projects a reality. These three days are always the most impressive, as projects that seemed lofty suddenly become reality in front of your eyes, and students blow expectations out of the water. If there is one thing that has stayed true in all four Innovation Weeks we have run, it is that we don’t challenge students they way they challenge themselves when given the opportunity.

After a weekend away from their projects, there was a great deal of energy in the building as the students got back down to work. Now because our students in Gr. 6 & 9 had to write Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT’s – government exams in Alberta) during Innovation Week, we waited until after the tests were completed to start our days. Students had brought the vast majority of their supplies in and were laying them out and finalizing plans in their Innovation Rooms. It wasn’t long before you heard the buzz of tools, the music from performance groups, and lots of conversation as groups worked together to get their projects underway.

After running three of these in the past couple years, our organizing committee was committed to improving the quality of learning, and we did so on two fronts. The first was incorporating a Design Thinking process that we learned from Ewan McIntosh (and he documents on his site here) and the other was improvements to our Proposal Forms. Spearheaded by Claudia Scanga and Katy Rogal, these forms had added spaces for feedback and reflection as well as better questions to help shape the process for students. They were photocopied on BRIGHT pink paper, and students were expected to have them at all times during the week (see in picture above). As I went around from room to room over these three days, I asked groups about their process, about their guiding question, and about how they met the criteria for the week, and the vast majority could all answer the questions I had for them, and I am quite certain it had a lot to do with our improved forms.

One thing I noticed when talking with students this time around was how much better our students were at managing the time, tackling projects that were achievable, and troubleshooting their own issues. In previous weeks this was definitely a struggle as students were not used to being on their own to guide their learning. We’d see groups choose projects too complex or too simple, we’d see groups struggle when they ran into difficulty, and we definitely saw groups have trouble with managing their own time. I am sure that most schools that would try Innovation Week would see similar issues their first couple times through, but I also see great power in the learning those difficulties provide. There is no doubt our students have learned from their adversity, or the adversity of others, and the improvements in this week are a testament to the three we have run before.

With 414 students participating, 81% of our eligible students (Gr. 9’s couldn’t participate due to PAT’s), it meant we also had most of our teaching staff participating as well. It is a unique interaction for teacher and student as the teacher is not there to do any instruction, but to simply be a resource for support and guidance, and it is often with students from other grades or classes that they don’t get a chance to work with. During the three working days, we had a lot of great feedback from teachers, with common themes including high quality projects, great work ethic and excited, focused learning.

As we wrapped up Day 4 on Wednesday, the prospect of the showcase and assembly the next day made for a lot of excited, and some nervous students as they prepared to share all their great work with family, friends, and visiting guests from our division. I’ll post the Final Day reflection soon, so stay tuned to see how this great week finished up!

Educator Innovation Day – A Reflection

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo shared by Bridget Coila

I have been having a tough time getting going this week. For the first time in my career I haven’t been overly excited to come back to school. After 2 months of steady “Daddy Duty” it has been tough to think that I have to go back to the busy schedule of work and coaching. I usually come back motivated and ready to start a new initiative or try a new project and this year, not so much. As the sun sets on another summer break, I have been in need of a jolt. Today, I had the perfect “jump start” in the form of our Educator’s Innovation Day and it was exactly the jolt I needed.

25 teachers and administrators took part in our Educator Innovation Day today and worked on projects of their choice with the only guidelines being that the project had to improve education. It was very inspiring to see teachers who signed up for this event on a day off, and worked so diligently on their projects. Even more impressive was the amazing quality of work that was produced. Projects on home reading programs, mindfulness in education, leveraging technology, and collaborative planning for student interventions, you couldn’t help but smile at just how much these educators were willing to challenge themselves with.

I had the pleasure of working with Travis McNaughton, assistant principal of Muir Lake School, on a project where we worked to create an option course designed around teaching entrepreneurship. While I am proud of the work we did, and while I am excited to implement our course, I want to talk about the experience.

You see, we love to do projects that provide opportunities for our students to challenge themselves to be innovative. But when we were planning our first Innovation Week it was George Couros who came to me and asked if I thought our staff would be equipped to put on a project like Innovation Week without first experiencing something like that themselves. Long story short, we went ahead with Innovation Week 1 & 2 but it always was in the back of our heads that we needed to ensure that we gave our educators a chance to have the same experience.

Today, I got to feel the excitement and energy of exploring an idea, with someone equally, if not more, passionate about the topic. I got to enjoy that feeling of time flying by as we worked through our plan. I got to experience getting stuck, and working through a difficult stretch. I got to stand in front of the group of participants while Travis and I presented the work we were proud of and eager to share. Take away the time it took to get started, the side conversations, the coffee and muffin breaks and I bet we really only worked for three hours, but it was the most invigorating, challenging and thrilling three hours of work I have done in quite some time.

I was a learner. An engaged and motivated learner.

I think there are many of us who have been trying to re-imagine the staff meeting experience, have been trying to re-invent the PD day process and who have been looking for ways to ensure that professional learning is happening in the most powerful ways possible. Today I experienced powerful professional learning, so much so that I don’t think I can settle for hearing excuses why we CAN’T change the way we learn anymore. I know the excuses – PD days are too valuable, money is too tight, we can’t ask people to give up their own time – but after today they just don’t seem so compelling anymore.

We are trying to re-imagine the educational experience for our students, and things are moving relatively quickly, so why aren’t they moving when it comes to our professional learning? We have to start thinking of ourselves as learners too, and create our experiences with the same ideas and goals we would have for the learners we are serving each day.

Why am I so passionate about this? You would be too if you had a day like we had today. I know we are going to work to find ways to put more of these days on for our school staff, and hopefully our division staff. I challenge you to find ways to have this experience for yourself, your school or your division. The sun is setting on “sit-and-get” meetings and “stand and deliver” PD and I think its about time.

Let The Learning Boil Over



“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.


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!

Novel not Novelty, Innovation not Gimmicks

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by darranl

Call me old school, but my razor has 2 blades. It has always driven me crazy with the incessant adding of blades, parodied of course numerous times on numerous comedies, because we all see what they are doing – trying to get our money with a gimmick.

I am re-reading “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek and while I wasn’t reading it as a resource on Innovation, he brought up a great point about confusing Novelty with Innovation. His example came from the business of Cell Phones, with the example of Novelty being the Motorola Razr and the example of Innovation being the iPhone. His point was that Motorola created a product with a bunch of great features and made it the latest shiny new gadget but there wasn’t any real innovation there. He said the innovation of the iPhone was in telling the carriers what the phone would do and not the other way around. It was timely as the topic had come up just earlier today.

I love talking with other educators about Innovation, what it is, how you define it, how you provide our classrooms an opportunity to explore it, and how do we foster it in our students. Today, I was discussing the definition of Innovation with George Couros (over twitter) and we talked about the idea of a novel creation or an improvement on an existing creation. Reading Simon Sinek’s book makes me think that we have to teach students the difference between novel and novelty. Not everything new is innovative and not every improvement is innovative either. We are bombarded every day with advertisements exclaiming that the product is “New and Improved”, and Sinek talks about this being more about manipulating the customer than actual innovation.

It got me thinking about our next Innovation Week (#iweek2) and how the planning is going for our students. We have some really great conversations developing around the guiding question that each student is developing for their projects, as well as who their expert will be (Theme for iWeek 2 is “Connecting with Experts”). As they fill out their applications, their homeroom teacher is there to help them if they get stuck at any point in the process, and some are having trouble creating a deep guiding question based around their area of interest. I see some of our students looking more for a gimmick or novelty then actual innovation. We have students excited about their projects, but with a real focus on learning that lacks any depth. Some of the key questions our application asks to hopefully guide the students to some deeper thinking or hunt out any issues are:

  • What is your guiding question? What new learning/discoveries will you be exploring?
  • Process required to answer my guiding question:
  • What will you create as a final product?
  • What skills will you develop?
  • Who is your audience and how will you present your learning?

I hope the conversations with our students as they work through the application process, and of course through the learning process, will help students see past the gimmick and novelty and find ways to explore meaningful innovation. We will of course need to be very mindful with our assistance to help students get there without controlling to much of the experience.

We will need to explore this issue again when we our theme becomes “Entrepreneurial Spirit“, which is one of our planned themes for next school year’s Innovation Weeks. When our students turn to creating a project that would be marketed and sold to customers, the idea of gimmicks and novelty will become even more important.  We want our students to have a successful experience when they explore the world of business, but we don’t want to empower students to manipulate their customers and learn tricks that dance dangerously close to being dishonest. Sinek talks about creating “Loyalty” rather than just “Repeat Business” and that comes from inspiring your customers, not tricking them.

What I find more and more as I explore themes of Innovation and Creativity, is that in developing projects and lessons that focus on Innovation, we are able to tackle some really important themes in some engaging, authentic and powerful ways. With each Innovation Week and each theme we explore, we can really help our students create a better understanding of their learning and their interactions with their world. Maybe we’ll even have some of our boys grow up and buy a razor with two blades instead of seven.



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.