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.

We Have No Excuse


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by cooper.gary

I have been very lucky. I have had so many people help me in my career, so many mentors who have helped me shape my philosophy, sharpen my pedagogy and given me the confidence in myself to tackle projects and take on different positions. It was a conversation with one my mentors last week that helped me past a bit of writer’s block. I have had some trouble with deciding about what to share and how to share it. As we talked about a big project we are starting to work on, he asked me why I thought it would be successful in my school at this time. At the end of our conversation, he advised me to share on my blog what I shared with him. Sounded like a good idea…

We are looking at doing some work along the lines of innovation, something similar to Josh Stumpenhorst’s Passion Projects and Matt Bebbington‘s Innovation Day. To take something like this on, and expect it to be successful, you would of course need to be confident in the timing, the people involved and leadership supporting it. We are ready for this project for three reasons:

Our Teachers

I could spend multiple blog posts bragging about my colleagues. We have a staff that is driven by its desire to help students learn, not for a test or a statistic but for the joy and importance of learning. They model this in their openness to try something new if they believe it will help their students. Our staff prides itself on pushing their pedagogy and collaboratively working to improve their teaching together. What goes on in our building is student-driven, messy and impactful learning. For this reason we know we will have their support, their belief and their passion when we roll out each phase of our project.

Our Leadership

Our principal is an inspiring, committed and driven leader who has no desire to continue worn out practices or resting on her laurels. Her school has won awards and drawn a great deal of positive attention in the past few years, yet she continues to preach progressive thinking, innovative teaching practices and constant improvement and growth. While technology isn’t always her best friend, she is always trying to learn and grow and understands that technology will never replace good teaching, but will work to assist it. For this reason, we know we can move forward with her support, and whether it is a successful endeavour or not, she will insist it was worth the experience.

Our Students

The students in our building are creative, engaged and enthusiastic about learning. Of course a lot of their exuberance is a product of our amazing staff, but they deserve a great deal of credit as well. We are constantly amazed by what they are capable of and the directions that they can take an experience when given the flexibility and freedom to lead their learning. We want to provide them with more opportunities to direct their learning,  as they have shown that this type of challenge is a beneficial one. I believe our students are ready to really flex their creative muscle and that it is the right group of kids at the right time.

So when I was done my long winded rant about how ready our school is for a project like this, I realized that we really have no excuse. With a staff as dedicated and driven as ours, with a leader always pushing for growth, and with a group of students so excited about learning, we have no excuse but to do everything we can to help make their educational experience the best we can. If self direction, risk taking, and critical thinking are our goals for our students, we have no excuse but to try to take our teaching to new places, whether we succeed or not. We owe it to everyone already doing all they can, to do everything we can ourselves. We have no excuse, so now its time to get to work.