Saturday, July 09, 2016

Inquiry + Lego + Scratch = Magic!

"We only think when confronted with a problem."*
~ John Dewey

Last year when our parent association provided us with 12 sets of WeDo Lego I was over the moon, knowing that the students were going to love working with this material as they explored simple machines during a unit of inquiry. And it was fantastic - the kids loved it, the parents and other teachers were impressed by the complex creations the students had built and I was thrilled with the compatibility to Scratch which allowed them to programme their mini-robots.

But (and there is usually a but when you jump right into something new!) I wasn't as happy as I thought I would be. After thinking about the experience with the students I realised that it was just too prescriptive and I questioned how much the students had actually learned. They followed directions really well and built some very interesting machines, but there was nothing creative about the process. There were no challenges to solve (except perhaps for a few of the programming aspects) and I honestly do not think it deepened their understanding of how simple machines worked or why we might use them.

This year I vowed to do things differently. While I love using Lego and I knew the potential was there for some highly engaging learning experiences, I had to reconsider what I was doing in my limited time as a technology teacher with the students. I went back to my roots and approached the unit on simple machines as I would if it were my own class, embracing inquiry and project-based learning.

With their homeroom teachers, my Year 3 (Grade 2) students explore the central idea: Humans use their understanding of simple machines to serve a variety of purposes, learning  about simple machines, how they work and what they might be used for in our daily lives. After some initial research[1], I created a project that I hoped would extend and deepen this understanding through our once a week technology lessons using WeDo Lego and Scratch: We would build an amusement park for Mini-Lego people!

I had been using the Engineering Design Process with older students and thought that this might be a good invitation to the project. After an initial discussion about what an engineer does, we decided it was important to learn about the materials they would be using as engineers in the project and so, the first step was some free exploration time. Our first lesson was devoted to playing with the Lego pieces, experimenting, asking questions about what they might do, trying to make things fit and work. Many of the students quickly made connections to the simple machines they had explored in their classrooms and some of the students with previous Lego and Scratch experience recognised the motors and sensors. I was already happier than the previous year's experience with the level of discussion and the willingness of the students to take risks and help each other.

During out next meeting students formed engineering teams to test the effect of gears on a wheel and axel. Using this presentation, we had a guided exploration of some of the key pieces they would need for the eventual project task. I owe a debt of gratitude to Tim Ewers, whose lesson on WeDo Robotics in the Classroom formed the basis of our tests. Students built a simple propeller, programmed it to run using Scratch, and then observed and recorded the effects of changing motor speed and adding different gears. At the end of the lesson we shared our findings and discussed how this information might be useful to us as engineers when designing and building something.

Our next meeting built on the ideas from the previous lesson, now with a focus on pulleys and belts. I decided that it would be helpful to build one of the Lego Education projects to give students some experience in following directions and seeing how the WeDo pieces can fit together. The Dancing Birds project was a great fit as it introduced not only the pulley and belt, but also the crown gear to the students, while reinforcing the use of axles and gears. Again, students worked in their teams to collect data about the effects of using different types of belts and pulleys and at the end of the lesson we shared our findings and continued the conversation about what we had learned as engineers.

It was now time to introduce the project, time to become Amusement Park engineers! We shared what we already knew about amusement parks, why people might go there and what a good ride might look like. Using this presentation, I shared the task with the students:
You are an amusement park engineer. You have been asked to work in a team to design and build a new ride for the Lego Mini Amusement Park. 
Then, the students and I developed the following success criteria that we added to the slide:

Your ride must:

  • Be built using Lego
  • Fit at least one Lego mini figure
  • Move
  • Be programmed in Scratch to move automatically
  • Include at least one simple machine

We discussed some possible rides for our amusement park and then students formed new teams based on their initial ideas of what they may want to design. The groups looked at books and pictures of amusement parks and then sketched their ideas for their own rides. After sketching, students were asked to think about how they might build these ideas using Lego and this often led to a redesign, especially for some of the more elaborate ideas.

Once a team's design was agreed upon by the group, the building, testing and tinkering phase began. Without a doubt, this was my favourite part of the entire project. The students began building and immediately started testing their ideas. They were trying things and when it didn't work, they would try something else - showing great determination as well as flexibility their thinking. Students listened to each other, learned from each other and helped other teams when they discovered how to make something work. My role during this phase was really one as a co-learner, working along side the students. I am not a Lego expert and for many of their problems, I did not know the answer and so we learned together. It was an amazing experience!

The building, testing, tinkering lessons carried on for a few weeks and the level of student engagement never waned. In fact, every week I was insisting that students stop working and go for their lunch break - I'm sure they would have stayed in working on their rides all afternoon. Before we put all of the rides together into our Mini Amusement Park, students had an opportunity to share their rides with their classmates in a brief presentation. They explained what they had built, the challenges they had faced and what they did to overcome them. If a team was still having problems, their classmates had an opportunity to share possible solutions. At the end of their presentation, students also shared what they would like to do if they had more time or if they were to approach this project again. Afterwards, students had the remainder of the class to refine their rides before placing them into the amusement park. I was very pleased to see that many of the students took the ideas and suggestions from their classmates to fix or improve upon their creations.

Upon reflection I would have to say that this unit was certainly one of the highlights of my school year, if not my entire time as a technology coordinator. While still a guided inquiry, there was a freedom to the project that allowed different students to approach the task in different ways. The expectations were high, but every student was able to participate and experience success. It was a time of authentic and meaningful collaboration, and I know without a doubt that learning took place. But I think what impressed me the most about this project was the students' sense of accomplishment at working through the design process and creating something on their own - it was an empowering experience. The look of pride on their faces when teachers, parents and secondary school students were drawn into the room to see their amusement park was priceless. I think my students summed it up the best when I asked them what was the hardest thing about this project they answered, 'Building our rides using Lego.' and when I asked them what was the best thing about it was, they answered, 'Building our rides using Lego!'

Our Finished Amusement Park


[1] The idea of an amusement park project was sparked by reading, The Playground: First and Second Grade Curriculum Unit on Programming and Robotics by Amanda Sullivan, in The DevTech Research Group of Tufts University. Some of the key ideas from their paper resonated with me and what I was trying to achieve with my own students, especially the use of the Engineering Design Process and inviting students to think like engineers.

* This quote is a summary of Dewey's views and according to Quote Investigator cannot be traced to any one work.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Planning for Effective Technology Integration in the PYP

"Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success." Pablo Picasso
I've always loved exploring the ways in which we can use emerging technologies to support and enhance student learning and as a PYP teacher I was given considerable freedom to develop units in which to embed these technologies. Through reflection, with the students and with our teaching team, we were able to assess which digital tools had the greatest impact on learning and how we might apply them to other areas of the curriculum. The conversations were always about learning - not the technology - and this shared understanding enabled us to transform our classrooms.

So the question now becomes, how do we plan for this type of transformation across our school? We have developed a technology skills continuum using the ideas from ISTE and the IB. We discuss opportunities for authentic technology integration at our collaborative planning meetings. We are well resourced, with students in Years 5 and 6 having 1:1 Chromebooks, in addition to iPads, mobile Chromebook carts and a technology room with laptops and desktop computers. We have robots and Lego, LittleBits and Makey Makeys. And yet, the actual student experience in many classrooms has not changed - I'm afraid we may have fallen into a trap of what Alan November referred to as 'Spray and Pray': "Spray" on the technology and then "Pray" there is better learning.

So, now what?

It was time for a reality check and to look honestly at where we were with technology integration. I know there are fabulous things happening in many classrooms, and while some of them were being reflected in our curriculum maps, there was no way to tell which strategies and practices were having a positive impact on learning. Last year our professional learning focus was about 'stretching' students, thinking about how differentiation can facilitate the development of higher order thinking for all students. What if we could apply some of these strategies to technology integration? That's when I remembered the SAMR model. Dr. Ruben Puentedura developed this model to help educators effectively integrate technology into their teaching and learning. Kathy Schrock's Guide to Everything has many useful links to explore the model further, but this video by Common Sense Media is one of my favourite introductions.

We decided to develop a reflection tool using the SAMR model to help us better understand how technology was currently being used by teachers in all aspects of their practice. We then want to look at how we might be able to make changes to move up the ladder, from enhancement learning experiences to more transformative ones. In this way we can allow for individual teachers to move at a rate that is accessible for them: From Substitution (or no use) to Augmentation, or Augmentation to Modification. By providing a ladder of development, all of our teachers will be able to reflect on their practice and gain from the framework.

My hope is that this will spark some focused conversations during our collaborative planning that go beyond decisions about what apps or devices might be good to use in a certain unit. I'm hoping we dig deeper and look at our pedagogical practice and ask ourselves how are we transforming teaching and learning experience in our technologically rich environment. And more importantly, how can we plan for this to happen in a sustained and reflective practice across our school?

I would love to know how schools are dealing with this issue. Do you use the SAMR model to help? Another framework? Any suggestions would be most appreciated.

Post Script: I found this amazing post by Krista Moroder after I finished writing this...back to the drawing board?

Readings that informed & inspired this post:
Why Schools Must Move Beyond One-to-One Computing, Alan November
Instructional Coaching: Driving Meaningful Tech Integration, Allison Park on Edutopia

Image Credit: Away-Junction-Direction by Peggy_Marco on Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Magical Minecraft

"If we all could see the world through the eyes of a child, we would see the magic in everything." ~ Chee Vai Tang
It was my daughter who first introduced me to Minecraft. I could hear funny crunching sounds and the occasional tinkling of glass coming from her computer and when I looked over to see what she was doing I was struck by her focus and obvious excitement as she worked. I asked her what she was up to and after waiting for her to 'finish just one more thing' she very happily launched into an explanation of Minecraft and a tour of her creation. While I admit I felt a little queasy after the roller coaster ride through her village, I was intrigued by the virtual space and hugely impressed with what she was doing in it. She invited me into her world and we've been playing Minecraft together ever since.

That was four years ago and at the time I was teaching a Grade 4 class in Hong Kong. When I asked my students how many of them knew about Minecraft, the majority of my students chuckled as they informed me that they played 'all the time.' It didn't take long for me to realise that this type of immersive game would be a wonderful learning platform. Our school already had a Minecraft club for older students and so I was most fortunate to have some knowledgeable colleagues to talk to about the possibility of using Minecraft with my students. We created an initial project aligned to a math investigation, which was a great success and this led to further explorations and an action research project about gaming and student engagement for my SUNY Certificate of Educational Technologies course.

I was a total convert. I would have loved to set up a Minecraft world for my class to use throughout the year - a virtual sandbox to explore ideas, collaborate, play, build, solve problems and compliment the work we undertook in our physical classroom. But, instead, I moved (new country, new role - been there, blogged that) and Minecraft took a back seat while I adjusted to my new context.

Then last year I was chatting with one of our new students in Year 3 and quickly learned of his passion for all things Minecraft. He loved that I knew what Minecraft was and it wasn't long before we were sharing stories about our favourite projects. While on playground duty I learned about his experiments with redstone and when he joined our computer club I learned about his server and his current challenges. When I told him about how my class used Minecraft when I was a class teacher he asked why weren't using Minecraft at our school. Hmm...why not indeed!

With the support of our school administrators we were given the green light to introduce MinecraftEdu as a learning tool in our Primary school. The server was installed in December and we had time to introduce it to the teachers before launching it with the students in January of this year. Being an advocate of Minecraft I was a little nervous as I wanted my colleagues to love it as much as I did. Our initial session was a bit flat, and in fact, one of the teachers felt quick ill from the jerky movements on the screen. There did not seem to be much enthusiasm for the project and I'll admit I felt a stab of panic. Then, a few days after the lackluster session with the teachers, one of them agreed to bring her class in to test it out - just to make sure the server was working when we had everyone online at the same time. That was the golden moment - the "Oh - now I get why teachers like Minecraft!"

There was a range of Minecraft expertise in the class, from students who had used it regularly for a couple of years to others who had never played before. We paired the experts with the novices and in a matter of minutes not only were all of the students in the tutorial world, they were using the chat function to ask questions and teach others how to do things in the space. They were collaborating to solve the challenges, laughing and learning - it was fabulous!

We are now well into our unit using Minecraft as an integral part of the learning and all of the participating teachers are keen to see how we can continue to use it. We are just scratching the surface, but I know this is a pebble that has caused ripples. Teachers who have walked by while the Year 4s are working on Minecraft have stopped, just to watch. Some have come back to ask about using it with their students. We will be introducing a Minecraft club soon and our coding club is planning to experiment with programmable turtles.

I'm so glad to have Minecraft as a part of my teaching and learning world again. There are so many new facets to explore - from ComputerCraft and engineering with redstone to survival mode tactics and crafting. I'm looking forward to learning right along with my students and marvel at the magic of Minecraft.

ps - I'll be sharing our Year 4 projects in a future post.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Learning is in the Journey

"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." ~ Jack London
On Friday I had an interesting conversation with a group of Year 4 students about New Year's resolutions and they had some relevant statistics to share. They informed me that around 25% of people break their resolutions in the first week. I felt the need to confess that I fell into that category as I had not been able to keep my resolution to write a blog post every day. I had made this promise to myself to get back into the habit of reflecting on my own practice as a teacher. Composing a blog post helps me to sort out my thinking and it's an important part of my learning process. I had hoped that the blogging challenge would help me form the habit of writing on a regular basis - not just when struck with a sense of inspiration. So why did I let it drop after only six days?

When trying to explain why I had not kept my resolution, I realised that the blogging challenge resolution wasn't really meaningful to me. The reason I write is to reflect - I need to have a reason to compose a post. While the prompts were interesting, I was more focused on what was happening at school, such as the Year 4 unit of inquiry that will integrate Minecraft as a virtual learning space. The students helped me to see that I needed to revamp my resolution - it had to have a purpose. If I am writing to reflect, then that is what I should do. I should stop worrying about writing daily superficial posts, and focus on reflecting on what we are trying to accomplish at school.

I am grateful to the folks at TeachThought who created the Reflective Blogging Challenge. It did help me kickstart my stalled blog. And I vow that should I ever find myself in a state of writer's block I will go back to their prompts and pick one - I will not wait for elusive inspiration.

Thank you 4b - next post...Minecraft related!

Image Credit: Writer's Block by Sharon Drummond on Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Monday, January 11, 2016


"In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care." ~ Maya Angelou in this PSA

Day six of the Reflective Blogging Challenge asks us to consider, "What does a good mentor do?" When I think back over my career I realise how fortunate I have been to have so many good mentors to guide me. Back then, I probably wouldn't have used the term mentor, but rather these people were trusted colleagues and many became friends. I think Maya Angelou's quote sums up why they were effective mentors - they cared. 

Teaching is a challenging profession - it is not the type of job you can go to school to 'learn' and then, voila, you are an amazing teacher. Educational theory and understanding how children learn is important, certainly, but the art of teaching is a craft honed over time. I believe that is why the role of a mentor is so important, though what a good mentor might do would probably look different for different people at different points in their career. 

At times a mentor can be that quiet voice of confidence to let you know that you can do it. A person you can trust and turn to when things don't work out as planned. As a teacher's confidence grows a good mentor might be someone to learn with, to encourage us to try different strategies, to take risks. It might be a colleague who shares their practice with you or plans lessons with you, pushing you just a little farther in your thinking. 

I'm sure I could research and discover the qualities of good mentors and develop an argument about why mentorship needs to be an integral part of teacher induction. However, it is day 6 of the challenge, I've just finished my first day back after the break and I am tired! Before calling it a night however I just want to say thank you - to all of my many mentors... you cared.

Learning Spaces

Day 5: Post a picture of your classroom, and describe what you see–and what you don’t see that you’d like to.
Well it's day five of my blogging challenge and I'm about to cheat a little bit. School starts tomorrow and I have a lot to do after a few weeks off, but you don't want my excuses! This prompt is about a topic close to my heart and I've been doing a lot of reflecting about effective learning spaces over the last year. Instead of rushing through a newly written post, I thought I would 'remix' some of my previous thinking about my journey to explore the learning space I share with my students.

A few years ago I was most fortunate to be able to test out some new furniture in my fourth grade classroom. My students and I had spent a good part of the beginning of the year talking about what an ideal classroom might look like and we used this feedback while putting together the order. The most important thing to them was choice - they did not want to have to work in the same place every day and sometimes they wanted to sit at a desk and at other times they did not. Another key piece of advice was to make it easy to change the room around to suit whatever we were doing - sometimes working in groups, sometimes having individual space and at times, performing and presenting. It was a great success - empowering for the students and quite liberating for me as a teacher. Gone were the days of stressing about how 'I' would set up the room. It became a true collaborative endeavour.

Then I moved to a new school, new country and new role. As a technology integrationist, I found I had inherited a somewhat traditional learning space. A computer lab with desks in a U-shape and a Smart board up at the front. As I got to know the space (and the students and teachers) I found it increasingly difficult to work in this environment. Inspired by the Third Teacher and learning more about the Maker Movement I knew something had to change. I was inspired to write this post in March 2015 and create this presentation to share with our organisation's ICT Think Tank.

With a supportive administration and some open-minded colleagues I have been able to make some significant changes to our learning space. Gone is the old u-shape computer lab - in fact, half of the desktops have been removed to allow for more open, flexible use of space. We supplement with Chromebooks, laptops and iPads. We have introduced Family Fridays where students can come and explore the materials and resources we have invested in with their families. Teachers are now beginning to see the space in a new way - no longer a computer room, but a 'creation station' (we're still testing possible names!). We have groups using Makey-Makeys to explore circuits, students programming with Scratch and WeDo Lego and others testing out possibilities with Thymio robots. We are about to embark on a unit of inquiry using Minecraft as a learning space and will be using the more open space to build physical structures. We've made great progress.

I realise though as I write this that I have not done a very good job in taking pictures to document the transition. A new promise to myself. Oh - the original prompt asked for a photo of our classroom - there is one of the old computer lab in the presentation that was shared. I plan to take a new one tomorrow when I get to school and update this post (I'll do a bit of a 'side-by-side' comparison).

As promised...

Saturday, January 09, 2016

The do-over

Day 4: What do you love most about teaching?

There are so many things I love about teaching it's hard to settle on just one aspect. Most certainly a big part of why I love being a teacher lies with the students. It is a privilege to be part of great 'ah-ha' moments in children's lives. How many other jobs afford people the time to look at the world through the eyes of young people who are trying to figure things out and are happy to wonder and delight in experiences that for most adults have become 'meh - been there done that' moments.

I also love the opportunity to work with like-minded people (and okay - perhaps a few not so like minded people) to discuss our practice and explore ways of doing things better - for students and for ourselves. An opportunity to think deeply about how our education system works and why it is the way it is. Question it and explore ways to make it more relevant and appropriate for our students.

But I think the most honest response to why I love teaching is because it is a profession that provides 'do-overs' on a regular basis. There's the obviously new school year every September, but there are also new terms, new units, new months, new weeks. Each and every one asking, just begging you to reflect on what worked, what didn't and what would you like to try again? Do differently? I love that I am always learning and that I'm never certain what a day will hold. And if what I had planned didn't work - that's okay, tomorrow is a new day.