Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Critical Role of Play in Learning

The single worst thing we ever did in education is remove the element of play.

Maybe in the 19th century, education without play was effective. Maybe. But keep in mind, that was a time where...

-children were essentially being prepped to work in factories. And by children, I mean boys. Girls were obviously going to be housewives and mothers, so if they didn't learn it wasn't such a big deal

-school wasn't mandatory. If you felt your kids would be better served by staying home and working the farm, more power to you. 

-the stakes were lower. You didn't have to choose a career as your focus with the knowledge that if you changed your mind, you were in for about six more years of expensive training. But in the end, your occupational choices were fairly limited, anyway. Many jobs were hereditary. Many people didn't work at all. Families and groups were small and contained, with little need for collaboration or creativity as people adhered to traditions. 

So much has changed that it's impossible for us to keep going back to a factory model of education, saying "this worked for my grandparents, and it WILL work for you!"

So where does play come in?

When we look at how education has changed, there are so many demands not just on kids, but on adults. We're expected to have more wide spread knowledge of intricate concepts. Remember, not that long ago, you only knew how to drive if you were a member of a very specific group (chauffeurs, farmers, or the very rich and bored). And if you DID drive, you knew everything there was to know about cars, because you had to. How many of us can say that now? Or have the first idea how the technology we use every day functions?

My point is, there's a lot to know. And while the basics still matter, we're no longer just imparting knowledge -- if we ever were. We're teaching students with full awareness that many of the things they're learning will be rendered obsolete by the time they graduate. So why still do it? Because the focus has shifted from learning facts to learning how to think. A well educated student will be able to adjust to new ideas, concepts, and technology by using the skills they've learned in other situations. 

All of which brings me back to play. 

How do kids learn? By exploring. By doing. In other words, by playing. If we encourage kids to view learning as fun, by making play an integral part of the educational experience, we create adults who embrace challenges, who will not be afraid of new problems, technology, and ideas. 

So next time you see your kid playing a video game, or your students come in talking about Call of Duty, take a deep breath before you panic, and try looking at it from a different angle. What are they learning? What is their play teaching them? And -- as a sneaky teacher -- how can you capitalize on those concepts?

Question of the Day:
What's a time you've learned through play?
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It's an old example, but I always think of trying fights in video games over and over. I try something and I die. I consider what happened, I choose a new strategy, and I adapt. Depending on the game, I may eventually realize that I'm playing at too high a level, and make the decision to go and level up -- to learn and grow more -- before I take on this challenge again. To me, this is the high level learning and decision making we want our students to show!

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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

3 Common Misconceptions about Education

Teaching is one of those funny professions that involves encountering a lot of misconceptions about education. Sometimes they come from the public -- parents, politicians, and even students. And sometimes, they come from teachers and other educational professionals. Either way, there are a lot of ideas about education that are both pervasive and unhelpful, so here are three that I think should be cleared up.

1. School is about preparing students for "the real world:" college and careers.

This is part of what school does, certainly, but it isn't -- and should not be -- the main focus of education. This is something I hear a lot: how will this prepare your students for the "real world?" In the "real world," they won't be able to redo assignments that they missed. They won't get extensions when they're sick.

But here's the thing: in the "real world," people often are accommodating of us when we make mistakes, or we're sick, or we have a tragedy in our families. My coworkers and employers have never been anything but understanding when I've been ill, or a pet has died, or anything of the sort. The least we can do is extend that same understanding to our students -- who, after all, are still children, and are just practicing for the so-called "real world." No, we don't do them favors by coddling them to the point where they expect the world to bend over backwards to accommodate them, but there's no need to treat them with a lack of understanding and compassion just to prepare them for some sort of imaginary future.

2. We need to return to the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic (or basic math skills -- whatever you want to call it).

Unfortunately, this attitude has become so pervasive that even educational professionals are starting to fall for it. It's a matter of causation and correlation. Yes, it's true that many students seem to have more trouble now with basic math facts than they did twenty years ago. It's completely natural to assume that this means "new math" curriculums are to blame, but the simple fact is -- and I can say this from experience -- teachers are still instructing students in basic facts and encouraging memorization. It's just not happening.

I'm not enough of an expert to tell you why this is -- whether it's because students' brains work differently now, or that they're more reliant on calculators, or they don't see the importance of memorizing facts. What I can tell you, however, is that basic facts have NEVER been the end goal of math. Memorizing facts is a means to an end: a way for students to make more complex mathematical processes easier in the future. Basics like reading, writing, and math facts ARE important, but only as building blocks, stepping stones to creative and critical thinking that allows students to solve problems and look at the big picture in a thoughtful way.

Do spelling, basic facts, and grammar matter? Yes. But in the end, if I had to choose between a student who had all their basic facts memorized and perfect spelling, but couldn't solve problems or write critically, and the other way around, well... it's not a hard choice to make.

3. Teachers are paid to teach, and education should happen at school -- period.

This myth relies on the idea that education only happens when a child is seated at a desk and doing work. In reality, though, education is a much broader concept. A child on vacation with his family is learning about cooperation, about other cultures (even if it's just the culture of another town or city), about how money and time work. A child at the hockey rink is learning about teamwork, problem solving, and quick thinking. A child playing her violin is learning about math, creativity, artistry, and balance.

Education is not something that happens "at school." Everything that happens to a child is education. They are always learning, always thinking, always wondering. School should contribute to that education in a substantial way -- hopefully more than just covering the aforementioned "basics," although that's certainly a part of it. But when we say that it's a teacher's job to teach and dismiss all the education that happens outside of 8:30 in the morning and 3:30 in the afternoon, we miss a critical part of educating our children.

Question of the Day:
What education myth do you think needs to be cleared up?

My three are above (although if I'm honest, I'd sure like to see the myth of the "six hour work day with three months of vacation for teachers" go out the window too!).

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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Why Teaching Kids to Cook Might be the Most Important Thing Schools Do

Once again, last week my students attended We Day Alberta. It was our third trip to this incredible event. And once again, it was an amazing and enlightening experience full of a truly insane number of young people dedicated to changing the world. If you haven't checked out the Me to We movement, I urge you to do it.

This year, one of the projects Me to We is spearheading involves a partnership with Jamie Oliver, whose show Food Revolution is something I often use with my students in discussing health and nutrition. Something Jamie Oliver has said for years is that it's essential that our students learn how to cook. This year, Me to We is working with him to create Home Cooked Heroes, a program that not only aims to teach kids how to cook but which provides tons of free resources for doing exactly that.

Let's be honest: I teach elementary school, and I have a pile of food allergies in my room. I won't be teaching a lot of actual cooking classes, but I can still start laying the foundations of teaching nutrition, teaching basic food assembly, encouraging kids to make their own lunches. I was a Girl Guide leader for many years, and it was always shocking to me how many ten year old kids would come to camp and have never washed a dish, swept a floor, or assembled a sandwich.

Teaching kids to cook may well be the most important thing we can do at the high school level, and I firmly believe it needs to stop being an optional class. A friend of mine teaches cooking in a more impoverished area, and her high school class consists of mainly male students -- most of whom aren't getting anything cooked for them at home. Many of these kids survive off fast food and convenience stores. The idea of cooking something is a revelation for them.

That's a pretty awful thing to consider. If these kids don't learn to cook somewhere, if they don't understand proper nutrition, what are they going to feed their own children in not so many years? And how will those kids learn to cook, learn to eat in a way that will keep them healthy and give them the nutrition they need?

This is a bit of a digression from my normal type of post, but I truly believe it matters. Teaching food education needs to become a priority for our kids in North America. Check out Home Cooked Heroes, and find ways to integrate food nutrition into your classroom!

Question of the day:
Where did you learn to cook?

My mom taught me to cook, but I also took home economics in grades seven and nine. When I decided to stop eating meat at the age of 14, I had to learn to cook -- it was that, eat meat, or starve! 

And if you're looking for something more along the lines of my usual posts, why not check out the interview I did over at Mind Shift?

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Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Why Short Lessons Work

One of the reasons I wasn't a huge fan of Dave Burgess' Teach Like A Pirate is because it advocates a really teacher-centric form of education. Now, don't get me wrong -- Burgess' method of teaching sounds very entertaining, and I'm sure his students are consistently engaged. But for myself, and many teachers, the push in 21st century education is a move away from a lecture based, teacher dominated format.

Sometimes this is unavoidable, of course: the simple fact is that students do need to get the information, and sometimes that needs to be done in a way that either isn't hugely entertaining or that simple involves a lot of sitting. Some of these methods might include lectures, reading informational texts, or answering questions -- none of which are designed to be particularly fascinating.

With that in mind, I think the best thing we as teachers can do is shorten the lecture parts of our lessons. I try to distill my lessons down to the bare bones. What I've found is that when I lecture, almost half my time is spent answering questions -- not in class discussion, which is more active and involves more students, but in responding to the four or five kids who aren't understanding. I think it's a much more efficient use of time to get through the lecture, then pull those four or five aside and work with them as a small group. You can target them more effectively, and everyone else can move onto something else instead of slowly slipping into a comatose state.

That said, I think there are a lot of great tools that will help you minimize your lecture/lesson time. Here are a few:

1. Flipping Your Class

Flipped classrooms create short videos students can watch at home at their own pace, then focus on activities and work in the classroom. Experts recommend that flipped lesson videos be no longer than 90 seconds X the grade level of students, so for my class I try to limit my videos to 9 minutes or less. This lets each student proceed at his or her own pace during the lesson and makes class time more active.

2. 3D Game Lab

3D Game Lab allows students to progress at their own pace through lessons embedded in the program. Students don't have due dates: they move through the programs as they see fit. You're never pressured to move someone along because they're too far behind. It's pretty awesome.

3. Project Based Learning

Project based learning, by its very nature, limits lecture time. You still have room to impart information, but the vast majority of students' time is spent looking for their own answers, instead of absorbing yours.

These are three of the best ways I've found to keep lessons short and shift the focus from teacher to student, from memorization to learning, from answering to asking.

Question of the Day:
How much of your class time is spent lecturing?

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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Ways Your Mother Lied to You About Video Games

When I was young, I just assumed everyone older than me hated video games with a passion. I'm not sure how I arrived at this conclusion, since my mother had a low level Tetris addiction and briefly became addicted to Super Mario Bros, but I distinctly recall demanding of my third grade teacher: "Why do you hate video games?"

"I don't," she replied, to my everlasting shock.

But in spite of my twisted perceptions, as video games advanced and grew, there did seem to be a widening gap -- not based on age, but authority. As a twenty year old university student, I remember my mom having a near heart attack when she glanced over my shoulder and realized I'd logged over seventy hours on Final Fantasy Seven. From her perspective, this was scary territory: how could I spend so much time in a fantasy world when I had a job (which I was always on time for) and was a full time student (making honor roll and maintaining my scholarship).

Which brings me to the first lie your momma might've told you...

1. Video games make you irresponsible.

It's a cultural stereotype: the video game addict so obsessed with gaming that their personal lives fall apart. The Guild spoofed this really well with Clara, the character who left her kids in a department store with a baby monitor while she met with her guild. But for every Clara -- and they do exist -- there are ten people next door being responsible parents, volunteers, even teachers -- all of whom go home and log in, or turn on, as a hobby.

The truth: gaming is a hobby. People who obsess will obsess over them as they would anything else, but most people don't find video games brainwash them.

2. Video games make you fat.

Video games make you fat in the same way that reading makes you fat. They're both inactive ways of spending your time that are entirely cerebral. If anything, video games have more movement involved than reading. So yes, doing any activity that doesn't involve physical activity twelve hours a day will probably result in weight gain and a slew of health problems. But let's not blame it on video games.

The truth: balance is key in  anything and everything we do. Video games are no exception.

3. Video games make you stupid.

It's ironic to me to look back on the history of the novel. In the 19th century, novels were considered trash -- especially certain genres of novels. If your parents caught you reading them (especially if you were a respectable young woman), they would be horrified and certain that you were on your way to a horrible future. Fast forward a hundred years, and we've replaced novels with video games, where most parents would be thrilled to see their kids reading just about anything and despair of them playing games. Fast forward another hundred and, well, who knows?

The thing is, the research flies in the face of this lie. Video games sharpen mental reflexes. They make you think fast, approach problems creatively, and develop a spirit of perseverance. Video games are intellect trainers, which is why so many teachers use them in their classrooms.

The truth: Video games train your brain.

There are so many myths about video games that should be dispelled, and these are the top three. A lot of intelligent, loving mothers unintentionally lied to their kids about these things. Let's not keep the myths going!

Question of the Day:
What are some myths about video games you wish you could clear up?

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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Is Project Based Learning All It's Cracked Up To Be?

This cat is finished... and so am I!
A short time ago, I blogged about a project based learning unit I created for social studies. This was one of my first efforts at creating a conscious project based learning experience -- I think my layered curriculums are close, but this was something different. So I wasn't sure how it would go, or if it was really all it was cracked up to be.

The unit wrapped up recently (we lost some lessons due to various other activities, so it took a bit longer than anticipated). I was wondering if project based learning would live up to the hype, and I sat down to do a bit of a debrief. Here's what I found!

1. Were the students more engaged?

In a word -- yes. I was incredibly impressed with how the project sucked students in and captured their interest. It was a pretty awesome feeling to see a normally quiet, mild-mannered student slam her fist onto the desk in frustration when the bell rang because she hadn't been able to complete a debate, and I overheard frequent conversations between kids in the hallway all about government and politics -- a definite first!

2. Did they learn the same amount as they would have in a traditional unit?

I would say yes, if not more. The students were fascinated by concepts of government, and really delved into exploring them.

3. Was group work difficult/successful?

Obviously, some students contributed more to their groups than others. That's to be expected. However, I had them do evaluations on one another, which helped to keep them accountable. It also helped that they were so engaged, because it kept even the trickier students on task.

4. Was it difficult to assess?

This -- yes. Much more difficult than a traditional assignment. I did give them rubrics, but in the end I allowed them to assign their own marks as long as they weren't absurd (if a student deserved a 1 and give themselves a 4, I had a conversation with them. With 50 students, this happened exactly five times, and on two occasions it was because the student had marked themself lower than I thought they deserved).

5. What would you change next time?

Oh, so much. That's always how it goes though. I would do the assignments in a different order, and scrap the textbook assignment entirely -- I thought it would be necessary, but it really wasn't. I would give them more time to research and put a little less time into lecturing. And I would emphasize self assessment from the get go, and maybe give them more opportunities to revise before doing the final evaluation.

Overall... I would say this was very much worth the effort (and it did take effort). I won't be converting every unit into a project based experience, but I will definitely continue exploring this in the future.

Question of the Day:
What's working for you in your classroom this year?

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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Five Tools Every Teacher Should be Aware Of

Teaching in the internet age can be stressful, but it can also be a lot of fun. Sure, we have an ever changing technological and psychological landscape to keep up with -- but that means that we also get to explore an ever shifting array of tools and resources. It can be overwhelming, but there's always something new to explore and discover.

With that in mind, here are five awesome resources I've recently discovered and wanted to share!

1. Pixaby 

Pixaby is an amazing repository of public domain images. It's fantastic for teachers looking for royalty-free images to use in classrooms, but also as a tool to teach younger students about copyright law. If your kids are too young to understand how to do an advanced search for creative commons images, or how to cite resources properly, you can still talk to them about not taking other people's work, then direct them to Pixaby for some fantastic free images.

2. Classcraft

I've actually looked at Classcraft before, but recently I wrote a review on the new and improved system for Graphite, and I was quite impressed with the slickness. Although Classcraft is designed to monitor student behavior like an older version of Class Dojo, but for those of us who have gamified our entire classrooms and spend hours each week tracking points and the like, the system is a brilliantly simple way to keep track.

3. Volume Monitors

I didn't link to any because each teacher will have their personal preference. But if you have even one iPad in the classroom, you can set up a noise monitor (anyone remember paying upwards of $100 for a "yakker tracker" less than ten years ago??). Noise monitors are a great way to get students to self-monitor their volume. Yes, you'll have to put up with the "class clown" deliberately triggering the "too loud" setting, but if you give them a few minutes to get that out of their system, it works surprisingly well.

4. Edmodo

I remain a big fan of Edmodo. It's an excellent way to keep kids informed and engaged. Many teachers also use Schoology, and I've seen many who prefer it. Myself, I signed up for Schoology, but I keep coming back to Edmodo. The only thing I don't love about it is that the Facebook style messaging makes it easy to lose important messages, but I find the kids are adept at dealing with that problem.

5. Remind

Remind allows teachers to easily and freely text updates to students and parents without giving out their personal phone number. Although this is a fantastic way of keeping in touch with parents and making sure they're updated on homework, school events, and the like, it's also a great system to remind older students of their obligations.

These are currently my top five go-to teacher tools!

Question of the Day:
What online teacher tool could you not live without?

It didn't make my list because it's not a recent discovery, but Twitter is my absolute favorite tool for teaching and sharing about learning. I know many people use Twitter for different purposes, but for me it's always been an amazing professional resource.

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Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Doing Video Games in Education the Right Way

Video games in education are a great way to capture student interest and attention, but only if used properly. Otherwise, they have a tendency to become a huge waste of everyone's time and not accomplish what you set out to do. Here are a few tips to help you use video games most effectively.

1. All games are not created equal 

Educational games often aren't games at all: more like interactive worksheets that "reward" players with a few seconds of an inane and dull game students would never choose to play on their own in between questions. Don't get sucked into this. Make sure that the games you play have actual educational content interspersed with learning and fun!

2. Don't be afraid to play part of a game

Some games, especially commercial games, are really long. The Professor Layton series, which I love to use in my classroom, can take upwards of fifty hours per game. If you look at it from this perspective, you'll never use a commercial game -- and I wouldn't blame you! But don't be afraid to play parts of a game and let students pursue the finale on their own time if they're interested. For example, if you're playing Professor Layton, you could make your games available for lending out to interested students.

3. Listen to your students

Students aren't shy about telling you whether a game is good. They are experienced gamers (even those who don't play games probably play some type of mobile game) and know whether a game is good or not. Ask them! Don't be afraid to say, "Hey, did you like this game? What would have improved it? Which of these did you like better, and why?"

4. Create extension activities

A game by itself can be a great learning activity. A game with "sponge" activities to help the information sink in much more deeply than simply saying, "Hey, here's a game -- go play it." The more activities you can center around a central theme -- whether that's the game, or the game is a supplemental activity -- the better.

5. Choose games that cover a wide variety of curricular outcomes

If you're playing a quick ten minute game, then it's no big deal if it only covers a select few focused outcomes. But if you're playing a long involved game, it had better hit a lot of objectives. Sticking with my Professor Layton example, one of the reasons I invest a lot of time in this game is because it covers so many objectives in language arts and math, two of my main areas of curricular concerns.

It's easy to get caught up in the hype of "educational games," but if we do them the right way, video games have a lot to offer education.

Question of the Day:
What are your favorite games to use in the classroom?

As mentioned, I'm a huge fan of Professor Layton. I also really like Prodigy. Ever since I started reviewing for Graphite, I've found them an excellent source of reliable information about games.

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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

How To Embed Partial YouTube videos

Have you ever wanted to embed part of a YouTube video in a blog, or a quest on 3D Game Lab, or a website, and not known how to do it? This is something that took me a while to figure out, and I thought others might benefit from some "how to" tips. There are tutorials online, but none I found that I was able to follow without a bit of experimentation. I wrote the steps out for myself, so if anyone else is having the same troubles, here's how to do it. You can make your YouTube video start part way through and end anytime before (and including) the usual end.

1. Go to YouTube and find the video you want.
2. Beneath the video, you'll find a button that says share. Click this, and an embed code will appear.
3. Copy your embed code

Next, turn your start and end time into seconds. You're then going to add the start and end time (in seconds, not minutes) to the embed code.

For example, here is the embed code for a video on Athenian democracy.

<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

I want to start this video at 1:17 and end at 5:17. So start by converting this to seconds:

Start: 1 X 60 = 60 + 17 = 77
End: 5 X 60 = 300 + 17 = 317

To insert this in the embed code, you want to find the url, which is this: How do I know? It's the website address, or url, that appears in the web browser when I navigate to that video.

So inside the embed code, find that url. Also note the characters after it: ?rel=0 before the quotation marks:

<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Now, I want to insert the start and end times. You're going to enter the following right after the rel=0:

&start=your start time&end=your end time

So in my case, I would enter:


Make sure that the quotation marks that were formerly after the 0 are now after the new information (in my case, 317). For comparison sake, here is the old embed code:

<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

And here is the new embed code with my additions highlighted:

<iframe width="640" height="360" src="//" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Now all I have to do is paste that embed code into the html section of my website, blog, or what have you. There's usually a place that allows you to do this: either a button with a video picture that will give you the option to embed, or a button that says html. You just click over and paste it in.

You're done!

Question of the Day:
What do you do when you don't know how to do something online?

Google is my best friend in those situations. It's amazing how many problems can be solved with a five second search!

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Monday, 22 September 2014

Capturing Students' Interest With Quest Based Learning

Lately I've been experimenting with 3D Game Lab. For those who aren't familiar, 3D Game Lab is a way of organizing your units into individual quests. The system is heavily gamified (students earn XP, level up, earn achievements and rewards, etc.). As we all know, that doesn't naturally lead to engagement or deep student learning, but it absolutely can. If a teacher just ports a bunch of worksheets into 3D Game Lab, they're unlikely to find it worth the money. If you take advantage of the features, though, there's a lot to explore and discover in 3D Game Lab.

One of the things I've been reading about in my own quests (3D Game Lab is into the learn by example method, and you learn to use the system through questing yourself, which is quite engaging) is about quest attractiveness. Although that probably sounds like it's referring to what the quest looks like, Chris Haskell actually defines quest attractiveness as "the characteristics that draw in, entice, cause fascination, or otherwise attract a player/learner to choose an activity based on a relative personal preference."

In other words, quest attractiveness is what makes a student think, "Hey, that quest sounds like fun. I'll do that."

To me, 3D Game Lab's quest based learning is very similar to the idea of layered curriculums. The idea is that what's interesting and exciting to one student may not be to another. Two students may know the material with equal ease, but if you make them both draw a poster, the student who likes art may get a great score while the student who would really rather just tell you the answers scores low. Layered curriculums, like quest based learning, are about giving students options in how they demonstrate their knowledge and present material.

With that in mind, quest attractiveness becomes about variety. The idea should be to present information in a variety of ways, so that all students can access it, then give them many different options to express their knowledge.

For now, I'm trying to provide three paths students can follow in learning social studies: Knight (learning with a focus on social justice and helping others), Artisan (learning with a focus on the arts: drama, visual arts, and music), and Scholar (learning in a more traditional sense, through essays and the like). I know these are far from exhaustive, but they do appeal to a wide variety of students, and give them an element of choice in how they learn.

I think choice is the key when it comes to quest attractiveness: the more options you can give your students, the more likely it is that something will jump out at them and draw them in. Other elements that I think are effective in creating effective quests include:

  • Clarity: it should be easy to figure out what to do to succeed at the quest
  • Brevity: less reading, and using active verbs and short sentences, helps kids to stay engaged
  • Hook: there should be something to catch their attention and draw them in
With choice as the primary umbrella, using these three elements helps us not only create effective quests, but effective lessons!

Question of the Day:
How do you let your students exercise choice in the classroom?

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