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Posts tagged ‘learning’


What Do We Mean By Learning Anyway?

A Connected Educator Month 2015 Event starting on October 1st!

Join Brenda Sherry and me in a collective, month long, discussion to:Cloud Computing Small text

  • extend and deepen our understanding of the term learning
  • participate in a knowledge building approach to collaboration
  • model deep practices for our professional learning environments (colleagues and/or classrooms)

Brief Description (see full site for details)

We will spend the month exploring, unpacking, and discussing what we mean by the term learning. This will include:

  • building background knowledge through sharing and reading resources related to the topic
  • introductory Twitter Chat
  • co-creation of a slidedeck of our ideas
  • reflective Twitter chat
  • contemplative rewriting of our slides
  • culminating creation of reflection statementsVector illustration of two communicating people

We will use a knowledge-building approach to this event.

“If Knowledge building had to be described in a single sentence, it would be: ‘giving students collective responsibility for idea improvement.  In Knowledge Building, students work together as a community to build and improve explanations of problems of understanding that arise from the group itself.” (We will be the students in this project!)

So please join us! Go to What Do We Mean By Learning Anyway? for all the details to get started!


Peter Skillen & Brenda Sherry with the support of OSSEMOOC


Learning Out Loud

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 8.28.52 AMAn e-Book from TeachOntario

This thoughtful e-book, Learning Out Loud, is a collection of thoughts written by Ontario teachers and produced by TVOntario.

Lest you think it is all text—it isn’t! In addition to links to many relevant blog posts, there are many video clips included—it is produced by TVO after all. 🙂

There are four chapters:

  1. Shifting from Teaching to Learning
  2. Who Owns Learning?
  3. What Conditions Support Learning?
  4. How Do We Share Learning with Others?

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 8.34.56 AMIt is not possible for me to even suggest selected snippets from this book because it would be unfair to highlight some people and not others.

You have to read it yourself!

I am proud to be an Ontario educator—and to have been part of this (r)evolution into digital age learning since the early 70s.

SEPT TeachOntario-e-Book


Belief Can Outrank Reality!

Watch on Vimeo for larger image and a greater impact – so to speak! 

“I’m an idiot!”

That was my thought about my crash landing shown in the video clip. I didn’t flare to slow down for the landing. Why not!?

I came to the most fascinating conclusion as I watched this video countless times on a large screen in an attempt to determine where it all went wrong,

My belief outranked reality.

My expectation outweighed all the other information that I was perceiving.

The Story

I was taking paragliding instruction. (Some people think this is why I was an idjit. LOL) I had completed ground school and some canopy handling on the ground. Now it was time for my first training flight.

You get attached to a tow rope connected to a winch placed some hundreds of metres away. This winch has a tension indicator on it so that the tow operator knows how much tension is on the rope. For the first flight, you get towed fairly strongly at first and fly several metres off the ground. At the right moment, the tow operator reduces the tension enough to stop the forward pull but still have the rope advancing ahead of the pilot so it doesn’t get in the way.

In the video, you will see that the take-off went quite well as I, at first, resisted the tension, as I was supposed to, and then took many small steps ‘til take off! Good one Peter! J

A couple of seconds later, the canopy started to turn, so I acted properly and pulled the correct line to straighten it out.

Then, I was expecting to continue my flight. I was moving forward still. I believed I was to continue flying. It was a strong belief. But, alas, it was the wrong belief! The operator had reduced the tension so I could land.

But I didn’t flare. I didn’t pull on the brakes.

My expectation–my belief–was more powerful than the ground approaching quickly!

Information that should have been extremely vivid and impactful eluded me.

The Lesson

How often, do we as educators, not see the obvious because our beliefs are so strongly interfering with reality?



The Butterfly Defect: Technology and the Wandering Mind

Dwight Sipler-Flickr

Dwight Sipler-Flickr

Gavriel Salomon wrote the following piece in 1998 – several years after the World Wide Web was launched but years before the recent distractibility of the Internet – with Twitter, Facebook, and many other social media attention-getters!

It is clear that technology shapes our behaviour in ways we may, or may not, understand. The Butterfly Defect is worth considering if you are responsible for students.

This is not just about attention issues but rather speaks about habits of mind.

These technologies, like other things in our environment, provide us with models with which to think – not always knowingly and not always beneficially.

This section is from an essay called “Novel Constructivist Learning Environments and Novel Technologies: Some Issues to Be Concerned With”.

“The Butterfly Defect

This raises yet other questions. Hypermedia programs of the kind widely touted and widely used in education are non-linear, perhaps the way cognitive webs of meaning are. However, the connections they display, and particularly the ones students build into them, are anything but logical. In fact, such programs are deliberately based on casual associations and on visual fascination, luring the user to wander from one item to another which happens to be associated with it. In fact, this is not just a private case of hypermedia and multimedia; it is the defining attribute of the hottest thing in town: The Internet.

There is nothing wrong with bouncing around, as hypermedia and the Internet invite one to do, except that this is typical of bottom-up, unguided exploratory behavior, as contrasted with the developmentally more advanced search behavior which is top-down, metacognitively guided and goal directed (Wright & Vliestra, 1975). Search, unlike exploration, is neither guided by the lure of shiny buttons, nor does the finding of simple associations satisfy it. If students can emulate the organization of information in hypermedia for the organization of knowledge in their minds, matching their maps of meaning to those they construct on the computer, would they not organize it in the same associationistic way hypermedia are organized?

The questions thus concern two interrelated developments. One development concerns the structure of students’ webs of meaning. Could students’ cognitive webs of meaning come to reflect hypermedia characteristics, consisting of flimsy associationistic connections? The second development concerns the mental activity associated with those webs: Would students come to acquire a tendency to mentally hop around their own cognitive webs in a hypermedia-like manner?

These possibilities can be called The Butterfly Defect: Coming to think or to prefer the style of thinking in a hypermedia mode—”touch, but don’t touch, and just move on to make something out of it”. A teacher recently interviewed by Oppenheimer for a biting article about educational computing in The Atlantic Monthly (1997), proudly announced that his students have come to think in a multimedia manner. If he is right, then the danger of a Butterfly Defect may be more imminent than we think.”


  • Are we doing our kids a disservice if we are not teaching them about the effects of technologies on how they are learning and, in fact, behaving?
  • Is the ‘butterfly defect’ yet another unanticipated effect of new technologies – a ‘second-order’ or drip effect’ as Salomon would say?
  • Is this dealt with significantly in the myriad ‘media literacy’ documents produced?

Gavriel, I miss you being part of this community. I miss your voice.

I encourage you to read the whole article: Novel Constructivist Learning Environments and Novel Technologies: Some Issues to Be Concerned With. It is available for purchase here.

Disclaimer: I really believe that butterflies are effective in their mission, otherwise they would not survive. 🙂 Such is the nature of metaphor!

(This paper is based on the author’s Keynote Address presented at the EARLI Meeting, Athens, August 1997)

Gavriel Salomon, Haifa University, Israel 1998


Project Based Learning: What if we didn’t start with a question?

Note: This post was originally called: Project Based Learning: Don’t Start with a Question. However, through an excellent discussion below with Drew Perkins, I have changed the title to: Project Based Learning: What if we didn’t start with a question? See the comments for the rationale.

 End with a Question through Tinkering-Based Learning

Do you have to start project-based learning (PBL) with a question?

(Oh, wait a second! Am I starting this post with a question?)

This is something many people ask. I understand why this is so. Often teachers who are learning about Project Based Learning are encouraged to help students to develop a ‘driving question’ to guide their project. The Buck Institute, for one, suggests that PBL ‘is organized around an open-ended Driving Question’.

Tinkering-Based Learning (TBL)


Awesome graphic: Page by Giulia Forsythe – @grantpotter Tinkering, Learning & The Adjacent Possible

I am going to suggest we consider an alternative I will call TBL – Tinkering-Based Learning!

‘PBL’ is a human-made construct

As I have said elsewhere, ‘PBL’ is a human-made construct. And, whoever defines it, does so with a bias—from a set of beliefs. Do you think, perhaps, that starting PBL with a question is derived from our deeply engrained western, scientific approach? Or perhaps if we consider PBL to be solely inquiry based, we might think that a question, or formulation of a problem, is most definitely the beginning step?

Don’t get me wrong! I love ‘questioning’. It is important that teachers learn how to question effectively—to ask ‘fat’ questions, to provide ‘wait time’, to ensure that everyone in the class has a chance to think deeply rather than selecting the student that has quickly raised her hand. It is equally important that students learn to generate ‘driving questions’ and not merely ask simple questions. They should be thinking ‘fat’ questions – not ‘skinny’ ones!

…students should learn to generate ‘driving questions…

Nor am I knocking the scientific method – I merely think that is one way of approaching learning and solving problems and becoming an educated person. It has a significant role in education.

However, I don’t think that generating a question is the only way to begin effective project-based learning. It likely depends on your purpose—on your learning goals for the students.

Is writing a poem a project? Is creating a song a project? What about creating a multimedia artifact? Painting a picture? Building a Lego car and making it run? Is building a computer program with Scratch a project? Constructing a paper maché volcano?

…let projects emerge out of play—out of tinkering.

Starting out PBL event in your classroom might begin with a passion, a curiosity, or maybe a wondering. Or maybe it’s just a result of tinkering. Perhaps, projects are sometimes play? Or perhaps projects emerge out of play—out of tinkering?

Flipping PBL

Okay here’s an idea. How about flipping PBL? Instead of starting with the question, why don’t we end with a question? Start with tinkering and encourage the emergence and evolution of fat questions related either to their processes of learning or to the content/subject matter at hand.

Let the goal of your project be to formulate questions.

After all, many say that ‘to question is the answer’. If so, then should kids not come out of excellent project based learning scenarios with great questions? Should the product not be a deep and driving question?

Perhaps these questions are focused on assisting them to develop their metacognitive abilities—to help them understand how they learn, how they approach tasks. Are they linear? Are they ‘multitasking’? Do they like ‘mucking around’? How do they deal with ambiguity? Do they like ‘hands on’ or ‘minds on’? How did that approach work for them? What would they do differently next time?

Perhaps the questions that emerge are related to the content or project artifact.

reflective thinking

Adaptation of the Rolfe Reflective Model:

Reflection is generally considered excellent educational practice and is often included in PBL. I have often used ‘reflection starters’ to assist students in thinking deeply about their learning. You could tailor those reflections to evoke questions.

  • Now I don’t understand…
  • Questions I now have are…
  • A confusion that has come up for me is…

Perhaps they could do a ‘wondering’ – individually or collectively – to reflect on their project.

“I wonder…how the potato production in Prince Edward Island is being impacted by global warming?”

Their responses could then be discussed and crafted into significant questions that may, or may not, be pursued.

Ok. So maybe you are saying to yourself, “I always have kids reflect at the end of a project.” That’s great! It is a significant step and can promote the consolidation of learning and perhaps also the transfer of learning to other domains or problems.

I think it is a superb way to end a project.

Don’t keep the lid on too tight!

I just don’t think you have to start a project with a driving question. Set up a context. Design an environment. Invite playfulness. Encourage tinkering. Nurture curiosity. Don’t keep the lid on too tight!

Tinkering Based Learning may lead to results you never could have predicted!


Share with us an occasion where this has happened in your teaching/learning.



Visible Thinking – A View from the Past :-)

Transfers on the Train of Thoughts

As colleague, Brenda Sherry, and I prepare for the OTF CONNECTS webinar session titled Making Student Thinking Visible: How Can Technology Help?, I came across this article from the distant past <g>.  We didn’t call it ‘visible thinking’ back then – we usually referred to it as ‘making your thinking explicit’.  But, as with many solid, worthwhile constructs, they are not readily adopted and so often reappear decades (or centuries!) later under a new name with new advocates and with a new dream that maybe this time things might stick and better the lives of students.

So it is with ‘visible thinking’.  Of course, there are LOTS of new ideas and strategies that Brenda and I are bringing to the presentation – based on Project Zero’s “Making Thinking Visible“!

I have replicated “Transfers on the Train of Thoughts” here as is — except I have parsed it and added a couple of titles for clarity. This was written for, and delivered at, a SIG-Logo conference called “Look to the Learner” that some of us ran for the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario (ECOO) in March, 1986.

Look to the Learner Poster SmallerTRANSFERS ON THE TRAIN OF THOUGHTS

©1986 Peter A. Skillen
Program Leader – Computing in Education Centre
North York Board of Education

People caught in unfamiliar contexts…are liable to be judged as stupid…”

For decades, if not centuries, a persistent problem for educators has been that of getting the student to apply knowledge learned in one domain to another distinctly different domain. It is not that the knowledge does not exist within the learner. It appears to be a problem of triggering the retrieval of that knowledge when immersed in a different problem-solving context. Carl Bereiter, Marlene Scardamalia and others (Whitehead, 1929) refer to this contextually restricted knowledge as “inert knowledge”.

“Human beings learn through participation in various contexts and spheres of action. Home, street, workplace, supermarket, bank, airliner, the faceless but nonetheless real world of bill-paying – these are a few of the many contexts with which one must become intimate in order to function as a modern adult. People caught in unfamiliar contexts, such as a person taking an airline trip for the first time, will blunder, hesitate, and act not quite right in a dozen ways that people familiar with the context never even think about. Newcomers to a behavioural context are therefore liable to be judged as stupid. By the same token, people behaving in a context that is much more familiar to them than it is to the observer are likely to be admired for their mental efforts.” (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1983, p11)

…So, we’d better teach students to think about their thinking!

We need to explicitly teach students to think about their thinking.

“The hope is that we might be able to find ways to help students discover knowledge about knowledge, thereby setting the stage for acquiring truly domain-independent skills, such as how to reflect on the knowledge they already have, and to identify the causes underlying the mistakes they make.” (Brown, 1985, p184)


“Cognitive skills of information management; strategies for problem solving that cut across domains of knowledge; such metacognitive skills as planning, monitoring, and learning how to learn; communication and critical inquiry skills will come to be valued more highly.” (Pea, 1985, p93)

Schools have traditionally taught subjects and therefore emphasize knowledge specific to that domain. This method, of course, is replicated in other domains. But this methodology perhaps leads to a collection of “knowledge packets” that can only be accessed when one invokes the context or culture in which the knowledge is embedded.

How do we solve this dilemma?

1. Thematic Integration

In order to overcome this dilemma two distinct approaches have occurred in educational environments – one more strongly than the other. I shall propose a third. The first scenario is familiar to most elementary school teachers: thematic integration. One should not teach a period on reading, then one on writing, followed by math, etc. There rather should be a thematic approach to the classroom environment. In this way “Pioneers” maybe the chosen theme and the classroom is alive with multidisciplined activities dealing with pioneers. For example, a centre might be set up for students to write about pioneers; a candle-making centre might be arranged to allow the students to explore early candle-making methods; the dress-up centre may have 18 and 19th century clothing and so on. This approach is certainly more meaningful than a “traditional” one, in that there is a connectedness and relevance to the use of the subject matter skills to learn about pioneers. But it does not meet the needs of learning generalizable skills outside of that domain.

2. Teach Heuristics

Another approach, although less popular, is that of teaching heuristics to students. These are generally problem-solving strategies that are studied in either a domain-free or a single domain environment. The hope here is that the student is able to recall the appropriate heuristic when confronted with a new problem.

3. Teach Thinking Techniques – an Eclectic Approach

What I propose is a more eclectic approach.

But before I describe techniques that have been successfully used in classrooms, I would like to draw one further observation. Some people, when adopting Logo, have understood its attendant philosophy as one of a playground where unfolding of learning and development will occur naturally as a result of interacting with the Logo environment. I encourage free exploration and a playfulness as an integral part of any learning activity – but not to the exclusion of other forms of activity. Ron Ragsdale (OISE) reminded me of a quote from Corinthians.

“Everything is permissible,
But not everything is beneficial.
Everything is permissible,
But not everything is constructive.”

A sense of extreme permissiveness sometimes invades the Logo world. I don’t think this was the intent of the originators of the language. It was designed to allow people to become reflective about their own thought processes – to think about their thinking. The activities which I propose allow the learner to be self-determining and in control yet focus the student on developing reflective skills. (This does not, by any means, negate the need for play and exploration!


Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 12.17.19 PM

In the thematic approach I outlined earlier in the paper, I suggested that people usually choose a content theme – but at other times I would recommend a process theme be the focus. As an example I use a theme called AFTERBUGS.

“What a refreshing change to see young excited learners reveling in learning from their mistakes – rather than being ashamed of them.”

The intent of this activity is that students monitor their own learning processes by actively looking for mistakes, or bugs, as evidenced in the outcome of their task. The importance of children taking charge of their own minds cannot be over-emphasized from both and the affective and cognitive perspective. (Incidentally, the social, interactive payoffs are quite high too!)

When children are enthusiastic and analytical about going back to their tasks (hence analyzing their previous and present thinking processes) they have taken a large step toward the more profound goals of education. How can this be achieved in the classroom? It started with Logo and the original idea arose from the grade 2-3 students in the class. In working with Logo it became clear that one rarely got it right the first time.

Children soon got used to the notion of having “bugs” in their programs. These are not bad things – rather they were things that had to be fixed.

Bug hunting became an game.

With some nurturing of this attitude the children started bug collections. They had imaginary (to an adult!) jars in which they collected their bugs. Whenever they solved their difficulty (bug) they would remove it from the jar and squish it. Now, because we had constructed a large papier-mâché turtle as part of our classroom Logo culture, one of the children suggested that we feed the bugs to the turtle rather than destroying them indiscriminately. This was very entertaining and motivating.

The next occurrence was astounding and revelatory for me as an educator. The children started looking for bugs elsewhere in their classroom lives – not just with Logo! They would actively seek mistakes in their math, spelling, reading and so on.

An unusual situation for a classroom one must admit! What a refreshing change to see young excited learners reveling in learning from their mistakes – rather than being ashamed of them.


Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 12.18.56 PMAnother technique that can be used is WATCH ME THINK. This is essentially a situation where a more novice student would watch a more expert student as he/she performs the task. In addition to watching the student, however, the ‘expert’ is asked to think out loud. This allows the ‘novice’ to get at some of the thinking processes that the expert is using.

The outcomes, once again, are not specific only to Logo. This strategy can be used during the solution of other problems; in arithmetic, or writing stories, spelling, reading text. This technique of ‘thinking aloud’ has normally been used in research settings where the researcher is attempting to understand the strategies underlying the actions. Again, the payoffs are not only cognitive ones.

It is assumed by many people that experts solve tasks with ease, with little difficulty. This is clearly not the case. It is therefore of affective benefit to the novice in that he/she can observe that:

“Oh, I’m normal – it’s okay to have ups and downs when I’m trying to solve a problem. It’s natural.”

Think about young writers. The models they have for writing are generally the finished product; a linear, error-free piece of text. One could easily assume that the author sat down at a blank page (or screen!) and wrote fluidly from beginning to end and voilà it’s complete! This, as we are aware, is rarely the situation.

The novice benefits greatly from getting at the procedural knowledge that the expert uses in pursuing this task. Similarly, in Logo, looking at a finished product does not always help the novice in achieving similar goals. To watch someone use his/her techniques for proceeding with a task can be a powerful tool. “What” does not necessarily help with “How”.

(One must not assume from this discussion that I negate individual explorations of problem-solving. This is certainly not the case. Remember, my preference in educating is to be eclectic; providing as wide a variety of techniques as possible to suit and enhance idiosyncratic learning styles.)

It is clear, once again, that the Watch Me Think exercise focuses the students attention on thinking about thinking.


Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 12.22.59 PMThis is an activity that emphasizes the use of metaphor – specifically what I call procedural analogy. I make the distinction and use the term ‘procedural’ quite purposely. The rationale for this is that I wish to emphasize the “how“, or process knowledge, as opposed to the “what” or propositional, declarative knowledge.

Metaphors are used widely in cultures to clarify the meaning of a construct or idea, but they’re also used to ground the information in an emotional or affective context. Metaphors have been used to illustrate the flow of control of Logo procedures or to teach recursion.

“Metaphors can ground information in an emotional or affective context.”

I believe these to be valuable tools in assisting learners to understand constructs or operations which might otherwise be too difficult for them. What is more important (and more difficult to implement) is to encourage the learner to create his/her own metaphor for that abstract concept under focus. This may only be possible after the construct is understood by means of using a given metaphor. But the ownership over the self-created idea is certainly more powerful, less extinguishable and more generalizable than a teacher-given one.

“Ownership over self-created ideas is more powerful, less extinguishable and more generalizable than teacher-given ones.”

And once again, of course, the student is thinking about thinking. So the child is essentially saying to herself, “Okay, I have this idea and way of doing things – what else is like that?”

An example, published before – but worth mentioning here, from a grade three child (Jeffrey) who was coming to grips with the notion of a larger problem being broken into its smaller parts is repeated here for the sake of continuity.

Our grade 2/3 class had the opportunity to watch the overpass of the space shuttle piggybacked on a jumbo jet. When we returned to class, a discussion about space naturally erupted. One child asked if Earth was in space, and in asking the question, we determined that yes, it must be, because it wasn’t sitting on anything. The discussion continued until Jeffrey piped up.

You know it’s sort of like Logo.”

The class stopped, and looked at him curiously, as I did myself.

“What do you mean?” I asked him curiously.

“Well, Earth is like a procedure. It’s like a sub-procedure inside of the solar system. The solar system is the super-procedure and the solar system is like a sub-procedure inside the universe. The universe is like the super-procedure.”

Jeffrey personalized and consolidated his understanding of procedures and sub-procedures through making this analogy. Again it is to be noted that the learning is moved from the context of Logo to other domains. This helps to remove the “functional fixedness” that is common to many types of learning situations. The child not only may be able to transfer the knowledge about breaking a large problem into smaller parts – but more importantly may use metaphor or analogy in other learning situations.

“The child…more importantly may use metaphor or analogy in other learning situations.”

To summarize, the activities that I have described here serve two purposes. Firstly, the children will learn the content more efficiently and will be able to transfer that knowledge to other learning domains more readily. Secondly, they will acquire some metaskills of learning which they can apply in new learning contexts – analyzing work for errors of thought, watching a more expert person in solving a task, and metaphor usage to better understand the concept.


Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1983) Schooling and the growth of intentional cognition: Helping children take charge of their own minds. In Z. Lamm (Ed.), New Trends in Education. (pp. 73-100). Tel-Aviv: Yachdev United Publishing Company.

Brown, J.S. (1985). Process vs. Product: A perspective on tools for communal and informal electronic learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 1(2).

Pea, R. D. (1985) Integrating human and computer intelligence. In E. L. Klein (Ed.) Children and Computers. New Directions for Child Development, no. 28, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Should We Gamify Meditation? ;-)

I ask this somewhat in cheek. In fact, it is rather an oxymoron.


Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 5.08.05 PMThere is a lot of evidence about the positive effects of mindfulness these days. It is becoming ‘de rigueur’ in the K-12 education space. For example, Mindfulness Without Borders offers workshops to schools. So does the Mindfulness Institute. The Association for Mindfulness in Education and also attend to this issue. Just to name a few.

On a personal note, I studied transcendental meditation when I was 20.  That is also when I first learned of Jon Kabat-Zinn – although I didn’t take the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course until a few years ago.

Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself. The word meditation carries different meanings in different contexts. Meditation is often used to clear the mind. (Roughly taken from Wikipedia.)


I have also played around with biofeedback.  I have found it quite useful.gsr2image
“Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of many physiological functions primarily using instruments that provide information on the activity of those same systems, with a goal of being able to manipulate them at will.” Wikipedia

Biofeedback may give you insights into meditative practice and indeed may assist you in reaching goals of ‘calmness’ and ‘stress reduction’.  There are many more biofeedback tools available these days due to advances in technologies and in neuroscience. Some give you feedback on muscle tension, some on skin temperature and others on skin conductance (galvanic skin response -GSR*).  (It is, in fact, a GSR device that I have owned for some 25 years.) These are all indicators of psychological or physiological arousal. So, if you can ‘meditate’ in some fashion and reduce the arousal, you will get good feedback on which techniques work effectively for you.

Major Research

Important to note that this is not some pie-in-the-sky notion — the Affective Computing Group at MIT Media Lab has been investigating many educational issues leveraging biofeedback devices.  Susanne Lajoie at McGill has also been studying education with this lens too. And, you can bet that the big publishers are involved as well!  (But, that’s a topic for another day!)


And guess what!

With all the advances in computer technologies and biofeedback devices – and, with the onslaught of ‘gaming’ and ‘gamification’, there are a slew of biofeedback games available both online and downloadable!
I am actually not familiar with any of those at all but am simply asking myself – and you – the question.

Should we gamify meditation?

*SideNote: Heck. If you are into robotics, get yourself an RCX Lego brick and make a GSR yourself — but, be aware only do this with your RCX on battery power. If it’s plugged in, you could electrocute yourself!

GSR from RCX brick - courtesy of

GSR from RCX brick – courtesy of









Another Brick in the Wall

What’s standing in the way of change in education?

Originally posted on the Canadian Education Association website.

CC by Eager Eyes NC SA

CC by Eager Eyes NC SA

It is not a simple answer. Nor is it a simple question!

There are many ‘bricks in the wall’ that block systemic educational change. I do not have a short coherent response to this – especially since this is a blog post not a tome!  But I will briefly describe a few ‘bricks’ for your consideration and response.

IB ImageBrick #1 – Practise what you preach.

“We want students to be 21st century learners!”  This is a common call to action we hear from educational leaders and speakers these days.

I like it.

However, all administrators and leaders (never mind the teachers!) should be 21st century learners too!  If all educators aren’t there, it is unlikely that all students will get there. The sad part is that many of those advocating this idea are actually not practising it. They know the language – but have no visceral knowledge.

IB Image

CC by Dominic’s Pics

Educational leaders now have to deeply immerse themselves into the ‘participatory’ culture of the Web 2.0 world in order to legitimately understand and promote it. During this learning curve, they must also develop an authoritative stance on the pros and cons of the issues and concerns related to the ‘always on,’ ‘over-connected’, ‘superficial’ aspects of life in the Web 2.0 world.

“The culture of education outside the classroom must reflect what is desired inside it – or little educational (r)evolution will occur.

They should able to authoritatively discuss issues such as attention management, multitasking, intentional serendipity, co-construction of knowledge, technology supported knowledge construction, substantive collaboration, shared leadership, transmedia consumption and creation, and so forth.

It is important that leaders model their ‘learner’s stance’ for their administrator colleagues and for their teachers.

The culture of education outside the classroom is not inquiry-based. It is not self-directed. The culture of education outside the classroom must reflect what is desired inside it – or little educational (r)evolution will occur.

IB ImageBrick #2 – We perpetuate myths through one-line wisdoms.

Many educators are living on a diet of abstracts, one-line wisdoms from Twitter, and drive-by professional development. We hear things like:

  • “Kids don’t need to memorize anymore, they can just Google it”.
  • “Students should be in charge of their own learning.”
  • “Lectures are bad pedagogy.”
  • “It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning.”
  • “Multitasking is a 21st century skill we must all learn.”

Brenda Sherry and I have had many discussions with education leaders about the danger of popularizing these simplistic, decontextualized one-line wisdoms. We understand the intention underlying these statements – but they may lead to malignant misinterpretation by those new to our profession.

The current nature of information science and media causes people to be reading snippets rather than long texts that may provide greater depth, context and nuance.

We suggest some questions to help people to unpack these statements with colleagues.

  • How and why do these statements arise and gain popularity?
  • What is the intention behind the statement? (we often believe that they are well-intentioned.)
  • What are the effects of such statements?
  • How could it be better said?
  • We wonder about the responsibilities of the more expert among us in light of the novices in the community who hear these.

I don’t think that these abstracted one-line wisdoms serve us well in the reconstruction of the education world. But, they will continue to be present and prolific so use them as a springboard to deep and meaningful conversations.

IB ImageBrick #3 – We need to educate – not subjugate.

A.S. Neill on his birthday via Wikipedia

A.S. Neill on his birthday via Wikipedia

What do we mean when we say that we want ‘students to be in charge of their own learning’? I think we have a very limited view of what we mean when we use this phrase.[1]

Do you really think that we want students to be ‘in charge of their own learning’? Maybe to some degree.

Maybe we mean some control – as in Universal Design for Learning —> but not as much agency as ‘Summerhill’![2]

“It’s about power.

Clearly, it is about ‘power’ – power over choices, who has the power, how the power is shared, individual power vs the collective needs.

We often feel that we are empowering students:

  • if we are engaging them in their areas of interest
  • if we are giving them choices about all that is mentioned in the differentiated instruction literature – choice over process of knowledge acquisition (construction), content, and product
  • if we are engaging them in the assessment/evaluation process (e.g., collaborative rubric creation).
  • if we engage them in their ‘preferred learning style’ – although this often is a simplistically applied construct.

I don’t dismiss these notions. In fact, I am generally in agreement with them. But, it’s not sufficient.

“What we often do is still rather contrived – often by the structures of the institution.

We need an holistic approach. 

School is only a narrow slice of their life.

The kids are whole when they arrive at our doorsteps – and come with a full life replete with desires, passions, problems, issues, excitement (not necessarily about school) and confusions.

“We need to deal with the whole child.

We need to encourage and support more student agency over other these aspects of their lives – attendance, tardiness, homework, schoolwork, use of their own mobile devices, etc. I am not suggesting a free-for-all, but I am suggesting that we need to respect the ‘whole’ person and the choices and decisions they make. It is harder than imposing compliance and invoking punitive measures of control – but, I believe that it is the right thing to do.

There is not enough space here to go into depth with this discussion, but I would invite you to explore Prochaska’s Theoretical Stages of Change, Harm Reduction, Asset vs Deficit and Appreciative Inquiry as models to use in developing a more democratic classroom or school. The first two models arise out of ‘addictions’ research but I have successfully used the principles with students in secondary school. It’s not easy and required a lot of re-wiring of my habits!

As for teachers…

If we want students ‘in charge of their own learning’ then we should also embrace a culture where teachers are empowered to be in charge of theirs as well!

“When teachers are treated as Pawns they don’t teach, they become drill sergeants.

Who is Pulling my Strings? CC by mellyjean NC ND

Who is Pulling my Strings? CC by mellyjean NC ND

We don’t allow teachers a great deal of autonomy. Their ‘locus of control’ has been largely withdrawn to the extent that they are now ‘pawns’ in the system, rather than ‘origins’ of their own behaviours. Richard DeCharms (Educational Leadership, 1977) said:

“When students are treated as Pawns they don’t learn, they misbehave.  When teachers are treated as Pawns they don’t teach, they become drill sergeants.”

We need education for our students and ALSO for our teachers – not subjugation.

IB ImageBrick #4 – We are ferociously fickle. We ‘surf the surface’.

We talk about ‘collaboration’ – and so we build collaborative tasks. We speak of ‘inquiry’ – and so we have kids generate ‘essential driving questions’. We speak of Project Based Learning (PBL) – and so we have kids ‘do projects’. Along comes Design Thinking, or the Third Teacher, flipped classroom, ‘maker’ movement, or backward design, and so on and we expect teachers to hop on this next train.

It’s a fast and furious world! We inundate teachers with new initiatives. Frequently.

I applaud many of these initiatives. However, they are pieces – parts of the whole. Somehow, we bombard teachers with so many new approaches and related techniques, it is difficult for them to manage. They become discouraged. Disempowered.

An important administrative role is to help teachers to understand the ‘essence’ residing in all these practices. Out of the distilled essence, teachers could then ‘construct their own knowledge and practice’ – the same as we wish for our students.

IB ImageBrick #5 – It IS about the tools.

As previously mentioned, one of the ‘myths’ I hear is that, ‘It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning’. I understand the intent of this statement. I believe it arises from the focusing on the skills required to use the tool rather than on the ‘subject-matter’ at hand.

However, it is dangerous, in my opinion, to say that it is not about the tools. It is more about the tools than many of us might regularly think. Tools shape behaviours, cultures, classrooms, schools and contexts.

Seymour Papert said, “It is a self-defeating parody of scientism to suppose that one could keep everything else, including the culture, constant while adding a serious computer presence to a learning environment. If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.”[3]

“If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.

Indeed, we want the culture and context of the classrooms to change. Let’s explicitly embrace how technologies might impact this change.

IB ImageBrick #6 – Educate the public.

Annie Kidder, Executive Director of People for Education, says something that makes a lot of sense to me. She suggests that we need to educate the public. We spend so much time educating students – but we do a terrible job at ‘public relations’. The public has really no idea what we do. I agree with her. It seems to me that until there is wide acceptance of new ideas in the general public, things don’t change a great deal.

IB Image

Jenisse Crashing into Wall CC by Louish Pixel NC ND

Through deep conversations, we can construct new understandings and progress towards ‘tearing down the wall’.

In summary…

It is apparent that I have addressed only a small number of the very complex array of bricks that stand in the way of educational change. Although many more have come to mind, I set them aside to focus on ones where I at least have some expertise – not just opinion!

I am open to, and desirous of, your comments.


[1] Note: the ability to ‘be in charge of one’s own learning’ is not merely related to this issue of ‘student agency’. That is a complex issue – that involves cognitive, social, emotional, & societal aspects. A topic for another day!

[2] I am a Summerhillian at heart. Always have been. A.S. Neill started Summerhill in 1921. There are, of course, many who have piped in on this topic in one way or the other over the years – John Dewey, Alfie Kohn, Ivan Illich, Gary Stager, Seymour Papert – to name a few.

[3] Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking, Educational Researcher (vol. 16, no. I) January/February 1987

Picture credit: Light Green Lego Brick – CC by Stilfehler SA

Irony – Do you see the irony in this post that indeed is a number of ‘abstracted’ ideas — and not very much in depth on any?!

This blog post is part of a series of thoughtful responses to the question: What’s standing in the way of change in education? to help inform CEA’s Calgary Conference on Oct 21-22, (#CEACalgary2013) where education leaders from across Canada will be answering the same question. If you would like to answer this question, please tweet us at: @cea_ace//






Metacognition: A ‘Way of Being’ in the Classroom

Andrew Bridge (@theandrewbridge) tweeted me: “I’m looking for resources/strategies to help teach metacognitive skills in a junior math classroom.” 

I’m glad he asked me that because it really is a favourite area for me to think about.  Now I am not a math expert – but I have some ideas about metacognition, intentional learning and how to support students in ‘taking charge of their own learning’ — which embodies metacognition.

My immediate Twitter reply: “1st thought-Think of metacognition as a ‘way of being’ Build culture of ‘thinking as being highly valued’.”  This quick reply was based on a concern that plagues our profession. We have so many initiatives coming our way that they often get relegated to a set of activities or lessons to accomplish them before moving on to the next initiative. (See PBL – the New Worksheet & Another Brick in the Wall)

Wikipedia houses the standard descriptions of metacognition 🙂 :

Metacognition is defined as “cognition about cognition”, or “knowing about knowing”. It can take many forms; it includes knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or for problem solving. There are generally two components of metacognition: knowledge about cognition, and regulation of cognition.”

James Flavell first used the word “metacognition”. He describes it in these words:

“Metacognition refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant properties of information or data. For example, I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; [or] if it strikes me that I should double check C before accepting it as fact.” —J. H. Flavell (1976, p. 232).

So really it’s about understanding one’s own thinking and learning and the ability to manage that understanding.

Some questions to anyone asking the question Andrew asks are:

  • What fascinates you, as a teacher/learner, about learning, thinking, the mind, regulation, and knowledge construction?
  • What excites you?
  • What questions do you have about it?
  • Do you share these with your students?  Is it a focus of your regular classroom activity?
  • Is it evident in the physical layout of your classroom?
  • If I walked into your classroom would I see evidence on the walls that ‘thinking is a highly valued activity’?
  • What do you love to learn? How do you approach it? What are your challenges?
    • Perhaps, ‘what is your stance as a learner’?
  • What learning do you do in front of, or with your students, and how do you make that learning explicit (or visible)?
  • What is your philosophy of learning? How do you even define learning!?

To me it is about a ‘lifestyle’ – a ‘way of being’ – not a set of skills to be taught (not that I think Andrew is suggesting that).

I’m going to share some answers that I might give in response to these. Forgive me, but I am going to link to other posts rather than repeating much of those here.

I’m Confused! Thought I Was a Social Constructionist!  For years I have identified myself as a ‘social constructionist’. Much reading I have done recently has led me to understand that although that is a major mainstay, we are largely conditioned by past behaviours, learnings and by our environment. We are more influenced by Skinnerian stimulus/response reactions than I was willing to acknowledge. “Thinking, Fast & Slow” – Wondering about implications for schools also illustrates this point. So how is this metacognitive?  Well, I am constantly learning about learning and reflecting on how I learn within that context. How might this relate to metacognitive skills in a current junior math classroom? Since I started teaching – some 40 odd years ago – there has been a debate between ‘process’ vs ‘product’. It has had many names over the years but basically it has been a conflict between rote learning/memorization versus conceptual understanding of mathematics.  I personally think you need both. I also think that some kids need the conceptual understanding first, some will benefit from the memorization first to help to understand the concepts, and some will learn best with some iterative process that moves back and forth. This is not a popular view. (I’m used to that! LOL) My opinions aren’t the issue here though. What do your students think? Raise the issues. Have the conversations with them. Perhaps check out the Ontario Ministry of Education document from the Capacity Building Series entitled Grand Conversations in the Junior Classroom for strategies.

Intentional Serendipity – Unpacked! Teach kids this cool term – Intentional Serendipity. “If you hold an attuned intention to learn, then you will have sentinels at the watch for all that goes by. You will be ‘at the ready’ to opportunistically grasp anything that is useful to your learning. You are vigilant so that you do not miss events relevant to your intention. Intentional serendipity relies on the vigilance of the learner within the learning space.  The intentional learner may set the conditions of that learning space to optimize opportunities – opportunities conducive to the task at hand. It may be by turning on all the knowledge flows – twitter, text, skype, etc. Or it may be by selecting a place of silence for reflection and inner workings of the mind and heart.”  Eleanor Duckworth speaks of helping students get to where ideas can find them.  I love that!

Scaffolding for Deep Understanding  Journal writing, collaboration and scaffolding are useful ‘tools’ to make thinking explicit and discussable. But, it needs not to be an ‘exercise’. It needs to be useful worthwhile. That is the challenge.  One thing that we often did in these scaffolded, collaborative journal writing environments was to have regular group/class meetings where kids had to arrive prepared to discuss such things as: “Go through the journals of your group and find examples of where a ‘confusion’ was later solved.” Or, “…where an old idea was used in a new way.” Or, “…where there is a difference of opinion.” Etc. Then we’d have a good yak about the ideas – about the thinking – the learning.

Deep Understanding and the Issue of Transfer ‘Bug seeking’ is a critical metacognitive skill. It refers to tiptoeing back through your thinking and actions to see where, how and why you went wrong. In the conclusion of this post, you will see how some grade twos dealt with this metaphor of ‘bug hunting’. ‘Thinking’ becomes externalized and an object for examination.

The ‘Drip Effects’ of Technology  Gavriel Salomon taught me a great deal about ‘effect with’ and ‘effects of’ using computers with kids. One of the unintended effects of my using computers with kids was the way in which I restructured my grade 2 class some years ago. It led to a great discovery. I expected kids not just to learn the content at hand, but indeed I expected them to manage the learning of that content as well.  This is, of course, what metacognition is all about.

ZPD – Who’s in Charge Here? I believe that it is important to help kids to take charge of their learning – to be able to seek the appropriate scaffolding in their Zone of Proximal Development.

The Construction Zone  I called my classroom The Construction Zone because I think that ‘naming’ is very powerful.  Names are loaded with meaning. ‘Classroom’ comes with many expectations and perhaps baggage. Maybe students walk into such a space expecting to be taught. “Do it to me!” ‘The Construction Zone’ infers that they are going to build something – to create and manufacture.  Indeed, I was referring to ‘constructionism’ and the ‘zone of proximal development’ and being in ‘the zone’ —  a state of ‘flow’ (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

Metaphoria and Digital Literacy

Play games with your kids – ‘bug hunting’ – and Metaphoria. This latter one has been one of my favourites. Metaphors provide students with a mental model  — a model that is durable and independent of the computer and therefore empowers students with tools with which to think.

Metaphoria – The Concept of Understanding One Thing in Terms of Another


OK!! I’m going to stop here. LOL

Thank you, Andrew, for encouraging me to revisit some of these thoughts!
Friends and colleagues, I don’t think I have provided many specific resources to help Andrew teach his students metacognitive skills in his junior math class.

I’m calling on you more practical people!  JUMP IN!!!