Fostering Curiosity in the Classroom

I recently began reading Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question and found myself immersed, highlighting line after line of excerpts. The premise focuses on the deficit of questioning by students. Although I am a middle school teacher, first and foremost I consider myself a lifelong learner. That said, I cannot help but become perplexed when students are apathetic toward learning. Nevertheless, as Berger mentions, we should not wonder why students fail to display curiosity and a desire to learn; they have been conditioned this way. Berger explains, “Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. By middle school, they’ve pretty much stopped asking” (2014, p. 58).

The notion that students become less likely to ask questions as they age, in-turn becoming less engaged, welcomes a discussion on the root cause (Berger, 2014). Yet, whether a lack of questioning leads to disengagement or vice versa, one thing is certain: teachers must provide students with more opportunities to ask questions and further explore topics of interest. Despite pressures of meeting adequate state-mandated test scores and limited classroom instruction time, if educators want to cultivate a future of independent and innovative thinkers, time is of the essence. Tony Wagner and John Seely Brown, two leading researchers in education, strengthen the argument agreeing, “the consensus seems to be that this new world demands citizens who are self-learners; who are creative and resourceful; who can adjust and adapt to constant change” (Berger, 2014, p. 65).

What We Can Learn from Google

A More Beautiful Question contains many insightful anecdotes and perspectives on renowned innovators, of which include Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In Google’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) letter they explain, “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative” (2004). Moreover, their vision was to offer employees an opportunity to build on curiosities instead of hindering them.

Although it is unclear who initially integrated Google’s philosophy in an educational setting, it has sparked a new wave of student-centered, inquiry-based learning experiences, known as 20Time, 20% Time, and Genius Hour — all synonymous in theory. The idea is to allow students to use 20% of their class time to take on a project of interest. Kevin Brookhouser, educator, author and advocate for 20Time in the classroom, discusses the impetus and outcomes for implementing it in his own classes.

Brookhouser pays tribute to best-selling author and thought-leader, Daniel Pink — specifically his three-pronged solution to getting the most out of employees, of which includes autonomy, mastery and purpose. Yes, Pink’s philosophies are geared toward businesses, but the same mentality could apply for getting the most out of students. If we fail to provide students with autonomy in their learning, we restrict their curiosities, closing the door on a realm of possibilities. Perhaps students’ apprehension to asking questions stems from the fact that we do not allow them the opportunity to do so (Berger, 2014). Offering students designated time to explore inquiries and produce something tangible from their learning is a wonderful tactic in harnessing the spirit of curiosity.

My Experience with 20Time

Word cloud created by me

Word cloud created by me

I am currently in my second year teaching Imagineering, an 8th grade course modeled from the 20Time philosophy. In contrast to traditional 20Time, Imagineering offers students a full, consistent marking period (roughly 50 days) to work. Routinely, students begin the class with varied outlooks, some excited, yet most timid to begin. I attribute this to the fact that they have rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to tackle a project aimed to answer one of the many questions that lie dormant within them. Although there are few exemplary projects that culminate, the opportunity far exceeds the results. The project urges students to question and this is a beautiful thing.

We, as educators, need to make up for lost time. Coincidentally, we must ask ourselves: what are our students' futures worth?

If you are interested in learning more about 20Time, check out Kevin Brookhauser’s book, The 20Time Project: How educators can launch Google's formula for future-ready innovation, and A.J. Juliani’s free guide to 20% Time in the classroom.


Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

Brookhauser, K. (2013, May 9). Don't call it a classroom: Kevin Brookhouser at TEDxMonterey. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/MqG-bppvW7k

The New York Times. (2009, April 29). Letter From the Founders. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/29/business/letter-from-the-founders.html

Classroom Redesign: Optimizing Learning for the 21st Century

My students are often surprised and excited to learn that I once walked the halls of our middle school as a student. In fact, I had learning experiences in many of the same classrooms as they do, sitting in what looks to be the same chairs and at the same desks. Although reminiscing offers some nostalgia, it is troubling to think that the school has not changed much over the course of two decades. Sure, there is a nicely designed, open-spaced media center that was built years after I graduated, but students only spend a fraction of their time there. This begs the question — why do the majority of the classrooms look the same as they did when I was a student? Does it cost too much money to implement changes that optimize learning spaces for students? Are there steps that we as educators can take to create more welcoming, creative and student-centered spaces? Of course, money is certainly a factor, but after assessing my current classroom, I cannot let it stop me from implementing some incremental remodeling. After all, it is only fair that I offer my students a space that supports learning theories I believe in.

To better understand the scope of traditional classrooms, we must revert to the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Industrial Revolution took place. As Sir Ken Robinson, creativity mogul, so perfectly and simply states, “It’s the factory model” (OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture, & Bruce Mau Design, 2010, p. 56). If our goal is to prepare students for a future filled with uncertainty, undoubtedly looking unlike anything we could imagine, it is troubling to come to the realization that most of our classrooms continue to exemplify conformity; teachers and students maintain strict roles and risk-taking is often met with discipline rather than praise. In the most viewed Ted Talk of all time, Sir Ken Robinson states, “Many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not because the thing they were ever good at wasn’t valued or was actually stigmatized” (2006). Consequently, before we begin remodeling the layout and design of our classrooms, it is important for us to reassess what we are doing within their walls.

In an article exploring what schools can learn from industry-leading innovators, Steve Turckes and Melanie Kahl pose the question, “What would it mean for schools to have a culture centered on design thinking and interdisciplinary projects instead of siloed subjects?” (2011). In an ideal situation, this would certainly require a macro-strategy by school districts as a whole; however we can still implement changes within our own classrooms that embody this sentiment. That said, below is my vision for redesigning my middle school classroom.

My Current Classroom

My Redesigned Classroom Model

By looking at the current photos, you will notice the walls are lined with desks and, when working on their computers, students sit, staring at the wall — not the most inspiring view. Besides the fact that the desks are positioned in a way that does not support collaboration, they are completely outdated; they include a fixed keyboard tray for old desktop computers. Therefore, my first and most pressing redesign measure would be to replace the desks with four, six-foot, height-adjustable tables, as displayed in the 3D models above. My students have boundless energy, so providing them with stools where they can choose to sit or stand will provide them with flexibility to work more efficiently (notice the positioning of the tables — diagonal to allow for better flow and less conventionality). Additionally, there are three desks in the middle of the classroom, and I would leave all but one as a teacher workstation. If I could not find unused tables at the school, these updates would cost approximately $2,500.

One wall of my classroom is currently lined with a chalkboard, while the other has a cork board — neither of which are used effectively. Instead, I would replace both with dry erase boards, allowing students to use them for planning, brainstorming or however else it helps them free their creative spirits. I would also line the tops of the tables with dry erase boards to foster further creativity and ease of brainstorming and collaborating at any time. Magnetic, dry-erase boards for the side walls would cost approximately $400.

The current projector I use is one that most likely existed when I was a middle school student, yet there is a new projector that was installed a couple of years ago, on the front wall of the classroom. Unfortunately, even though it was installed, it was never properly initialized, which has led to me to continue using the older model. I would rid the old projector and take the necessary steps to set up the new one.

Although it is not as pressing, I would love to have two lounge areas available to students, with four single arm chair couches and four round ottomans, costing approximately $600. Luckily, my classroom has plenty of natural light and built-in shelving available for storage.

Reassessing my classroom space has inspired me to begin making my vision a reality. It begins with a conversation with key stakeholders (i.e., my building administrators and supervisor), but it is time my classroom reflects the teaching methods I believe strongly in. While the cost of equipment is a factor, the cost of continuing to model our learning spaces from the 18th century is far more prohibitive.

Have you considered redesigning your own classroom? Feel free to comment below — I would love to hear your thoughts, opinions or concerns!

 

Kahl, M. (2011, November 22). What Schools Can Learn from Google, IDEO, and Pixar. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/UQWbSL

OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture, & Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The third teacher: 79 ways you can use design to transform teaching & learning. Retrieved from http://thethirdteacherplus.com/s/Ch2-TTT-for-Web-0y6k.pdf

Robinson, K. (2006, February). Do schools kill creativity? Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity

Makey Makey: Unleashing Creativity

We have a tendency to blame a lack of creativity on laziness or apathy and, while they are certainly factors, oftentimes we just can’t seem to place a finger on why we can’t come up with an innovative idea. What’s even more baffling is that, it’s as if the smarter we become, the more rigid our views on everything around us become as well. There’s a term for this — Functional Fixedness — the cognitive bias where individuals see objects used only in their traditional sense. Functional Fixedness places a stranglehold on perception and hinders the ability to think creatively.

In my graduate course, CEP 811, this week class focused on exploring the idea of repurposing and its implications on creativity and educational technologies. In an engaging and thought-provoking keynote presentation, Dr. Matthew Koehler, professor of educational psychology and educational technology at Michigan State University, and Dr. Punya Mishra, co-director of the Master's in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University, explain that creativity is “easy to recognize, but hard to define” (2012). We’ve all heard the overused statement urging us to 'think outside the box,' yet how do educators utilize educational technology to creatively construct meaningful activities for students? Ironically, “there is no such thing as an educational technology;” we create it ourselves (Mishra, 2012).

In 2012, Eric Rosenbaum and Jay Silver surprised the crowdfunding space, raising more than $500,000 to fund an invention kit they developed called Makey Makey. They claimed the kit would “turn everyday objects into touchpads and combine them with the internet.” By simply combining a circuit board, USB cable, a few wires, alligator clips and everyday objects, Makey Makey breaks the barriers of Functional Fixedness. Still not drinking the Kool-Aid? Search “Makey Makey” on YouTube and you’ll find tons of individuals who have explored the world around them and created inventions out of the wildest objects. Take these for example: a compilation of Makey Makey music inventions, a Makey Makey video game controller, or even a way to make a carrot scream when being sliced!

 

My Makey Makey Invention

Adding myself into the mix, throughout the week I explored my own Makey Makey kit and invented a way to help reinforce training methods with my puppy, Lucy (you may recall my training endeavor from CEP 810). Last week, my fiancé, Samantha, and I were visiting her cousins’ house and happened to see that they were getting rid of an old rabbit pen. The idea struck me that we may be able to repurpose it in our apartment as a way to partition the living room from the kitchen (it has the ability to be situated into different shapes), giving Lucy a sizable, controlled space to roam around without getting into too much trouble. The only issue is, since she is a bit hyperactive, she often jumps on the counters and gate, which is something we’ve been trying to curtail. What better way to help reinforce her training than to invent a way to teach her when we’re not in the room ourselves? This is where my Makey Makey comes in!

Here is my invention in action:

 

How You Can Join in on the Fun

If you’re interested in trying something like this for yourself, all you’ll need is a Makey Makey kit ($49.95), aluminum foil, 28-gauge aluminum or copper craft wire (thinner wire is more flexible), tape (conductive tape helps if you have it), and basic computer programming knowledge.

As seen in the video, I began by first creating a program in Scratch, a free website that allows users to program interactive stories, games and animation. The website uses a form of click-and-drag block coding, so there’s no need to have prior computer programming experience. Of note, the website includes a wealth of step-by-step tutorials, which are an incredible way to introduce yourself and/or your students to programming. After recording myself saying, “Lucy, off,” I created a simple command so that when the space key is pressed, the recording will sound off and count the amount of times it occurs.

Below is my Makey Makey setup. The red cable plugs into the USB port on my computer, the yellow wire connects the space key to the foil on top of the gate, and the green wire connects earth to Lucy. Therefore, when Lucy touches the foil, it closes the circuit and runs the program I’ve created, prompting the recording to sound.

I also repurposed Lucy’s harness using some aluminum foil, conductive tape and craft wire. This took a few tries to get right since I had to make sure that the foil was touching Lucy's body.

Next, I connected wire to the foil, wrapped it around the rings of the harness, coiled it around the leash and ultimately connected it to the Makey Makey. The clip on her leash is metal so I knew that once it touched the rings, it would close the circuit. Lastly, I made sure to tether the leash to her crate to avoid my laptop from being destroyed if she tugged. Below is a video that further explains.

 

Final Thoughts

Although this activity was challenging to say the least, I thoroughly enjoyed the process of creating this invention; it certainly brought out the inner-child in me. I now understand why and how Makey Makey can completely revolutionize learning for students. As I was tinkering with my kit, I was going through the steps of the Engineering Design Process, first defining the problem I was trying to solve — to prevent Lucy from jumping on counters and gate — along with constraints, then moving on to exploring, planning, creating and ultimately improving the invention to be more efficient. With my Intro to Engineering students, Makey Makey can take design challenges to the next level. Furthermore, by integrating computer programming, it can urge students to think critically, sequentially and creatively, fostering invaluable skills in a fun and playful manner.

The sky's the limit when it comes to what Makey Makey can offer students and, as I’ve learned, it’s up to educators to provide them with the tools necessary to become innovative problem solvers. In this case, all we need is a Makey Makey kit and the world around us.

 

Functional Fixedness (2001). In Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/functional-fixedness

Keevill, A. (2014). Makey Makey Screaming Carrot. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/o4iTQ7lr2W0

Koehler, M. & Mishra, P. (2012). Teaching Creatively: Teachers as Designers of Technology, Content and Pedagogy. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/39539571

Mishra, P. (2012). Keynote Speaker @ 21st Century Learning Conference - Hong Kong 2012. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/9bwXYa91fvQ

Rosenbaum, E. (2013). MaKey MaKey Music Examples. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/wkPt9MYqDW0

Rosenbaum, E. & Silver, J. (2012). MaKey MaKey: An Invention Kit for Everyone. Retrieved from https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/joylabz/makey-makey-an-invention-kit-for-everyone

Rossberg, D. (2016). MaKey MaKey Game Controller Tutorial. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/81q-n28vOuM

Wohl, J. (2017). Puppy Training w/ Makey Makey. Retrieved from https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/183869285/#player

Seeing is Believing: Puppy Training Part Three

What did the internet do to my puppy?! Is it possible that in less than one month Lucy has transformed from being unruly to well-behaved? For those just learning of my endeavor, as part of my CEP 810 graduate course, I recently began training Lucy to sit, stay and stop mouthing. I’m pleased to report that, not only did I reach my goal, but I exceeded it and moved on to more advanced training exercises due to committing ample time, practicing patience and maintaining a growth-mindset. Through this process I learned that puppy training takes dedication and repetition and, while it doesn’t come without setbacks and unpredictability, consistency and the implementation of positive rewards ultimately gives way to regularity in performance. I’d be lying if I said the experience was stress-free, but my efforts still paid off. Have a look for yourself!

Per my second update, after evaluating a multitude of online forums dedicated to all things dog-related, I found YouTube to be the most thorough and effective resource. It was incredibly helpful to watch trainers conduct exercises I could emulate with Lucy. Additionally, it motivated me to see puppies as energetic and disobedient as Lucy quickly learn when the appropriate training methods were implemented. Although at times I found myself falling into the YouTube rabbit hole, going from one video to the next without knowing what I would find, I always wound up back on Zak George’s channel. His friendly demeanor and informative and digestible step-by-step tutorials were the most helpful as I learned to properly train Lucy. As noted, I wasn’t originally planning on training Lucy to leash walk as part of this project, but after reaching my goal, this video inspired me to take on the challenge.

A great deal of this week’s learning in CEP 810 focused on Renee Hobbs’ five core competencies as fundamental literacy practices, which can be explored further in her white paper, Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action (2010). Hobbs explains, “These five competencies [access, analyze, create, reflect and act] work together in a spiral of empowerment, supporting people’s active participation in lifelong learning through the processes of both consuming and creating messages” (p. 18). This project helped me encompass all of these practices, as I actively sought and analyzed helpful information on puppy training, took part in meaningful activities by implementing methods that resonated, assessed my progress (and Lucy’s for that matter), and shared my experience. I hope that my journey will inspire others to take on new endeavors grounded in a plan of action.

Similar to the competencies outlined by Hobbs, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel, & Robison, 2006) discusses new media literacies, which “include the traditional literacy that evolved with print culture as well as the newer forms of literacy within mass and digital media” (p.19), and participatory culture, where individuals possess these necessary literacy skills, accessibility, support, and willingness to share learning experiences. This project helped me become part of this culture and expand my personal learning network.

I will continue using online forums and YouTube to form new learning experiences for myself and my students, as the skills I learned from this project are invaluable and reach far beyond the evident (i.e., I also learned multimedia skills, including video editing and screen-recording). I believe that by providing students the opportunity to choose their own projects/topics, it will further contribute to the iterative process of learning and sharing, benefiting us all. For now, it looks like I need to research separation-anxiety remedies!

George, Z. (2017). How to train your dog not to pull on the leash. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/jBN2_YuTclU

Hobbs, R. (2010). Digital and media literacy: A plan of action. Washington, DC: The Aspen Institute. Retrieved from http://blogs.uoregon.edu/artinsociety/files/2010/11/Digital_and_Media_Literacy_A_Plan_of_Action.pdf

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., Robison, A. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Retrieved from http://www.newmedialiteracies.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/NMLWhitePaper.pdf

Who Said I Could Only Teach Technology?

A couple of months ago, my fiancé, Samantha, and I had the bright idea - OK, it was mostly my idea - of adopting a puppy. You know, so it could give us some practice for when we are ready to have children. Taking matters into my own hands, I filed the adoption papers unbeknownst to her and before we knew it, we were holding Lucy, our soon-to-be daughter. Fun fact: Truth be told, her shelter name was “Rihanna Lonestar” and was part of a litter, all given pop star names. Let’s be real, how could Samantha say no? Look at that face! It was love at first sight and so the story goes, the rest was history.

Although Lucy seems quite intelligent, she is a bit spiteful. It’s not that she doesn’t understand, it’s that she may or may not want to actually listen when being told to sit, stop jumping, or stop nipping us. We love her dearly, but the time has come to start her training regimen. What better way to learn proven techniques then to dive into the online world of puppy training? Luckily, for my latest assignment in CEP 810, the graduate course I’m taking, I was tasked with choosing something to learn, solely utilizing help forums and YouTube. Therefore, over the next few weeks I’ll be tapping into videos and discussions on how we can get Lucy to finally mind her manners. More specifically, my goal is to teach Lucy bite inhibition, sitting and staying.

To provide some context, adopting a dog as opposed to purchasing one from a breeder can pose certain challenges. Puppies are oftentimes removed from their litter too soon, before they have the opportunity to learn bite inhibition. As Debra Horwitz, DVM, states, “Puppies start to learn bite inhibition with their littermates. If Puppy A bites on Puppy B too hard, Puppy B will yelp. If that doesn’t work, Puppy B will leave. This sends the message to Puppy A that its bites were too hard and if wishes to continue to play, it needs to be gentle” (p. 4). As Lucy was only eight weeks old when we adopted her, it leads us to believe that her mouthiness is a result of being removed from her litter too soon paired with our lack of knowledge and initial training.

Besides the fact that I’m eager to attain the necessary skill-set to train Lucy effectively, I’m also looking forward to sharing my experience, becoming part of the participatory culture mentioned in “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” (Jenkins H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., Robison, A., 2006), which was part of my weekly readings for CEP 810. The text states, “Students should discover what it is like to contribute their own expertise to a process that involves many intelligences, a process they encounter readily in their participation in fan discussion lists or blogging” (p. 21). For many years, I have been a consumer of content via help forums, however I’ve rarely contributed. Don’t get me wrong, as a singer songwriter and organ donation advocate, I’ve produced and published creative works in hopes to inspire others, but when it comes to providing advice, I can’t say that I’ve been part of this so-called culture. As learning is an iterative process where we all must give back to keep it ongoing, I must do my part. In James Paul Gee’s essay, “Digital Media and Learning: A Prospective Retrospective,” another insightful read from my graduate class this week, he mentions, “As newcomers advance, they are encouraged to contribute back to the group (family, community, social group, institution, or culture), based on their learning” (2013, p. 6). My puppy training endeavor will challenge me to be a consumer and creator, hopefully serving as inspiration for others to share their own experiences.

Certainly, this will be challenging, but by taking on a growth-mindset and with the help of online communities of dog trainers, I’m confident I’ll reach my goals. Wish me luck!

Gee, J. P. (2013). Digital Media and Learning: A Prospective Retrospective. Retrieved from http://jamespaulgee.com/pdfs/Digital%20Media%20and%20Learning.pdf

George, Z. (2014). How to train a puppy not to bite. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/m9KQegi4r8k

Horwitz, D. (1999). Counseling pet owners on puppy socialization and establishing leadership. Veterinary Medicine, 94, 149-156.

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., Robison, A. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Retrieved from http://www.newmedialiteracies.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/NMLWhitePaper.pdf

The Nature of Learning in the 21st Century

Photo by Štefan Štefančík -  source

Photo by Štefan Štefančík - source

In my CEP 810 (Teaching for Understanding with Technology) course, the initial assignment tasked students with writing an expository essay that responds to two key questions regarding learning. The essay (full version here) contains my analysis of what learning is defined as and what teaching methods support learning and its related concepts -- understanding and conceptual change. Upon reading the first three chapters of “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School,” I have gathered specific evidence to support my response to the given prompt, exploring how learning is a comprehensive process that encompasses the transfer of knowledge and skills, and translates into understanding and the ability to make real-world connections. Moreover, I stress that collaboration, goal-setting, reflection, autonomy and digital productivity tools support an optimal learning environment.

I appreciate you taking the time to explore my insights. Please feel free to share your comments below!