Zombie-based Geography?

August 7th, 2014. Madrid. Thirteen zombie attacks reported near the city center. The following day, Toledo declares a state of emergency in response to six zombie attacks. You are the chief advisor to The Center for Disease Control. A colour-coded alert needs to be issued to the various regions of Spain, based on the likelihood that zombies will strike these regions next.

Zombie psychologists have kindly provided an index of zombie likes and dislikes to guide your decisions. See Figure A:


Accurate alerts will require you to make use of Spain’s topographic and climate data, in addition to understanding the physical geography, and cultural attractions. More importantly, you will need to know how different cities are connected–high-speed trains? Busy highways? Rivers?–as this knowledge will reveal the routes zombies may travel to fulfil their ghastly ambitions.

Zombie-based geography is the brain-child of David Hunter. The scenario described above (in abbreviated form) is how I adapted David’s ideas to meet my own student’s needs, personalities, and objectives. An upcoming school trip to Spain inspired the choice of location.

For content– keeping in mind this project happened over the course of eight, fifty-minute sessions, the objective was to develop:

  • Spatial analysis through the concepts of structure, relationships, and connections
  • The use of topographical, climate, physical, and political maps to analyse data and make predictions about human, (and zombie) migrations

We focused on ‘Communication’ as the Approach to Learning (ATL), by learning how to use a green-screen to create a video.  We also communicated our understanding of spatial analysis through geographic tools (maps).

Having students video-record the process of their decision-making while solving problems turned out to be an excellent practice in metacognition. We all know students learn from solving problems, but there is not much attention given to student’s explaining the process by which the solution was achieved. Those of you who use games to promote learning may consider a similar ‘think-aloud’ practice, as it is sometimes hard to access what exactly is being learned.  This sort of project also has a lot of potential for ESL instruction, as it motivates students to learn, and develops visual and oral skills of communication.

Here are two student samples that I think illustrate how learning can be creative,  effective., and fun…   Hope you enjoy!




Towards a social understanding of self-regulated learning.

Educational policy research in the last decade has placed increasing stress on the need for students to develop skills or competencies to compete in the knowledge-based economy, where production involves conceptual innovation, rather than routine manufacturing. The ‘Next Chapter’ of the IBO, a comprehensive alteration in the practice, if not the principles of the IBO framework, reflects the influence of these policy findings. Approaches to Learning (ATL), designed to help students “learn how to learn” (MYP: From Principles to Practice, p. 20), is now a core component of the curriculum. The ultimate aim of making these ATL an explicit part of the curriculum is to develop “self-regulated–independent and autonomous” learners (Ibid., p. 21).

In what follows I hope to expand on the definition suggested by the term “self-regulated” learning (SRL), and the “self-management” ATL that is meant to support its development. By placing the development of (SRL) in a social context, teachers can remain consistent in their constructivist approaches to instruction, and use collaboration as a scaffold to help the “self” better regulate its learning. First a bit on the relationship between (SRL) and metacognition.

What is the relationship between metacognition and self-regulated learning?

(SRL) has been defined as the control, management, monitoring, reflecting, and adapting one’s cognitive processes and learning activities for improvement. Examples of (SRL) occur when learners monitor and direct their own progress, asking questions such as “What am I doing now?,” “Is it getting me anywhere?,” “What else could I be doing instead?”

These definitions depend on the learner being aware of themselves as a learner, with the ability to notice strategies as they occur, to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, to reflect on and ultimately to adapt these strategies for future improvement. To monitor, control, regulate, reflect on, and adapt one’s learning, it is first necessary to be aware of learning as learning, an awareness of learning above the subject matter itself. A learner needs to have a metacognitive awareness of their own learning, before the self-regulatory processes mentioned above can be initiated. In How People Learn (click link for full text. It’s a synthesis of decades of educational research published by the the National Research Council in 2000) metacognition was identified as a key element for improving student learning.

The upshot for teachers, particularly those involved in implementing the ATL of the Next Chapter, is that it might be helpful to develop the metacognitive awareness of your students, before focusing on developing strategies for improving these processes. I found some great thinking routines for developing metacognitive awareness in Making Thinking Visible, though I’m sure there are plenty of other excellent sources available.

 Is it really up to the learner to “self” regulate?

Since the 1970’s when the notions of metacognition and (SRL) first gained prominence, (SRL) has been conceived as an individual, cognitive process. Our language continues to reflect the belief in an isolated ego, manipulating their thinking in a context-less void. We speak of “self-management,”and “self-directed” learners.  With the constructivist turn in educational theory initiated by Vygotsky, research into the processes of (SRL) are identifying the social factors supporting, and often driving the (SRL) process. These changes are also reflected in the language now used to describe the processes. There is talk now of ‘co-regulated’ learning (see the research being done by Allison Hadwin), socially-shared cognition, and distributed cognition (for more on this see ‘Cognition in the Wild‘.

As teachers, when we encourage our students to aim higher, ask for clarification of meaning, recommend apps for managing information, we co- regulate with our students. More significant and often overlooked in the literature is the co-regulating role played by peers during collaborative projects. I have experimented with different forms of social media to make the process of collaboration visible to my students. This enables me to identify effective collaboration, rather than vaguely defined “group work.” I could see students motivating their peers– ”maybe consider this..” “ I know it’s hard, maybe try reading this…”, “ …summative is in three days, we can do this!!”  Conversation threads also reveal students asking each other for clarification of meaning– “ what do you mean by ‘better’…  “can you explain this more, I don’t understand..” In other words, the affective and organisational traits we often associate with “self” management and “self” regulation occur within and are fostered by interactions, resulting in meaningful collaboration.

(I also show these conversations to students, so they can see and understand what co-regulation is, to see what it means to be a team-player, a collaborator in the deeper sense of the term.)

If there’s a “take-away” to speak of here, it’s to see metacognition, self-regulated learning, and collaboration as related and mutually reinforcing, and leveraging the power of ICT can support the development of all three by making the process visible to the teacher and student.

Thanks for reading…



21st C. learning: Defining, implementing, assessing

If you’ve attended a PD workshop within the last five years, you may have heard how ” we are educating children for jobs that do not yet exist, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet. ” This is one of many messages from the viral video Did You Know?, meant to shake educators from our perceived dogmatic and regressive slumber. In the last five years, reports issued by Institutes such as ISTE, UNESCO, OECD, ATC21s,  and EnGauge, have responded to these challenges by placing ’21st Century Skills’ at the core of significant policy changes. These macro-level shifts are reflected in the recent ‘Next Chapter’ changes  of the International Baccalaureate and the ‘Common Core’  standards recently introduced in the U.S.

For educators, these are exciting times, as we are situated in the midst of a paradigm shift, which affords both opportunity and risk. Adjustment, it seems to me, needs to begin with a clear and shared understanding of the key terms involved in ’21st century learning.’ We need to also recognise potential challenges to implementation, to avoid the cynicism that often arrives in the wake of failed initiatives. We also need to develop a framework for formatively assessing these skills, a framework that enables teachers to provide specific feedback to students for developing these skills, but that also enhances student agency by allowing for self and peer-based assessment. Or so it seems to me. Below is a brief sketch highlighting the ambiguous state of ’21st century education,’ and current efforts to address these concerns.

A 2012 study comparing international frameworks for 21st century learning (Voogt, J. and Roblin, N.P., 2012), suggests the skills required for success in our era are a matter of some dispute. All frameworks (P21, ATC21S, EnGauge, OECD, EU, ISTE, NAEP, and UNESCO) agree that developing skills related to collaboration, communication, ICT literacy, social skills, and citizenship, should be core objectives. However,  self-direction and adaptability were only mentioned by a few, and risk-taking was only mentioned by EnGauge:

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 11.03.21 am
Comparative analysis of of international frameworks for 21st century skills

As a teacher practicing within the IBO framework, I’ve been prescribed a set of skills to learn and teach called ATTL (Approaches to Teaching and Learning). This framework aligns nicely with the competences identified above, in the far-left row, which all eight policy institutes agreed were essential. However, each skill contains multiple–in some cases infinite (‘social-skills’?!) strands. Though the IBO provides a list of strands related to each, it is also recognised that these strands should be context-specific, to meet the needs of learners in specific locations, at particular stages of development. This links to a second challenge for successful integration.

A key issue identified by all frameworks concerns the role of teachers and their professional development (Voogt, J, and Roblin, N.P., 2012, p. 311). Teaching 21st century skills rests on the assumption that teachers possess the competences to be taught, and have a clear understanding of the mission before them. The IBO has provided indicators for teachers to identify and assess most of the core skills mentioned above (and a more comprehensive treatment will be available on the OCC soon). Yet, discussions I’ve had recently with IBO teachers and coordinators from Canada, Japan, Australia, and the U.S., suggest a lot of work needs to be done to support effective implementation. It seems that a policy to make sure teachers understand the rationale behind these changes, strategies to implement them authentically in the classroom, and a rubric to promote precise and constructive feedback from teachers and between students would be a useful phase one. For those fortunate enough to have strong learning support or curriculum development teams in place, perhaps the transition will be less rocky. For the rest of us, re-imagining PD, with an emphasis on developing a shared discourse and a community of shared practices, and using ICT to support more effective feedback, would go some distance in addressing the challenges ahead. As teaching practices often inform a teacher’s sense of professional and personal identity, strategies to encourage staff “buy-in” to unfamiliar methods might prove the most formidable challenge of all. Facilitating a growth mindset amongst the staff would be another key component of successful implementation.

Of the frameworks mentioned above, Melbourne based ATC21S is actively pursuing models for assessing 21st C. skills. The focus thus far has been on rubrics for assessing ‘ICT literacy’ and ‘collaborative problem solving.’They prefer the term ‘collaborative problem solving’ over ‘collaboration,’ as effective team-work is typically aimed at reaching a specific goal–setting collaborative tasks that align with the insights of ‘problem-based-learning’ could therefore create the conditions for effective collaboration?

Collaborative problem solving is broken down into three components. ( ‘Perspective-taking’ may be a useful strategy for developing ’empathy,’ and ‘social-regulation’ provides a constructivist twist on ‘self-management.’):

  • Participation Skills
  • Perspective – Taking Skills
  • Social Regulation

Here is a selection of skills related to collaborative-problem-solving, with three developmental stages:

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 9.11.29 am

Source: ATC21S

As 21st century learning inches ever further to the core of our teaching practice, it is crucial educators reflect on both the opportunities and challenges. Developing a shared understanding of the rationale and skills involved, inter-disciplinary strategies for meaningful integration, and a rubric to empower both teachers and students capacities for assessment, seem to be necessary components for success. Attention to the psychological stress placed on teachers in the process of transforming their practice, and an awareness of the link between a teachers practice and their sense of self, could also promote a more sustainable integration.

Would be great to exercise our own skills of ‘collaborative-problem-solving’ and continue this discussion here or elsewhere…  Thanks for reading!



Jake Voogt & Natalie Pareja Roblin (2012): A comparative analysis of international frameworks for 21st century competences: Implications for national curriculum policies, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44:3, 299-321.

To link to this article click here




Is ‘Inquiry-Based Learning’ too Narrowly Defined?

Last week while scanning Twitter for ideas, a chat was going on that caught my interest: #inquirychat. Seeing the host and participants were speaking with experience and authority on the subject, I jumped in. The initial questions were on the successes and failures of implementing ‘inquiry’ into the classroom. My first question to the forum might seem silly to some of you reading this post, in essence, ‘what do we mean by inquiry in the classroom’?

‘Inquiry-Based Learning’ is a recognised foundation for the IB / MYP, and from the discussions seen on Twitter and elsewhere, the trend is universal. Inquiry-based learning as it is widely understood today involves the following aspects: 

  • The use of open learning, where there is no prescribed target or result.
  • A focus on process, rather than, or in addition to the final product.
  • A focus on questions generated from the students own interests.
  • Student- centred and teacher guided.
  • Focus on real-world applications.
  • A constructivist approach to learning where students have ownership of the learning.
  • Involves asking questions, gathering and analysing information, justifying conclusions, and taking action.

I’m familiar with this list, and I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the methods and learning outcomes inscribed within this approach. However, I’m also a literalist, and when I hear the term “inquiry-based learning,” and see it applied to discrete “projects” rather than a daily, ongoing routine of educating both the student and teacher, it appears to be missing an important, I’m tempted to say THE, point.

The point of inquiry, classically understood, is first and foremost a disposition, a way of existing in the world. It is about being non-dogmatic, which is to say open to new ways of knowing, IF these ways of knowing are supported with sufficient evidence and explanations. In this stance of provisional agnosticism, ‘inquiring’ or questioning is the natural means of engaging with the world around you. Inquiry understood in this way was illustrated most clearly in the dialogues of Socrates, who, through rigorous questioning, revealed how the concepts that structured Athenian society–justice, beauty, right and wrong– were shallowly understood. Fortunately, this way of being in the world still finds its exemplars, like Michael Sandel at Harvard. Have a look at the video below, to see ‘inquiry’ approached as a routine of education, rather than a discrete instance. (The video was shared by a participant of the #inquirychat):

If you liked this video, there’s lots more here. 

Inquiry-based learning has the potential for being a revolutionary force in education. But understood as a discrete opportunity afforded to kids at the end of a unit, to assess understanding or a certain set of skills, seems to me a half-measure. If inquiry is not a demonstrated spirit of educating, imbued with openness, uncertainty, curiosity, and the constant questioning that results from these attributes, then it seems a bit idealistic to expect students to generate these attributes ‘on cue,’ when a project appears on their unit planner. To make inquiry-based learning a reality in the deeper sense, the daily, existential sense, involves what I’m tempted to call a spiritual shift– a belief that a “teachers” own deepest assumptions might not be as iron-clad as they had hoped, (or required)– rather than a re-arrangement of one’s pedagogical tool-box. If a classroom can be permeated daily with this spirit of openness and friendly agnosticism, it seems students will be better prepared to question and explore come “project” time. Or does it?

Inquiry and Concepts in the Humanities

What follows is an illustration of my current understanding of concept and inquiry driven education. It has been constructed on the “shoulders of giants,” master educators whose ideas and resources I would be offensively dull without. The hope here is to add to our existing knowledge of a paradigm shift in education, to hasten it, while lessening the shock of the new. The audience is both you and I. You, as a critical listener, whose constructive feedback would be greatly appreciated. I, because these thoughts are new and cloudy, and articulation always seems to sift out the mud from the puddle. Thanks in advance for your attention.

October 17th is recognized by the U.N. as the “International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.” It seemed natural to begin another year of MYP Humanities with a unit that focused on ‘Development,’ and was supported by the related concepts ‘Poverty,’ and ‘Governance.’ The unit I’m speaking of has been designed for grade 9 / MYP 4, but it could be modified to suit kids of different levels.

To begin the discussion, the three concepts were written on the whiteboard, and the kids were asked to read my mind, “why is it that I would have chosen these three concepts for a unit plan? How do they fit together?” This leads to a definition of the various concepts, here I find concept maps are very useful. We begin with ‘Development,’ “What does this word mean to you? There are no wrong answers here so be bold and take a risk.” We do the same for ‘Poverty,’ and ‘Governance.’ This exercise first of all indicates the current understanding of these concepts. It also allows us to better understand how the concepts connect. By the thirty minute mark of lesson one, kids have grappled with the multiple definitions of the different concepts, and know that ‘governance,’ in its various levels and forms, will be the concept through which solutions to the problems already raised will be addressed. When the unit question is then presented: “What is poverty, whose problem is it, and what’s the most effective way of dealing with it?”, the kids have a pretty good idea of where we’re going. ( I know this unit question might not seem “open-ended” enough, but if you delve sufficiently deep into the multiple definitions of these concepts, and theories of good governance, all three sub-questions are hotly contestable.)

Next, divide the class into groups, three would be ideal. Have them imagine the world as a village of 100 people. You will be playing this video, which you will want to watch first alone, and based on the statistics provided, create ten questions. Examples include: “How many would be Asian? How many would live in sub-standard housing? How many would be malnourished? How many would have internet access? How many would have a college degree?

Have the kids come up with answers to these questions as a group, and write their responses on the white board. Leave one column for “actual answers.” Then play the video for the class and have a student or students write down the answers provided by the video. I find this is a great way for kids to discover how their perceptions of the world are typically way off the mark of what’s really going on. It also opens up a more in-depth discussion of what “development” means. You can ask kids why they think the world has developed in this manner, with extreme disparity in resource allocation. You may also want the kids to decide which statistic they find most troubling and why.

For Homework you can have the kids read these two stories, and be prepared to discuss the meaning of poverty in the next class:

“Poorer than Poor” by Stan and Mari Thekaekara, written for the Daily Telegraph (UK), March 10 1995.

“The inhabitants here have a better life than people there. The latter is a soulless place where people are demoralized and face a meaningless future. The penniless tribesman living in a mud hut here is better off. It was a shock to us to see that the unemployed people there had cars and televisions and refrigerators – incredible wealth to many people here – and yet they were apathetic and had no hope. Around them were visible signs of drug abuse, terrible vandalism, street gangs and daily violence. Despite their possessions, they are worse off than the poorest tribesman.

Here, the poor still have initiative. Every day, you see them scavenging in the garbage heaps for junk. If they find something of the slightest value, they will take it and sell it somewhere. They will do odd jobs whenever they’re available. They are doing something to keep body and soul together.

But there, there’s heaviness in the air which you don’t experience here. We were trying to work out why. Then it hit us. We had never met a man here who had been unemployed for 20 years as some of the residents there. Here, people experience seasonal unemployment but not 20 years of purposeless, meaningless existence. However, the women there are different. They are still resilient and put energy and enthusiasm into various voluntary projects. The depressing factor was the lack of involvement by the males”.

For an alternative perspective, the kids should also read this:

“This is a hard place to live, and a grotesquely easy place to die. Male life expectancy is 54, lower than The Gambia in West Africa, nearly a decade lower than Bangladesh, and about 24 years below the national average. Move just a few miles and you will live, on average, 30 years longer. Despite this, people here do not and cannot leave. For all Ms Livingston’s lament, her kids are stuck in a ghetto ringed by some of the saddest statistics in the country. The neighbourhood has the highest proportion of voters on incapacity benefit or disability allowance and the fewest qualifications in higher education; nearly half of homes are social housing; and, in parts, unemployment has reached 50 per cent”.

( Disclosure, I got the “World as a 100 people video idea, and these readings from various unit plans available on OCC. I would cite directly but unable to track the original sources.)

By the time the preliminary concept mapping, discussions, video, and readings are complete, the kids should be well-aware of the concepts they will be engaged with over the coming eight weeks. It’s time to give kids specific categories through which they can view and understand ‘Development.’ I assigned a short video that discusses the U.N. Millennium Goals for 2015. Also try this.

I live and teach in Hong Kong, so with a focus on the Asia region, the kids are now working in groups of three, co-creating a prezi that applies the U.N. Millennium goals to different countries in Asia. Each group has two countries that are economically underdeveloped, and one that is not. For example, a group might have Cambodia, Myanmar, and Japan. They will present this next time we meet, and we are then prepared to start discussing more in depth the explanations for the disparities between their selected countries. How should we understand these development gaps?

We are then ready to look more closely at the meaning of governance, and it’s international, national, local, and grass-roots manifestations. I find these resources from the IBO very useful: Teaching about Cooperation and Governance.  We will discuss, using examples from real-world situations, what is being done by different levels of governance to deal with development gaps, with a focus on poverty. For example, we will look at the effectiveness of efforts by the U.N. and the World Bank, National systems of welfare and government subsidies, N.G.O.’s such as Kiva, and what is being done locally.

We will now be ready for the “Inquiry” stage of the unit. ( I’m still a believer that “inquiry” is, or at least should be, the routine practice of every educator. In this sense, Socrates had it right 2,400 years ago. True education is about “drawing out” what is already there, of refining knowledge rather than “giving” it.)

To coincide with the U.N. eradication of poverty day, the students will host an assembly on “Development, Poverty, and Governance in Hong Kong.” Each student will be required to create and present (videos, power-point/prezi, and blogs / web pages are all acceptable) for 4-5 minutes on the development gap in Hong Kong. What makes this “inquiry” (I think) is that the requirement for the presentation is for the most part wide-open: ‘Raising Awareness on the Development Gap in Hong Kong.’

To a certain extent, “inquiry” is a relative concept, and can be carried out in a meaningful way within various levels of constraints. There will be opportunities as the year progresses for more wide- open, student initiated  explorations. For this particular assessment, however, a moderate level of restraint was necessary for the larger purpose, which is raising awareness of a pressing issue in Hong Kong. How this pressing issue “development” is defined, how it will be investigated, how it will be illustrated, and what solutions will be offered are all left to the students.

That said, there are certain requirements I need to see in order to do proper assessment, for example I need to see the students have a solid understanding of the key and related concepts. The project needs to be multi-modal: text, video, photographic, audio, to help me assess ‘communication.’ It needs to explain how development in Hong Kong is being dealt with on the international, national, and grass-roots levels, though these categories leave an abundance of room for interpretation. And it needs to end with a “plan for action,” which will be voted on and acted upon by the school at large. This plan of action is completely up to the students discretion. This will allow me to assess ‘investigating.’

Students will also need to provide an action plan for how they will be approaching the topic, the resources they will be using, and the technology they will be employing. They will also need to write a pre-assessment on the learning strategies they will be using ( time-management, realistic goal setting ), and post-presentation reflection on how these strategies were executed, and how they can be improved upon for next time. These requirements provide a form designed to enhance the inquiry, to make it a structured learning process rather than something so open-minded that brains will drop out.

At the end of this unit, I’m confident these kids will understand and be able to apply this understanding to the key and related concepts. They will be afforded the opportunity to illustrate this understanding in a real-world way, with a meaningful connection to our local community. They will also have been given the opportunity to develop their capacity as “inquirers,” by developing and implementing a research plan, deciding on an angle for the topic that interests them, discovering and sorting the relevant resources, and learning through practice how to effectively persuade an audience to join one’s cause.

Before I close, I again want to say thank you to all the silent authors whose ideas and resources have inspired my own practices. So many great minds out there! If one of you happens to be listening, a few words of constructive feedback would be awesome…  Thanks for the visit!

Why You Should Read: ‘Making Thinking Visible’



A few months back I wrote a review of the book ‘A New Culture of Learning’    by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. The progressive agenda of this text was inspiring, but in terms of how to convert innovative theory into concrete practice, the results were disappointing. I was hoping for something that could be applied immediately in the classroom, something with a realistic vision of administrative affordances and constraints. In this sense, A New Culture of Learning was perhaps too ahead of its time. It was therefore with a tinge of skepticism that I acted upon a fellow IBO teacher‘s recommendation for summer reading: ‘Making Thinking Visible.’

Making Thinking Visible documents the results of a research project carried out by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The main premise is that the learning process is for the most part invisible to our students. Students are assessed on criteria such as “knowledge and understanding” but are rarely exposed to the specific components that define and distinguish these criteria. Lacking specific exposure to these components, students are unlikely to develop a meta-cognitive awareness of these processes on their own thinking.

The authors ask us to imagine how the process of “apprenticeship” is carried out in non-academic domains. They refer us to the craft of brick-laying, where an apprentice is able to see the process unfold, from the mixing of mortar, to the scaffolding, to the application of the mortar, then finally to the laying of the brick. The process is modeled for the apprentice by the professional mason, so when it’s time for the apprentice to do the job of brick-laying, they know precisely how to proceed. In the classroom, we require the product “understanding” but how many of us provide a model for the processes involved in the production of this abstract term?

Not me, I confess.

At least not before reading this book. What the authors have done in magisterial form, is to provide teachers like you and me with a model for the processes that go into what we call “thinking.” The authors identify eights primary traits of thinking:

  • Observing closely and describing what’s there
  • Building explanations and interpretations
  • Reasoning with evidence
  • Making connections
  • Considering different viewpoints and perspectives
  • Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
  • Wondering and asking questions
  • Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things

The authors recommend that we make these processes an explicit part of our daily classroom activities, to identify these processes when we see them occur, so the student can gain a ‘meta-cognitive’ awareness of their own thinking. This morning, thanks to a severe typhoon here in Hong Kong, I’ve had time to create eight posters, each labeled with a different thinking trait, that will be laminated and posted in my classroom. This year, when students exhibit these processes, they will be made aware of it. Perhaps more crucially, for students who exhibit some but not all of these traits, the model shows what needs to be developed. I can hear the discussion now:

” So which of our thinking traits did Kim just demonstrate?”

” Making connections”

“Good….  but what’s lacking… Kim, what are you forgetting”?

” Umm.. I haven’t considered the different viewpoints?”

” Excellent.. check out the posters… anything else?”

Another reason why you should read ‘Making Thinking Visible’ is that the author’s provide really great “thinking routines.” I’ve heard this term used a lot this past year, so I suspect some of you are ahead of the game. For late-comers like me, thinking routines are things you do in class on a regular basis to inspire the thinking traits listed above. These routines can be as simple as a question: “What makes you say that?” By asking this simple question, a student is encouraged to “reason with evidence.” Another routine that I’ve already used to positive effect in a PD workshop was what’s called “Compass Points.” You provide information on a topic ( like changes being introduced in the MYP by ‘The Next Chapter ), you then ask the audience what   E.  Excites them about the topic     W. what Worries them about the topic    N. what Needs further clarification    S. what Strategies or Suggestion do they have for improvement.   This routine is easy to remember, as it’s based on the compass points, and is an effective way to inspire higher level thinking. I can imagine using this routine on topics in my Individuals and Societies classroom such as Globalization, Migration, Nuclear Energy, Development, G.M.O.’s, the list could on indefinitely.

Nearly half the book is devoted to these kinds of thinking routines. All of them are easy to remember, with helpful acronyms, and the utility, the styles of thinking each routine develops, is explained in depth. If, like me, you are pressed for time, and prefer literature with precise and thoughtful application, you will benefit handsomely from a reading of ‘Making Thinking Visible.’ For me, it’s a game changer. It’s reframed how I think of the thinking process itself, and revolutionized my methods for making these processes visible.





Minecraft and Concept Based Learning

The benefits of video games for educational purposes will be well-known to most of you currently reading this post. For those of you looking for more depth on this topic, specifically on how gaming develops a child’s capacity for empathy, collaborative solutions, and innovation, you may find this a useful read.

Receiving the most glowing praise for its ability to impart 21st century skills, in the context of play, is Minecraft. I recently introduced Minecraft to my grade six humanities unit on the Middle Ages. The key concepts were “Conflict” and “Innovation.” The unit question was “How does conflict lead to innovation?” The mission was to create a Middle Age castle on Minecraft that took into account the various technologies used by invaders during this time period. The kids worked in assigned groups of three to four. Those most familiar with Minecraft were grouped with those who knew least.

As I’ve indicated in a previous post, the MYP is moving towards an explicit concept-based learning model. So let me begin by emphasizing that what I wanted the kids to take away from this unit is a secure understanding of how conflict / problems in society often lead to innovative solutions. The “facts” of the Middle Ages were learned in some sense by default. It would have been impossible to design a castle without understanding the class structure– peasant huts are built beyond the gates, knights live inside, and the Lord and Lady repose comfortably in their Keep. The “system of loyalties” was therefore implicit in the design. To design the castle properly, it was also necessary for the kids to research how castle design changed between 1000-1300 C.E. They needed to avoid the earlier mistakes, and borrow from the later successes. They therefore learned by default the various technologies used for purposes of conquest. But I wish to again stress that our focus was not on learning the “system of loyalties” or that the Normans invaded England in 1066. These “facts” were indeed learned, but through the process of understanding the concept question: how conflict leads to innovation. And this concept question was explored through collaboration and play, which, for reasons that need not be elaborated upon here, among guests such as you, is a very powerful incentive for engagement.

We devoted four periods to the project. Each day, on the white board, was a reminder that the purpose of our creating castles was to understand the link between conflict and innovation. During class, I roamed among the different groups, asking them to explain the conflict that led to the innovation they were designing. I should mention that using “problem” instead of “innovation” and “creation” instead of “innovation” was useful at the start, until the kids got used to what “conflict” and “innovation” mean. By week two, they all understood: ” What problem in society encouraged you to design that moat?” ” Two walls instead of one?… what conflict does this second wall solve?” “Stone instead of wood, that’s an interesting innovation, but why?” By the end of the second lesson, I could ask questions like: “give me three examples from castle design that show how conflict leads to innovation.” All the kids could give at least one answer, which suggests the concepts themselves were starting to register.

These are sixth graders after all, and if some of you are thinking that they were more into having fun, than learning about “conflict” and “innovation” you are absolutely correct. But the two are not mutually exclusive. From the beginning, I made it clear that I’m not interested in “cool looking castles,” and stressed the fact that our summative exam is not based on the castle itself, but on the processes and innovations involved in the creation. If I would point at an “arrow loop” and ask what conflict this was designed in response to, and the student could not answer, I would let them know that they are “missing the point.. the point here is not to build a castle, but to understand why this castle is being built the way it is, the problems and conflicts that this arrow loop and draw bridge solve.” Believe it or not, it did not take long for the students to “get it.”

To gauge this understanding I did something not very nice. On the day the students were to come in and share their castles with the class, I had a question written on the whiteboard: ” With reference to castle design during the Middle Ages, how does conflict lead to innovation.” Here is a piece of paper and pencil, you have twenty five minutes to respond.

“…The architects soon found major flaws in their design. The wood from the walls could be burnt down by the newly invented fire arrow. Also, over time wood rotted. Having only one archer tower meant it could be overrun by large numbers. Later in the time-line architects re-evaluated their design and fixed their flaws, and bravo, a stone keep castle was invented. There was a moat so invaders couldn’t dig under, everything was made of stone, arrow loops, at least four archer towers, better vantage points, and a better Keep in the center….”  ( I should mention that the student who wrote this designed a water purification system for his castle, in case the enemies dumped a body infected with small pox into the water that feeds the castle well.)

” Conflict leads to innovation by making mistakes because with mistakes people make new ideas. Like for example the Motte and Bailey was made out of wood so when people attack they would use fire arrows to burn down the castle. People realized they had to build something different so because of their mistakes they developed the concentric and stone keep castles…”

” If enemies would never burn, dig under, or barricade the Motte and Bailey castles, the Concentric Castles would never be developed…”

For the Medievalists among you, these sample responses might not be impressive. There is no mention of a “barter economy” and for heaven’s sake “King John” never makes an appearance. Please refer back to the desired learning outcomes, it was to instill in my students an understanding of how conflict leads to innovation, using Medieval Castle Design as a context for exploring these concepts. The purpose was not to have kids memorize key dates and people of the time period, as, let’s be honest, they will forget most if not all, and you would be hard pressed to justify the relevance of the information in the first place. Moreover, they can learn that stuff on their smart phones if it does become relevant to their lives.

For my purposes, the real goal is longer term. In four years when we discuss the Cold War, will they more easily identify the NASA space program as an innovative response to the Cold War conflict? In English, will these kids more easily recognize how conflict with society, nature, and with oneself are what drives narratives, and the development of character? Will they more easily recognize how theories in philosophy and science are responses to existing gaps or flaws? My bet is yes, they will. And the seeds of this understanding will have been planted in a collaborative, creative, and really fun context. Minecraft, I may not see you for awhile, but it was fun while it lasted!