Tag Archives: creativity

3D Printing

In our new Makerspace/Robotics Lab, we’ve got a new Makerbot Replicator for 3D printing (and a Digitizer for scanning objects)! We’ve set it up and run a few test prints. I sent out a tweet last weekend of our first real print:

It’s quite impressive how things come out. I’d downloaded some files from museums and art galleries, and wound up printing out two really impressive objects:

firstprintoutsThe skull is of a Homo Erectus, and the original is over 1.5million years old! It’s a scan of a fossil skull found near Lake Turkana in Kenya (nicknamed “Turkana Boy”). This fossil – and many others – have been scanned and 3D models are available to be looked at and manipulated online at africanfossils.org. This is a terrific resource for any teachers or students interested in studying human origins. (There are also animal fossils as well as tools.) Furthermore, the 3D scans can be downloaded for printing out on a 3D printer. This means that for the price of some plastic filament and some electricity, our school can have a scale model of a real fossilized skull of one of our ancestors. Students can hold it in their hands, look at it from all sides, and see what our ancient relatives looked like (on the inside, at least!).

There are also many museums that have collections of sculptures and artifacts that can be downloaded and printed, such as Rodin’s “The Thinker.” This model was done by a hobbyist and published on Thingiverse, so it’s not as detailed as a scan from the original would be. However, many museums are allowing and encouraging the scanning of artifacts (see this article from The Metropolitan Museum of Art) so it will be increasingly possible for schools to have scale models of sculptures, carvings, or other physical artifacts available to their students.

It’s pretty exciting to have these types of resources available to our students and teachers and community. Come check it out in room S021!

This is cross-posted from my school blog.

First Attempt In Learning

We got a bunch of new equipment to set up the new Makerspace/Robotics Lab, including a vinyl cutter. This is a fairly simple piece of equipment: you design something, then send it to the cutter which cuts your design in paper or vinyl. With this, you can make stencils, wall decals, laptop stickers, etc.

So I tried out some designs to put up on the walls. I had some ideas in my head, so I designed them in Inkscape and worked them into cut lines to run through the cutter. (You can’t just print a solid image: you need the lines that the cutter will follow.)

And I came up with this:


It was a great idea: the action word “Think” to go with the ICS Learner Profile trait of being a Thinker, a brain to lend a visual to the word. But… The brain cut out nicely, but it was extremely difficult to apply to the wall. It stuck to itself, then parts adhered to the wall in the wrong spots. It’s wrinkly and the gap between the lobes is too big.

And I realized: it’s not a FAIL, it’s a First Attempt In Learning. I learned a lot about what makes a good design for a vinyl cut, and I realized I should leave it up there to show the students. They can learn from my F.A.I.L. and try their own designs. And if theirs don’t come out beautifully, it’ll be their First Attempt In Learning.

This is cross-posted from my school blog.

Free for all: the public domain

Mona Lisa (La Giocanda) by Leonardo da Vinci – from Wikimedia Commons – used under public domain

There comes a point when copyright and free licensing aren’t right; when the original creator’s right to own his/her artistic work becomes less important than the right of every person to have access to and use that work. At this point, the work becomes public domain: something that is the property of anyone and everyone.

There are some things that belong to everyone: the air we breathe, sunlight, etc. Similarly, there are public spaces – village greens, town squares, etc. – that are for the use of everyone. Similarly, there is an area of intellectual creativity that is available to everyone: the public domain. These works are for everyone to use, share, re-use, remix, etc.

After an artist or creator dies and the copyright on his/her work expires, that work passes into the public domain. The plays of Shakespeare, the symphonies of Beethoven, the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, etc, are all in the public domain: nobody owns the rights to them, so that anyone and everyone can use them.

There is some difference and disagreement as to exactly when a work protected by copyright laws passes into the public domain. Most countries rule that either 50 or 70 years after the death of the creator, copyright protection expires. The United States has changed its laws several times, so the determination of when a work enters the public domain in the US is very complicated. See this explanation.

by Public Domain Pictures – from Pixabay – licensed CC0/Public Domain

Derivative works based on works in the public domain can be protected by copyright. So if I create an artwork based on the Mona Lisa but incorporating my own personal touches, I can copyright that work. Similarly, while the music of Beethoven or Mozart has entered the public domain, any performances of their works can be protected by copyright laws.

Anyone can voluntarily give up their rights to copyright and donate their work to the public domain. Creative Commons has created a CC0 license that creators can apply to their work which gives up all rights. This allows people to use their work in any way they wish …even without attribution.

There are many places to find works in the public domain which you can use, enjoy, share, and incorporate into your own creative works. Here are a few places to start:

  • Public Domain Review: a site celebrating and sharing a variety of works that are in the public domain. Read their Guide to Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online.
  • Europeana: a collection celebrating and promoting the cultural works of Europe. (Note: not everything on the site is necessarily public domain, but the site is committed to public access to culture, and much of the site is available under open licenses.
  • NASA: all the amazing photographs and videos taken by NASA spacecraft and astronauts are automatically entered into the public domain. All works created by US government employees in the course of their work become public domain because they are paid for by (US) public funds. NASA is just one example.
  • Pixabay: a curated photography site (editors check submissions for quality) with all submitted photographs (or vector graphics) licensed CC0. (I have submitted photographs here – and some weren’t selected. Photographs selected by this site are generally of high quality.)
  • Project Gutenberg: fill up your e-reader for free: Project Gutenberg has tens of thousands of free e-books that are in the public domain.
  • Flickr’s The Commons: photographs from a variety of sources that are all public domain.
  • Musopen: a music site that has public domain performances – recordings that are free to download, listen to, remix, sample, etc. The site also offers public domain sheet music, and has sponsored recordings to be entered into the public domain. For example, the site commissioned recordings of the complete works of Frederic Chopin.
  • Public Domain Day: less of a source of public domain works, and more a commentary on the state of public domain in the US. This site celebrates works that are released into the public domain every year on January 1st. Or at least, released into the public domain in Canada or Europe. As the site notes, nothing will be released into the public domain in the US until 2019!
  • Public Domain Sherpa: a site devoted to giving information and help in finding works in the public domain in the US.
  • Public Domain Movies: there are various sites that host movies that are in the public domain. The Internet Archive is a great source of classic copyright-free movies, as well as other copyright-free media.
Cross-posted from my school blog.

Finding the Technology Balance during Holidays


Many parents (and teachers) fear the “summer slump.” Classes are over, kids are at home, and parents still need to work. It’s easy for children to spend their days glued to the TV or playing games on a tablet or just goofing off on a computer. They worry about children keeping their learning going during the summer, so they assign books to read, find educational apps, have their children do keyboarding practice, do lessons on educational websites, etc.

children-playing-329234_1280This can exacerbate the sedentary life of children during the holidays. Kids might wind up sitting and doing screen-based activities …when they also need to get outside and run around, dig in the dirt or a sandbox, play games with other children, etc.

What’s a parent to do? How can we keep our children learning and creating, while also being active and enjoying themselves?

For me, the key word is balance. It’s OK for kids (or adults!) to slob out in front of the TV for a while. It’s OK for kids (or adults!) to spend hours playing games on a tablet or game machine. It’s OK for kids to do any activity that doesn’t actually hurt them. It really only becomes problematical when that’s all that they do.

So let me add my comments to the numerous articles (here’s a very good one) about how to manage your children’s use of technology during the summer time, and offer two basic rules:

Use limits to keep a balance

Talk with your child(ren) about the need for balance. (It’s part of the ICS Learner Profile!) Don’t judge activities, but emphasize that everything needs to be balanced out. Broccoli is good for you, but if that’s all you eat then you won’t get complete nutrition. Reading books is a good activity, but if your children spend their entire summer doing nothing but read books, they would lack physical exercise, social interactions, etc.

Don’t set arbitrary limits, but let your child(ren) help establish how they will keep a balance. Maybe you can set some times as “videogame time.” Maybe they will vary activities by day (Monday=Minecraft. Tuesday=table tennis. Wednesday=water play…). Maybe they can balance hours (“I’ll spend three hours playing on my iPad and then go outside for three hours.”) Let your child(ren) establish the rules and they’ll be more willing to follow them!

Note that if you are traveling, setting such limits when you’re out of your normal routines can be more difficult. Take a look at this article for some tips on how to keep some balance on technology use while traveling. Again, the main idea is balance.

the-young-713333_640Embrace technology

Technology is not evil. Videogames are not bad for children. Playing on iPads is not a waste of time. Smartphones are not causing people to become stupid. In and of themselves, any technology tool is neither good nor bad. (The history of technology-bashing has a long history. Socrates railed against the horrible new technology of writing, saying it would ruin people’s memories!)

Parents who embrace technology help their children use tech well, share in the excitement and enjoyment, and participate in the various activities. Some parents embrace it wholeheartedly, while others merely allow it and enable it.

What can you do? You can use technology to extend your child(ren)’s learning. There are various good guides to apps and learning tools – CommonSenseMedia is a great site for parents that has a lot of great information, including a summer learning guide. (My advice: go for the tools that allow for creativity, not “drill & kill” skill-building apps that function like electronic worksheets.)

You can creatively use the technology itself. I’ve given my daughter the challenge of building an electronic book about our summer travels. She’ll use our iPad to take photos and videos, write descriptions, etc. and put them together into an e-book she can share with family. (It’ll also give her something to do and focus on while visiting castles & museums and help her get focused on what’s around her.)

And you can participate in the technology. Kids on Facebook? Ask them what they’re posting. Show interest and excitement. If they’ve found a funny video, laugh and enjoy the joke. Being part of their lives is a big part of parenting …it also helps when the inevitable conflicts come up. They’ll know that you’re not just about telling them what not to do, but you also appreciate things they do.

blow-bubbles-668950_640Remember: part of the reason that children need a break from school is so that they can play. Play is important for children’s healthy development – whether they are 3 years old or 13 years old!

Playing outside by kicking a ball or digging in the dirt or playing tag with friends is healthy, fun and a valuable learning experience. So is building structures in Minecraft, making movies on a tablet, or even organizing armies in World of Warcraft.

Enjoy your summer break!

Hands or Brains?

This House believes that Africa needs more vocational training than academic education.

It was a lively debate and an exciting end to the eLearning Africa 2015 conference in Addis Ababa. A panel of African and international dignitaries – most of them holding PhD’s – debated back and forth over whether or not the greatest need for the African continent was for formal academic education or for practical vocational training. The audience – teachers, government representatives, professors – followed the argument actively, with laughter, applause and a very lively Twitter stream.

As I listened and participated, I reflected on my own education and that of my daughter. What was most valuable for me? What will do her the most good? Sure, there are specific needs here in Africa, but in general what is the best aim of education? Perhaps this debate should be about what the world needs, not just Africa.

It’s not an either/or situation: nobody was seriously advocating that we should only have one or the other. The question at hand was which one would contribute the greatest value to African societies.

I’m an academic. I’ve got a couple of degrees (no PhD for me yet) & I’ve spent my whole career teaching and leading schools. Books are my friends and favorite purchases. Thinking comes more naturally to me than acting or doing.

And yet, my beliefs about this issue have changed over the years. I’ve come to realize that there is great value in practical, non-academic work and study. I definitely believe that what will benefit Africa & Africans (and people around the world) the most is vocational training and not pure academics. (While still believing we need both and that academics is more valuable and important for some people!)

boy-667804_640This ties in to the current educational trend of making and tinkering. Papert’s constructionist take on education resonates today with many teachers and many schools. Students learn through inquiry and practical tasks – designing, building, adjusting, adapting. There’s a whole new edge with modern tech: 3D printers, programmable fabrics, conductive threads and tapes, robotics, hackable Arduino boards, etc. But it’s still a valuable experience for kids to work with Legos, wooden blocks, etc. Children learn by doing. And practical, hands-on doing is often more valuable than reading or watching.

I’ve also learned that there is far more value in practical work than society often gives it credit for. My own experiences in fixing broken appliances, building things for my home, and repairing ailing computers have shown me that there is great value and joy in such practical tasks. When I finish a project, I have such satisfaction – it is greatly rewarding personally, and if I have done the task for someone else I feel like I have contributed to someone else’s life. Building computer programs have given me similar rewarding experiences, with more mental than physical work.

There is also great mental work in such tasks. Matthew Crawford earned a PhD but runs a motorcycle repair shop. In his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, he states that “there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.” He argues that there is great value in manual craft work, and that such work (excluding factory assembly-line work) requires much analysis, thinking and serious decision making. I concur and know that when I’ve worked with tools on a project I have to seriously concentrate and think about what I’m doing.

When I think about my daughter’s educational future, I fear the long academic slog. I shudder at the thought of the heavy load of work the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program inflicts on teenagers …and don’t get me started at the ridiculously onerous and painful process of final exams! She might be suited for such a process (I was), but I have my doubts. And to what end? If she goes through that, succeeds, and proceeds to university, etc. what will be her lot in life and reward? Working in an office? Becoming a teacher? (It is a great job!) Lecturing at university?

construction-659898_640The alternative might be that she learns a trade. Perhaps she becomes a plumber or construction worker. Learned friends may sneer and boast of their children’s careers as doctors or lawyers or bankers or…

But I don’t think that those other careers are necessarily better. As computers get smarter and algorithms get more finely tweaked, there’s a good chance that lawyers, bankers, and other “brain workers” will be replaced by computer programs. And many of these high-profile careers (doctors, notoriously) require long hours and involve a great deal of stress.

People need choices. Some people are driven to be doctors. Some people are suited to academic research and study. Some people are not. Our educational systems need to value all types of students. Our societies need to recognize that a plumber is just as important and valuable as a doctor.

I was glad to hear that the conference attendees voted overwhelmingly in support of the proposal. Africa – and the world – needs to value vocational training more. Carpenters, plumbers (and entrepreneurs and computer programmers) make huge contributions to society.

I hope my daughter has choices. I’m happy for her to pursue whatever career gives her pleasure and satisfaction. As for me, I’m going to stop writing and go get my tools. I have a lamp that has a broken switch that is crying out for repair.

Sharing a good read

by Joy Ito - CC-BY
Cory Doctorow by Joi Ito CC-BY

Reading books is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Losing yourself in a story and coming out with a sense of joy and wonder is fantastic. If you can learn something along the way it’s even better. (I love reading nonfiction, so if fiction can teach me something I’m really grateful.)

An author who brings me much happiness and satisfaction is Cory Doctorow. I find his books (both fiction and nonfiction) thoroughly enjoyable as well as rewarding. What’s more, I greatly admire how he markets and distributes his work.


The most important thing about any book is, “is it any good?” If it’s not an enjoyable read, then whatever it says doesn’t matter at all. I thoroughly enjoy Doctorow’s writing and find it gripping and engaging. I really can’t put his books down: once I get stuck into a story, I want to keep reading and find out what happens next.

I was sick of cars driving right past me. The next time a car appeared down Market Street, I stepped right out into the road, waving my arms over my head, shouting “STOP.” The car slewed to a stop and only then did I notice that it wasn’t a cop car, ambulance or fire-engine.

It was a military-looking Jeep, like an armored Hummer, only it didn’t have any military insignia on it. The car skidded to a stop just in front of me, and I jumped back and lost my balance and ended up on the road. I felt the doors open near me, and then saw a confusion of booted feet moving close by. I looked up and saw a bunch of military-looking guys in coveralls, holding big, bulky rifles and wearing hooded gas masks with tinted face-plates.

I barely had time to register them before those rifles were pointed at me. (Little Brother)

I’m a fan, but I’m not a fool. I realize that his style wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. My wife would not enjoy his work. (Fair enough. Much of what she reads doesn’t appeal to me either!) You might not either. There’s really only one way to find out: pick up a book and try it out.

For me, any writer who describes a character as a “sucking chest wound of a human being” is well worth reading.


Besides my admiration for the man being able to create terrific literature, I also love the theme of creating that runs through his books. Many of his main characters are artists or creative types, building or making or composing. He’s got one book, Makers, that’s all about the creation process but his other books abound with movie makers , programmers, and more.

Apart from making his books more fascinating, the different takes on the creative process also makes creativity more real and more reachable. Doctorow writes many books for teens. By making his protagonists artists and creators, he encourages his readers to do the same.

That idea came from me. I created it. It wasn’t lying around, waiting to be picked up like a bunch of pebbles on the beach. It was something that didn’t exist until I made it, and probably wouldn’t have existed unless I did. That’s what ‘to create’ means: to make something new. (Pirate Cinema)

If just one teenager reads one of Doctorow’s books and decides that her own creative impulses are worth pursuing and makes something new and original, I’d say that he has achieved real success.


Doctorow goes into a lot of interesting and thought-provoking ideas in his books, and he explains them well. I’ve used this section from Little Brother in my programming classes to get students excited about the thrill of building programs:

If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do. It’s like designing a machine – any machine, like a car, like a faucet, like a gas-hinge for a door – using math and instructions. It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.

Whether it’s creating programs, editing videos, using 3D printers, encrypting email, hacking security systems …or cold-brewing coffee, taking over abandoned buildings, finding free gourmet food, or any number of other interesting and fascinating real-life tasks, Doctorow’s books always leave me knowing more and wanting to try new things.


What really sets Doctorow apart from other good writers is how he distributes his books. He gives them away for free.

Yes. That’s correct: he gives them away for free. All his books are licensed with a Creative Commons license that retains his rights as author but gives permission for you (and me!) to download his books for free and share them with friends. He recognizes the reality of today’s internet-fueled sharing economy:

I can’t stop you from copying this book (even if I wanted to). I can’t force you to buy it in order to read it (even if I wanted to). All I can do is ask you to consider purchasing it if you enjoyed it. (Pirate Cinema)

To make a living from his writing, he encourages …no, he exhorts the reader to purchase a copy of the book. All his ebooks have “commercial interludes” between chapters with links to online bookstores and calls to buy a copy. (Sometimes – particularly in Pirate Cinema – these commercials are enjoyable enough to read in their own right.) He also encourages people to buy and donate copies of the books for people (usually teachers and librarians) who lack the budget to buy a copy of the book themselves.

These are effective commercial techniques. I’ve bought many copies of his books for others …and if you look at his “donate” pages, there are plenty of people out there like me.

Anyway, time to stop reading my thoughts about Doctorow. Go read one one of his books.


Projects of Passion

 “I wish school was like this every day.”

When a teacher hears this kind of comment from a student, you know you’re doing something right. There were a number of comments like this last week from Grade 10 students. They had a week off timetable and we decided to give them a week of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) projects, plus some time to do a “passion project” on a topic/area of interest of their choosing. The students rose to the occasion and did some amazing work.

There are a few elements of the week that are worth focusing on:


JpegStudents were able to choose which area they wanted to work in. It was first-come first-served (so some got their second choice), but the students appreciated being able to pick for themselves what type of work they wanted to do.

One group of students built air-pressured bottle rockets designed to launch into the air and travel safely (with a parachute for gentle landings) a specified distance. They learned about aeronautics, hydrolics and air pressure, drag, and other important Science and Engineering concepts. Another group used SketchUp to build digital 3D scale models of campus buildings. They measured, calculated and used Trigonometry and other Mathematics concepts to make sure their models were to scale. A third group of students built and programmed robots to perform set tasks. Another group of students used LiveCode to program their own computer game. Finally, another group of students created a 3D mural to adorn the mini-amphitheatre reflecting Ethiopia, Lucy and human bones.

Students really appreciated being able to choose different projects and being more in control of their work.


Students were given an opportunity to pursue a “passion project” – to pick an area that they (individually or in small groups) were very interested in and to do a project related to that. They were given time and some guidance to the project, but otherwise allowed to work at their own speed & level.

Some students explored photography, others focused on a sport. Some continued their STEAM project, while others

created something artistic. One student created a model of an invention by Leonardo da Vinci. Another researched a medical issue and produced a poster giving information about it. A few wrote poems, while others wrote and performed songs. Several made videos about their passion, whether it was skateboarding, football, forestry or other topics.

Many students commented on how they appreciated being able to pursue their own particular interest.


JpegStudents were given a fair bit of latitude in doing their own individual passion project, and given a fair bit of leeway in the other projects regarding what they would contribute or produce. Students appreciated being given time and space to do their work at their own pace. Teachers were monitoring them and keeping them on task, but they weren’t constantly directing the students. As one student said:

“I liked getting the opportunity of exploring what interests us. I also loved the liberty that we were bestowed with. We didn’t have teachers telling us what to do for once. “


STEAM week for Grade 10 students

JpegAs we’ve refined our Week Without Walls trips, we’ve adjusted the school schedule to minimize the disruption to classes. In the High School, we’ve scheduled two grade levels at the same time, leaving two other grade levels in school to focus on different parts of their learning. For IB Diploma students in grades 11 and 12, that week is a chance to focus on the IB courses and related work. For 9th and 10th grade students, the week is a special off-timetable week that focuses on project-based learning and learning experiences beyond the normal boundaries of subject areas and class periods.

This week, Grade 10 students are experiencing a special STEAM week. STEAM is an acronym referring to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. This is an are of increased emphasis in education, as schools recognize the increasing need to educate students in these areas to help them be more creative and critical thinkers as well as being more adept in our technological world.

For this week, we built a special schedule that would give students a chance to get a little introduction to each area, and then to choose an area in which to work for longer periods of time. Each group of students is working in one area to develop a project that they will share and show off at the end of the week. The PE teachers organized some physical breaks for the students, and Elias Fessehaye is leading the students in a fun and engaging Korfball tournament.

JpegThere are five main areas where the students are working on projects. In the Arts, Laura Blue-Waters is guiding a group of students to create a 3D mural to be displayed outdoors on campus. Leulseged Assefa is working with a group of students on programming robots to complete different challenges, working in the areas of Technology and Engineering. In Mathematics, Rob Maddock is working with a group of students to measure school buildings and use the 3D modelling software SketchUpMake to build a scale model of the campus. I’m working with students in Technology to build applications, programming games that can run on any computer. And in Science and Engineering, Dave Acland is challenging students to design and build a device that will launch and transport an object a set height and distance.

These challenges let the students explore different tasks than what they normally have to grapple with in classes, work together, plan and build solutions to problems, test those solutions and revise their work as needed. It’s a dynamic, fun and challenging experience for all.

JpegIn addition to these set areas, we’ve also built in some “Genius Hour” time (also called 20% time) to allow students to explore and learn in areas that they have an individual interest. This is a technique that many schools are implementing – it comes from various sources, including Google’s initiative to allow employees to use 20% of their time to work on any project they are interested in. There’s a long and growing tradition of “heutagogy” – allowing students to develop their own learning experiences by pursuing things they are passionate about.

Our grade 10 students had to plan and get approved their ideas for their own Passion Projects, and there’s an interesting and varied bunch of projects. Students are making videos, building models, creating artwork, making posters, taking photos, doing research, and more. These are in areas related to physical fitness and sports, medicine, history, zoology, Art and other subjects. It’ll be exciting to see what they come up with by the end of the week!

It’s proving to be an active and fascinating week (I’m writing this midway through) and I’m looking forward to reporting on the outcomes after the students share their STEAM and Passion projects on Friday.


21st Century Learning

by Public Domain Photos - Pixabay - CC0
Public Domain PhotosPixabayCC0

Read enough about education, and you’ll quickly find a plethora of posts, posters, and more about “21st Century Education.” ICS is including this language in much of its guiding documents. The school’s mission statement includes the phrase. The Board of Governors includes a “statement of understanding” about 21st Century Learning. Our Head of School writes about it in his weekly news column. It’s a phrase often used in describing school programs.

What does “21st Century Education” really mean? Why is it being discussed and promoted so much? What does it mean for parents and students? I’ll be writing a series of blog posts about this concept and how it’s being put in place at ICS over the next few weeks. (Please post questions and comments!) In this post, I’d like to explore a bit of the background and explain what it’s all about.

What is 21st Century Education?

There are many ways people define 21st Century Education, and various groups and initiatives which promote it – all of whom describe and define it in different ways. In general, the phrase refers to the fact that education is changing and must change to meet the needs of today’s learners and today’s society. In order to produce individuals who can succeed in today’s world, schools need to teach and reinforce different skills. Students must be more adaptable, more independent, and more technologically savvy.

To accomplish this, schools and educators are shifting their emphasis away from content knowledge to more skills-based learning. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, knowing something is less important than knowing how to find things out or how to accomplish things.

An excellent and simple framework for this is the “4 C’s” – championed by the Partnership for 21st Century Education. The 4 C’s are skills, offered as counterpoints to the traditional “3 R’s” of Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. (Yes, I know.) The 4 C’s have been identified as skills that will help students be successful in today’s changing world. They are:

  • Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration

Now, do understand that these do not replace content knowledge. But they are a different emphasis.

Why is it important for our students?

In the information age, it is not sufficient to only be knowledgeable. Traditional education emphasized mastery of subjects by gaining information. Students read textbooks, listened to teacher lectures, passed knowledge-based tests. Now, a smartphone in your pocket can give anyone immediate access to a vast wealth of information. When you can carry Wikipedia around in your pocket, how vitally important is it to know the dates and outcomes of the Battle of Hastings?

This is not to say that it’s not important to know things. Students must always have a good background knowledge of history, science, etc. However, with access to all that knowledge, it becomes more valuable to students to be able to process information instead of remembering it. How do you find that information? In what way do you phrase your research question? What key words do you use? And how do you identify valuable sources of information?

And with the fast pace of change in business, science and society, the flexibility that one gains from good critical thinking and creativity skills will help our students navigate their future world.

What technology is needed?

Despite the title of this blog, 21st century education really isn’t all about the technology: it’s about the learning. Sure, we use modern tools. Computers, tablets, smartphones, etc. all have a part to play in students creating things, communicating with others, collaborating with people near and far …but that’s not the heart of the matter. The key is the type of learning. Instead of listening to a lecture, or writing a research paper, etc. students are discussing things in online forums with students (and adults) around the world. They are writing blog posts and posting online videos that others can comment on and share. They’re remixing other people’s creations to build new ways of looking at things. Technology makes this possible, but it doesn’t force it.

So what’s going on at ICS?

In a word, plenty. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be profiling some of the great things happening at ICS …and looking at ways we’re changing to promote 21st century education even more.

Welcome to the 21st century!

Serious play and frivolous work

If MIT’s Media Lab really does believe in “Lifelong Kindergarten,” why should the children have all the fun? If we really think people learn better through play, creation, experimentation, etc. then why do teacher workshops and other PD efforts involve so much blah blah blah?

Thus thinking, I organized a “playdate” for my group who are participating in the online “Learning Creative Learning” class through MIT and P2PU. Rather than a roundtable discussion on the readings and our reactions, I reserved the gardens for one of our campus buildings, invited families and children, organized snacks and drinks and brought out some toys and games.

The formal purpose was to recap the readings and thinking of Week 1 and get ready for the work of Week 2. In Week 1, we read Mitchel Resnick‘s paper, “All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten.” For Week 2, we’ll be reading a variety of articles on interest-based learning, and part of the activities we are asked to do is the “Marshmallow Challenge.” Between the hands-on creative nature of the challenge and the paper’s thesis that kindergarten-style learning (a cycle of imagination, creativity and play) should be applied to learning at all ages, there was plenty of opportunities for creative learning.

Our group assembled with kids and soon settled down. I called the boys (and my daughter) over and stopped the impromptu soccer game. “Play time is over,” Ryan said. “Nope,” I said. “Play time is getting going. Soccer time is over – for now.” I then explained the rules of the marshmallow challenge and answered questions. (In a nutshell: with 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, 1m of tape & 1m of string, make a structure to hold up 1 marshmallow in 18 mins.)  There were two teams: the adults and the kids. Eagerly, they all got started as I began the timer. True to form. the adults sat around for a few minutes discussing and making plans. The kids got stuck in quickly and started building.

I circulated, watching and commenting. The kids were going full-tilt, building, testing, talking, laughing. The adults were being more methodical and planning things out more. I quickly realized one tactical mistake I’d made: the kids were from different classes and grade levels. They weren’t used to working together and I’d given them no instructions on doing that. They were all going their own way rather than working together. If this had been a class, I could have got away with what I’d done but with them all being unused to working with each other it looked like they weren’t going to get far.

The adults, meanwhile, were discussing various strategies and starting to test things out before building. A couple of them had seen the TED talk about the challenge and so knew some of the techniques to use and some of the pitfalls to avoid. They were strategizing and testing, rather than simply designing and building a structure. They were also able to work together easily: everybody were either colleagues or friends or both. (Family, too!)


The two groups worked very well and had great discussions. I heard plenty of “try this” or “what would happen if…” and other types of good brain-stretching discussions. People thought creatively: one of the kids – Nadia – came over to see what the adults were doing. I congratulated her and told everyone that there weren’t any rules about spying or trying to get ideas from others. (The adults then caught on!) One of the kids – Alanna – was first to get a standing structure and again I congratulated her and suggested the kids all work together to help her get her structure higher. Unfortunately, many hands in that case meant snapped spaghetti, and as the kids saw the adults’ structure taking shape they grew discouraged. All of them drifted off – my daughter had a tennis lesson and the boys wandered off to find the soccer ball. Only Alanna worked on, determined.

The adults managed to finish in about 15 minutes and wanted a measurement before the time went up – 48cm high! A good accomplishment!

We discussed what had worked and what led to success. We shared tips we’d seen on the video and the website, and related it to how the team had worked. We talked about how this type of activity could be useful in a class – Sienna wants to use it right away with her GILA (Global Issues, Local Action) class. I mentioned that it might be good for more hands-on type classes such as GILA or Sciences, but probably not a good activity for English class. Helen immediately put me right: she’d have the kids build a tower and then write about it. She’d also ask them to draw an analogy between building the structure and composing a story: the need for a good foundation, keeping things balanced, having elements that support each other, etc.

Meanwhile, Alanna continued on, determined to not only complete a structure but also beat the adults. Working alone, she bent the rules and found the tape roll, adding plenty and reinforcing her spaghetti tower. We adults discussed the pros and cons of breaking rules: one whole chapter in a book I was consulting (A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger van Oech that I’d borrowed from Sienna) was about how creative thinkers often had to break the rules. (I related the story of Alexander the Great, who became fated to rule all of Asia by unravelling the Gordian Knot …with his sword!) Breaking rules is just a form of “thinking outside the box” and definitely something to be encouraged (avoiding illegal, unethical or immoral rule-breaking!). At any rate, Alanna’s diligence and creativity was rewarded as she built a tower that stood well higher than the adults (until it drooped).

She ran off to join the other kids in undirected play while we adults went on to another activity. I’d thought of how such play and creation could be brought into the more abstract realm of words and ideas and designed an activity that I hoped would bridge the gap. I took the abstract from our week’s reading and cut it up into individual words. I then spread out the words on the table and encouraged the group to come up with one or more phrases and sentences that brought out the key ideas from the reading.

Everyone came up with their own phrases – I realized that maybe I should have split them up into pairs rather than one big group. But there were great discussions around the table about how “imagine” related to “learning” or why the word “traditional” was in the pile and so forth. I’d included some blank strips for people to include words that they couldn’t find, and some used those – again, rules can be broken for creative thinking! There were some great ideas expressed in these “constructed” phrases – and the process of building, trading, sharing and comparing was fun to watch and be a part of.

Meanwhile, the kids were all enjoying undirected play. Some were running around, creating games with action figures. Others were building with Lego bricks. A few were building things with a set of flexible snap-together pieces. The creations were quite clever: skirts, balls, slings for carrying and firing balls.


Meanwhile, the adults moved into more traditional discussion punctuated by a few more creative tasks – puzzles and thought problems. We talked about the excitement and creativity we’d seen that day and how we could incorporate it into our own classes. We discussed some of the institutional and logistical issues that prevented such play and creativity from becoming widespread in our or any school. We thought of some fun projects that we could do with students as part of classes or after-school activities.

And we talked about how much fun we’d had that day and how great it would be if more teacher work time was creative and constructive and playful and not so much lecture-style. I acknowledged that my own preparation for the day’s activities was greater than if I’d been trying to lead a more traditional discussion session (although not more than if I was going to do a long lecture!), but said that it was much more rewarding.

I think we’re going to have regular adult/family “playdates” throughout this class. What fun!