Creativity Counts

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ICAD 5 0f 61 (Flickr) by Teresa Robinson under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs Generic License

I was fortunate to listen to Dr. Keith Sawyer speak recently at the IDEAS 2016 Conference, co-sponsored by the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, and the Galileo Educational Network.

He stated that some people believe creativity in schools is declining and linked this decline to three understandings that are missing: 1) how innovation works, 2) how people learn from creativity, and 3) how to redesign schools.

He described how creativity is really collaborative – a form of collective intelligence – and related it to his own experience as  an improvisational jazz musician. A key question he asked was, “How do you balance the structure with the improvisation?”

In a followup session, Dr. Sawyer described his recent work studying the teaching practices of art, design, and architecture professors. His interviewed several, asking them “How do you teach people to be creative?” He also asked them to articulate what they thought they were teaching in their art and design classes. They said they taught:

  • a deliberate, rigorous, critically engaged process
  • how to solve problems
  • how to think
  • how to communicate with the viewer
  • how to see (and learning how to see is a lot harder than learning how to make)

They also stated that skill learning was embedded in authentic practice and that often, the best students were not the most talented, in the traditional artistic sense. Rather, successful learners were curious, motivated, hardworking, and often from other disciplines of study.

The research Dr. Sawyer is currently conducting on creativity has implications for formal learning environments  of all kinds, including school makerspaces. Deliberate, rigorous, critical engagement speaks to purposeful and thoughtful design on the part of teachers. And perhaps the notion of teaching “how to see,” should become a more strategic part of this.

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Learning to Argue and Arguing to Learn

Argument (Flickr) by Benson Kua under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs Generic License

 I hate arguing. So what drew me to read the chapter “Arguing to Learn,” in the latest edition of The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences I do not know.

I am glad I did however, because I found out it is interesting and important reading. Andriessen & Baker (2014) state that learning to argue, not in the traditional oppositional sense, but in the collaborative sense, can actually develop reasoning, reflection, knowledge elaboration and articulation, as well as conceptual understanding. It also helps students learn about argumentative structures and develops social awareness.

The authors tell us that children from a very young age (three) understand the components of an argument. What they do not understand is their opponent. It is in understanding their opponent’s position that they gain the ability to develop complex reasoning and understanding.

Andriessen & Baker (2014) state that, “Many people have trouble arguing productively. They are not good at distinguishing evidence from theory and rarely consider alternative positions” (p. 447). Proof from recent and current elections in both Canada and the U. S. would attest to this fact.

It would seem that being able to argue collaboratively is an important skill for learning, and to this end, learning scientists are developing electronic environments which scaffold students when learning to argue. Even so, framing argumentation as collaborative as opposed to competitive is key. This could be challenging. When I keyed in the term “argument” in Google images, all of the images showed yelling, finger pointing, and even physical altercations.

Developing curriculum  that promotes and teaches collaborative argumentation as a way of deepening learning may be the place to start.


Live Life Happy (Flickr)  under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License

Andriessen, J. & Baker, M. (2014). Arguing to learn. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (3rd ed.) (pp. 439-460). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.





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Designing for Collaboration


globe-lights (Flickr) by ptwo under a Creative Commons Attribution Generic License

In reading “The Social and Interactive Dimensions of Collaborative Learning” (Miyake & Kirschner, 2014) it was no surprise to see the authors state, “It is as though the social aspects of learning in general and collaborative learning in particular are so natural or matter of course that educators and researchers assume that they do not need to be addressed specifically – either in practice, in the learning situation, or in theory, in the research situation” (p. 418).

This reminded me of a very rich professional learning experience I had a few years ago. As part of our school division’s AISI (Alberta Initiative for School Improvement) project on assessment for learning, we were asked to meet in divisional grade groups to investigate a particular assessment topic of interest. This turned out to be one of the most highly professional experiences I have had as a teacher. We heard via the divisional grapevine that other grade teams were experiencing difficulties, from complete dysfunction leading to administrative supervision followed by a breakup of the team, to groups where colleagues got along, but little was accomplished.

I often wondered, what was it about our group that contributed to its success? Miyake & Kirschner’s (2014) model of team learning beliefs and behaviors has made things more clear. The four factors that make up the model – psychological safety, cohesion, interdependence, and group potency up until now have been studied in isolation. Miyake and Kirshner (2014) have evidence to suggest that the four factors are complementary and together have positive effects on team learning.

As a team, we decided to have a deep and serious look at our curriculum documents, for two purposes. We wanted to chunk an overwhelming number of outcomes for each subject area into groups, which would allow for a more holistic approach to assessment, and we wanted to discuss how we could gather authentic evidence of learning for the clusters of outcomes. Our discussions were focussed, lively, generous, and supportive and in reflection, the four factors were always in play.

Psychological safety: We all felt safe in stating ideas and making mistakes that would not be ridiculed.

Cohesion: Not only did we share task cohesion in that we worked together to achieve a goal, but we also shared social cohesion in that we liked, cared for, and became closer to each other.

Interdependence: Task and outcome interdependence led us to searching out solutions and compromises.

Group Potency: This is also sometimes referred to as group efficacy. Because we had a shared goal that we felt would benefit our classroom teaching, we believed that as a group we were doing important, effective work.

Not only was the team learning powerful, but the growth in my individual understanding impacted the way I design and think about learning tasks. Miyage & Kirschner (2014) confirm this in stating, “Learning environments should be designed to foster co-construction of knowledge and meaning and mutually shared sensemaking. At the same time, the learning environment should foster each individual’s self-regulated, sustainable learning” (p. 434). They suggest there is no universal way to do this – that the design of the learning environment must fit the situation.

For me this means prototyping, reflecting, and continued learning.

Miyake, N. & Kirschner, P. (2014). The social and interactive dimensions of collaborative learning. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (2nd ed.) (418-438). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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Designing Assessments for Today’s Learners



One of the biggest questions that came out of the recent design and build of a school makerspace was: How can we meaningfully assess the learning that is happening here?

Pellegrino (2014) states:

Research on cognition and learning suggests a broad range of competencies that should be assessed when measuring student achievement, many of which are essentially untapped by current assessments. Examples are knowledge organization, problem representation, strategy use, metacognition, and participatory activities (e.g., formulating questions, constructing and evaluating arguments, contributing to group problem solving” (p. 243).

When one looks on the internet, there are numerous examples of frameworks for 21st century learning competencies (e.g., P21, C21, Alberta Education Framework for Student Learning). What is more difficult to find are practical tools, other than rubrics, to assess these competencies.

Implementation of teaching and learning environments with a focus on 21st century competencies will continue to be a challenge, without the accompanying assessments that will be practical to implement and informative in terms of learning and teaching. Pellegrino calls for learning scientists to “embrace the challenge of designing assessments that are aligned to our evolving conceptions of what it means to know and to learn” (p. 249). This will be critical if we are to create future learning environments that develop the doers and thinkers of tomorrow.

Alberta Education. (2011). Framework for student learning: Competencies for engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit. Retrieved February 2, 2016 from

Milton, P. (2012). Shifting Minds: A 21st Century Vision for Public Education in Canada. C21 Canada. Retrieved February 2, 2016 from http://www.c21canada .org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Summit-design-English-version-Sept.-26.pdf

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2011). Framework for 21st Century Learning. Retrieved February 2, 2016 from storage/documents/1.__p21_ framework_2-pager.pdf

Pellegrino, J. W. (2014). A learning sciences perspective on the design and use of assessment in education. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (2nd ed.) (pp. 233-252). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.




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Learning About Learning



I was not one of those children who, growing up, always wanted to be a teacher. I do not come from a family of teachers. I did not play “school.” In fact, truth be told, I hated school. I was the classic underachiever, doing what I could to get by, always taking the easy way out. Lazy. I copied my sister’s family history report (she was a year ahead of me in school) word-for-word, handed it in, and got a decent mark on it. That was enough for me.

How I ended up becoming a teacher is a whole other story, and though I developed the skills necessary to manage an instructionist classroom, I was frustrated most of my teaching career. Having said that, I find it sad that almost 50% of people going into the teaching profession today do not stay in it (The Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2013), because I think it is a really exciting time to be a teacher. (Notice I did not say easy.)

That is why, at this point in my life, when most people are thinking about slowing down and taking it easy, I have entered the PhD program, in the Learning Sciences specialization. People ask in surprise, Why? Are you crazy?

The introduction to The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, 2nd Edition, (2014) says it all. Editor R. Keith Sawyer describes the research that is being carried out in the interdisciplinary learning sciences, “to lay the groundwork for the schools of the future” (p. 3). He talks about how researchers from many disciplines, including psychology, education, computer science, anthropology and others are collaborating to develop new ways of thinking about learning. He also suggests that many people, including teachers, policy makers, and educational researchers are not aware of recent discoveries. He encourages giving the handbook a read by stating, “The purpose of the handbook is to build on the new science of learning by showing various stakeholders how to design innovative learning environments and classrooms” (p. 3).

At this point, I am just diving into the handbook, but in perusing the chapters, headings such as, Arguing to Learn, Arts Education and the Learning Sciences, Embodiment and Embodied Design, Complex Systems and the Learning Sciences, and Analyzing Collaboration have me excited to learn more about learning. Kind of ironic for someone who hated school.

Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.). (2014). The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association. (2013). Teaching in the early years of practice: A five year longitudinal study. Retrieved from ATA/Publications/Research/Teaching%20in%20the%20Early%20Years%20of%20Practice%20(PD-86-19b).pdf


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Hunter’s Wisdom

There has been a lot in the news lately about the positive impact Minecraft can have on student learning (Drzewiecki, 2014; Junco, 2014; Ward, 2013) As an educator, I wanted to gain a student perspective on Minecraft, so I recently met with Hunter, an intelligent, thoughtful 15 year old, who agreed to show me the ropes and get me started. What blew me away from the beginning was the wisdom he passed onto me from playing this game. In one short session with Hunter, I came to learn these important things:

Minecraft offers a creative outlet.

The first thing Hunter asked me was, “Are you artistic?” I immediately responded, “No,” as I don’t see myself as artistic in the traditional sense. He then said, “Neither am I. But this is my creative outlet.”

I had heard that as an educator, it would be best to have students play in creative mode as opposed to survival, because I was told there is killing and violence in survival mode. I assumed, wrongly, that Hunter would automatically prefer survival, because isn’t that what all children want to do when they play video games? Hunter says he likes creative mode best because he can build and create.

He explained to me why the game is called Minecraft, how you mine for materials, and then craft them into something useful. Obviously, this notion of creating was important to him.


Hunter’s baseball stadium at night.

Minecraft is about exploring your passion.

Hunter took me into the virtual baseball stadium that he designed and created, and I could easily see where his passions lay. He told me he builds stadiums for sporting events in Minecraft because he’s really interested in sports. What he taught me is that you need to decide what you’re passionate about before you can start building and creating.


Baseball is life.

Minecraft requires research.

To build the stadium, Hunter researched stadiums and their features, the specific dimensions of ball fields, and how the design of his stadium would impact the culture of baseball. This research was not an assigned project, but a personal exploration of a topic Hunter cares deeply about.


Note the detail in this design.

Minecraft is easily applied to curriculum.

Hunter explained to me that each block in his baseball stadium equals 1 square metre. In future building, he suggested, I might need to know that 1 metre = 3.28 feet. This was important for him to know because the measurements of a ball field are in feet not metres. He then showed me how he had applied the pythagorean theorem when creating certain aspects of the ball field.


Hunter applied math principles when building.

Hunter had ideas for other curricular links. I suggested to him that with research you could use Minecraft to construct a traditional First Nations village. He agreed. He also suggested that survival would be an excellent mode for designing a new world for The Hunger Games, because it has boundaries just like the novel. I thought about how engaged students would be, if this was an assignment they had to complete in school.

In order to get better at Minecraft, you have to have time to tinker.

I watched as Hunter “played” with Minecraft on his ipad, talking through and modeling for me different scenarios I might consider. I followed his lead and awkwardly messed around, trying to make something, anything, while he quietly gave advice. His most sage: “Don’t overthink it.” It reminded me of tinkering, where you have an idea, are not really sure where to go with it, but in playing around, you come up with something.

Hunter showed me another baseball stadium he had created that didn’t work out as he had planned, so he turned it into a tennis court. I sensed that he was trying to remind me to be open and flexible enough in my thinking to see possibilities.

I asked Hunter how much time he had spent on his baseball stadium and he couldn’t say, but he was sure it was hundreds of hours. For him, the time spent was not important. He had a beautiful creation, and his work was definitely a labour of love.


The outer concourse.

The Minecraft community encourages excellence.

Hunter’s baseball stadium has been featured on the blog News for Minecraft PC, and I think for good reason. He has obviously put a tremendous amount of thought and care into designing this ball park, and he seems proud of it. And so he should be.

I asked Hunter if he had ever used minecraft in school. Sadly, he said no.


Changerooms and facilities at field level.

Drzewiecki, J. (2014). Why educators should use Minecraft in the classroom. Education World. Retrieved from:

Junco, R. (2014, April 20). Beyond ‘screen time:’ What minecraft teaches kids. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:

Ward, M. (2013, Sept. 7). Why Minecraft is more than just another video game. BBC News. Retrieved from:

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Building Abstract Understanding Concretely

Recently the grade one students at Elizabeth Rummel School embarked on a research project exploring what our town has and what it needs to make it better. In discussions with grade one teachers, we talked about the idea of maps as abstract ideas that are challenging for young students to understand. Because the project was multidisciplinary, we focused on the following outcomes:

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Using Lego, the students worked in pairs to “build” the town of Canmore. Students brainstormed all the important places in town, and then each group was assigned a building to construct, working from a photograph.


As students completed their buildings, they placed them on a large map of the town. Building locations were identified with yellow sticky notes, so that students would know where to put them.

We decided not to worry about the scale of the buildings but focused more on shape and detail. Once we started putting buildings on the “map,” we could see that we were running out of space in the downtown area, so we created a second, enlarged map of Main Street.

It was interesting to see the different levels of  abstract understanding and building ability.

One boy pointed to a spot on the map and said, “That’s where my grandpa lives.” When I asked him how he knew, he identified the traffic circle (the only one in town) that was nearby. Some students were very challenged with handling Lego and building a likeness of a real structure. Others put a lot of effort into showing the details in their building. Two young builders went to great lengths to get the roof pitch, tower, and sign on Boston Pizza just right.


Once the town began to take physical shape, a level of excitement developed. When two young students placed the Safeway store on the map, they said, “We need to add the parking lot.” Then a student placed Lego pieces as shopping carts, “Because you need those if you’re going to shop at Safeway.”


We set up the town on tables in the Learning Commons and it created a buzz in the school. Students who came in browsing for books, stopped to take a look. The kindergarten classes were fascinated. We heard cries of, “There’s the toy store!” and “There’s the ice cream bus!


It was quite magical to watch students delight over the map of their town.


Once the map was completed, students created ebooks about their town using Book Creator, identifying three things the town has, and one thing it needs.

Some teachers felt that students needed more direct instruction around building techniques. Their concern was that some students already have a considerable amount of building experience while others have none. This is a question that teachers can certainly  research if this tinkering project happens again.

One question leads to another . . .

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Takeaways from Tinkering at Lunch

Lunch time tinkering turned out to be extremely popular. Though I didn’t know what to expect going in, these are a few of the takeaways I came away with:

To get started, all you need is cardboard and tape. Far and away, the most popular lunch time tinkering activity was constructing with cardboard. When I offered up the chance to design and make robots using any of the materials in the tinkering space,  the overwhelming choice was cardboard. Have a good supply of cardboard and tape on hand.


You will see children at their best. When we started, I set three simple rules: 1. Everybody cleans up. 2. Everyone is invited to join in. 3. Everyone helps solve problems. Except for one incident, where a special needs child was initially excluded (and other children immediately spoke up for him) there was never a problem with behaviour. We all worked together.


Children want to explore their own ideas. On a day when we were making cardboard arcade games (as inspired by Caine’s Arcade), I wasn’t sure how the youngest children in grade one would fare. Did they even know what an arcade game was? I printed off examples of cardboard arcade games ahead of time for inspiration. Not one child looked at them. After we had our initial discussion (which we always did to remind students of the rules and the day’s task) the children got started. You could tell they wanted to build something and test it, to see if it would work. If it didn’t, they made changes and tested again.

You don’t need unlimited materials. Not having enough materials became part of a problem to solve. When we ran out of cardboard, the question became, what could you use instead? The students were never stuck. They always figured out another way to come at the problem.

Not everyone wants to tinker and that’s okay. As the weeks went on, there were “regulars” who came as often as they could. Others I never saw. I knew they were the ones who needed to go outside and run in the fresh air over the lunch hour. Tinkering did offer, for those children who needed it, a chance to putter and play in ways that suited their personalities.

Kids of all ages are capable tinkerers. One of our tinkering activities was taking apart old appliances and machines we gathered up. A grade one student had the challenging task of taking apart a broken stopwatch. With perseverance and focus, and the use of a tiny screwdriver she opened the stopwatch and organized the parts:


Pretty amazing for a six year old!



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Assessment Leads to More Tinkering


I’ve been working at a K-3 school to introduce tinkering as an extension of the learning commons. One of the greatest challenges for teachers of children, even at this age, is meaningful assessment. But how do we assess tinkering? In Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of Stem Innovators, a chapter of the book is devoted to this. Entitled, “It Looks Like Fun, But Are They Learning?” the authors identify four qualities of tinkering as evidence of learning. These include:

Engagement: active participation

Intentionality: Purposeful and evolving pursuit of an idea or plan

Innovation: New tinkering strategies that emerge through growing understanding of materials, tools, phenomena

Solidarity: Sharing, supporting, and pursuing shared purposes with other learners in the Tinkering Studio, or with the artifacts they have left behind” (Petrich, Wilkinson, & Bevan, 2013, p. 53-54).

We recently designed a tinkering opportunity with Grade 2 students around magnets. For the first few sessions, we allowed the children to simply play. We photographed, videoed, and discussed important ideas with children. Next, we asked the children to create a toy or game, using magnets.

To assess the students’ knowledge of the scientific concepts surrounding magnets, we created a performance assessment. This is where it got interesting. Even with all the tinkering, there were students who did not meet the scientific outcomes for grade two.

For example, one student, when shown a group of items, and asked to predict which would attract to the magnet as part of a performance assessment, had great difficulty identifying the items that might do that. However, this same student, in creating the magnet game, showed Petrich, Wilkinson, & Bevan’s qualities in spades.

This leads me to think that as teachers, we need to tinker with our project design.

Some questions I have been thinking about are: Should we involve more direct teaching as part of the project design? How can we support student learning of scientific outcomes within the context of tinkering? How will we record and manage evidence of the four qualities of tinkering?

Patrick, M., Wilkinson, K., & Bevan, B.  (2013). It looks like fun, but are they learning? In M. Honey & D. E. Kantor, (Eds.), Design, make, play: Growing the next generation of STEM innovators (pp. 163-181). New York, NY: Routledge.


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Tinker Time at Lunch

We began just recently offering Tinker Time over the lunch hour. I wasn’t sure how it would go, so basically decided to dive in and make adjustments as needed.

A few decisions were made at the get go: we are a K-3 school, but wanted tinkering time to be multi-age. To make numbers manageable, we invited three students from each class to join us in free tinkering, often with a materials theme.


Students creating insects from Lego.

So far we have offered building with straws and connectors, Lego, marble runs, Scratch Jr., and making with cardboard and plasticine for starters.

Our rules are simple: include and help each other, everyone cleans up, and be on time for class.

Feedback from teachers has been very positive. The students love the opportunity to work with different students, and mess around with materials in an unstructured environment.


Older student working with grade one.

Upcoming ideas include making with paper (origami), cardboard arcade games, practising with tools (hammers and screwdrivers), taking things apart and putting them back together, tinkering with magnetic poetry kits and cameras to photograph poetry, to name a few.


When I have asked students if they would like specific ideas for tinkering, they are adamant in their response. No.

I am wondering because their lives are so structured they are happy to have time throughout the day to just play with materials.

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