Tag Archives: Problem-solving

What does learning look like?

Play a game with me. (I love games.)

Picture a teacher. Any teacher. A teacher you’ve had or a teacher you wish you’d had. A teacher you liked or a teacher you didn’t. Picture that teacher in a classroom. What does the classroom look like? Where’s the teacher? What’s the teacher doing? Put some students in that room. Where are the students? What are the students doing?

Try to keep that picture in your mind while reading the description of what my grade ten classroom looks like on a typical day.

Current Classroom
All students have laptops. They’re working, some talking with others but mostly just sitting quietly. Some are listening to music. The desks are in three clusters of four, one cluster of five, and two rows of three. I’m not sure who set them up that way. The students go back and forth from our class blog, which contains links to all resources they’ll need for the day, to whatever it is they’re working on. Some have printed copies of the linked resources and some are using pocket translators to help. There are notes from whatever we’ve recently discussed on the board. As the teacher, I’m either sitting in a spare student desk or on top of the cabinets at the side of the room. I have a laptop, too, and I’m probably on it.

We spend the beginning of each class reading through and then sharing the news. We discuss or review a few things together as a large group. Students complete a task, we discuss, students complete a task, we discuss. Sometimes these tasks are done independently and sometimes they work together. Sometimes students submit responses or assignments on GoogleDrive and sometimes they comment straight onto the blog. Often, they do neither and we periodically discuss for a few minutes after students have talked in their groups.

I’m willing to bet my classroom doesn’t look much like the one in your head.

The classroom in your head probably involves a teacher standing at the front of the room. Depending on how old you are, the students are probably in rows, though maybe groups of four. If you’re picturing a high school class, the students are probably taking notes while the teacher talks. Maybe there’s a PowerPoint presentation that the teacher is using, or maybe there are notes written on a transparency or perhaps on the board, again depending on how old you are. In this classroom, I’m willing to bet that the teacher is “teaching” and the students are “learning” and that the roles and responsibilities of both are clear. Anyone walking in could see that the teacher has the information and the students are supposed to take it in and understand it.

And if that’s not the classroom in your head, I’d love to hear what the classroom in your head looks like!

Even though my classroom might not match what we often think of when we hear “classroom” or “teacher” or “learning”, I have no doubt that my students are indeed learning. I can make this claim based simply on what they say in class, whether we’re having a discussion or they’re asking for clarification while working. I can make this claim based on individual conversation I have with students while checking up on their progress. If necessary, and sometimes it is, I can also provide samples of student work and show you the data I’ve collected and tracked on each student.

Anxiety
And yet.

And yet there’s some anxiety, anxiety for me as the trained educator in the room. What am I actually doing when others walk in or walk by the room? What am I actually doing that requires me to be there? I feel a sense of insecurity because I’m doing what I think is right by my students but looks inactive as compared to what others may do in their classes. The reason my classroom looks the way it does and I organize my classes the way I do is because I know, because I have learned, that with access to curated resources, assistance as needed, and feedback on their progress, my students will be just fine.

I might not be “teaching” in the traditional sense, but the point isn’t that I teach; it’s that students learn.

A few months ago, I read Michael Horn and Heather Stacker’s book Blended, which argues for disruptive innovation in schools. The authors explain that disruptive innovation comes from attempts in the business world to make products and services available to more people at lower cost. It was while reading this book that I began to rethink (yet again) the way that schools run and, more specifically, what I could do within my own classroom to meet students where they are and let them learn in the ways that make the most sense to them.

Future Classroom
Disruptive innovation in schools means making education and educational opportunities available to more people in ways that education may not have been in the past. In order to receive a diploma, everyone used to attend a building called a school. Considering schools in the context of disruptive innovation makes us ask, is that necessary anymore? Horn and Stacker describe models of schools that are a mix of remote and in-person learning experiences, either determined by the students themselves, by a the student in conjunction with a counselor, or by the student’s results on assessments. The very idea of a classroom, then, is called into question.

If I could, I’d design a school that looks like the one described in earlier writing here. I still believe that building peace is the purpose of education and that our students need a toolkit to make the world a better place. As much as I can, I design my grade ten curriculum around the real learning that is necessary for solving world problems and realizing one’s role and responsibilities as a citizen of the world. While my students have due dates, deadlines, and specific assessments, I’m trying to make my classes more flexible by providing students access to a wide range of resources and a choice about which ones to use.

There’s a long way to go. I know. There’s a lot of working, dialoguing, and understanding that has to happen. None of this happens quickly and I’m trying to be patient. I’m trying to be satisfied with one small change at a time. This isn’t the type of change that happens quietly, either, which is why I write about it.


Play a game with me. Design your ideal classroom or school or learning environment. Why do you think it should be this way or look like this? Comment below or send me a message.

Thank you for your thoughts, as always.

The Perfect School Day

It’s probably clear from this blog by now that education is very (dare I say “increasingly”?) important to me. I’ve written a lot about education in general, and more specifically on the purpose of education. Much of what prompted those posts came from reflection and discussion with Kyle when I was working in Singapore. 

Here are some of Kyle’s past writings on the purpose of education:

And mine:

We’ve also literally written thousands of unpublished words on the topic, including over 10,000 words in an unfinished e-book that has been on the back burner for months, but spurred on most of my education-related thinking over the past year or so. I’ve rethought a lot of what I “knew” about school, teachers, and students and I’m excited about the possibility of true education reform.

So with all the abstract philosophical thought on the topic and much reviewing of the educational literature, here is a complete “perfect day” of secondary school as Kyle and I envision it.

The Daily Schedule
9:00 AM – Start of school. This isn’t super important, other than it isn’t super early. Many high school students naturally sleep in a bit later due to staying up later and there really isn’t any reason to begin at 7:00 AM.

9:00-10:30 AM – Reading. Ideally this is aimed at current local, national, international, or global problems with current events from the news or other texts. The goal is simply to be aware at the beginning of each day of the suffering that is taking place all around us. This is not done to instill pessimism, but to inspire compassion – the desire to alleviate suffering in others. Literature that deals with human created suffering such as Frankenstein make for good selections during this time as well.

Conversation. This is a time to discuss what’s been read and share what interests and engages us. There can be a specific topic for this first hour, say sex trafficking of women around the world, or more open-ended reading of current affairs and sharing issues of personal interests. The aim is simply to engage in meaningful conversation about the state of the world with the purpose of refining ever more acutely what causes suffering and understanding the variety of contexts that contribute to it.

Investigation. This is a time to investigate what solutions have been generated for the causes of suffering we’ve been reading and discussing and to figure out what we can do as individuals, a group, and a community (both locally and societally) to alleviate it. This should spur lots of insight and opportunities for the social entrepreneurship block to come later in the day as possible gaps are identified in current attempts to deal with issues. Students might investigate political, economic, social, or technological solutions that have been attempted to deal with world problems.

10:30-11:00 AM – Break. This is a time to simply relax, have a snack if needed and transition to the next phase of the day.

11:00 AM-12:30 PM  – Physical education. This is a time for strength training, cardiovascular training, mobility training, and other athletics. This is also an opportunity to meet in small groups or one-on-one to discuss nutrition, mental health, and emotional health in order to increase and monitor overall well-being. The aim is pragmatic, how do we take care of ourselves as humans?

12:30-1:10 PM – Lunch.

1:10-2:40 PM – Social entrepreneurship. This is a time to work collaboratively on projects that aim to alleviate suffering and improve the world. Creativity, service, design, innovation, STEM, and business skills are intermingled in order to develop projects and programs that would have the greatest possible impact in any particular area. All members of the school community spend this time actively engaged in social entrepreneurship work, which could also include supporting one another’s enterprises, meeting with community partners and facilitators, and working off campus. This is also an opportunity to attend roundtable discussions to present work completed so far and elicit feedback from others, as well as figure out collaborative partnerships.

2:40-3:00 PM – Break.

3:00-4:30 PM – Personal growth and well-being. This is a time to end the day on a positive note, examining personal strengths, goals, and psychological states. This is also time to follow individual passions, such as reading literature, playing music, learning languages, creative writing, playing sports, making videos, blogging, or simply relaxing. The rejuvenation that comes from this part of the day will help the following day to commence with similar excitement. Engagement and flow should occur often and students can leave for the day feeling charged and full of zeal.

A Day in the Life of a Student
“Air pollution increases amidst warnings.”
“Migrants face deportation.”
“Refugees seek urgent medical care”

Maia stretches and looks up. It’s nearly 9:30, the end of the half-hour reading block that begins the day. Maia, her peers, and their teachers have been together as a team for the past year and a half. While they don’t always agree on how to most effectively tackle the suffering in the world, they care for each other and about those around them.

Soon, there’s enough movement to indicate that the readers are ready to talk. They readjust themselves around the room, remaining comfortable, but better able to see and hear each other.

“I’ve been reading a lot about climate change today.” The comment comes from a student perched on an ottoman next to a stack of books with titles like The Age of Sustainable Development.

“Did you see the New York Times article on the summit?” Maia asks, still sitting against the wall. “There’s a picture of the Doomsday Clock in my head.”

“I thought Canada put up a particularly strong stance, actually, and that might push other countries to follow through with caps on emissions.” A student new to the group states, sitting at a desk.

“That’s pretty broad, though,” says a student on the floor near Maia. “Yesterday, I read a lot of this book on the Copenhagen Consensus and there are real proposals that real people are working on, but it’s hard to tell whether emission caps are actually more effective than other suggestions, like bioengineering. On the one hand, it’s an easier sell. So maybe that’s better than nothing.”

The conversation continues for about thirty minutes and covers a range of topics from climate change to micronutrient deficiencies in small children. As always, the focus is on understanding why suffering occurs. Gradually, students return to their laptops and put in headphones, ready to move on from discussion.

Feeling agency to act is important. Maia and several classmates have lately been investigating vaccination efforts in Africa. They read Half the Sky together earlier in the year, which prompted questions about sex trafficking due to poverty, leading to a foray into tropical diseases. When they come across a new report on Ebola, one group member calls over a teacher to ask about virus mutations while others gather around a YouTube video explaining the science.

After about thirty minutes, it’s time to stop. Maia has learned to monitor her body for fatigue and tries to pause in her work before reaching a point of frustration. While some stay to continue working, Maia needs a half-hour of relaxation and maybe some frisbee. She takes an apple out of her bag and joins a loud group of friends on their way outside.

Frisbee leaves Maia feeling warmed up and ready to keep moving. She has a meeting with a nutrition counselor at 11, the beginning of the physical education block. After a long exploration of ethics and sentience, Maia has decided to become a vegetarian and wants guidance on her new diet. If she can’t take care of herself, she can’t make the world a better place. A guidance counselor taught her that last year after she experienced a series of anxiety attacks. After her meeting, Maia joins a group of classmates for a trail run in the woods on the edges of campus.

When they get back to the gym, Maia heads straight to her favorite coach. She wants to add mobility training to keep her hips mobile for the barbell squats she already does with the hope of squatting one and a half times her own body weight. She found a series of exercises online and asks for help with her form. The gym begins to clear out around 12:30 as students freshen up before lunch.

The afternoon campus is unrecognizable from the calm of the morning. Teachers, students, and community members are everywhere, all working on a myriad of social entrepreneurship projects. Maia’s group is putting together an education campaign about vaccination. They’ve partnered with another group focusing on fundraising efforts to implement the campaign. Each group takes a turn updating the other on what they’ve accomplished since their last check-in two weeks earlier. A teacher joins the groups to ask whether they’ve contacted any humanitarian aid agencies, which Maia’s group adds to their task list. Across the room, a few students and teachers are gathered around a whiteboard with a series of questions: “How do we create vaccines? What are they? Are there vaccines we don’t have, but would like to have? What’s been done to create them? Can we try making one?” Pointing this out to her group members, Maia joins in the discussion. This could be another good partnership.

It’s 2:45 by the time Maia’s group decides to stop for the day. They have a “next steps” action plan that should get them through the rest of the week. Other groups have already paused in their social entrepreneurship work and gone back outside to take a break.

Maia returns to her locker for her yoga mat and makes her way to an open studio space. After learning about yoga and meditation from a friend last year, Maia started an afternoon yoga class during the personal growth block. At the beginning of class, she invites each person to check in with themselves and set an intention for their practice. They’ll be in this space for an hour so she encourages them to focus on altruism, approaching each person with the goal of enhancing their overall well-being in every interaction.

After class, Maia steps over a robot whizzing down the hallway and follows the sounds of yelling and cheering to a room at the end of the hall. Someone mentioned a new virtual reality video game and maybe these are the people to ask about it.

At 4:30, Maia joins the waves of students leaving campus. She feels content, optimistic about the work she’s doing, and already looking forward to meeting with her project group again tomorrow. She makes a mental note to see what the team of teachers has been working on; she hasn’t really talked with them this week. Maia flips through her phone to a podcast recorded daily by a group of students.

“Good afternoon,” the host begins. “Thanks for joining us on What to Be. Today’s special guest is the executive chef at a local restaurant that provides job training and childcare for mothers.”

Maia smiles. That chef is a friend who graduated two years ago. Cool.

Final Thoughts
The actual blocked timing of much of this day ought to be more flexible than is written out here. It’s important that students learn how to manage their time and what is important. If they are fully wrapped up in a project they are working on involving social entrepreneurship, it is in no way urgent that they stop so they can move onto the final chunk of the day focused on personal growth and well-being; they are almost certainly already feeling a sense of personal growth and well-being if they are truly engaged in the project and feel a deep sense of meaning and purpose. Let them continue on.

The shape of this day is designed so that students can be exposed to problems early, work hard on thinking about and reflecting on them, take a break to physically recharge with exercise and food, move onto solving problems and creating value in the world for others, and then finish with some personal “me” time that explores what gives each of us pleasure and a sense of well-being. They will be prepared to act as responsible citizens who can think critically and participate in civic debates while also being ready for employment that is purposeful and creative. When not acting as citizens or employees they will understand how to relax and enjoy themselves in personal activities that contribute to a sense of rejuvenation and flow.

Learn, exercise, connect, create, be. Do our students really need to focus on anything else?