Posts tagged Innovation
Shifting in Dark Times
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Two and a half years ago, we were given an opportunity to dream about how school could be different.  No box to dream inside, no forms to fill in, no checklist to run down, just make school different.

We had small dreams during this time, that made us feel a tad subversive.

We had medium sized dreams, where we were able to ask interesting questions and find interesting answers.

We had dreamed big, and were pleasantly surprised when you decided to dream along with us.

Today, looking back on two and a half years of hard work by all of you, we realize that this dream is not ending, it’s just changing.  The Shift and by default all you Shifters are in flux.

Next September will come, you will have students in front of you, lessons to teach.  Schools will plan events, there will be high times and low times. But at the end of the day, innovation will happen, school will be different.  It will be different because of the journey you’ve been on with us. It will be different because fundamentally you believe that students deserve our best, and the best we can give tomorrow looks different than the best we can give yesterday.

Our challenge to you is to find the professional network of people inside your school who fill up your soul.  Find the people who challenge you to be better. We’ve learned that we are better when we Shift together. So yes, we might be Shifting through dark times, but it is the people we surround ourselves with who will hand us a flashlight, or spare batteries, or hold our hands as we navigate an unclear path.

We rise by lifting others.  Let’s be each others flashlight.

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Try Shifting!

The Shift has decided it is time to throw down the gauntlet and invite our fellow Shifters to try something new. We love getting out to see other school communities and other teachers’ classrooms in action, but there are only two of us and there is a lot of great work to see. We think now is a good time for some Shift challenges.

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Every so often we will post some #TryShifting challenges here. To start with, there are already three available for you to try, such as starting an educational Twitter account, or convincing a friend to do so. There are no deadlines or due dates. You can spend as long as you want working on a challenge. They can be completed individually or in a group. All we ask is that you share your work with the wider education community using the #TryShifting hashtag. Post some pictures, reflect on how the challenge went. What did you learn?

So what are you waiting for? Try some Shifting!

Engaging with our PLN

Do you have a Professional Learning Network?  Is there a group of educators with whom you enjoy connecting with, who push your own thinking and expose you to new ideas?  We like to connect with as many people as we can online. One of those people is Matthew Oldridge, an educator who is currently on secondment to the Ministry of Education.  He tweets about mathematics, or education, or pop-culture, or his family. We enjoy his online presence because it isn’t one dimensional, he is great at letting people in and showcasing the fact that yes, he is a human when he isn’t teaching.

Matthew recently posed a series of questions on his blog which he challenged his own PLN to think about and respond to.  These are the types of questions that The Shift likes to think about and, by speaking about them, coach others into thinking about them too.

The Shift sat down and talked through each question and have responded to the ones that we felt we had the most to contribute.  If anything we says resonates with you, take the conversation online or respond in the comments below.

What has been your most powerful pedagogical moment?

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It was probably attending the Deeper Learning Conference.  The experience peeled away a lot of the movie magic that was applied in the documentary Most Likely to Succeed.  Were students completing high quality projects? Yes.  Were they also being taught curriculum in a setting we might recognize?  Absolutely. The fact that students were doing both made this moment so powerful.  We love teaching students about math and art. We don’t love that we have to take the subject we love to teach about, and more often than not measure that learning through a timed test or static project.  We’ve often wanted our students to show us their learning in different ways but were never fully satisfied with the tasks we would give them. Attending Deeper Learning and visiting High Tech High convinced us that projects that integrate learning across subjects, that force students to dive deeper into their learning, and have students exhibit their learning in public ways were possible.  It’s something we would love to help other teachers try.

What changes do you want to see in curricula around the world?

The greatest overall change we hope to see change in curricula is one that values depth over breadth.  There can be a great deal of stress and anxiety that comes with trying to cover all the topics in a curriculum so packed with content that they have no time to go deep on anything.   If curricula had less specific content to cover, what could that space allow?

  • It could allow for students to go deep with their learning.  Removing that stress of breadth of curriculum would allow educators greater flexibility to bring students as the leader in the curriculum

  • Going deep with curriculum would enable bringing student voice and student identity.  Simply put, not cramming in content would allow flexibility and space for students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum.  

  • That space would give time and space to uncovering curriculum from multiple viewpoints.  Understanding and building empathy for many points of view, so that one story doesn’t become the only story.   

What do you think is the purpose of education in this day and age?

The world is changing at a blistering speed and the model of education we need to prepare students for that future can no longer rely on developing young people for a singular, defined career.  We don’t know what the world will look like when these learner will reach adulthood, the purpose of education should be to do a better job of preparing for a changing world, rather than a defined one.   How might we empower students to find their passion? What opportunities can we provide to students so that they are motivated to learn? Education should foster creative, problem seeking, collaborative, empathetic citizens that can adapt to our changing world.  

What would you like to see change the most about education?

Let’s start with students.  Like we said in the previous question, the change we would like to see for students is education that puts students in the drivers seat, with students empowered to find their passion.  If we can empower students, they will feel their voice is heard and reflected in their learning. A single story is replaced with many stories and many voices and with that students we feel more ownership over their own learning.

For educators, the change we would most like to see is a community of sharing, supportive educators, with silos created by walls, schools, departments all melted away.  Education is stronger when it is done together. No one should ever feel that they are done learning or growing and everyone needs a coach or mentor. Our hope is that, moving forward, education becomes a much more collaborative act.

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On both of these fronts, we see signs of hope.  Through maker education, equity work, design thinking and the thinking classroom model, we see a shift towards students uncovering the curriculum through play rather than being treated like empty vessels to be filled with content.  On the educator front; organic professional learning networks, the twitterverse, and online sharing are creating cracks in those solitary silos of teaching. We’d love to normalize educators being in each other spaces, co-teaching and learning together.  After all, how can we expect students to learn how to work together as adults, if they never see other adults collaborating and problem solving together.


Journey to Innovation

Gord Donaldson is the current principal at Maple Grove PS who is also currently trying to innovate his golf game to lower his handicap in between trips to hockey arenas and baseball diamonds with his kids.

I had a moment recently to reflect on our school’s journey in innovation.  As I pondered how we got to where we are, I never realized how far we have come in such a short period of time.  When you think innovation, you sometimes think big, or quick. Our journey was neither. What it is, is impactful.

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It all started with a cool spring day in May of 2017 at the Country Heritage Barn.  Knowing we needed something to “Shift”, but not sure what it was, we sent about 20 staff members.  Did that make it more difficult to have 20 occasional teachers in the building in one day? Sure. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Of course, we learned that we need to move from “ya, but” to “yes, and”, but more importantly we learned that a journey to innovation requires risks.  It requires making mistakes and trying again. It requires getting out of your comfort zone. Heck, even those who “don’t dance” (like me!) tried line dancing.

So, now what?  It’s great that we can try new things but what does that mean?  It was time for Maple Grove to go to the movies. In watching “Most Likely to Succeed”, staff were challenged to rethink school, to rethink what a 21st century learner is, and what it is they need to be successful. We started with flexible seating by incorporating a few bean bag chairs per classroom and a carpet area, even in intermediate.  Imagine the stereotypes we broke! Now, only a year later we have bean bags, carpets, hokki stools, chair bands, standing desks, cushions, couches, tables at different heights and more in all of our classrooms.  It’s funny how innovation can be contagious when it works in one classroom and everyone wants in! No classroom is left behind.

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We also added a stationary bike into every classroom for movement breaks.  What did we find? In amongst dealing with the issues of pedals put on the wrong side in assembly or older students over-tightening the tension, we found that students were taking their movement breaks in the classroom instead of the hallways.  And after the initial awe of a new tool in the classroom, we found that our students only needed 2-3 minutes on the bike before settling in. Need a break? Now it is happening in the classroom. No more pretending to go to the bathroom or get a drink, just because you need a movement break. Combine these fantastic tools with flexible seating, our halls became empty during class time as students have all the tools they need right there in the classroom. Talk about maximizing learning!

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Now that we had innovated our environments, it was time to innovate our pedagogy too.  We had to teach students how to use the space. We had to teach students explicitly about self-regulation.  By using the Zones of Regulation right across the school, our students began to recognize their learning needs and focus in on the learning. Our teachers realized that the academic learning needed to change too.  We shifted from your typical classrooms to 21st century classrooms. We focused on Project based learning and guiding students through Inquiry questions. Are we there yet? Are we masters of Inquiry? Not in the slightest.  Are we much better than we were twelve months ago? Absolutely. We started with tasks like “Create a community (either urban or rural) and research the different components about that type of community and present your findings in a form or your choice” and now we are asking our students things like “Will we run out of energy?” and “Why do people live where they live?”. Progress. Amazing progress in a short period of time.

The first reports from students were that project based learning was way more engaging than school work.  It was working! We felt like we had fooled kids into thinking that learning wasn’t hard. It was like magic.  And as you know with 21st century kids, we had to keep the level of engagement high. That’s where we transformed the Library to our Learning Commons.  Not just with flexible seating, but with the tools that are available to students to help both engage and make connections. Chariot Races with robots down the hall to connect to medieval times? You got it!  We are currently in the exploring stages with some of these materials, but engagement is high with our Dash and Dots, Spheros, Ozobots, Osmos, Vex Robotics, Greens Screens, Makey Makey and Bloxels. And that’s the next steps on our journey.  How can we use these engaging tools to connect to student inquiry and learning within the curriculum?

I set out to write a blog of about 250 words.  I missed. There is just so much to say about our journey in such a short period of time.  We could not be more proud of our progress, and the “Shift” that has happened in our school.  Feel free to check out even more in a Maple Grove Innovation Slideshow. Words cannot describe it all, but a picture is worth 1000 words, I am told.  Each step of the way seemed small. But when you look back, the Shift is monumental. We are not finished.  We never will be. Innovation is a journey, and ours started small. When will you be ready to take risks, make mistakes, and step out of your comfort zone? Your students are counting on it.

~ Gord Donaldson

World Creativity and Innovation Day

Did you know that this Saturday is World Creativity and Innovation Day?
Halton wants to celebrate this day on Friday, April 20th.  

Look around your building for examples of innovative teaching practices, students showing off their own creativity, or just something interesting that resonates with you.   Tweet out your observations and pictures using the hashtag #HDSBInnovates. We want to know what is happening in your building!


Growing into Innovation
Tony Churchill is a Principal at Harrison Public School. He is working with staff at his school on promoting a growth mindset in students through design thinking challenges. He is our very first contributor to the Shift from the perspective of a school principal.


One school’s journey towards innovative thinking...

“So, what is innovation or innovative thinking? How do we foster it...promote it? Once we start to see it, how do we get comfortable with assessing and reporting on it? How do we cover all the curriculum and allow students time to explore without worrying about this lost teaching and learning time?”

These were some of the questions that staff on our leadership team and I worked through last year. The reason: I was the new principal and during the first PD day as I got to know everyone, I took the staff through a process...to draw and write about their ideal school. As we worked through the process, similar themes emerged and we narrowed things down toward the beginnings of a school vision statement. One that aligned with Halton’s vision and captured the pieces of all contributing staff members from that PD day’s session.

“In Harrison Public School’s safe and inclusive community, learners’ voices will be valued in order to engage all learners in authentic learning environments, promoting both collaborative and independent innovative thinking, fostered through a growth mindset.”

Meanwhile, my own professional learning at the time was also focused on innovation. I was working hard to effectively use Twitter to grow my own PLC (Professional Learning Community) and reading Couros’ book and blog, Innovator’s Mindset. As I had sat there reading, book in one hand and cell phone in the other, I began to follow different people he mentioned on Twitter and watched various TED Talks and YouTube videos. What they were talking about made sense to me and spoke to the learning environment I would want to come to each day.


From the vision statement we co-created, it seemed natural to me to begin with “innovative thinking, fostered through a growth mindset.” I had also been following Carol Dweck and her work, reading Growth Mindset, the New Psychology of Success. So, with the leadership team, we divided into smaller teams to begin to develop staff PD about both these areas...innovation and growth mindset.

Providing release time and resources, these staff members were then able to develop learning sessions that were informative and hands on. I said that I wanted the full staff to have the same working definition of these parts of our vision statement. I wanted them to see the power of reinforcing the right skills in the right ways and to see the increased engagement of our students while completing projects that promoted innovative thinking.


Conveniently, we arrived at the start of our work with the new Kindergarten program being released and with one of the four frames, being assessed via pedagogical documentation, entitled Problem Solving and Innovation. So we had kindergarten staff digging into what this meant and they were able to share this perspective/learning around this frame with the grade 1 - 5 teachers.

While we had the leadership team exploring these ideas of innovation and growth mindset, I introduced them to John Spencer and his design challenges. These are some fun, non tech projects that anyone could do with their students. I was reading the “Launch Cycle" and had shared it with a couple of staff members. I wanted to begin to get the idea of a structure to design challenges and the richness of the process work students were involved in. At this point, we had only been looking at the obvious connections to Learning Skills when students were completing design challenges and I wanted to gently move staff along in their understanding of the full potential of these projects.



Staff were getting excited by positive student responses to our design challenges. They were looking for more and wondering what else we could do. I shared the Global Day of Design website with the leadership team. We decided to take this on and decided that our Spring Parent night would also focus on parents and children completing design challenges together. Staff agreed, while working in the rooms that evening, to make efforts to explicitly speak about the learning skills that were developed while completing these challenges. They also worked at promoting growth mindset language throughout the evening. As well as design challenges, we opened up the library’s makerspace resources and had families cycle through so students could teach their parents how to use these activities (students had been taught throughout the year how to properly use these so they could easily shine as they showcased their learning with their parents). The evening was a success...the highest attendance in a long time and not one exit pass, completed by parents, had a concern or suggestion on what to do differently next time!

Where is this going?  I am not 100% sure. I want to be clear it is not just about having FUN even though having fun is important. Teachers still struggle with how this fits in with everything else we are looking at during a school day, month or year. I wonder next about how to bridge the work to be done around assessment and reporting with the design challenges being completed in the classrooms. I think there is learning to be done around pedagogical documentation, beyond the kindergarten classrooms. I think richer assessment, cross curricular connections, reporting, descriptive feedback and relevant next steps are waiting to be discovered in the work we are entering into. These 21st Century learning skills are not just the new eduspeak. It is an exciting time to be a “guide on the ride” with the students in our classrooms.

I think it is always interesting, upon reflection, the many steps we, as a school, have gone through in our journey towards developing an understanding of this thing called innovation. It may appear to the reader that the steps were each planned and sequential and perhaps one lead to another. Having gone through this, I know it did not happen that way. I had a hope that teachers would embrace a vision statement they created. I had an interest in what the idea of “innovation” was all about and wanted to have a group of teachers that had a common understanding...how do we do something better than how it was done before? We dig in...we try things...we watch and listen...we provide opportunities...we stand back...we celebrate...celebrate the process, the mistakes, the questions that get answered and the unanswered questions...we enjoy the journey...as it happens and continues to happen!

I will try and visit again, to see where year two brings us.

~Tony Churchill




Wonder Walks
This semester, interested teachers in Halton were able to apply for funding for projects that explored Innovation.  That is, projects that will improve a Process, Product or Understanding.




All in all, 49 applications were received with 18 of those projects receiving funding.  Matt and I have been busy trying to connect with as many groups as possible with the intention of blogging about what we’ve learned.  However, we’ve found that many of the groups want to talk about their learning in their own words.


Kelly Bourassa is a Grade One teacher at Brant Hills Public School.  She’s working with her elementary school colleagues at Norton and MacMillan Public Schools on peer to peer collaboration around open ended inquiry projects.


Finding innovation Outdoors


Every Friday morning my class goes on a ‘Wonder Walk’ in the forest near our school. It is my students’ favorite part of the week. The children are free to explore and commune with nature, some for the very first time. When I first ventured outside the classroom I had a plan, an agenda of what we were going to do in the woods. I felt that I was not doing my job if I didn’t assign them a task or a focus for their learning.


Over time I have watched the students as they discover this space and I have learned that to encourage creative minds and innovative ideas, you often need to abandon the lesson plan. You need to trust the innate sense of wonder and imagination that children have and let them lead the way to innovative ideas.  During their exploratory play they work cooperatively to build structures, create games and toys, and find treasures. The students are mindful, they self-regulate and cooperate. They make observations about the environment that lead to some amazing wonderings about the world. This is where I find my purpose as a teacher. I listen to their conversations and prompt further inquiry and discussion. This journey has allowed me to shift my teaching approach. I realized that I can cover curriculum expectations and encourage the development of global competencies through these authentic interactions.




We are beginning to recognize the importance of teaching transferable skills in order to meet the needs of the 21st century learner. This is going to require moving away from the current structured program and incorporate time in the weekly schedule for practicing interest based inquiry. Long journeys begin with small steps, perhaps in the forest.

~ Kelly Bourassa
Questions for High Tech High
Over the past year, many Halton teachers have been given the opportunity to watch the documentary Most Likely to Succeed.  Some of us watched it at evening screenings at various schools. Some schools screened the film during their Professional Development days.  Others have been given the opportunity to watch the film on their own.


If you haven’t seen it yet, Most Likely to Succeed follows a group of Grade Nine students as they attend their first year school at High Tech High, a school that focuses on Project Based Learning in San Diego.

The Staircase to Nowhere Project

If you teach in the Halton District School Board, you can find instructions on how to watch the full documentary here.  If you don’t work for our board, there are ways to screen a copy in your school or board.  It’s worth it!

We have lots of questions about how High Tech High delivers its curriculum.  We are fortunate to be attend the Deeper Learning Conference at the school next week and hope to get our questions answered.  If you have seen the documentary and have some questions that you’d like answered, please feel free to add them to this document.

We look forward to getting some answers!
Teaching Creativity

Amanda Williams-Yeagers has written a number of guest blog posts on the Shift. She is also leading the HDSB Empower Book Talk.

Jordie Burton has also written a guest blog post on the Shift. He is an Art Educator passionate about creativity and design thinking. Amanda and Jordie have teamed up with other HDSB educators to use an innovation grant to delve into teaching creativity and design thinking in our schools.

Sir Ken Robinson begins his famous 2006 Ted talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by speaking about the evidence and the range of human creativity. He also begins by talking about the uncertainty of the future. The irony of this, is that this brilliant talk took place twelve years ago.

Today we are still wondering what the future will look like and we are still hoping to prepare our students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. We are also curious about the range and extent of human creativity:


What is the definition of creativity? What environment is conducive to creativity for learners? How can we create an environment that nurtures rather than undermines creativity? How can we support our learners to become comfortable with making mistakes?

Sir Ken continues to say that one of the greatest issues in education is that we educate people out of creativity. He captures this when he says that students,

“have become frightened of being wrong. We stigmatize mistakes. And we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

While recognizing that this was said twelve years ago, we are left wondering if this is something that still exists in education today. In fact, we have a number of questions about creativity that are grounding our inquiry. We are using a design thinking approach to ask the questions, “How can we improve students ability to learn to be creative?” “How can we empower students to identify themselves as creative?” and “How can we change a single story of student’s self-image to the untold story of limitless potential?”



Our first investigation has led us to investigate a broader definition of the concept of creativity. The organization Creativity at Work defines creativity as “the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality” and that if you have ideas but do not act on them, you are imaginative, not creative. Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind says that creativity is “giving the world something it didn’t know it was missing” or as Hugh Howey says “Seeing something that doesn’t exist and then making it so,”. While we continue to work on our broad definition of the concept of creativity, that application of the topic is what matters to us the most.

So, we are putting it out there and asking other educators to support us in our journey and we have lots of questions! We are exploring the idea that creativity has some core elements that can be shared, taught and built. What is the best way to bring that into a classroom? If we want our students to graduate with the ability to think creatively, how do we achieve this? What does teaching “creatively” look like? Are there examples of lessons that explicitly teach creativity? How do we convince our students that everyone has the potential to be creative? 

If you have any ideas, and are willing to help us with our inquiry, please complete this survey and help us by sharing your experiences. We don’t need you to have all of the answers (we don’t either!) we just want you to help us by coming along for the ride.



And with that we leave you with this:


“Creativity is as important now as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.”

-Sir Ken Robinson


What Does Success Look Like?
Matt and I are fast approaching our one year anniversary in this role.  When we started, last February, with the roughest of plans.  We were going to demonstrate how the Halton District School Board is building a shared culture of Innovation.  How we did that was left, for the most part, up to us.  No pressure.

We both really wanted to create our own Podcast, but some advice from Phil Davison and Cindy Cosentino led us to believe that it might be better to start with a Blog first.  So we dove in, blogging and then eventually launching our “Case For Innovation…” video series, followed by a few Calls to Action.  We’ve Shifted at The Barn, we’ve presented at conferences both inside and outside Halton, we’ve been vulnerable and silly.  In short, we’ve tried our best to put our own individual learning on display.



Matt and I have a lot of fun in this role.  We have a very fluid “to-do” list that gets pretty fuzzy around the edges.  With lots of balls in the air it’s sometimes tough to judge if we are making progress.  Most days we spend our afternoons together talking about what to post next, or perhaps we plan an upcoming visit to a classroom.  We worry about how to create more secondary conversations, both on and off the blog.

Matt turned to me the other day and asked, “If we keep doing this, what does success look like in three years?”

To say I was shook up would be an understatement, because I don’t know what our success might look like.  Many subscribers to our blog and lots of views on our videos would be nice, but that in an of itself doesn’t make us successful.  

We’ve learned that Innovation is a process that leads to improvements to a product, process or understanding.  

Given that definition of Innovation and that you are here reading this blog because (hopefully) you want to improve something in your practice, I’m curious what success might look like to you?  If you follow along with us for the next little while, what would your success criteria be?  How would you know if you shifted your practice?

In the end, my own personal success criteria is a moving target and I’m ok with that.  I want to Make School Different and in three years time I’ll be happy if I can look back and see that change.  I’d also be alright with us making a podcast or two.
Can Creativity and Innovation Be Taught?
Shifting back to the Barn
On Wednesday night, 175 educators got to play together with a revisit to the Barn in Milton.

The theme of the evening was “Can creativity and innovation be taught?”.  We’ve come to believe that the answer is a resounding YES!  As we have been exploring here at the Shift, there are learning conditions that foster innovation, in our schools and for our students.  This is where we started with The Case for Innovation and exploring these conditions, followed by Community Building and Risk Taking, and more to come soon.  Rethinking the structure of our classrooms and our schools is what we are aiming to do as we aim to answer the important questions of whether creativity and innovation can be taught.  This is our BIG why as shifters.  This goal is in context to changes happening at the Ministry level as well.  Our report cards are on the verge of a major overhaul.  The stated goal by the Ministry of Education is to “help students of all ages meet the changing demands of today and tomorrow.”  We don’t know what tomorrow might look like, but we do know that navigating the 21st Century world will require skills in communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and global citizenship.  

If we want to teach Innovation and Creativity we need to realize that each school is different, with challenges that are big or small.  Some of the solutions to the various challenges can be found inside our home schools and some challenges need the experiences of those from other buildings.  Yet, everyone on the team has a role to play in overcoming the challenges we are facing today.  Things go faster if everyone shares their successes and failures.  You might possess the experiences that another school needs to overcome their particular challenge, so share your strengths and join the conversations.  Sometimes, solutions can be found in unexpected places.  Sometimes the box that we work within needs to be shaken and flipped upside down.  Teaching is a puzzle that can only be appreciated when we stand way back and see the contributions of everyone involved.
Working as a team, we can solve this puzzle!

Networking, asking questions, making observations, experimenting and connecting the dots of our learning are all skills that innovators need to have.  If you are an HDSB educator who is interested in exploring how to teach Innovation and Creativity, why not consider applying for an Innovation Grant! Consider learning more about the skills that innovative people possess and the conditions needed within a classroom or school for innovation to thrive as your starting point.  What is your WHY?  The application is really quite easy, and incredibly flexible in scope, so why NOT?

You can find the details on the grant proposal here on slides 23 to 29.
No, I'm Not Listening
Students say the best things when they think I’m not listening.  It’s pretty funny actually, if not more than a little frustrating.  Students can be having excellent conversations about mathematics but as soon as I come over to listen they get just a little bit self-conscious and the conversation ends.


I’ve gotten really good at listening from far away.


We’ve been dabbling in project based learning with our grade nine academic classes this semester.  After our first project, we introduced our students to Dandy Candies.  This activity has been around for awhile.  I first was introduced to it at the 2015 OAME conference when Dan Meyer ran it with a packed room.  Since then, I’ve used this activity on and off with my classes, but never as a project.


The premise is pretty simple, show students the video of a preset number of small cubes assembling into packages (prisms) of various dimensions.  Then ask them some questions about what they’ve seen.


“What do you notice?”
“What do you wonder?”


As the person responsible for steering the conversation, I try my best to guide them to the questions I really want them to ask.  Except this time my thunder was stolen!  Apparently, after doing only one previous project, at least one student in the room was wise to my plan.


“I bet Mr. Mitchell wants us to figure out which arrangement uses the least wrapping paper”, said one student.  The entire classroom kind of gasped and went quiet.  Then there was an explosion of conversation at each table group.  This is a win.  Here I thought I’d have to trick my class into asking the right questions.  Somehow, they did it for me.




We spent a week playing with Math Cubes, calculating surface area and preparing a final report on which arrangement of 48 and 128 cube sized candies would need the least wrapping paper or in math speak, had the least surface area.  Then we spent the following week diving deeper into Surface Area and Volume calculations.  Students showed us their understanding in different ways.  It was fun!




It has now been 7 weeks of project based learning and curriculum wise, the grade nine team was all over the map, covering linear relations and geometry without having developed some of the other tools that would make solving these problems easier.  This was on purpose, we were creating a need in our students for them to ask us for better tools.


Up to this point, I haven’t once mentioned the word algebra to my class.  But it was time to introduce them to some more formal methods of problem solving.  Todd Malarczuk provided us with a simple mini project to drive home the need for algebra.




Students were presented with some pictorial representations of different algebraic equations.  You’ve probably seen these puzzles floating around your Facebook feed.  You may have even witnessed some of the arguments that they create.  Well, it wasn’t surprising that the same thing happened with our students, arguments everywhere!  Yet as I roamed around the room observing how the students were working, listening but not listening, I heard some comments that convinced me this was working.


“Drawing apples in my notes isn’t very easy.”
“If a bushel of bananas is four, do we need to know what one banana equals?”
“I wish there was an easier way to do this”

We had created a need in our students for something more efficient.  They wanted to know how to calculate what a coconut equaled, without us having to convince them that they needed algebra.  It was difficult, but by giving students the time to struggle; to try and fail and learn, we had created a community where risk taking was valued.  It wasn’t taboo to ask questions about the math we were learning or wonder about where we were headed.  Students owned their own learning, without us having to tell them that the learning was important.