Play to Learn and Learning2 Play

The future of education is going to be interesting to see. What will be happening inside and outside of classroom walls? Will there be a classroom? Will we have interesting learning spaces both real and virtual?

One thing is certain. It is changing. Not fast enough for some. Too fast for others. The gap between how my parents were taught, I was taught, and my children have been taught is dramatic. But, is education changing in a way that will allow humanity to meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond? Will we teach and learn in a way that allows and encourages people to solve major systemic problems?

I was thinking about all of these things as I prepared to go to the Learning2 conference for teachers in Warsaw Poland last week. My mind was troubled by world events but my heart was open. What would I find at this conference that I could allow into my heart and that might illuminate my mind?

The first part of the journey was a journey. I flew from Accra, Ghana and sweltering tropical heat into the cool post winter of Warsaw, Poland. No need for AC! How good it feels to wear a pair of jeans and a jacket. Ahh refreshing!

It is kind of silly to have a pre-conference at a conference but that is what Learning2 has. It should probably come up with a different name like Learn2Lab or Ignition or Shazam or something that makes it seem important because it has been the best part of the conference 2 years in a row now. (Learning 2 Africa last year had a fabulous PreCon) I spent the Pre-conference with Mark Shillitoe and Sarah Woods in Maker Your own Learning in an exploratory maker space in the library. They had cobbled together, in the best possible sense, activities that allowed for exploration, creativity, social exchange, and learning. My time was spent productively and unproductively. I had fun stenciling boxes and getting a bit dirty, I made electrical circuits to “Hack” my conference badge with blinky LED’s and small batteries. I goofed off with circuits making strange sounds that sometimes were musical. I socialized and talked to other teachers about their journey, real and cognitive, to this place. Yes!

The next 2 days of the conference were filled with highs and lows that one might expect at any conference. As I continued throughout the conference I was encouraged and comforted by the fact that I was among teachers in my profession who were trying to improve and modify and adjust their teaching in ways that would create more opportunities for students to make sense of the world that they live in.

Side conversations during UnConference sessions were rich times for exchanging ideas and sharing resources. These became almost like tribal gatherings around the fire. A time to honor and hold the work we were doing together for a higher reason other than that is was our job. We were keepers of the flame.

The main session by Elizabeth Perry that I took the most away from was In Play: Tinkering to Learn in the Secondary Classroom. Play. Could play be the best way for students to learn? Could it be that creating and allowing time for play would give students a chance to synthesize and make sense of the work that they were doing in the classroom? The thesis of this session was that yes, it was exactly what allowed people to lay the foundation for learning. Play is good pedagogy. Making sure the content and the pedagogy work together to construct real learning is the artistic and scientific challenge called teaching. Play with a purpose is a way to align it all and make it happen.

I left this session with much to think about. It has been my own sense in the classroom (and outside of it) that the more play comes into the learning the more students learn. The Pre-Con with Mark and Sarah reinforced this for me as well. The more we can create the environment to play the more we have learning that lasts.

As we came to the end of the conference I had a chance to go to a session in the American School of Warsaw design classrooms with Adam Campbell, School Maker Faires and Everything you need to know to host one. Adam the teacher presenting is going to be putting on a School Maker Faire in Warsaw next week. He walked us through his work and experience in Tunis and Warsaw planning and organizing the School Maker Faire. There is a wonderful sense of learning and play in the Maker Faire that showcases the problem solvers who will be able to solve the problems that need solving and an openness to sharing the learning with all comers. Open source learning.

It is a big event to plan but also one that could leverage all of the learning of play and the play of learning that I am now so interested in. The idea has been planted and some care and watering will be required but this might be the event that comes to highlight the thinkers, inventors, tinkerers, and makers in our community in Accra.

Wrapping up the Learning2 Conference in Warsaw I had a great sense of new possibility. I also had a new sense of community. I am headed back to my school and community in Accra where I hope to implement the things I am learning and play! I know also that once I am back it will be a challenge to make changes and make things happen. All of the other responsibilities pile up. Working through them is key.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to be part of the Learning 2 community of learners, teachers, tinkerers, makers, players. They are an inspiration.


A Way Forward

The election is over. It was one that many in the international community here in Accra, Ghana increasingly thought would go to Hillary Clinton. Most people, including my students who come from may different backgrounds, thought there was no way the United States would elect Donald Trump. How could they? Surely, Trump was acting the part of entertainer and not politician. The polls seemed to confirm this viewpoint.

We were all shocked. My students who have just been studying values and thinking about their own values were asking “What do Americans value?” “What are American values?” As there teacher I was left scratching my head. I am not sure anymore what our values are. Maybe values lost this election. Students were pretty sure they had different values than Americans.

The international students in my classroom are from all over the world, Africa, Asia, North and South America, Australia, and Europe. Many of them have spent there young lives as immigrants. They have moved multiple times to different countries before the age of 12. Each time they move they have to find out where they fit in their new community. They are not sure now if they would fit in in the United States. They would all love to go to a college or university in the United States but they would be immigrants of different colors and religions. They paid attention to the election and they heard loud and clear that immigrants are not welcome. Where will they go for College or University?

Students looked to me to explain what happened. How could this have happened? I thought about all of the technical things to say about polls, data, geography, policies etc. but I really had no good answer for them. What I told them was that people did not make their decision based on information. They made an emotional decision. It did not matter who had the most experience, ideas, best policies, or leadership. Base instinct had more to do with the outcome than rational thought. Many intelligent people made a decision with their gut.

I asked my students what they thought should happen now. They all looked at each other and wondered, lost for an answer. I suggested that they do more of what they already do well. International students are quick to make new friends, to reach out to others, to open themselves to others, to welcome a newcomer. Finally, if they want to see a different world with different people in power they are going to have to make sure their voice is heard at the ballot box and elsewhere. They are going to have to get to work.

I am not sure that I was much comfort to my students but they left the room a bit quieter than they had entered. There are so many things I wanted to say but I am struggling to find the right things to say.


Risk Taking and Out of Eden

I am starting my third year teaching in Ghana and I have taught elsewhere.  I have observed that teachers are not inclined to take risks. We spend our time doing what we do best, direct instruction in our topic areas, and we don’t like distractions. The problem is we are often scared to take students to a place that is out of our comfort zone. New content? Scary. New style? Scary. New anything? Scary.

Part of the fear is that we will lose students along the way or they will revolt. Part of it is feeling like we do not have permission to try new things. Part of it is just straight up fear of failure.

My own experience with taking a risk last year had all of these aspects of fear. Would the students join me? Did I have permission from my school to try something different? And, could I succeed at something I did not initially understand.

It was in this frame of mind that I began working with students in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Project Zero initiative Out of Eden Learn. It was a big unknown for me. I decided to go for it. What is the worst that could happen?

Happily things went really well. Students enjoyed documenting everyday activities in Ghana. They made maps of their neighborhoods, interviewed local residents, documented important places in their neighborhoods with photos, and made short videos documenting one aspect of life in Ghana that was interesting to them. Finally, all of their work was shared with other students participating in Out of Eden from all over the world through the OOEL website. Students interacted in a social media environment that encouraged observing and questioning. This was a full and rich experience.

All of the work that they created was authentic, real, and valuable. They contributed to global knowledge and understanding of the world. In recognition, and in honor, of the work that student created some of their work will be shown in the exhibit _uncovering-the-everyday_ at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Gutman Library in October. This is an amazing way to show the human journey students have documented.

It turns out that if teachers are unwilling to take risks and try new things we are short changing our students. We can achieve more and deepen learning for students if we are willing to take a few risks now and then.

Scratch Making it Fly

This week was a good week. Design students submitted their first summative assignments and they went well. It was great to see them demonstrating their new skills. When we began our work in Scratch students found it a bit frustrating. Commands and sequencing of commands were not easy to figure out. Little by little though they have put the basic skills together to program using Scratch. All students have acquired a basic proficiency with this coding environment.

Next week we will come back and evaluate our work together. I look forward to helping students reflect on where they started from and where they are now. Amazing growth!

Think Like a Designer but Play and Explore too!

This week we have had time to play, investigate, poke, prod, and experiment. Students set up accounts on Scratch and then started to look at all of the options. Hey! You can make games with Scratch! Stories! Animations! Cool!

Scratch is a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. It is a programming language and an online learning community where students can explore the world of code. They learn to think creatively and systematically. Plus, they can share their work online and join in the community of Scratch-ers all over the world.

I set up “play” time as part of our MYP Design Criterion A investigation of Scratch. I required students to look at each of the different types of products that could be created in Scratch, animations, art, games, music, and stories. They were required to also use the “see inside” button to expose the code. My goal was for them to experience the general environment and ecosystem of Scratch but also make connections with the work that they have already done in Turtle Art. See! If you can do Turtle Art you can do Scratch too!

I had no other requirements but within 10-15 minutes most of the students independently started to create their own games and stories. This was not part of the assignment! What to do when your assignment is open and goes a bit sideways on you? Hmmm… I chose to let things develop and let go of my expectations. The drive to make, create, construct was taking over and I observed that it was a natural extension of play and exploration.

The next class I asked students to write in their process journals about their time playing and exploring in Scratch. Almost all of the students said that it was fun. Even my concrete sequential students who always want step by step instructions said this. The other thing that showed up in their process journals was the expectation and excitement that they were going to get to make a game or story too.

Then I introduced the Design Cycle, Criterion A: Investigate and Analyze. I watched all of their expectation and excitement drain away. My students were willing to follow my task as designed and answer the questions that I assigned them. They dutifully tackled the work and asked me clarifying questions but there was no joy. It was just work to them. As a teacher I almost felt guilty.

At the end of the day I had mixed feelings about my design cycle assignment. I could not help feeling like I had broken a natural process.   I also felt that slowing down the process and making students think like a designer, architect, engineer or other maker had benefits. Down the road will I see the benefits of both approaches?

As a teacher I am trying to find the path where students are creating and making in Design class and being able to understand how to develop and improve their work using information and thinking processes that I structure as a teacher. I have not found the right balance yet.