Beyond the Textbook: One woman’s STEAM journey

Beyond the Textbook series is following up on a recent post about nurturing girls’ interest in STEM careers with an interview with physicist, entrepreneur, programmer and CEO of Moondrop Entertainment, Ana Albir. I met Ana recently at the Miami Device learning event where I saw her speak on a panel about concerns on low involvement of women in science & technology fields. The panel discussed the importance of good female role models in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. I was happy to hear that each of the panelists felt that their career paths were positively influenced by women they admired. In this vein, Ana agreed to share her story and experiences to hopefully do the same for our community; encourage young women in believing there are no limits to their hopes and dreams regardless of their chosen field.

Photo by Chris Colley

How the journey began

I first asked Ana about her journey to becoming the CEO of a popular educational app company that creates management system for schools called Drawp. Ana’s journey is one of creative problem-solving, trial and error and personal resilience. In this clip below she discusses her first experiences with coding, the divisions between theory and practice and her roundabout pathway into designing for education.

On Resilience

Ana’s pathway through school, university and into the male dominated world of science and technology speaks to her grit and passion for learning. Which led me to ask her about how she found this inner resilience that opened the many doors throughout her life. As educators, we often think that learning or doing something quickly and correctly is a sign that someone will succeed in a given field, but Ana shows us that the belief in our own capacity to succeed is more important than quickness at school.

On Creativity

Resilience was one of the major factors that Ana believes was a game changer in her life, but creativity brought her where she is today. Her ability to find the creative aspects of science and technology largely stemmed from her passion for the Arts, something she shares with many scientists.

On the Future of STEAM

Finally I asked Ana about her opinion on the maker movement and what she thought would play the most important factor in getting more women interested in STEAM.

Ana’s story is one of inspiration and the unflagging belief in one’s own abilities; if we are looking to find modern day female role model for our young women, Ana is surely one of them. With an increased awareness of this growing divide in the STEAM fields, educators and parents alike can expose our students/children to more role models that speak to both genders in the hopes that it inspires a levelling of the field.

10 Years Later: Is Creativity Still Being Killed in Schools?

Image by Verena Roberts CC BY-NC-SA

After watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” in 2006, I have been actively looking and searching for creativity in schools. Are we seeing the evidence that creativity is as important as literacy in schools today? Is creativity dying a slow death in schools, if it was even there to begin with?

Sir Robinson told us that many brilliant people don’t think that they are brilliant, “because the thing that they were good at in school wasn’t valued.” He noted that brains work by connecting and interacting in many different ways and we aren’t encouraging similar connections and interactions through interdisciplinary studies in our schools. Is there evidence to support the existence of interdisciplinary studies in all of our schools?

My son has been reading the Unwanted book series. Throughout this series aimed at middle-school readers, creativity is seen as the most important ability in order to save the world. The series begins with a group of children being sent to their deaths because they are the “Unwanteds”. A person is “unwanted” based on the Quill’s society fixation on order, the lack of identity and limiting people’s abilities to think for themselves. However, instead of heading to their deaths, the “Unwanteds” are welcomed into a world called Artime, where creativity is seen as the most important ability in order to save the world.

Evidence that Creativity in Schools Can Save the World:

The “Maker Movement”

In Maker Spaces, students are provided with a wide variety of materials and encouraged to make or create something in order to experience learning in action which is guided by design thinking. The learner is encouraged to fail and persist through their own learning process in order to produce a desired outcome. Learning is based on designs, prototypes and first versions – very similar to our current technology market. Learners are encouraged to take their ideas and create a new product or item to change their world.

Jackie Gerstein’s “Stages of Making”

Copyright Jackie Gerstein, used with permission.

Maker Spaces are also motivated by crowd sourcing or participatory culture. This means that learners learn to support one another in creating learning opportunities for themselves – instead of a consumer based culture where learners consume the learning they are given.


Similar to Maker Spaces, gamified classrooms encourage critical thinking. I recently listened to Scott Hebert present about how gamification has transformed his science classroom.

The 6 Player Types – Scott Hebert ERLC EdTech Innovation Summit

One of the key aspects of his learning was that every learner can be included in the gamification of a classroom – every learner has a role to play. Everyone is included in the learning process and encouraged to use their unique strengths and talents in order to create new learning opportunities for others.

Closing thoughts

In the Unwanted series, the Unwanteds are taught how to create magical weapons using drama, fine arts and design to defend their creative world. The Maker Movement promotes the idea that creating your own idea is the way to develop and extend your own learning. Unwanteds also set out on Quests to save other people from their hostile and totalitarian worlds. Gamification also encourages quests and collaborative learning adventures.

As we think back 10 years to Sir Robinson’s plea to promote creativity in schools, I am delighted to see some clear evidence of creativity in action. However, I still think we have a long way to go. Are we still killing creativity in our schools?

If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to watch the full TED talk:

Feedback Street: Formative Assessment in History

Mr. Russell providing feedback to his students
Mr. Russell providing feedback to his students

In my previous
post,  I’d discussed the flipped classroom and how I’ve structured my classroom.  One of the benefits that I’ve found with the flipped approach, has been the interactions that I’ve been able to have with my students.  It has also freed up time for formative assessments.

In this post I’d like to discuss how I plan for formative assessments,  the “feedback street” that I think that I’ve created with my students and some tips on formative feedback for a couple of  intellectual operations (historical thinking) in history.


Usually assessment and evaluation is a binary framework: formative assesses material during the process of learning, while summative evaluates after learning has occurred.  This framework also supposes that assessment and evaluation is formal; that is the tasks are specifically constructed for the purpose of either formative or summative assessment.  Certainly this is the case when teachers join together to align their planning and construct assessment tasks together in common formative assessments.  While there is nothing wrong with this, and we certainly practice common planning, and plan for common assessments here at D’Arcy McGee in the history department, I think that there is distinction between planned formal formative assessments and planned informal formative assessments.   

For formal formative assessment, we use quizzes.  We design the quizzes to be short, and based on the main content or skills that we want the students to know.  In secondary IV we’ve been using the quizzes as a pre-assessment, a pre-test assessment and finally we include those skills and content in the unit tests.  The marks for the quizzes are not marked, but rather they inform us about the progress that the students are making and they inform the students about what skills and content we are valuing for our larger tests.  This is the “feedback street” as I like to think about it.  I use the street metaphor because the feedback is flowing in both directions: from teacher to student and from student to teacher.

The feedback street includes planned formal assessments and also some other components.  First, it begins with the learning intentions and success criteria that informs the student as what the goals of the unit and lesson are. Then, and what I think most importantly, it comes down to what feedback is given to the students as they are working through the learning activities, and correspondingly what they are telling us about the learning that they are doing.  

There are many factors involved in the feedback that we give to our students: what the objectives of the activity are, what errors or misconceptions that the student has.  Feedback above all has to be timely, related to the objectives of the task and individualized to the particular student.  Ultimately the goal of feedback is to drive learning forward.  However, given what I’ve just written, I’m going to try to propose a method for feedback  that uses a synthesis of  some common student mistakes that I see with some of the intellectual operations, which is the Quebec curriculum’s conception of historical thinking, and some of the feedback that I typically give in response to the student’s hitting a roadblock.

When I’m giving feedback I’m trying to: diagnose what the problem is, clarify for the student and prompt them to come up with the solution.



One of the intellectual operations is “Identifying a point of convergence or divergence” – the most common error that I see in this intellectual operation is that students do not identify the exact point, but rather list the different points of view.  One common point of feedback that I give is that I begin by acknowledging that they are almost at the correct answer, but then I’m seeking to diagnose the issue.  Do they understand the task? I try to always use the terminology that we expect the students to use.  In this case, maybe the student doesn’t know what “divergence” means.  By asking questions I can find out from the student what their issue is.  Then to clarify, I might ask them them to think about the information in a different way:  If you were writing a headline covering a debate between the two, what would that say?  Or I might give an example in another context, “If you said that Sidney Crosby was the best hockey player of all time and I said it was Wayne Gretzky then what is the point of divergence between our points of view?”   I find that in this context, these questions often will lead the student towards the correct answer.  


“Establishing Causal Connections” is an intellectual operation is very cognitively challenging.  Students must have background knowledge about the time period that contextualizes the question, the  three elements provided and then determine how they link together in a causal chain.  So once again, I’m seeking to diagnose: What can you tell me about this time period?  What do you think this is about?  If I can get some of the basic answers down, then I can move along to causality.  If my diagnosis has turned up that they know the end result and ask them to work backwards from there.  If they are missing the middle element I might ask what a consequence of the first element is?  Or, just like with the identifying a point of convergence or divergence I might ask them to think about how causality is created by presenting them a scenario:  Explain how your dog ate your homework.  In your explanation you must link these three items:  Your history homework,  the state of your backpack, your dog.  Then I usually get a very creative causal narrative about how the dog ate the homework.  So I follow up: Explain then how this historical event was created using these three elements.
These are just two examples, but ones that I find that students struggle with.  The feedback that they have given back to me is that these are difficult thinking processes and I, in return,  try to give them feedback, that is timely and leads them towards the correct answer.  Does it always work?  No.  But, by practicing and continuing back and forth up and down the feedback street, I do see progress in their thinking.  What are some of the challenges and successes that you’ve had in giving and receiving feedback from students?



“Ask a Colleague – Formative Assessment” Social Education Jan/Feb 2016.


Effective Science Teaching: A Tale of Two Teachers

scienceOver many years of teaching science myself and working with science teachers, I have come across many great teachers who guided their students to be successful learners and often inspired them to become scientists themselves. One thing has become clear to me – every one of these teachers developed their own pedagogy – their personal way of making their students science learners.

“Mr. Allen is a good teacher, but he doesn’t know much”

When I was a science consultant in the 1990s, I often visited John Allen, a Chemistry teacher at Riverdale High School. He was very effective at getting his students to learn successfully and enjoy Chemistry. He embraced cooperative learning, becoming popular in science classrooms at the time, and had his classes organized in structured learning groups for almost all of his classroom activities. When a student would approach him with a question, his first response was always to suggest they go back to their group and figure it out for themselves. He recounted to me that one day he was walking down the hall behind a couple of his students and overheard one say to the other, “Mr. Allen is a good teacher, but he doesn’t know much”! He smiled to himself, feeling confident in his belief that the teacher should be a facilitator and not the source of all knowledge and that students should play a major part in constructing their own knowledge and understanding.

The right amount of challenge and hands-on action

Sharon Lamb at Lindsay Place High School believed that real learning comes from building your own understanding from active classroom experimenting – and believed it was important for students to develop their own methods to conduct an experiment. She realized that this can be messy and time-consuming but that it is an effective way of ensuring deep understanding. I agree. I have always found that if students struggle with their understanding, and persist through it, they are more likely to really get it.

One activity I observed in her class was “the constant velocity car” “The company calls this a constant velocity vehicle”, said Sharon as she held up a small toy car for the class to see. “I want you to find out if this is honest advertising.” After questioning their understanding of speed of an object in motion and how to calculate it, Sharon pointed to a table with meter sticks, stop watches, masking tape and toy cars. She challenged them to figure out a way of not only measuring the speed of the car, but also finding out of the speed is constant over a certain distance. Soon, in groups of two or three, they were in the school hallway measuring set distances for their cars to travel and marking different lengths with masking tape. In hushed tones (most of the time) they discussed and argued with each other, conscious of not disturbing the other classes. “How can we get it to go straight?” “Will the battery hold up?” “How far should the car go?” “How do we calculate the speed?” “How do we make sure it’s constant?” were some of the questions overheard among the animated conversations going on.

Students measured distances, timed their trials and calculated speeds. They ran back and forth from group to group comparing their methods with the others and asked Sharon how to deal with obstacles as they arose. She encouraged them, but at the same time challenged their thinking. “That’s cool how you’re testing for speed using a 2-metre track. How are you going to record the time for the different distances?” she asked two girls. The mood of the groups varied from excitement to frustration to satisfaction and pride as they progressed through this activity. With Sharon’s guidance and a collective sharing of understanding among the students, they all came up with some form of conclusion about the honesty of the company’s claim.

Photo: The Constant Velocity Car
The Constant Velocity Car – photo by K.Elliott

As a two-day Applied Science and Technology activity, Sharon used it to reinforce and give personal meaning to the calculation of constant velocity. She gave them control over the procedure, all the while keeping a close eye on them to nudge them in the right direction when frustration set in or when she saw them going in an unproductive direction. All students were thoroughly engrossed in it. It had just the right amount of challenge and hands-on action.


In my blog posts, for instance, this one, I have been making a case for inquiry-based science education as the most effective way for students to learn science and technology. Visiting different classrooms and talking to many teachers, however, it is clear that there are many ways to approach the teaching of science – and that the different approaches are the result of the many situations that teachers face on a day-to-day basis. Some of the factors that influence their pedagogy are

  • demographics and special needs (who are the students?)
  • curriculum requirements and number of concepts to tackle
  • philosophical bent (I think students learn best when…)
  • exam requirements (teachers want students to succeed)
  • administrative considerations (scheduling, number of periods…)
  • how teachers were taught themselves.

Mixing the research findings supporting inquiry-based pedagogy with the reality of today’s classrooms and a teacher’s own path through their professional learning – that is the challenge of science teachers everywhere.