Tag Archives: Maker Movement

Drawing a Lesson: Familiarity Breeds Creativity

Putting herself in an unfamiliar learning setting, Christiane Dufour experienced first-hand what happens in the “making” process when one is unfamiliar with the materials and the techniques associated with them. It brought home what three teachers discovered when they implemented STEAM the Kindergarten Way through Play.
Be sure to scroll all the way down to the video at the end.

I have a confession to make: I envy the creativity and ability of those who can imagine something and then give form to it. Whether they draw it or make it, it seems to spring easily from within to be translated into the medium of their choosing. That’s an illusion of course: they learned their craft through a lot of experimentation over time.

I’ve never experienced that apparent ease. But, as a teacher, I must and do believe that you can learn anything when you set your heart to it. So, listening to the admonitions of the adage that you’re never too old to learn, I decided to take art classes, starting with learning how to draw.

Drawing Materials
Drawing feet by hand (count the iterations!)

Pencils and paper; lots of paper and a good assortment of pencils! I’m in familiar territory. The teacher is great, creative. He has a road map in his head but many ways to take us along. He listens, adapts to our abilities and interests. I’m learning to draw, to manipulate these familiar pencils along with a few other simple tools to create the effects I see in my head or in the models he gives us to reproduce or to inspire us.

Every week, he enriches our toolkit of gestures and expands our capabilities by building on the previous lessons. When he shows us a technique or corrects our work, he tells us what he is doing and, while doing that, he provides us with a language for shapes, forms, gestures, tools, space and more. All good! I’m still in friendly territory. I see where this is going and, more and more, I imagine things that I could do along with an ever greater variety of ways to do them. I think my drawings are sometimes quite nice. It feels good.

After weeks of learning all kinds of techniques and eventually practicing how to draw hands in all sorts of positions, the potter’s hands emerged from my page by bringing together many of these techniques.

Reaching my potential

Setting my skills into motion

Then he throws us (me!) for a loop. He says he’ll show us a technique that will allow us to marry drawing and painting. This time, he proceeds with the lesson in steps.

  1. Apply paint to this canvas. (Voice in my head: is any particular way better than another?) Now wait to let it dry.
  2. Apply this gel to the canvas in this way. (Ok, what does the gel do? Thick or thin coat? What will it look like when it dries?)

    One of the Cheshire Cat’s Dreams
  3. Sprinkle this powder over the gel. The powder prevents the gel from drying too quickly, we are told. (OK, but my brain still wants to know what the powder will look like when gel and powder dry.)
  4. Now take this bamboo skewer and draw by scraping away the gel and powder. (Draw? What, how, why?)

This is not the end of the process; there will be a few other steps to the finished product but I don’t yet know what they are. So I draw the way I do with pencils: lines to create a shape and a few details to give it volume.
I scrape away!
I feel lost.
It doesn’t look like anything I can relate to! I can’t imagine what this will end up looking like. I can’t even think of other things I could do that would give an interesting effect. It just looks like a mess!

I have no idea what I’m doing with these materials!

This is an “ah ha!” moment for me. I feel lost.
I can’t even imagine what I could do because these materials are so unfamiliar. I don’t know what they will let me create.

And, there and then, I’m brought back to what we discovered in our STEAM in K one-year experimentation. Namely, how important it is for children to be given ample time to play with and explore materials, tools and techniques freely and with no end-product in mind. Well, this doesn’t apply just to preschool children, does it? It certainly applied to me! And it’s true for any learner at any level. It‘s true also for anything we learn, from art to coding and for all the other letters in STEAM.

LEARN by doing!

In our year-long project in which three experienced teachers implemented STEAM in Kindergarten, this fact was spectacularly brought home the day clay was introduced in the class. It was a totally new and unfamiliar medium which just shouted to be explored. Their exploration started with the medium itself.

How does it feel? How does it let itself be manipulated? What different gestures can be used to shape it? What can be done with these shapes? Then, what tools can be used to refine manipulation? How do you change its texture? How do you stick pieces together? And so much more!

After having played with clay in many ways and used different tools and techniques over several sessions, the children discovered how this material works and what they could do with the tools. It also gave the teachers time to provide them with the language associated with this medium, the vocabulary of clay, its tools and gestures. Having worked with it many times with no particular goal in mind, the children were finally able to imagine what they would like to MAKE with it AND they were able shape their idea into the clay and obtain an intentional result.

The lesson I draw from this experience is that when we are introduced to new, unfamiliar materials, practices or techniques, we need to be given the opportunity to explore the potential of the materials multiple times before we make something with it whether it be a picture, a “thing”, or a program.

I am reminded that when we observe children inventing and making things with wooden blocks, with LEGO or with cardboard boxes, we tend to forget that they are quite familiar with these materials which have been part of their environment since daycare. They can turn them into any number of wondrous creations or use them in unsuspected ways to serve their goals. Add a few new materials into the mix, such as cars, balls, PVC pipes or cardboard tubes, tape, and they will be able to imagine new things to do and to make.

Without that, we are only following instructions without much understanding or transferable learning, very much like I experienced in my fateful lesson. Familiarity breeds creativity as well as proficiency.

Observe the exploration and creativity that is possible when Kindergarten students familiarize themselves with new materials without having to worry about creating a single product.

STEAMing up Learning: Robotics heats up at Laval Senior

This is a guest post by SWLSB Science and Technology consultant Samuel Altarac.

How many times do we hear that math and science are boring and not creative? After witnessing the energy and imagination present at last week’s CRC Robotics competition, I can vehemently disagree!

Students from twenty-five schools across the province (even one team from BC) all zealously converged on Laval Senior Academy High School to participate in a massive bilingual event where passion, creativity, and scientific thought were STEAM-ing from the bots. Our host school topped off the experience by inviting LEARN to run a pop-up Makerspace in the library where hundreds of elementary school students were given the opportunity to explore circuits, to make animations, “spinart”, robotics, programming, and so much more. Their engagement and excitement spurred on active thinking and above all, fun! Students used everyday items to produce musical notes (think Tom Hanks Big 1988), while others generated beautiful art patterns using coloured pens, cups, corks, electric motors, and their imagination.

As the younger students made use of their higher-order thinking skills in the library, the older competitors, whose robots had just come from the playing field, used their critical thinking and communication skills to troubleshoot their motors and circuits in between heats. Every participant was deeply engaged and “thinking like a scientist”, contributing to their team’s success over the three day event.

My one big reflection on this event was, how can we make all our schools more STEAM-based?

I suspect one way to engage the classroom anew is with Makerspaces – a movement that is “disrupting” the traditional paradigm of education. It has grown in popularity because it has fostered an environment and culture in which students get their “hands dirty” by doing, making, and discovering the world they live in through inquiry and experimentation.

Sir Ken Robinson explains in his TED talk that the educational system we’ve inherited was devised by those who came at the turn of the century during the industrial revolution where it was very successful at training people for factory jobs. However, students are living in a different reality: one where schooling does not guarantee a job.

The robotics competition showed what can often be missing in the classroom: a space for students to actively engage in creative and inquiry-driven projects fueled by their own innate curiosity and passion.

Group Photo

Let’s commit to empowering our students in all academic disciplines and to learn by doing.

Final Results


Samuel Altarac | @MRaltarac


The Genius of Genius Hour

Chris Hiltz (bottom left) with a colleague and some of the "geniuses" at FPSA
Chris Hiltz (bottom left) with a colleague and some of the “geniuses” at FPSA

My daughter recently had the opportunity to participate in a Genius Hour project at her school and then a board-wide sharing session, where principals and vice-principals met students from around the OCDSB to hear about their Genius Hour projects. My daughter’s math teacher, Chris Hiltz, introduced this initiative at his school 3 years ago, and has become an ambassador for the project in his school board.  I spoke with him about his Genius Hour experiences to date.

Name: Chris Hiltz
School/Board: Fisher Park/Summit Alternative, Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB)
Level: Middle School
Subject: Math
Experience: 15 years

What is Genius Hour?

Genius hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages choice and creativity in the classroom. The teacher provides a set amount of time for the students to work on their passion projects.  Students are then challenged to explore something that they want to learn about and to do a project about it. They spend several weeks researching the topic before they start creating a product that will be shared with the class/school/world.  Deadlines are limited and creativity is encouraged.  Throughout the process the teacher facilitates the student projects to ensure that they are on task.


Why was it important for you to introduce the idea of Genius Hour at Fisher Park/Summit Alternative?

CH: I’m getting the feeling, I don’t know if it is my age or how many years I have been in the game, that there is going to be a fundamental shift in what schools are. I’m not talking about revising the curriculum, or having more computers in the school. I think that in Canada, we’re going to have to take a hard look at what schools are, and at what they can be. The driving force for this change is access to the internet.

To tell a student that I am the holder of knowledge, and you have to learn what I say when I say it, is less and less accepted by students and by me! My role has to change as an educator. I need to think differently about what education is, and what this building is, for the students who come. I have been playing with this in my mind for a while, while hearing people like Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, and Will Richardson talking about how things are changing in education.

I was on the lookout for something that could change in my practice, and my approach to teaching, when I came across the idea of Genius Hour a few years ago. It really resonated with me. I could see other teachers in my building being interested too.

It really did prove to be a great way to explore these ideas of how schooling can be different, how we can put more responsibility for learning on the students. Not that I am saying that I want to give away all of the responsibility to make my job easier, because it doesn’t, but to allow students to take the reins, and more control of their own learning.

Bringing in what schools are calling “21st century skills” (critical thinking, problem solving, collaborations, making more and authentic use of technology) is gaining more momentum in the education community. Universities are looking for these skills, but in the elementary grades we want to see these skills develop in our students as well. If we want students to think critically, we need to incorporate these ideas into our day-to-day work. Genius hour, I thought, was a great way to address or explore some of these ideas.

Project from students at Goulborn Middle School, OCDSB

What was your timeline and, how did you introduce Genius Hour?

CH: Over a school break, I stumbled upon a short video, “What is Genius Hour?” Coming back to school, I went straight to my principal, shared the video with her, and I told her, “This is something that I would be interested in trying here.  Do you think that I could try? Can I go to staff and see if there is anyone else?”

I got an immediate YES from my principal! In January 2014, I put an e-mail out to the teachers to gauge interest. Luckily, a couple of the teachers in the alternative program replied that they would be interested. We were able to get release time from our principal to sit and talk about what this could look like.

The video didn’t have a lot of answers so we spent some time doing research, finding resources, and talking about what this could look like at our school, what things might we adopt, what things would we have to create. We blocked six weeks in which we chose two 50-minute periods, times when our schedules could sync, to dedicate to Genius Hour.

We started our first Genius Hour the first week after March Break. We brought four classes to the auditorium to introduce the idea, how it was going to work, and how it was different from a “regular” school project. We didn’t ask how it wouldn’t work. We ran with it!

It ended up being almost instantly transformative for the teachers and students involved. It became very apparent that this was not a typical kind of project!

The first thing that we saw was the wide range of student interests. It took some thinking to get out of the rut of what a “regular school project” is, to try to push the students beyond PowerPoint and the science fair poster board. We had to unlearn or think differently about what this project could be.

Over those weeks, we extended our planned 6 weeks to 7.5 or 8, we saw that the students’ engagement was very high. Their problem-solving and research skills were being put to the test and they knew that they could rely on their teachers, and each other, to help. With our first sharing day, we knew immediately that this was something that we wanted to do again.

In the first year we started with four teachers and four classes.  The second year, we had seven classes. In 2016, we had four grade 8 alternative classes, three early French Immersion grade 7 classes, the grade 7 gifted class, 2 core French classes, and a middle French immersion class, PLUS a music teacher ran a subject-specific genius hour project! It is gaining momentum in this school and in our district as well.

How did you start spreading the word in the district?

CH: I knew that I didn’t invent this idea. There are schools around the world using this idea. Luckily for us, we caught the attention of a few people, including Peter Gamwell, a superintendent in the district. He was really interested in what we were doing and it reminded him of things that he had seen in some other schools. We got great support from him.

With Peter’s support, we were able to secure a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Education to create a Professional Learning Network in the OCDSB for teachers interested in trying a passion-based project like Genius Hour. We love it so much, and it worked for us. We wanted to see others try it!

When we got that grant, it made it real for us. We started to get invited to leadership conferences. Last spring we were invited to present at Principal/Vice-Principal Leadership conference where we went with a prepared presentation and some students. Most principals coming into the building had never heard of Genius Hour before. The floodgates opened!

We started getting e-mails from all over the board. In our original grant we had ear-marked money to release 10 teachers and we ended up with over 30! Principals around the district wanted to pay for their teachers to be a part of the network. It quickly snowballed!

It made planning things a little more challenging for us. Our network met for the second time this April.  The teachers, who had tried Genius Hour at their schools, gained some resources that we developed and shared some resources that they had. Our ultimate goal is creating an online resource kit that educators and classroom across Ontario could tap into to try something like this in their school.


The projects we love talking about: revealing a child’s hidden genius

One of them comes from the first year of our Genius Hour experience.  It was not one of the students that I taught but this young lady was non-verbal until she was 7 years old. Through her Genius Hour project, based on fashion, she developed a mannequin that had a piece of clothing or an an accessory, representing every decade in the 20th century.

She presented her mannequin in front of all four classes, something that her teachers, or her parents, would have never thought that she would be able to do. The passion in this kid came out and allowed her to try something that was outside of her comfort zone, opening our eyes to the potential of this project.

Another example: there are always students who want to learn how to code. It’s an important skill to have. A student last year wanted to make a video game, but he had a different approach. His approach was, “I’m not going to make a video game that I want to play. I’m going to make a video game that my 4 year old neighbour wants to play.”

He interviewed his 4 year old neighbour and asked for some art work too. He took the scribbly drawings of the good guys and the bad guys and he used them to create a video game. In the process, he kept going back for feedback. He took a popular topic, creating a video game, learning to code, but he put an interesting spin on it by looking for a market. He really showed what he was capable of by adding that one extra question – how can my video game be different?

Can students choose their Genius Hour advisor?

Sharing – an important part of Genius Hour

We decided that Genius Hour works best when you give as much freedom as possible to the students.  That includes the freedom of where to work in the building and to work with someone who you would not necessarily work with regularly. We decided to mix classes so that teachers would be in four different areas of the building: computer lab, library, a quiet work space with some wireless devices and a sewing machine, and maybe the cafeteria.  We needed to keep track of where students could go, but the students had the choice.

At the beginning we looked for the emerging themes of the proposals.  Some themes that are popular: technology (coding), engineering and building, and, for want of a better term, arts and crafts.  We then divide the students, as equally as possible, into four groups, and each teacher is the advisor for a group, responsible for making sure that resources are available, that problem solving is happening, and keeping on top of the students’ progress. Students don’t necessarily work with the students in their class or a teacher that they know.

What are some of the challenges that you encountered?

CH: The trickiest part is the logistics at the beginning.  Scheduling can be a nightmare!  If a teacher wants to follow in our footsteps by syncing up classes and allow the students the freedom to work with different people and in different spaces, you have to spend some time with other interested teachers and their timetables.

If you have mobile computer labs, or a sewing lab, book those resources as early as possible.

We haven’t had to deal with challenges from students, or parents, or other teachers about why we are using our time on this. Parents could say that school is meant to be spent in class, or whatever misinformation parents might have. Lucky for us, we haven’t had to deal with that.

My advice: plan and schedule as much as possible, right from the beginning. The planning starts in September for a Genius Hour that might not happened until the spring.

What are some of the links to the curriculum that you have seen coming out in the genius hour projects?

CH: I see that what my students are doing is everywhere in the curriculum.  The easiest ones for me to see are in the Language curriculum: asking rich questions, research skills, assessing the credibility of a resource, oral presentations.

Also, it was not hard for me to spot the math in the projects.  Last year, a boy in grade 8 was really into Rubix cube.  His question was, “How long would it take to go through every combination on a Rubix cube if you could change to a new combination every second?” The amount of math that he did was literally astronomical because he tied it into how long it would take for our sun to die. It’s that many!

Straight out the curriculum: conversion of measurement units, of time units, sophisticated mathematics including exponential notation, scientific notation, to express these massive numbers, and even things like using ratio and rate.  He figured out if he could do so many turns in one day, how many he could do in one year, and then figure out how many millions of years it would take him to go through all of the possible combinations.  It was not hard for me to see the math!

He could come to a teacher to find out how to do all of these things.  It would become a conversation with him and the teacher.  Instead of the teacher saying “let me teach you how to do it,” the student goes to the teacher and says, “I need to know how to answer this question, and I don’t really know where to begin. Can you help me out?”

Desserts of the World - Genius Hour Project
Desserts of the World – Genius Hour Project

Another great example:  A grade 7 girl this year is really interested in baking. She decided that she was going to follow a recipe, but make the recipe for 200 people, using ratio and proportional reasoning, directly out of the grade 7 curriculum, to make a recipe bigger.

DC: That project was multi-generational as her parents and grandparents worked with her.  Some of the projects become family projects.

CH: Great story! That family spent the entire weekend in the kitchen together. They had it down to a science: the assembly line of production. That level of engagement with school, to have an entire family on board, you don’t get that with a traditional project or homework.

What would be your Genius Hour project?  Genius Hour has clearly been a passion project for you.

CH: That’s what I usually answer if a student asks: that Genius Hour is my Genius Hour! I am always looking for ways to improve and expand, to get the word out and see how we can do things a bit better.

Also, I am really interested in exploring new ways that school could be… things like scheduling.  Does everyone have to do math at the same time in my class?

I would love the opportunity to explore that, to have the freedom to look at what tiny changes we could make in our building to make learning more authentic and meaningful to students. My role as a teacher is changing, and I have to be open to that change to best help out my students. They’re here for a reason: they want to learn. There are different ways, and maybe even better ways, that we can get that done.

I sometimes say that I have never met a child who is not gifted. But in our classrooms, we don’t always get the opportunity to uncover the genius in every child. Genius Hours seem to be a way of doing just that.

You can connect with Chris Hiltz, and follow along with his Genius Hour journey, on Twitter @mrhiltz .

Have you tried Genius Hour or other passion-based learning projects at your school?  Share your experience in the comments below. 


She Said, He Said: On Makerspaces

LEARN staff figuring out how to make a theremin.

Last year, LEARN started exploring the idea of Makerspaces as a way to increase students’ engagement in school. The idea itself is not new. Originally incubated by hackers and computer tinkerers, Makerspaces have taken hold in communities across the world, as people rediscover the simple human joy of making something with their hands. Admittedly, the kinds of making associated with Makerspaces are usually somehow related to engineering and technology, but a growing contingent of low-tech makers are exploring the intersections between engineering and craft, between art and design. At LEARN, we chose to embrace all forms of making (or Making), and have called our makerspace an Open Creative Space, to honour both high- and low-tech making.

We started off holding Open Creative Space days for our LEARN staff composed of teachers and pedagogical consultants. We figured the best way to learn about making was to… make. Once we had a few Open Creative Space days under our belts, we opened up our offices to local educators from all the English School Boards and the QAIS network to join us in joyful, curious making. A lot of what we discovered about our own process is informing our work with schools and communities. In this post, we discuss our discoveries, from each of our perspectives, in the hope of shining a light on some of the more interesting aspects of making (or Making).

Our Personal Experiences with Making

Sylwia Said:

“The human hand is so beautifully formed, its actions are so powerful, so free and yet so delicate that there is no thought of its complexity as an instrument; we use it as we draw our breath, unconsciously.” – Frank R. Wilson 

If you asked me last year whether or not I was a maker, I would have replied ‘no’. I come from that peculiar generation, in which – although my parents both know how to make things, sew or build or repair – I was not taught these skills myself. As I was growing up, I was surrounded by the pervasive value that making was what you did if you weren’t good at school. Secondary 3 Technology class was where the kids who weren’t good at academic subjects excelled, and I felt complacent in the knowledge that although I couldn’t cut a straight line or use a drill, I could use my brain to get good grades. In the hierarchy of human abilities in my mind at that time, brain trumped hand. Today, I know that the brain and the hand are inextricably linked in the human experience, from the time early hominids developed opposable thumbs and stood upright. In fact, our experience of the world is fundamentally changed (improved) when we engage with the world with our hands rather than with our eyes and ears alone. Babies and children know this. Neuroscientists know this. But somehow, along the way, we decided that our capacity for abstract thought and creativity could be developed using the brain alone, with visual and aural stimuli alone. That not only was this possible, but that it was desirable. Exit the hand.

Chris Said:

Innovative educator, Gary Stager of Constructing Modern Knowledge often says when addressing educators “Less Us, More Them.” The idea being simple, shift agency whenever possible onto the learner. Throughout my career I have found my greatest learning moments with students and teachers have been when I asked an intriguing question or assigned a challenge, and simply stepped back and let the magic happen. However, this morphing mindset from teacher lead subject areas to student based discovery of a multitude of subjects and skills to boot has shown me student learning comes from personal connections, interest and living an experience. This quickly opened up my approach towards students and later teachers, by making students do stuff with their hands, meaningful stuff with a purpose, and saw student engagement erupt in every school I visited. Through well designed, projects, challenges, learning activities, or workshops, like making rockets, building homopolar engines, creating animations, documentaries, complex machines, or circuits, I was easily able to give students back their learning.


Open Creative Space at LEARN

…for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. – Aristotle

Chris Said:

We have been thinking a lot at LEARN about student engagement and ways to support schools grow relevancy from within. Dr Seymour Papert’s Eight Big Ideas Behind The Constructionist Learning Lab helped to inspire our very own Open Creative Space (OCS). In this space, the number one rule is “Make something, learn something”.  What can this look like in a classroom? was our big question. Our OCS is really that open, an incubator for educators! We don’t tell you what to do, we don’t hand out instructions, we don’t demonstrate what we want you to do. What we do is ask questions, provide support, offer a variety of amazing materials to help ideas or projects develop. We talk, we reflect, we collaborate, we learn. This is an uneasy experience for most simply because we are not used to it. Many educators have come through our hard fun space, and at first are slightly overwhelmed with the open ended nature but soon discover once a good question is asked, they are providing with sufficient time, appropriate materials and of course good support real learning kicks in and mindsets change.

Sylwia Said:

The first time I sat down at a table in our Open Creative Space, I was determined. I could do this. I had a buddy, someone whom I felt knew more than I did about programming, about circuits. The table had an overwhelming array of books on it, and I clung to the most obvious-looking one like a drowning person does a life buoy. Books, I understood. Makerspace Lesson One: Seek out the familiar in the unfamiliar. My buddy decided he wanted to make a theremin, a project located about two thirds of the way through the book. Fighting my desire to start at the beginning, I started by following the steps outlined. We had to backtrack of course and consult some of the earlier bits in the book, but in the end we were successful. Makerspace Lesson Two: Know yourself. I’m cautious and a planner. This may not be bold or audacious, but there isn’t only one way to engage with making. As the kids are saying these days: “you do you”. On subsequent Open Creative Space days, I went with the flow, gravitating sometimes toward the things that felt comfortable and sometimes to the things that scared me. What surprised me most was that sometimes the things that felt comfortable turned out to be quite challenging and the things that made me nervous turned out to be easy and fun. Makerspace Lesson Three: Check your baggage. Every OCS day I discover more about how I learn and about how others learn, while picking up some valuable skills along the way.

Above All, A Maker Mindset

We are approaching the end of our second year working in our Open Creative Space and sharing the Maker model with educators. In this journey, we have realized that the most important thing about Makerspaces is not the technology, the equipment, the supplies, the kits, nor even the clever storage solutions (although these have their merits to be sure). The key to successful and sustainable Making is to above all embody a Maker mindset and help others develop one in turn. It is the core belief that we are most engaged in our learning when we make something that will drive the creation of Makerspaces that fit the community from which they emerge.

Curious about Makerspaces, (or ArtHives, Genius Hours and Passion Projects)? There’s no better way to learn about the Maker movement than by living the experience yourself! Once a month, LEARN invites educators to its Open Creative Space in Laval for a hands-on session. Participants engage in the process of making and tinkering, with access to resources, tools, ideas and community. The next session is May 27th. Spaces are limited and tend to go fast. You can RSVP by emailing creativespaces@learnquebec.ca

For background, you may want to read Susan van Gelder’s posts on Makerspaces and creating for learning.

LEARN’s Open Creative Space online ocs.learnquebec.ca

Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2014). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

The Articulate Hand – http://www.thearticulatehand.com/neuroscience.html

Wilson, Frank R.  (1998). The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.  First Vintage Books Edition.

The Hand book review + free chapter.

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. https://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/stages-of-being-a-maker-learner/

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:

GrEau: From School Project to Business Opportunity

Freshly harvested lettuce (Photo provided by GrEau)


One of LEARN’s online students, Benjamin Collier, shares his experience with a school project developed this year by a group of students at Mecatina School in the du Littoral School Board.  We are so proud of Ben’s efforts (along with those of Chloe Anderson, Josh Boland, Brandon Leon, another online student, and teacher Chris Wong) and he was happy to write about their very  successful project which responds to a need in his small isolated community.  Ben wrote this post after harvesting on Friday.


In November, a small group of students, with the support of our science teacher, came together with the purpose to start our own business. Our group’s original goal was simply to enter the Quebec Entrepreneurial Contest 2014, but as the project grew, it started to become about much more than just the contest – and became a true business! After assessing the budget, limited resources and space, we eventually decided we would grow lettuce and herbs locally using a method called hydroponics.

Hydroponics is a different way of growing without soil. Products grown hydroponically are fresh and organic, pesticide free and herbicide free. Using this method, our community could be provided with cheaper, healthier, organic and, most importantly, fresh herbs and vegetables. This process of growing is quick and could be used all year round, even during our harsh winters. Due to Mecatina School being situated in La Tabatière, an isolated village on the Lower North Shore of the St. Lawrence River, fresh produce is very hard to acquire. Seeing this as an opportunity for a successful business, we teamed up to profit on the unavailability of fresh herbs and vegetables and to provide a useful service for our community at the same time.

Once the type of business was decided, we made a business plan, sought local support and distributors, constructed the growing units, planted and transplanted, created a logo and marketed our product. Within a couple of months we went from having a small closet filled with science supplies to a room that could produce an enormous amount of fresh foods within a small time period. When the setup finally began to run at full capacity, the harvests became extraordinary: with a 48 square foot growing space, students were able to grow up to 600 plants! Our weekly harvest was about 35 bags of lettuce, 10 bags of basil, 15 bags of chives, and 15 bags of dill. Talk about production!

It’s now the end of May and although we didn’t win the contest we applied for I believe that we received things more important than the prize of the competition: we received knowledge, respect, and recognition. When this project began I knew very little about hydroponics, wiring, and the full setup in general. After we began research and working as a team, I learned many things quickly that will stick with me for life. Not only did I receive new knowledge but also the respect of my friends, family, neighbours, and people across the province.  Whenever anyone hears about our current business they are usually amazed, and commend us on the ability to get such a project up and running.  The respect is probably my favourite aspect at this point. It makes me proud that we as a group were able to achieve so much, and that people are glad we did. The last important thing we received is recognition outside our community. For such a small area, that’s something that’s pretty hard to do. Before GrEau, very few people knew what La Tabatière was and even fewer knew where it was located. Hopefully now with the variety of publicity we were able to achieve, people will know that big things really can come from small packages.

The GrEau Team: Teacher Chris Wong, Josh Boland, Benjamin Collier, Brandon Leon
The GrEau Team: Teacher Chris Wong, Josh Boland, Benjamin Collier, and Brandon Leon (missing from photo: Chloe Anderson)

Overall, I am just truly amazed how far we have come and just how supportive the people are for our business. It really does fill me with pride. Although I’m sure that people can make something much bigger and better with more resources, space, and time, it’s not the sheer size of our project but the effect that it has had on so many people. That effect, in turn, becomes compliments and admiration for us. Personally, no amount of money we could have received means more to me than what people are saying about us and to us, that’s priceless.

By Benjamin Collier


Check out the Greau website here:  http://greau.weebly.com/

Post on the CLC blog




It’s All About Creating

Photo by Leslie Kalohi
Photo by Leslie Kalohi

Last year I wrote a blog post about Maker Spaces. Many involved in the maker movement encourage the use of digital technology, but that does not have to be the case.

A couple of years ago I saw a video about Caine, a nine-year old boy who spent his summer building arcade games out of boxes and bits and pieces he found in his father’s used auto parts shop. After a summer of no customers, his first customer, a film-maker Nirvon Mullick, organized a flash mob to bring customers to the arcade. The video Mullick created about the event went viral. Caine has gone on to inspire others to create, imagine and build.

Recently I saw a second video, a youth TEDTalk with Caine and Mullick. I shared it with my colleagues and was delighted to hear that Lisa Triestino, currently an ICT consultant at EMSB, had also been inspired by Caine. I had the opportunity to chat with her to learn more about the project which took place at Merton School last school year when she was the science and technology teacher there.

It began when a parent of a grade one student in the school told Lisa about Caine. The grade one student had worked on building arcade games with a friend and the parent thought this would be great for the science program at the school. Lisa shared Caine’s video with her students and that inspired a project for the school – the construction of arcade games concluding with an arcade game day. All students contributed in some way from collecting recycled objects to building the games and making prizes. All components of the games the students built had to be recycled materials to tie in to the environmental aspect of the science program and to increase environmental awareness. The school was already involved with recycling and composting so this was a good tie-in to what they were already living.

From Caine's Arcade at the Exploratorium. Photo by Gayle Laird
From Caine’s Arcade at the Exploratorium. Photo by Gayle Laird

The students designed and built arcade games and everyone had the opportunity to test them out when the entire arcade was set up in the gym. But that is the end of the project. Let’s see how it proceeded.

The builders had to research arcade and carnival games. The game they built had to include at least one simple machine. The process went from research online to design. Each student needed to sketch the machine, connect it to science and explain how the machines would work. Then the building began. Students were so engaged they did not realize they were learning. They just thought it was fun. Lisa wanted them to learn through play, to help them see that learning science concepts can be fun. I asked Lisa about her other goals for the project:

“I wanted the cooperation to happen amongst each other. I wanted them to think outside the box. I wanted them to use prior knowledge based on everything we had learned in science and robotics beforehand and try to incorporate that into their learning.”

Merton Arcade 2012
Merton Arcade 2012

Lisa described to me how the students used their math and science skills in the building process as well as their willingness to go back, correct, find a better way.  Different games provided different challenges, but the students were focused on getting their games working so the science just became a way to make that happen. From getting squirrels to pop up using a pulley system (thinking about gravity,  the tension of the rope and the angle at which the pulley should be pulled), figuring out how to get a “Wheel of Fortune” wheel to spin, to getting hockey pucks of the right diameter, the students used their knowledge and learned by doing. Trial and error led to redesign.

“It was a lot of redesigning…  they thought certain things would work and then as they tried to put that together they realized that certain measurements were off or certain ideas wouldn’t work or certain materials wouldn’t work whether that was because of weight or size….”

The students kept journals which would include the redesigns and new sketches as the adjustments were made. Some students went through multiple revisions. The impetus to get their games working kept them motivated. Lisa told me there was not a single team that got frustrated, “They took it and they went with it!”

From Merton’s Arcade

Work like this needs to be celebrated and the school had an arcade day at which the games were set up for all to play. A small entrance fee was collected; all proceeds went to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. Game winners collected “Merton Dollars” which could be exchanged at the end for a prize. Prizes were made in art classes.

Science, technology, math, art, English or French (rules for the game), were all integrated seamlessly into this project. And lots of fun!

The only caveats Lisa had – arcade games take up space. There was some frustration about where to keep them all as the building was in process. However, when everyone saw what the students had accomplished they were all impressed and felt it was well worth it.

Making and creating does not have to be expensive. We need to engage students, to set their imaginations free to explore, create, play with ideas and learn through doing.

Learn more about Caine’s Arcade and get inspired.

Mullick wanted to help set up a college fund for Caine and asked for donations hoping to collect $25000. To date more than $200,000 as been donated. As a result he has set up a foundation to help other children like Caine. The Imagination Foundation also hosts a Cardboard Challenge. From their site:

“This September, kids of all ages are invited to build anything they can dream up using cardboard, recycled materials and imagination. Then on Saturday, October 11th, 2014, communities will come together to play!”


Leslie Kalohi under a CC license

Gayle Laird under a CC license

The Exploratorium in San Francisco set up Caine’s Arcade at the museum. For anyone interested, some of the Exploratorium people are offering a course on Tinkering Fundamentals: A Constructionist Approach to STEM Learning I was fortunate enough to meet and spend time with two of the course instructors,  Mike Petrich and Karen Wilkinson, in 1998. They are inspirational people, passionate about science and fun.

Why Our Schools Need the Arts: A New Perspective

Photo by S. Bielec
Photo by S. Bielec

I recently read Why Our Schools Need the Arts by Jessica Hoffman Davis (2008), founder of the  Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Reading this book hot on the heels of Susan van Gelder’s post last week about Makerspaces, I was struck with its unique perspective on the Arts in education and its emphasis on the tangible art ‘making’ in all Arts domains: visual arts, drama, dance and music.

Like most of what I write about, I have a personal relationship to the topic. As a child, I attended F.A.C.E school here in Montreal. The acronym stands for Fine Arts Core Education and in the 1980’s it offered (and as far as I know continues to offer) its students Arts subjects every day taught by specialists. Today, I am not a professional artist, nor did I exhibit any overwhelming talent for singing, playing the clarinet or visual arts (although I was a fairly good actor). And despite all this, I strongly believe that who I am and how I see and interact with the world is in large part due to my experience at F.A.C.E.

“With an eye to what matters, along with and not instead of the teaching of subjects like science and math, arts advocates must argue for the lessons of engagement, authenticity, collaboration, mattering and personal potential.” (Davis, 2008, p. 28)
by permission from Teacher’s College Press

Jessica Hoffman Davis’ jewel of a book (it’s short, an easy read at 150 pages) was for me packed with Aha! moments and unique ways of putting into words what I believe about giving arts education equal air time with academic subjects. While primarily a book intended for arts advocates, I related as a parent and educator to what she wrote about how we can interact with the art-making process and product of children of all ages (and discovered that I was of course saying exactly the opposite of what I should be saying to my own pre-school aged daughter!). But the heart of Davis’ book is her presentation of the unique features of the arts, those aspects of life that the arts bring into learning that other subjects do not. It is through these five unique features that Arts education is positioned to meet the particular needs of today’s world and the world of the future (for more on education for the future, read an earlier post on the Cross-Curricular Competencies).

“I’m not saying there aren’t right or wrong answers associated with the arts, I’m just saying they might not be the most interesting aspects of arts learning.” (p.35)

The Heart of Why Our Schools Need the Arts: The Five Unique Features of the Arts

1 – Tangible product: Imagination and Agency

All the arts offer the child/learner the possibility of making something that can be experienced, that is, seen or heard at the very least. According to Davis, this tangible product (for example: sculpture, dance choreography, musical creation or performance, skit) allows children to think beyond the given, to explore the possibilities of “what if?”. What if I put on an accent, or lower my voice suggestively? What if I pinch this clay like so? In the moment, there are no wrong answers, only possibilities. The flip side of imagination and possibility is agency – the idea that we can be agents of effectiveness and change, that what we DO makes a difference to the outcome of a piece or a performance. What power! Imagine if we all felt fully capable and fully convinced that our actions were instrumental to our workplace, community, the world?

2 – Focus on emotion: Expression and Empathy

Davis’ second point is that the Arts allow children/learners to express and recognize their feelings in a variety of modes. Making art can be about expressing one’s current feelings, or expressing a feeling: “This is how I feel, this is how this piece makes me feel.” But sharing one’s art and exploring the art of others also makes one aware of and attentive to the emotions of others, to appreciate “This is how you feel”. Children who regularly engage in art practice develop an awareness of the role of emotion, both in themselves and in others. How many of us have been on teams or worked with others and experienced first-hand the impact of emotions on the group’s ability to generate new ideas and move forward productively?

3 – Ambiguity: Interpretation and Respect

What struck me was this third one – ambiguity. The Arts lay the foundation for understanding ambiguity as children engage in interpretation of their own works and in the works of others. As they interact with a work of art, they realize: “My contribution to this art relationship matters. What I think matters”. When they listen to what others see and think when they interact with a work, they realize that there is no single answer, no right answer. The artist can have one thing in mind, but can accept that what you see is valid as well and that it adds to the conversation. This ambiguity and lack of clear-cut right or wrong answers allow children/learners to realize that what others think matters, that there is between the artist and audience a conversation that is fluid and meant to be engaged in fully. In a world where we are constantly confronted by opinions and views that differ from our own, having the ability to navigate these differences and nuances with equanimity is a valuable skill for team members and leaders alike.

4 – Process orientation: Inquiry and Reflection

Educators of all academic stripes have long championed process over product and learning from mistakes or wrong answers. Making something new is fraught with the potential of fruitful errors, of the oops! discussed in Makerspaces. When exploring the unknown (an unexplored medium, a new artist or work), inquiry takes on an added urgency as learners ask: what do I need to know in order to move forward? Because making art is tangible, students see immediately the impact of their inquiry (process) on the product and are reminded once again of their agency in directing that process. In addition, making art creates very real opportunities for reflection at each step of the process: How am I doing and what will I do next? These reflections are not just nice to have, but occur naturally as children/learners are confronted with an in-progress piece. Every addition, or repetition demands a step back and an assessment: How did that go? What do I think now? Drawing attention to this natural reflection process can certainly help learners gain self-awareness in all academic areas.

5 – Connection: Engagement and Responsibility

Here in Quebec, as elsewhere, educators strive to increase student connection to school and to life through projects and extra-curricular activities. The Arts often provide the backdrop for these initiatives, with plays, concerts, art fairs and performances common in many schools. Indeed, “the arts in education excite and engage students, awakening attitudes to learning that include passion and joy, and the discovery that ‘I care'” (Davis p.76). Caring about something, about anything, is the pathway to engagement in all spheres. Discovering that they are united with human beings everywhere in their ability to make art and to make art for a variety of the same reasons allows children/learners to be open to others across cultures and times.


We are fortunate that our Quebec Education Program outlines rigorous competencies for each of the four Arts – the challenge now is to make sure that the time allocation for arts is adequate to fully develop these competencies and take advantage of the five unique features that the Arts bring to education.

Jessica Hoffman Davis has written other books about the Arts in education, including the follow-up to this book, Why Our High Schools Need the Arts (2011). Her voice is compelling and her use of narrative brings to life her ideas about art education for her readers. My copy is full of highlighted passages and exclamation marks and I am sure yours will be too!

Why Our Schools Need the Arts by Jessica Hoffman Davis (2008)  is available from Teachers College Press.

To read more about the Arts in education

Quebec’s Culture in the Schools Program (to bring an artist into your school)

Why Arts Education is Crucial and Who’s Doing it Best – Edutopia

Arts Smarts – Génie Arts

To read more about Jessica Hoffman Davis

Kristen Paglia’s Review for the Huffington Post

Interview with Jessica Hoffman Davis on Tinkerlab

Interview with JHD on the Art:21 blog Part 1 and Part 2

Jessica Hoffman Davis’ website

Makerspaces: Creative hotbeds of experimentation

By Jason Gessner, shared on Flickr under a CC license
Pinball Machine: by Jason Gessner, shared on Flickr under a CC license

When I was growing up, the world was analog. Children could take apart clocks and actually see how the gears fit together to move the hands on the clock face. Today so much is hidden. I think it is so important for students to explore and experiment to create things both to better understand their world and to discover the possibilities of creating.

A movement has started called The Maker Movement. It encourages people to make things, particularly with technology. It stems from the “Do it Yourself” (DIY) mentality. People  create with old technologies such as metalworking or newer technologies, which may include programming, electronics, robotics and more. It may even include cooking! Out of this movement has come Maker Faires where people share their productions as well as their technical expertise. It is both a showcase and an opportunity for peer to peer learning.  A Mini Maker Faire was held last August in Montreal.

Dale Dougherty, the founder of MAKE talks about the Maker Movement as being  about instilling a lifetime love of learning and giving people the passion to tinker.  He speaks eloquently about the importance of engaging kids in playing with technology. He talks about education being “more than what we can absorb…. It’s more about what you can do.” I have long been a proponent of learning by doing – creating, tinkering, experimenting.

How can we bring this into schools? And why should we? A makerspace allows for creativity, for trying and failing and finding new solutions. Some in the maker movement don’t use the word failure – rather “oops” or “whoops” Students are too used to seeing failure as an end rather than as an opportunity to learn. A makerspace is a place for collaboration, learning from each other and experimenting. Learning happens peer to peer, teacher to student, student to teacher and online.

makerspaceMaking is about much more than producing something. It is about trial and error, learning as you go, experimenting, and trying new strategies when one doesn’t produce the desired outcome. It is about debugging – examining the oops moments  and coming up with new solutions. When students set their own ways of solving problems, of approaching a challenge, they blur the lines between disciplines. I know, when I was teaching, I had students create games using Microworlds. The artistic ones made games of great beauty while those more into programming included more complex games maneuvers.

I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Carle whose job title is Director of Maker Education at Flint Hill School in northern Virginia. He has started a makerspace in his school You can listen to the interview here:

He spoke about students following their interests, about setting problems with multiple possible solutions, of students working together without being assigned specific roles. He talked about design thinking and the kinds of challenges he gives his students to encourage solving problems with the materials on hand.

Andrew is happy to share and exchange ideas.
He blogs at: http://tieandjeans.wordpress.com
Twitter: @tieandjeans

Makerspaces are places where students can develop their passions, pique their curiosity and explore their wonderings. They encourage critical thinking, reflection, creativity and problem-solving. They are the life skills written about in last week’s blog post.

Where can you learn more?

or check out some links I have saved in diigo – some are for kits that were mentioned in Andrew’s interview, others are articles.