Tag Archives: Makerspace

Artful Tinkering in Kindergarten: The creativity table

Be sure to scroll down in this post to see the many photos of children’s work, and their descriptions of what it made them think of.

These days, many educators are preoccupied with helping their students develop creativity. We can harness children’s innate creative reflex in Kindergarten, and set them on a path of making, tinkering and creating. If you wonder where to start infusing the Maker spirit in a Kindergarten class – a creativity table may be just the thing for you! 

A creativity table is an open-ended activity center. Children usually prefer play that stimulates their curiosity and gives free rein to their imagination and creativity. One of the best ways to enhance their natural curiosity is to introduce a wide variety of materials we call ‘loose parts’ into their play setting. Your creativity table should offer your students plenty of loose parts to choose from.

Loose parts possess infinite play possibilities. They offer multiple rather than single outcomes; no specific set of directions accompanies them; no single result is inevitable; they are open-ended.

Materials become invitations that don’t focus immediately on the creation of products but instead support the children’s building relationships with those materials. Louder for the people at the back: materials are invitations. They do not lead the child to any particular course of action. The materials, and the creativity table ethos, allow children to build their own connection to what is offered. Materials are usually artfully presented, organised and sorted, preferably in transparent containers.


Transparent containers filled with loose parts

The children are given time to explore, to touch, to feel the textures and to let the materials lead their creativity with no particular outcome, product or set steps in mind. The invitation to create is open-ended and not time-restrained.

Their beautiful creations are ephemeral. This may be difficult for some children who are used to produce work that is always considered final and displayed. They learn to enjoy making them and then letting them go, though they can live on in the pictures that they take of them.

In one teacher’s words:

“[The first time] I put it out there, I thought ‘Let’s see what happens’. I’ll just change it.  Have them create some kind of images with shapes. They have had experience before [with art work that is ephemeral]. It’s really hard for them [not to keep their creation]. But they’re so good. They just create, have fun, and if they want me to take a picture, I can take a picture and put in their portfolio binder. But [I tell them] ‘Don’t make it permanent’. And they learn to do that. They respect that. And they respect putting everything back in its own place. It’s kind of fun actually [that they enjoy sorting things back into their containers]. Usually this is my plasticine/play dough table, but I’m looking forward to changing it up and see what else they can create with the stuff I’m just going to put there: my Exploration Table”

She compares it to building sand castles on the beach. 

“You create and play, and the next day it’s no longer there so you can start over again.”

September’s sea-themed exploration/creativity table

October’s fall themed table


When the children were “finished”, the teacher took pictures and asked them what their creations made them think of. (not “What did you make”!) Here is what they said about their creations – “It makes me think of…”

…the heart of a tree for a ladybug
…a flower
…a nest
…a beautiful garden


There were many more. All their creations were beautiful. But even more beautiful is what the children SAW in them. That is both creative AND poetic!

This very simple activity over time creates a maker mindset which values autonomy and exploration, which makes tinkering the default first steps of any activity, which gives permission to try different ideas and which provides invaluable experience with the medium used.







The Design Process: The backbone of school Makerspaces




The word on the street these days is Design. It comes up in terms like ‘design thinking’ and ‘design process’. Educators are increasingly being urged to use design in their professional practice and to teach design skills to their students. But what is design? What is its role in education in the 21st century? And finally, how are these ideas related to STEAM and Makerspaces more broadly?

What is ‘design’?

The word ‘design’ exists as a noun and a verb, and has been used in a wide variety of contexts, leading to confusion as to its meanings. When we ask kids in elementary classrooms to tell us what design is, most of them say “to decorate, to make something look nice, like a room makeover”. I would imagine many adults have the same definition in mind as well. Oxford Dictionaries offers the following neutral definition:

de·sign /dəˈzīn/…1.1. Do or plan (something) with a specific purpose or intention in mind.

I like this definition because of its clear insitence on both planning and action, and its lack of reference to context. Sure, you can design a room to make it look pretty, if that is your intention, but the design act can be deployed in a variety of contexts of widening scope, most of which have little or nothing to do with making something look pretty.

Todd Olson of The Design Innovator offers up this more detailed definition of design as a discipline:

design (verb), as a discipline: plan the creation of a product or service with the intention of improving human experience with respect to a specified problem.

The plot thickens. Now we are adding shading and detail to the acts of planning and action found in the Oxford definition. Two new elements emerge: 1) design occurs in answer to a problem and 2) with the goal of improving the experience for the user.

Wikipedia lets us glimpse the scope of design as a discipline across contexts:

Design is the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object, system or measurable human interaction (as in architectural blueprints, engineering drawings, business processes, circuit diagrams, and sewing patterns). Design has different connotations in different fields … In some cases, the direct construction of an object (as in pottery, engineering, management, coding, and graphic design) is also considered to use design thinking.

image from Blueprint – copyright cleared

The design process

Turns out that humans are designers. It used to be that disciplines wanted to be unique and bespoke, with their own ways of approaching the thorny problems of their respective fields. As disciplines emerged, and as information didn’t flow as freely as it does today, idiosyncratic language prevented us from seeing the patterns that unite all disciplines involved with the construction of objects, systems or measurable human interaction – in short, the patterns that unite all of human activity.

Enter the design process. Say you’re a human in the Stone Age. You need to kill and skin an animal more efficiently (problem). Ok, you can use sticks that you sharpen by rubbing on rocks, or rocks themselves, especially those sharp ones you found the other day (brainstorm). Oh, there’s an animal now, let’s try the sharp stick that we have here (prototype). Ok, it works, but it broke in half because of the impact, so what if we attach this here pointy rock we found with some vines (make)? Hmmm, that was good, but the rock is getting dull already, so how are we going to make it sharper (reflect)? We need to sharpen this rock and see how that will work (iterate). Sounds familiar? We’ve been doing it since the dawn of humankind. No wonder it seems so obvious.

Design for educators vs teaching design to students

Here is where things get a bit meta, to borrow a colloquial term. Teachers can be designers of educational experiences themselves, as the classroom professionals that they are. And, they can also teach the design process to students. These are two different acts – and I’ll tackle teacher-as-designer in another post. Let’s focus on students for now.

Why teach the design process to students?

For the most part, education has shifted from ‘knowing about’ something to engaging in action in a specific field. The Quebec Education Program emerged in direct response to this educational climate by rooting its subject area programmes in competencies – i.e. what a learner can do with knowledge and skills in a given context at various points in time. ‘Doing’ implies engaging in one of the many processes we leverage to help us navigate complexity: a research process, a writing process, a problem-solving process, a creative process, a project process, a design process. The design process, like the other processes listed, has the benefit of being able to cross disciplinary boundaries, preparing students for adult life of their choosing. In the Science and Technology programme, the Cycle 1 Secondary text references the Technological Process, which can be said to fit under the umbrella of the design process.

The design process also allows learned to develop the Cross Curricular Competencies (that bête noire of the QEP, but very dear to my own heart), or those 6 C’s of Deep Learning that Michael Fullan talks about, or even 21st Century Skills that we see mentioned in the media. No matter by what name they are called, we all agree that they are the cornerstone of preparing young people for active participation in the world.

Makerspaces and design thinking

It’s no secret that here at LEARN we are big proponents of Making in schools – of getting students’ heads, hearts AND hands right into their learning. The educators with whom we have been privileged to collaborate, have highlighted for us how important it is to have structures within which the chaos of making finds meaning. Make no mistake, when you open up your classroom to Making or bring your students to a dedicated Makerspace, it can get pretty chaotic. Sure, kids are engaged for the most part, and most of them are working on something, but what are they learning? Are they all learning the same thing? (Is that important? A question for another post, perhaps).

The design process brings order to what can otherwise be a chaotic learning environment. It provides structure for the unstructured and the ambiguous. For some students, less interested in tinkering and making for its own sake, it can also provide a purpose, as they wrestle with thorny problems and come up with practical solutions to prototype in the Makerspace.

Visuals of the design process abound and you can pretty much choose one that appeals to you and work with that one. The key is consistency in terms of visuals and vocabulary – your students should have one process to work with, and their student learning tools should match the visual you use. If you see after some time that the visual you have chosen doesn’t suit your evolving needs – change it! Find a new one, or make your own with something like Piktochart.

Diana Rendina from Renovated Learning uses this process with her students – and makes her student tool available for all as a Google Doc:

Here are some other design process visuals


This one above from Stanford’s d.school initiative includes the step Empathize, which allows younger learners not used to thinking about the needs of others to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to see the world through their eyes. Heck, apparently, its not just kids who are not used to thinking about the needs of others since Todd Olson of The Design Innovator writes “Arguably the most important new line of thinking is around the concept of user-centeredness, which is at the heart of the design thinking movement.” (emphasis mine).

However, I think that if you are just starting out, simpler is better, and you can always add on.

We talk a great deal about schools needing to prepare children for their future, and not ours. We’re not always sure how to go about it, either. But one thing is clear: to teach students how to work with the design process in whatever context, is to give them the gift of navigating those problems that we cannot yet even name.


(c) Todd Berman

Reflective Question: Is Design Thinking or processes associated with design on your professional radar for this year? How does it fit with some of your current practices, whether as consultant or teacher?


Wiggins and McTighe (2006). Understanding by Design. Pearson: Merrill Prentice Hall. p. 24. ISBN 0-13-195084-3.

Stanford’s Design Process for Kids: Teaching Big Picture Problem Solving – http://www.ideaco.org/2013/07/standfords-design-process-for-kids-teaching-big-picture-problem-solving/

d.school at Stanford – K-12 Lab  https://dschool.stanford.edu/programs/k12-lab-network

Teaching the Design Process in Makerspaces

Gaspé Makes: STEAM challenges at Eastern Shores School Board

In early April, a LEARN team composed of Chris Colley and Christine Truesdale visited three schools in the Gaspé to work with students and teachers on the Makerspace idea with our Open Creative Space model. The following is the post published by RECIT pedagogical consultant Craig Bullett on the ESSB blog. We are reposting it.

Eastern Shores School Board showcased our Makerspace initiative as the product of a Professional Development Innovation Grant (PDIG).  The project was a collaboration of Teachers from Gaspe Elementary, Belle Anse, and Shigawake Port Daniel Schools.  The project was coordinated by the ESSB local RECIT, and generously supported by LEARN Quebec’s Open Creative Spaces Team. LEARN loaded up a van with everything under the sun, and brought the Makerspace concept to the Eastern Shores School Board.

Makerspace Promo 3APr2017
The event took place from April 3rd to 6th, and involved…120 students from grades 3 to 8.

  • 11 Teachers (representing 8 different schools).
  • The Open Creative Spaces Team from LEARN Quebec.

Gaspe Elementary, Shigawake Port Daniel School, and the Anchor Adult Ed Center hosted their very own Makerspace concepts with students from their respective communities.


Day 1 April 3rd:

Shigawake Port Daniel School with grade 4-5-6 students from SPDS.

SPDS staff transformed the school’s lunch area and stage into an impressive open space to accommodate everyone.  Students could move freely through the various stations.  STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) applications were blended into each of the various stations including,…

  • Building motorized artbots which draw on their own.
  • Programming the Ollie and Sphero robots to navigate an obstacle course built by students.
  • Building a water dam with lego, to create energy.
  • Creating an homopolar motor, powered by magnets, batteries, and copper wire.
  • Creating a piano with keys made of play-doh, fruit and cups of water.
  • Programing turtle art to draw shapes.
  • Designing and Building a catapult to knock down a tower of cups.

IMG_6545Day 2 April 4th

Gaspe Elementary School with grade 5-6 students from Gaspe Elementary School.

On this day, we converted the entire Gaspe Elementary Gymnasium into the GES Makerspace.  The same Challenges and activities were replicated as done at SPDS.  It is interesting to note the different outcomes with a simple change of venue.  We could have brought the SPDS students to this location, and the experience would have been completely new!  GES students exposed new angles and perspectives not seen the previous day.

Day 3 April 5th

Gaspe Elementary School with grade 3-4 students from Gaspe Elementary and Belle Anse School.

We opened the gym once again to our newest student audience.  The mixture of students from 2 different schools created an interesting dynamic to start the day.  It was clear to see students sticking to their own school group initially. As the day progressed, it was impossible to tell what student was from which school.  They were all Scientists, Technologists, Engineers, Artists, and Mathematicians. The selection of stations and the duration to stay at each was left completely to student choice. It was amazing! No stations were ever empty and none were overcrowded.  Students moved freely between stations in no particular order and without time restrictions.  This phenomenon held true for all of our Makerspace days.  It simply worked!

IMG_6574Day 4 April 6th

The Anchor Adult Education Center with grade 7-8 students from New Carlisle High School.

We brought the Makerspace concept to The Anchor to share the concept with the Adult Ed Community.  On this day, we brought High school Students to experience the concept, while Adult Ed staff could also appreciate the phenomenon.  The concept of stations is making it’s way into Adult Ed Centers across Quebec, and there are similarities to the makerspace concept.  I think we planted some seeds for community Makerspace ideas to emerge from the event. Several Teachers commented on the lack of discipline problems and interventions needed to keep students engaged.  Students were proud of accomplishments, really stuck to the task, and got through some difficult challenges.

This makerspace event could not have succeeded without the proper framework guiding it.  It was important to start with the appropriate mindset.  We started each day by reading a story.  We chose The most Magnificent Thing, but any similar story could work.  It is important to talk about overcoming challenges and not giving up with a challenge.  It is also important to emphasize that mistakes are ‘okay’.  Finally, remember to have fun!

We concluded each day with reflections from students.  This allowed learners to consolidate their experience and identify what about the Makerspace concept, makes learning fun. Typically similar words came from each session.  Choice, empowerment, autonomy, creativity, cooperation, trial and error.

We can say without a doubt that we learned something new everyday.  We, being everyone involved!  Organizers, Teachers, Administrators, and  Students.

The most notable observations were the absence of conflict, the seamless cooperation, and the easy transitions between activities.

Here are some nuggets captured over the 4 days.

Makerspace moment Twitter

  • Full coverage of Tweets over the 4 days


  • NCHS Students explain their hydraulic lift.


  • NCHS Student demonstrates hydraulic design


  • GES Student playing piano with Play-Doh and Apples


And…My 2 favorites…

Grade 6 experts imparting their knowledge to younger students.

Makerspace Gr 6aMakerspace gr 6b

Young Makers: STEAM Challenges in Grade One

Making Platonic solids with straws and pipe cleaners

A few weeks ago, Chris Colley and I were at Edgewater Elementary School (LBPSB) to try our hand at Making with our youngest group ever – Grade One. Since the last school year, we have visited over two dozen classrooms, and have held just over 10 Open Creative Space days at our offices or on the road, working with both teachers and students on the Maker Mindset through hands-on making. You can read about it here and here. We’ve been mainly aiming at the middle, that grade 5-6 sweet spot where maturity and flexible scheduling meet in the perfect learning storm. But we’ve been curious about 1) how our STEAM challenges would scale up or down,  2) how long it would take grade one students to complete each challenge and whether they had the requisite attention span and 3) how they handled some of the more complex materials.

Adapting our challenges to Cycle 1

Although at LEARN we use the inclusive term Open Creative Space for our own makerspace, many in the anglophone education community in Quebec have taken a shine to the STEAM initiatives that have swept across our neighbours to the south. With that in mind, we’ve called our Maker challenges STEAM challenges so that students engage with familiar terminology already in use in their schools. For Cycle 1, we chose those challenges that we could see young learners being able to complete with minimal adult intervention. As it was our first time working in a structured way with Grade 1 students in a Maker context (we are both parents of younger kids, so have plenty of recent informal experience to draw upon), we agreed to try out some challenges even if we weren’t sure they would work, in a spirit of joyful experimentation. We chose the following challenges:

  • Art-bot: Make a robot that draws using a small motor and simple dollar store items. Our hypothesis: Students will be able to do this with careful scaffolding
  • Lego design: work with Lego blocks to create something based on a design specification. Our hypothesis: Easy-peasy lemon squeezy
  • Pinwheel: make a working pinwheel that spins. Our hypothesis: Doable with some adult help
  • Turtle Art: Basic programming challenge using a Scratch-based interface and programming cards. Our hypothesis: Probably too hard for grade 1
  • Claymation: Create an animation featuring a moving object. Our hypothesis: No problem for grade 1
  • Straw solids: Create a platonic solid from straws and pipe-cleaners. Our hypothesis: No problem for grade 1

    Testing the ArtBot

Working with Cycle 1 students – a PMI*

Pascale Quenneville’s Grade One students were excited to being “doing Science”, as they phrased it. They were also used to working through stations, so we decided to use their existing class structure during the challenges. This was familiar to them and made transitions even more seamless than in older grades, and freed us up to focus on getting the challenge tables ready for the next group. Each student was able to complete three challenges over the course of the half-day we spent with them. I’ve divided the stations using a Plus-Minus-Interesting reflection model.


Lego design brief

In terms of sheer learning joy, the two clear winners were the Art-bot and the Claymation challenges. We felt good about these challenges for the age group and were proved right. At the Art-bot station, grade one students were able to work in pairs to power a small motor using a battery and alligator cables, to affix the motor and battery to a cup and to attach markers to the cup. The students struggled somewhat with the fine motor skills required to affix the alligator clip to the tiny prongs of the motor, so we gave them a break and cut their duct tape for them. Judicious scaffolding. The testing phase was full of squeals and questions such as “Why doesn’t my robot move as fast as their robot?” and ‘How come the blue marker isn’t touching the paper?”.


On the surface, the pinwheel challenge seemed a shoo-in for Cycle 1. However, we forgot about the straight pin that needs to go through the paper and into the wooden dowel, making this challenge impossible for grade 1 students to complete on their own. Creating a square out of a rectangular piece of paper and then cutting only part of the way along a line were also aspects of the pinwheel challenge that required serious adult intervention. After the first round of students, we switched to using pencils instead of dowels, and sticking the straight pin into the eraser part. This was easier, but still out of reach for grade 1. This challenge would be best done as a multi-age challenge where older students create the pinwheel and Cycle 1 students participate in the testing phase with a fan.

Another challenge that we felt good about for grade 1 was creating straw solids, using pipe cleaners. When we heard that Pascale’s grade 1 students had done solids earlier in the school year, we were even more confident. It turns out that threading pipe cleaners through straws, and twisting them together to form the solid was somewhat out of reach for a majority of students. It was another station at which adult intervention was required to a degree that made the challenge both uninspiring for some students, and inappropriate for our goal of having kids engage fully in the act of making.


Turtle Art with programming cards

One of our newer challenges is one where students choose a card and have to build something with Lego according to the design constraint identified. An example of a design constraint is “build something that is very tall and stands alone” or “build something that moves”. It was interesting to note that the boys in Pascale’s class were highly motivated to complete this challenge, even when they didn’t exactly know what to do. In the future, we will be trying to frame the design challenge questions in various ways to see if any resonate more with girls.

We were also unsure if grade one students would be able to do basic programming with Turtle Art on the iPad. After some back and forth, Chris went through the programming cards and chose the simplest ones, with the simplest series of commands. After a brief intro, the kids were off and running, with very minimal adult intervention.

Overall, our first foray into engaging Cycle 1 kids in Maker activities was very successful, with both teacher and students full of enthusiasm and plans for the future. Pascale Quenneville suggested that her school create a continuum for maker skills and attitudes, so that kids in grade one would be already developing competencies needed for more complex making in Cycle 3. We have seen Cycle 3 students be extremely capable when faced with our pre-planned open-ended Maker challenges. The ultimate goal, however, is for those students to have the competencies necessary for their own projects. Starting as early as Cycle 1 would mean that by the time students hit Cycle 3, they would be familiar with the practical (not just theoretical) notions of circuits, of simple machines, of building, of planning, of trial and error, of perseverance. That’s the dream.


*PMI – Plus, Minus, Interesting

Other posts about Making and our Open Creative Space initiative

She Said, He Said: On Makerspaces

The Power of Words: Dismantling the fixed mindset

Getting Started with Makerspaces: LEARN’s STEAM challenges

Other stories of Making in Cycle 1

Getting Started with Makerspaces: LEARN’s STEAM challenges


At LEARN we’ve been reflecting on how best to increase student engagement in school, as it has been closely linked with academic achievement and students’ perceptions of their ability to succeed. One of our initiatives has been harnessing the power and appeal of the Maker Movement in the school context. To this end, we’ve been inviting teachers to Open Creative Space days at our offices and also working directly with teachers and their students in classrooms. We’ve also done whole-staff ped days at schools where there is interest in setting up a Makerspace or Open Creative Space. Working closely with teachers and students has been rewarding and has allowed us to refine our thinking about Making in schools. This post discusses one of the main ways we’ve been introducing Making to teachers and students – our STEAM Challenges – and explores how these challenges are just a pathway into a more holistic view of Makerspaces.

It needs to be said that our ideal scenario is one where each school has a dedicated Makerspace or Creative Space, equipped with a wide variety of materials and tools. Teachers would be able to book the space for projects, as well as have a time in their schedule dedicated to Making, Passion Projects or Genius Hour. Some of the schools we’ve worked with have a dedicated room that they have designated as their Makerspace, and some are looking at their libraries as multi-function spaces that include Making. Currently, many teachers are interested in the Maker Movement, but are looking for a pathway in, something familiar enough to allow them to feel secure with trying out a new risky and potentially time-intensive practice. Some of the concerns expressed by teachers are:

  • Students don’t have the practical skills needed to make the things they want to make
  • Teachers don’t have the practical skills needed to make the things students want to make

    (c) LEARN BY-NC-ND
  • Many students lack ideas about what they could make
  • Making something worthwhile takes too much time
  • A shared Makerspace is messy and disorganized
  • Do Makerspace activities fit into the QEP (Quebec curriculum)?

At LEARN, we have been addressing many of these concerns by working with teachers and students on a series of open-ended challenges. These STEAM challenges allow for many ways of proceeding and for many possible discoveries and end products. Typically, we plan nearly a full day with a class, starting just after recess and often going until the end of the day. In that time frame, we are able to have 3 challenges blocks of about 45 minutes each, with an intro and a debrief at the end. We work with teachers remotely to choose the challenges offered to students, and ideally students pre-select their top three challenge choices from the 6 or 7 options offered to them. Each challenge is set up on its own table or pod and comes with a laminated challenge card which gives students the goal of the challenge and a basic overview. We circulate and give students clues or ask questions to help them get started or help them over hurdles. Sometimes, students will need to have the goal of the challenge explained to them in more detail. All our challenges and the challenge cards can be found via our working blog ocs.learnquebec.ca.

Screenshot 2017-04-05 12.28.06

Let’s be clear about one thing. The challenges are hard. They involve skills the students don’t have for the most part. They involve concepts that students may or may not have been exposed to, and often very peripherally, such as the idea that batteries provide power to devices, and come in many different shapes. Teachers who see the challenges for the first time are often surprised. Students who see the challenges for the first time are often surprised – “But what do we have to DO?” they ask. But, in spite of this, there has not been a single group of kids who have been unable to complete the vast majority of challenges in the timeframe provided.


When the LEARN team came to Dorset, the experience was so enriching and fun we begged them to come back a second day…The students problem-solved, used their creativity, discovered, shared, learned, got frustrated, persisted, encouraged each other, discussed and had fun. The students and teachers got so much out of the LEARN visits. – Sylviane Martinis, Dorset Elementary, LBPSB

So far, the reactions to our LEARN Challenge days have been unequivocally positive. Teachers like the challenge model because we bring all the necessary materials with us and offer a wide range of challenges. Many teachers appreciate learning along with their students, and having us handle the immediate pedagogical aspects allows them to see how they might do it in the future. We also work in their own spaces: classrooms, Makerspaces or libraries. But if there were ever any doubts as to the success of the challenges, they would be dispelled upon witnessing the reactions from the students. From students spontaneously shouting out “This is the best day EVER!” as they get their ArtBot to draw, or their robot to follow the course they programmed for it, to clamouring for their teacher to take a video to send to their parents, to spontaneous hugs received in the hallways… Every day we spend with students, we are recommitted to growing the hands-on experiential Maker Movement in schools. Every time we see a student who struggles academically experience success, we are re-energized about our work.

Ultimately, though, the goal is not to have all students doing STEAM challenges ad nauseum. The challenges, after all, are just somewhat less structured activities, which, while making them an excellent first foray into the Making journey, do not stem from students’ own passions and ideas. The challenges give students exposure and above all, basic skills. When coupled with a growth mindset in the classroom, these three elements combine into a powerful cocktail of creative potential that can find free rein in an unstructured makerspace or open creative space, where there are no challenges, only materials, time and distributed expertise. Is Making a panacea for all the ills of education? Probably not. But the transformative power of creating has the potential to breathe new life into our system and ignite passion for learning. We’ll take it.


Read more:

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.

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/

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