Chess, Stock Markets and Metaphors for Learning

Metaphors can be powerful vehicles for learning. They allow you to not only make connections between disciplines but allow you to think about concepts in new and innovative ways. They allow you to think about abstract concepts and visualize them so they sit in your mind’s eye and play with different ideas. However, how often do we allow students the chance to think deeply about ideas and concepts and create their own metaphors?

Metaphors allow learners to bridge their learning across concepts.

This is a blog post I have been thinking about for a long time. I find the best time for me to reflect is when I go running. It’s just me, the road and my thoughts. I find it difficult to find some quiet time to reflect at school, and as a father of 2 kids under 5, rarely do I ever have quiet reflection time at home 😉 So running is that time for me.

As I move along in my teaching career, I find myself thinking about the idea of learning in much deeper ways. I have been reading a number of books on how to make learning transformative and powerful for students. I’ve been reading some great books that challenge the idea of empowerment, innovation and questioning the frameworks we create for students to have the freedom to learn. The book coincidently titled, Freedom to Learn by Will Richardson does just that. I love the thinking by George Couros in his books The Innovator’s Mindset. Anyway, this blog post isn’t exactly on those topics but inspired by their thinking.

This post is about the metaphors of 2 unlikely areas, Chess and Stock Markets and how the slow impact of learning is very difficult to see the effects over time. This post is also on the power of allowing time for students to reflect, I mean really reflect and think about concepts over time, allowed to make connections and create their own metaphors. Please bear with me as I explain.

First off, stock markets. Specifically, compound interest. Personal finance is a bit of a hobby of mine and done a lot of reading (and practice) on the power of passively investing in index funds. Einstein has been reporting in saying “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it. He who doesn’t, pays it.” It is amazing, yet at any one given time, it is very difficult to observe, especially in the short-term. If you want to see how it works, go to Moneychimp’s compound interest calculator, put in $10,000 with an annual addition of $1000 at 7% interest over 25 years and see what your investment would be worth. I like to think about the small decisions that you make in the classroom in the same way. Something as seemingly small as offering student’s choice in what they get to learn about for a project or spending 5 minutes conferring with student’s over their writing, can have monumental impacts over the long-term. The problem is small changes are very difficult to observe in the short-term. They are much like trying to watch soil erosion or noticing how a plant tracks the movements of the sun. You just can’t see them without measurement (enter data side talk here). They may even have a negative short-term impact over a day or two convincing the teacher to abandon their initial decision. This is why a long-term strategy, just like investing, is so important. You need to stay the course. You need to trust your strategy and intuition. These small incremental impacts compound over time and can have huge effects in the long-term. The problem with being a teacher is you often do not get to see those effects until much later in life.

The 2nd metaphor I would like to explore is chess. I know, I know I can almost hear the audible groans coming out of the computer screen as I type. So I must confess that I love playing chess and recently been learning some advanced strategies. I’m amazed at the community and how even Grand Masters are continually learning. I didn’t realize how much theory was involved in such a seemingly, simple game. One of the more interesting things I discovered while playing online is that there are chess engines created where every move you play, has a positive (or negative) effect on your chances of winning. Here’s a screenshot from a game I recently played, without getting into all the chess vernacular, you can see that every move (decision), I made had an effect on how likely it was that I would win. A lot of these effects do compound over time. A higher number, meant a better decision.

I mean, how amazing would it be if there was an AI learning engine that could track every decision you make as a teacher and it’s effect on learning?? Perhaps I need to develop this app and quit my day job…

This got me thinking more about how little decisions can have a huge consequence on whether you win or lose (or draw) the game. I know, I know, teaching and learning isn’t really about winning or losing. Nor am I saying that learning should be competitive with clear winners or losers. I think looking at it from a simply, if you are winning, you are having a positive effect on learning for that student or students, and a losing would be a negative.

So finally, my last point if about reflection. For me, these metaphors were exciting and powerful to me but mainly because I created them and owned them. How often do we give students a chance to think about their learning and wrestle with concepts? I would guess not very often. I get it, time is a scarce commodity in schools and we feel the demands to get through the curriculum. However, if we really want schools to be about learning, rather than teaching or curriculum or activities, then we need to rethink our ideas about learning. Usually the reflection time is very structured and we give them a couple of guiding questions and students must instantly come up with deep reflection. What if we let students come back to ideas and concepts and think deeply about them; own them, remix those ideas and think of their own metaphors for concepts and connect learning across displines? My guess is this type of learning, just like interest and chess databases, would compound over time.

Robotics-An Authentic Approach for Teaching Math

Robotics and Math go together like bread and butter. Both are tightly and woven together that the connections seem so obvious to anyone who has ever spent some time coding a robot.

Think about it, in order to code a robot accurately, you need to be precise and accurate. You need to constantly problem-solve, use strategies, break problems apart and play with numbers.

I get frustrated when I walk into a Math classroom and I see students with worksheets and number lines solving imaginary problems, out of context from reality. I know students are not internalizing these skills or concepts as there is no reason to. Yet, we still keep plowing through the Math curriculum through the same old ways, hoping to get different results.

There is a better way. Learning…all learning needs to be embedded in an authentic task that has real meaning and consequences for the learner. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Sure, students can still learn skills and concepts but I guarantee the learning will be superficial.

I’m trying to find a better way. I have started to create a number of lessons embedded all through project-based learning using eV3 Mindstorms as the tool. It’s not perfect but at least the consequences are real. If your Math isn’t correct, your robot won’t do what you want it to do. It gives immediate real feedback to the learner to make changes. Most of the time, kids forget they are even in Math class. Math is just the means to an end.

Here’s a sample lesson plan that I have used with Gr5 students integrating robotics with place value and measurement with more details:

Getting started with First Lego League

I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about the amazing world of Lego Robotics and it has opened up an amazing new world for me and my students. It started out roughly a year ago today where a colleague and I heard about First Lego League (FLL). I glanced through the website and felt completely overwhelmed. However, I had been dabbling with Ev3 Mindstorms for a couple of years and had done some integrated projects with Grade 5 Math (measurement and geometry) and led a few after school activities with them with some minor success. So I figured, why not? Let’s try something new so we jumped in with very little experience or knowledge about how FLL works, let alone how to coach a team to a competition.

What is FLL? Watch this video for more info

I spent the next few months over the summer reading forums and watching youtube videos ready to start coaching a couple of teams in August once school resumed. In South Africa, I learned that we had very limited time until the first regional competition started in mid-October. We ordered the Lego challenge sets and built a couple of tables. My colleague and I had 11 students sign up for our club from Gr4-8 and most of them had little to no experience programming or building robots. We read through the challenge booklet with all the rules but we had no idea where to start. We divided into 2 teams and split up roles and fumbled our way through the challenges focussing most of our time on the robot game. We created very simple robots with very simple attachments inspired by the work of Mr. Hino

Here’s the video our team made about our experience.

In the end, we showed up to the regional tournament with a basic robot and a project presentation but it took a lot of work to get to that point. One of our teams got 91 points and placed 7th out of 25 teams in the robot game and our team won the best Research Presentation award and got around 55 points. We failed to qualify for the nationals as we probably didn’t spend enough time on the CORE values. Anyway, lots of learning and reflecting and here are my own takeaways:

  • Spend time each week doing team building activities related to CORE values. It is probably THE most important part of FLL and we didn’t realize it until we went through the whole process
  • Allow kids more time to design their robot base and think critically about why they want their robot to be designed that way
  • Have more robots available (tester robots) for kids to practice programming. We made the mistake of just having 1 available per team so only a couple of kids really got into the programming
  • Come up with goals for each session and assign kids those goals to keep accountability
  • Buy lots of extra parts (Brick owl), especially technic panels and other technic sets for extra parts.
  • Get lots of support videos for kids to watch. We bought several subscriptions later to FLLcasts and Robot Academy. This helped me understand the basic principles. Ev3lessons is a great resource as well
  • Allow kids to work through problems and know when to step back. If we are more heavily invested in winning than the kids, then we have overstepped the line.
  • Find opportunities for kids to share their learning during the process. We didn’t do this enough and will do a better job next season.
  • Have fun! The whole process is made to be a fun and exciting experience for all 🙂

Since then, we have started a Lego Robotics after school activity as part of WRO as an “offseason training” session. I’m also planning on hosting a FLL Jr. competition next year as well.

Reflecting on the Year

goal setting

With the birth of my second child, the last year has been my primary focus. However, I am slowly getting some time and energy back to work on this blog.

I have my goal setting meeting shortly so I thought I would stop and reflect on my year as a Technology Integration Coach and Specialist Team Coordinator. 

One of my goals revolved around helping and documenting how students use feedback to improve learning. This is definitely still a work in progress. Instead, due to school-wide goals, we focussed more on improving student reflection and encouraging students to dig deeper and make more thoughtful posts. I have worked with teachers and students on this goal. We also needed to better articulate our digital citizenship outcomes and the plan is set for next year to work on this more. We definitely have a clear articulated plan but need to work on following through. 

Another of my goals was to find authentic ways for specialist teachers to collaborate and grow professionally. I feel that I have helped in some ways by coordinating our weekly PGCT sessions and including specialist teachers in these meetings. We worked on making units more conceptually based but still have some more work to do with this.

My other goal was to embed technology/information literacy in classroom practice and driven by units of learning. I feel that I have made most progress on this goal since we now have many units documented in Atlas that are technology-rich units. There is some work and room for growth in lower ES units but we are getting there. We are starting to see innovative practices coming from teachers and this is always a strong indicator.

Highlights of the year:

  • Updating the TIL standards and benchmarks and coming up with a detailed plan for digital citizenship for next year.
  • Helped specialist teachers improve with conceptual-based planning and assessments
  • Helped specialist teachers with improving reflection by using Seesaw and giving specific feedback to students
  • Worked with integrating Art in a Gr4 unit-Turtle Art project
  • Helped support lower ES teachers in using Seesaw more effectively
  • Embedded technology and design thinking into multiple units this year (Gr4 Energy, G3 Forces, G1 Sound/Light, G2 Farm to Table, G5 The Island, KG )
  • Finding ways to innovate and test out new ideas (Turtle Art, Green screen projects in G5, QR codes for book reviews, Design thinking project in Gr5, Minecraft projects)
  • Continued to develop Tech Crew program for G5 students and leadership and have student-led assemblies
  • Coordinate annual Maker Days
  • Continued to maintain and give students opportunities to use Makerspace in authentic ways (maker mornings, lunchtimes, passion projects, etc)
  • Continued to meet with teams on a regular basis to plan and collaborate on technology-rich units
  • Communicate and collaborate with TICs and tech staff to ensure classrooms have proper infrastructure and hardware to support learning
  • Support teachers and students transitioning to Macbooks and iPads through ongoing PD


Need to start doing:

  • Build on finding authentic ways for specialist teachers to integrate in units
  • Find more ways for authentic design-thinking projects for students
  • Collect more data/feedback on seesaw (parents/students)
  • Continue to capture feedback on student learning
  • Find ways to build flexibility in schedule to allow for more personalized learning in technology
  • Offer more support sessions

From Computer Labs to Makerspaces

So nearly 7 months into our official opening of the Makerspace, I thought I would spend  a few minutes and honestly reflect on how it is going (more for my own sanity than anything).

Overall, it’s been a great learning experience and more the most part, it has been a very positive change for the students and the school. I don’t for one second regret the days of a computer lab and don’t think I could ever go back to teaching “technology” as a stand alone subject. I think those days are behind us and schools really do need to transition from this model to a more flexible learning space that reflects the needs of modern-age pedagogy, devices and learning environments (notice how I purposely didn’t use 21st century learning).


So why maker? Is this simply a new educational fad or buzzword, much like differentiation, learning styles, and performance assessment? Perhaps…but I’m willing to bet that it’s hear to stay much longer. Tools come and go but good ideas tend to stand the test of time. For me, it resonates with all my core beliefs in education; student-centered learning, personalized, authentic learning tasks, inquiry and problem-solving. You could argue that these are all buzz words as well but they are good buzz words, at least ones that have a deeper meaning than the former ones.

However, as much as I love technology, I think we really need to move beyond screens. Yes devices help us learn but they are a tool and there needs to be a balance with real hands-on learning using actual physical objects that don’t behave like perfect virtual models. We need things that break, stick, snap, twist and bend. Now more than ever, kids need to more hands-on experiences. As a Gen-Xer (or Gen Yer), we spent hours building forts, making messes, taking things apart and trying to put things back together again. Maybe this is me just being nostalgic but I feel I have a duty to ensure that kids don’t miss out on this.

How to Plan a Family Maker Day for your school

After just finishing our 2nd Maker Day held at our school, I thought it would be a good time to stop and reflect and possibly write a few things down that may help others who are interested in starting one. I am by no means an expert but have learned a couple of things so far. makersaturdaynov

What is a family Maker day? 

A Maker day is a family event that we decided to hold on a Saturday morning (9am-12pm) where students from all ages come in with their parents and engage in a variety of Maker activities. We wanted to keep the “family” aspect of it as we wanted kids to come in with their parents and make, design, innovate together. The activities range from just about anything including robotics, engineering, design challenges, e-textiles, circuit making and cardboard construction. We can’t claim that we created this idea. We got inspired to do this after learning about it from ASB. All stations are flexible so kids can spend as much or as little time on them as they like and there is no set “order” that they have to go through. All stations are fun by volunteer teachers, parents and HS students. We try and keep the atmosphere fun, relaxed but engaging.

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Why hold a Maker Day? 

It’s just another way to raise awareness of what making is all about and begin to build interest and excitement in maker activities and this spills into the curriculum. It’s great for teachers to be able to see what it is all about and work with other students. Students love it and come to the Makerspace excited to try out activities.

How do I go about organizing a Maker Day? 

First off, it’s a ton of work so you need someone (or a couple of people) who have the time and energy to initiate it. There’s no one way to do a Maker Day and lots of different formats. Here’s some of my advice in getting started:

  • Plan early. Get admin on board and book in the event months in advance if possible. Decide on the venue, format and identify people to coordinate it
  • Start small. Maybe plan for 50 students. Our first event had around 100 and our 2nd one this year had about 110 students. Any bigger and it gets hard to manage and you need more volunteers and resources
  • Recruit volunteers early. For each station (ideally), you’ll need one adult/HS student to facilitate it
  • Plan activities. Depending on the age-range, you’ll want a variety of activities that cater to different age groups.
  • Recruit some outside companies to come and do demos. We had several companies come and showcase their products. They can market their products but also adds to the day
  • Involve parents early. Talk to the PTA and try and get a few parents on board to market it to other parents
  • Involve operations in the process. You’ll need some tech support, maintenance workers, cleaners and other support staff to help you out.
  • Test out all activities and make checklists of materials for each station and double-check (triple-check) you have all materials well in advance
  • Make sure you thank and show your appreciate for all volunteers. Without them, it wouldn’t be possible.



Elementary Makerspace-A Tour

After over a year of planning, budgeting, and designing, the ES Makerspace is finally complete. Although, in reality, a true Makerspace is never complete and always going through an endless internal design process. I’m very proud of where we are at as a school and the kids here absolutely love it!

I’ll get into the how and why we made this in another post.

I thought I would share a few features of the space and rationale behind some of the decisions. I know when we were doing research, finding examples of Makerspaces around the world helped us envision what we wanted.

Some of the themes we wanted, were flexibility, accessibility, and personalization.  We wanted an innovative space that was flexible to the many kinds of projects that students would engage to. We wanted it to be bright and inviting and have a certain aesthetic quality to it. Well a picture is worth a thousand words!

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ES Makerspace-Update #2

Awhile back, I wrote a post here about our Makerspace program. Since we are nearing the end of the year, I thought I would write an update of where we are at and a little about what I’ve learned along the way.

First of all, our ES Makerspace has passed budget approval and we are doing some major renovation of the space which I am currently in (formally an ES Tech lab). During the summer months here, we will give the room a facelift. This took an enormous amount of research and work. Since I’m not an architect or a builder, I found it challenging to make decisions on so many little details about the room. I had lots of input and support from my admin and teachers who gave me feedback along the way. I also had meetings with our Operations Director, IT Manger and Builders. After thinking carefully about the functionality of the room, I think we have a near final plan. I used a 3D modelling program to create this and you can see it here (click the 3D tab on the right to move around the space).


The idea is that it will have different spaces set up (electrical, woodworking and crafting areas) that are flexible for both storage and workspaces. The side benches on the left are fixed to the wall as well as the shelving above. Along the wall will be peg board and linbin flexible shelving to store tools and materials for kids like below:

The benches and other side tables will be on wheels so they can be moved around when needed. The side storage room is a bigger storage room for all school science and engineering kits and materials.

Now that the space is done, we need to start finding effective ways to utilize it as a school. The idea is that it is a shared space where classes can come and go as they please but also open before school and during lunchtimes where kids can “drop in” to work on Maker projects. I certainly do NOT want it to become a newer age computer lab where formal classes are being held. In addition, we are thinking of ways to have mini mobile maker spaces (on trolleys) that can come into classes as needed. Sort of like this:

makerspace trolley

Other than that, lots of really cool projects have been happening in classrooms. We launched a new Energy maker project in Grade 4 where students used the design cycle to solve an energy problem. They held an Energy Expo for parents and teachers to showcase their work. I really loved how students referred to the design cycle and all the little problems they had to solve. Here’s a few photos of their projects:

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Other than that, we held our first Family Maker Day which was a big hit (but a ton of work!). We had 100 students come with their parents and had 14 different stations that they could freely engage in (I think I’ll do a separate post for this).

Here’s a few photos from the day as well:

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Chromebooks-a new paradigm shift in schools?


Next year, we have decided to buy chromebooks as the new 1:1 computing device for Grades 3-5. It was a difficult decision but I feel it was the right one now for a few reasons.

Let’s face it, chromebooks are not that new anymore. However, they have been quickly overtaking iPad 1:1 programs and other laptop programs, especially in the US as reported here and here. As an educator (and Apple Distinguished Educator), I believe its the right device for schools in the future. I’ve worked in 1:1 programs with iPads, Macbooks, Samsung tablet computers, Samsung tablets and soon, Chromebooks. While I’ve enjoyed some of the creativity Apple has given us, I’ve had to deal with the nightmare of managing these devices through iTunes (not friendly outside North America). I’ve also had to deal with the hardware and syncing issues of Windows 8 on Samsung devices…also a nightmare. Both of these options seem to require an enormous amount of technical support and infrastructure.

I honestly feel the software model in schools will be behind us. Most schools are now cloud-based in storage (ala Google Apps or O365) and there are a plethora of online tools that you really don’t need most software. The software model requires an enormous amount of time and money to support (imaging, updates, etc) and it can really detract from student learning. If a teacher finds an amazing software tool to use in the classroom, it needs to get budget approval then requires a technician (or if you are blessed with a proper MDM) installation, updates, etc. By the time this tool makes its way into the hands of kids, the just-in-time learning moment has passed. Mobile apps were supposed to be an answer for this problem but ipads and other tablets also present their own unique set of problems. Navigating through Apple’s legalities with volume purchasing programs and being forced into updating iOS is not easy. I’ve been there and it seems to be even more difficult lately. How often are you forced to update iTunes so it’s compatible with your OS and that in turn is compatible with the iOS you have installed? Times this by hundreds when dealing with student devices. Don’t even get me started with Windows…

So now I’m forced to look into another solution. Chromebooks. Take away the need for software, updates, expensive MDMs, tech support and imaging, and this is what you are left with. The other nice bonus is your get Google Apps for Education (which I’ll admit, I’m a fan) as well as Chrome apps (there are some great ones out there). Throw in the fact that they are 1/4 of the price of any decent laptop on the market and you have me sold. Let’s face it, most software companies have online versions now or you can pretty much find an online tool that does what traditional software does (PicMonkey for online editing, Prezi, WeVideo for video editing, etc). I’ll admit, it was a budgetary decision initially but the more I research and think about this, it really is the right tool for the job.

I’m in no way saying this is no way a golden ticket and not without its share of challenges (yes I know there is no real equivalent of Adobe Photoshop, Minecraft Edu, Final Cut pro or Lego Robotics software…yet). I honestly feel that the pros far outweigh any cons. I also feel its the right tool for kids in Elementary school. In my experience, 95% of what kids do with technology, can be done online. Let’s cut the tether on the educational software model collectively forcing companies to innovate and come up with creative cloud solutions if they haven’t already done so.

Time will tell and ask me in a year how I like them. For now, onwards and upwards!