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How We Shifted From From Static Learning To Constructionist Learning



contributed by Rob van Nood and Paul Monheimer

My colleague and I took a constructionist approach to teaching the FAME project. Along the way, our middle school students tinkered, failed, learned, and created. Here’s how we did it and the tools we used.

“What if this doesn’t work out? What if the kids have nothing to show at the end of this?”

These were two questions my colleague Paul asked when we began tinkering with how he taught the FAME Project in his 7th grade humanities class for the past 5 years. I’m not afraid of ambiguity or open-ended projects but I’m the Ed Tech Specialist and part of my work is living in those grey areas. It was understandable that Paul might be a little more concerned that things would work out. “They will absolutely have something to share,” I responded when expressing his trepidation “and if things aren’t fully working they will have a great opportunity to show their parents how their creations work.”

The FAME project is an annual month-long exploration of feudal Asia and medieval Europe that Paul had been running in his class in some form for the previous 25 years. For the past five, his students’ final project was a film festival complete with categories, ballots and final award ceremonies that took the better part of an afternoon to host. While the new seventh graders looked forward to their chance to film their own cinematic stories, in the Spring of 2018 Paul approached me to try something new, something fresh.

I’ve been the Educational Technology Specialist for 6 years and previously was a classroom teacher for 16 years. I have often worked with Paul to explore novel and engaging ways to use technology to enhance the teaching and learning in his class. He wasn’t a stranger to innovation so when he approached me to explore shaking up the FAME project I knew that I could suggest ideas that neither of us had tried before. 

Tinker Learning And Constructionism

I am a builder and tinkerer at heart and from my very first years in the classroom I knew that I wanted kids to be building things with their hands. Doing so would make their learning and understanding visible. I’m a fan of Seymour Papert’s theory of “constructionism.” Built on Piaget’s theory of constructivism which suggests that students construct their own learning by reflecting on their personal experiences, constructionism contends that learners make sense of the world by creating mental and physical models. While constructionism is more often applied to science and mathematics classrooms, I believe it can span all subjects, especially social studies.

Paul’s interest in a collaborative project came at a synchronistic time for me. I had just brought the movie “Most Likely to Succeed” to my school and I had just been introduced to SAM Labs. The film explores a collaborative history and science constructionist project at High Tech High in San Diego. SAM Labs is a cutting-edge coding and electronic technology kit for teachers to bring engaging STEAM projects to their students. Inspired by the film, I realized that revamping the FAME Project with Paul was the perfect opportunity to combine social studies with  the hands-on technology of SAM Labs. This curriculum could allow students to more deeply make sense of the cultures they were going to be studying.

Early on Paul and I knew that we wanted this project to be driven by a ‘big question’ that would force students to think like historians. While previous years’ film projects allowed students to share what they had learned, the films also were only a kind of mirror to history, which didn’t always reflect deeper learning. Making a film about a historical figure like Genghis Khan didn’t necessarily require a synthesising of big ideas. We wanted to change that. “How do new ideas change the way people live?” became the lens for our middle schoolers to think about culture and the impacts new ideas have on culture.

How We Brought Constructionism Into Our Classroom


Our plan was this. Students would study one of four geographic areas (England, the Middle East, China or Japan) and become an expert in an area of culture such as religion, politics, or technology. After a two-week intensive study, they would pose a theory to answer the BIG question. The catch was that they had to show their ideas in a physical model using few words. Being succinct would force them to develop a well-thought conceptual understanding of their topic, not an easy task for most students. 

In the months leading up to FAME, all the students had taken a ten-day programming class. They learned basic block coding and got to use the SAM Labs electronic kits. They built prototypes with motors, buttons, light sensors, servos, buzzers and a number of other bluetooth enabled devices. These were activated through coding using Workbench (which you can find here), an online programming canvas. We let them know they were learning to use these tools now so they would be ready to build their models later in the year. We didn’t want to overload them by teaching them both the content of social studies in FAME and the basics of computer programming and electronics. Laying the groundwork ahead of time was crucial.

Once the students had developed their theories they got two weeks to design, test and build their models. The classroom energy was high in those weeks! Kids used dry erase tables to sketch their thinking and talk through technical issues. They used cardboard, wire, hotglue, tape and paper to build rough drafts which they began connecting with a variety of the SAM Labs devices. Each group was required to have at least one moving part in their display which opened up a variety of possibilities with gears, levers and pulleys. One group of students used buttons, lights, servo motors and sliders to convey how power rose and fell through the centuries before and after the Magna Carta was created by King John in 1215.

The Shift From Static Learning To Constructionist Learning

As is the case of any project of this scale and complexity the days before the final gallery showing to family and friends was a mad dash of problem solving, frustration and even some tears. Paul’s initial question about effectiveness continued to echo in my ears as we moved into the final stretch. There was a very real chance that some projects wouldn’t be finished. There was a potential that many of the electronic and coded components wouldn’t work.

And, while all the projects were supposed to be hung neatly on the wall, completely finished and fully functioning, on the day of the exhibition there were still quite a few students sitting on the floor with their parents, or with their projects propped up against a table, while they tinkered, fixed small problems, re-coded or added tape to hold pieces together. In truth, it was beautiful!

This was learning in action, and the parents got to see it happening in real time. In fact it was the kind of experience that I had hoped would happen right from Paul’s question asking if we could pull it off.

This wasn’t static learning. This was dynamic constructionist learning that required some fiddling, some negotiating and often, lots of explaining. 

Rob van Nood has been the Educational Technology Specialist at Catlin Gabel School in Portland Oregon since 2013. Previously, he was a classroom teacher for 16 years. Rob has always been passionate about developing learning spaces and experiences where kids can ask questions about themselves and the world and where there are lots of opportunities to make their learning visible. Twitter: @robvannood

Paul Monheimer has 30 years of teaching experience in every grade K-12. From HyperCard to SAMLabs, Paul has been involved in integrating new tools into existing curriculum. Paul is a two-time Fulbright Award recipient, having been both an Exchange Teacher and a Distinguished Award in Teaching grantee. Paul is currently retired and living in Central Oregon Twitter: @leftysdad

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The Selflessness Of Pedagogy: What Every Teacher Gives




The Selflessness Of Pedagogy: What Every Teacher Gives

by Terry Heick

It’s better to give than to receive–something that holds true for gift-giving and education.

In fact, the act of giving isn’t just a matter of ultimately receiving more, or even an act of altruism and selflessness. It has more to do with seeing the big picture itself — a healthy, robust, functioning system of careful human performance — that becomes the goal. It’s in this simple paradigm shift that we, as teachers, can find a new level of performance as professionals, contentment in our craft, and changed lives in the communities we serve.

So how might we focus on that service not as a characteristic of my job, but as the goal itself–the most macro product of all? For teachers, this would obviously be built around the idea of service-oriented teaching, where we gain strength and perspective from serving others. It would lead to ‘other growth,’ including, on a broader level, the formation of a personal and professional ecology than can sustain us through the challenges of teaching.

What would this look like?

Other teachers who need us, and who we need

Parents who need us, and who we need

Students who need us for something other than clarifying instructions, providing credit, and letter grades

The community of our school, including grade levels above and below ours, that needs us for our performance, collaboration, and ideas, just as we need that community.

In a word, this looks like interdependence. So what can I give to begin?

They give themselves.

Teaching is martyrdom. So often, educators feel the need to give themselves up to be feasted upon until there’s nothing left. Giving yourself is a different kind of gift, though. Here, it means truly putting your self aside — your need to be the best, your insecurities, professional goals, need for affirmation, and so on — and instead give in to the act of teaching.

But more crucially, this giving of yourself implies that you give your whole self to the act of teaching — your creativity, affection, background knowledge, contacts, networks, dreams, hopes, and so on — in the whole merging of you and your work.

They give others the benefit of the doubt.

As a teacher, you’ll see a lot moving upstream and down — struggling readers that always seem to come from that school; that family that doesn’t seem to care; that co-worker who seems to challenge you at every chance; that administrator who always seems to find a way to poke holes in your teaching. That assessment. That law. That policy.

Never, ever stop questioning the things happening around you. Be a critical educator, ask tough questions, and ring the bell when you’re concerned. Just do so from a position of positivity — give others the benefit of the doubt. Use positive presuppositions, such as: “We’ve always been strong supporters of literacy here, so I’m confused why. . . ”




They give themselves the opportunity to learn new things continuously.

Okay, perspective change to first-person: I’m going to give myself the gift of learning. As a teacher, it makes sense to learn endlessly, not just to model it for students, but to keep my own curiosity and tendency for play stirring and alive.

I may learn a new set of literacy strategies. Maybe it’ll be a variation on the Socratic Seminar, or I’ll mash Fish Bowls with Agree/Disagree. I may bring new education technology into my classroom, or reach for new learning models such as project-based learning, sync teaching, or self-directed learning. I may throw out my desk and go paperless, mobile, or completely back to basics.

But I’m never going to stop learning. That is my gift to myself.

They give students a chance.

Maybe that’s a chance to surprise themselves. I want to give the gift of inspiration. Who doesn’t? And what better way can we inspire than by designing learning experiences that let students do things they didn’t think they were capable of? My gift would be giving students opportunities to surprise themselves through their own skills, critical thinking, creativity, and deep understanding of important ideas.

They give parents authentic opportunity to get involved.

It’s tempting to complain about parents that aren’t involved in their child’s schooling. Who on earth wants to be involved in schooling? Learning is a different matter — that’s something with a foothold allowing parents to engage meaningfully. This isn’t grades and homework, but rather understanding and the need to understand.

You may or may not get anything more from parents, but at least you’ve given them more tempting access than they’ve ever had in the past.

They give others chances to create new measures of success.

Teaching — properly done and measured as we do today — is impossible. It can’t be done. You cannot bring every single child to proficiency in every single standard while, at the same time, meeting their needs as human beings and helping them both see and reach their full potential. If this is your goal, you’re only going to disappoint yourself endlessly until you either burn out or realize that you’re lying to yourself.

Teaching, though, with new metrics of success — well, that’s suddenly a whole lot easier.

They give themselves a break.

The preceding represents a lot of giving, and also a lot of complexity, interdependence, opportunity, work, and chances to fail. So above all, I’m going to give myself a break.

I will give all of myself. I will give the benefit of the doubt. I’ll learn new things, promote self-discovery, connect with communities, and establish new measures of success. And when things go wrong, I’ll have a short memory. I’ll give myself a break and push on, excited about what tomorrow might bring.

Image attribution flickr user denisekrebs and cloudboard; What Every Good Teacher Gives
pay for an essay to be written

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How The Lesson Study Approach Can Improve Your Teaching



How The Lesson Study Approach Can Improve Your Teaching

contributed by Vicki Collet

Making teaching a shared and public practice supports improved instruction.

When teachers have opportunities for collaboration, reflection, and inquiry, they “can find better ways to answer the learning needs of students” (Lieberman & Wood, 2002, p. 42). Teacher inquiry makes us question practices that have become stale, generate innovation, and create dynamic learning for ourselves and our students.

Over the past decade, I’ve participated in teacher inquiry using a process called Lesson Study. I’ve seen scores of teachers engage with authentic professional learning through this work. Lesson Study is a structure for teacher inquiry that is as straightforward as it sounds: the study of a lesson. However, Catherine Lewis, who learned about Lesson Study in Japan and has been instrumental in spreading its use in the United States, points out that during Lesson Study,

(Teachers) improve the lessons not as an end in
itself, but as a way to deepen their own content knowledge, their knowledge of
student thinking, their understanding of teaching and learning, and their
commitment to improvement of their own practice and that of colleagues…Lesson
study is not about discovering the one right way to teach a lesson, but about
building knowledge of many teaching strategies and habits of observation,
inquiry, and analysis of practice (Lewis & Hurd, 2011, p. 24).

When participating in Lesson Study, you will collaboratively plan lessons that become the focus of inquiry on effective teaching practices. Then you’ll observe one another teach lessons and collaboratively revise and refine your instructional plans, as shown in the figure below.

How The Lesson Study Approach Can Improve Your Teaching

Inquiry is the essential element of Lesson Study, so the clear focus you identify for a Lesson Study cycle should propel your desire to investigate, to analyze and study together. Pursuing the questions your group has identified provides challenge and authentic purpose, which will increase your team’s motivation and engagement. Because you have identified the problem for yourself, the process will have immediate value. 

The goal of Lesson Study is not to create the ideal lesson that is universally useful. During teacher preparation and professional development, you have doubtless been taught and encouraged to use ‘best practices.’ Although it is true that some practices are more effective than others (and research has much to teach us), it is also true that there is no single, perfect lesson. This is true because you and I, and the students we teach, are diverse in so many ways. Lesson Study focuses on “the why of teaching: why teaching methods work in particular ways in particular settings” (Smagorinsky, as cited in Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 2015, p. 5). 

Grow your school with TeachThought PD Collaborative Lesson Study Workshops.

In our quest for better ways of doing things, Lesson Study can help us identify places where we are frozen in old practices and can help us warm to new ones. Lesson Study uncovers new approaches that are informed by the examination of evidence gained through our professional inquiry. Collaboration with colleagues who share similar contexts and concerns makes the insights gained especially helpful. By being the guides to our own professional learning, teachers resist stagnation and become mobile, active agents of change. With our colleagues, we take a learning stance by asking questions, taking risks, and reflecting on both successes and failures.

Study uses knowledge you gain from your own classroom to stimulate professional
conversations about teaching and learning. Shared experiences through joint
planning and observation support the conversation, helping you develop your own
understanding and share it with others.


If you are eager to investigate and improve instruction and increase your understanding about teaching, I invite you to learn more about Lesson Study. Lesson Study creates continuous learning cycles that put teachers in the driver’s seat of their own professional development.


Book: Collaborative Lesson Study: ReVisioning Teacher Professional


Request to join Collaborative Lesson Study Book Club on Facebook est (next book study begins January 13, 2020)

Vicki’s blog:

Vicki on Facebook:

Vicki on Twitter: @vscollet


A., & O’Donnell-Allen, C. (2015). Pose, wobble, flow: A culturally
proactive approach to literacy instruction. Teachers College Press.

C. & Hurd, J. (2011). Lesson study step by step: How teacher learning
communities improve instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

A., & Wood, D. R. (2002). From network learning to classroom
teaching. Journal of Educational Change, 3, 315-337.

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18 Inconvenient Truths About Assessment Of Learning



18 Inconvenient Truths About Assessment Of Learning

by Terry Heick

I. In terms of pedagogy, the primary purpose of an assessment is to provide data to revise planned instruction. It should provide an obvious answer to the question, “So? So what? What now?

II. It’s an extraordinary amount of work to design precise and personalized assessments that illuminate pathways forward for individual students–likely too much for one teacher to do so consistently for every student. This requires rethinking of learning models, or encourages corner-cutting. (Or worse, teacher burnout.)

III. Literacy (reading and writing ability) can obscure content knowledge. Further, language development, lexical knowledge (VL), and listening ability are all related to mathematical and reading ability (Flanagan 2006). This can mean that it’s often easier to assess something other than an academic standard than it is knowledge of the standard itself. It may not tell you what you want it to, but it’s telling you something.

IV. Student self-assessment is tricky but a key matter of understanding. According to Ross & Rolheiser, “Students who are taught self-evaluation skills are more likely to persist on difficult tasks, be more confident about their ability, and take greater responsibility for their work.” (Ross & Rolheiser 2001)

V. Assessments of learning can sometimes obscure more than they reveal. If the assessment is precisely aligned to a given standard, and that standard isn’t properly understood by both the teacher and assessment designer, and there isn’t a common language between students, teacher, assessment designer, and curriculum developers about content and its implications, there is significant “noise” in data that can mislead those wishing to use the data, and disrupt any effort towards data-based instruction.

VI. Teachers often see understanding or achievement or career and college-readiness; students often see grades and performance (e.g., a lack or abundance of failure) (Atkinson 1964).

VII. Self-evaluation and self-grading are different. ‘Self-evaluation’ does not mean that the students determine the grades for their assignments and courses instead of the teacher. Here, self-evaluation refers to the understanding and application of explicit criteria to one’s own work and behavior for the purpose of judging if one has met specified goals (Andrade 2006).

VIII. If the assessment is not married to curriculum and learning models, it’s just another assignment. That is, if the data gleaned from the assessment isn’t used immediately to substantively revise planned instruction, it’s at best practice, and at worst, extra work for the teacher and student. If assessment, curriculum, and learning models don’t ‘talk’ to one another, there is slack in the chain.

IX. As with rigor, ‘high’ is a relative term. High expectations–if personalized and attainable–can promote persistence in students (Brophy 2004). Overly simple assessments to boost ‘confidence’ are temporary. The psychology of assessment is as critical as the pedagogy and content implications.


X. Designing assessment that has diverse measures of success that ‘speak’ to the student is critical to meaningful assessment. Students are often motivated to avoid failure rather than achieve success (Atkinson 1964).

XI. In a perfect world, we’d ask not “How you do on the test,” but “How’d the test do on you?” That is, we’d ask how accurately the test illuminated exactly what we do and don’t understand rather than smile or frown at our ‘performance.’ Put another way, it can be argued that an equally important function of an assessment is to identify what a student does understand. If it doesn’t, the test failed, not the student.

XII. The classroom isn’t ‘the real world.’ It’s easy to say invoke ‘the real world’ when discussing grading and assessments (e.g., “If a law school student doesn’t study for the Bar and fail, they don’t get to become lawyers. The same applied to you in this classroom, as I am preparing you for the real world.”) Children (in part) practicing to become adults is different than the high-stakes game of actually being an adult. The classroom should be a place where students come to understand the ‘real world’ without feeling its sting.

When students fail at school, the lesson they learn may not be what we hope.

XIII. Most teachers worth their salt can already guess the range of student performance they can expect before they even give the assessment. Therefore, it makes sense to design curriculum and instruction to adjust to student performance on-the-fly without Herculean effort by the teacher. If you don’t have a plan for the assessment data before you give the assessment, you’re already behind.

XIV. Every assessment is flawed. (Nothing is perfect.) That means that the more frequent, student-centered, and ‘non-threatening’ the assessment is (here are some examples of non-threatening assessments) the better. It’s tempting to overvalue each assessment as some kind of measuring stick of human potential. At best, it’s an imperfect snapshot–and that’s okay. We just need to make sure teachers and students and parents are all aware and respond to results accordingly.

XV. As a teacher, it’s tempting to take assessment results personal; it’s not. The less personal you take the assessment, the more analytical you’ll allow yourself to be.

XVI. Confirmation bias within assessment is easy to fall for–looking for data to support what you already suspect. Force yourself to see it the other way. Consider what the data says about what you’re teaching and how students are learning rather than looking too broadly (e.g., saying ‘they’ are ‘doing well’) or looking for data to support ideas you already have.

XVII. Assessment doesn’t have to mean ‘test.’ All student work has a world of ‘data’ to offer. How much you gain depends on what you’re looking for. (Admittedly, this truth isn’t really inconvenient at all.)

XVIII. Technology can help make data collection simpler and more effective but that’s not automatically true. In fact, if not used properly, technology can even make things worse by providing too much data about the wrong things (making it almost unusable to teachers).

The Inconvenient Truth About Assessment

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