Monthly Archives: November 2016

“Just” Playing?


“They’re
just playing,” is a sentence I hear again and again.  I’ve uttered it myself, despite my own beliefs in its importance.

MindShift’s The Power of Play in Learning,  an article where everything is quotable and tweetable, describes play this way:

“Play is about exploring the possible. In times of rapid change, exploring the possible becomes an essential skill…To be comfortable with uncertainty, one must remain fluid, receptive and creative — in a word: playful.”

Aran Levasseur

Play and games help us prepare for the unexpected. Photo: Pixabay, no attribution required.

I have written much about my school’s approach and philosophy with regards to how young children best learn: through play.

Children in Early Years (3 years old) through Kindergarten (5 years old) and even into first grade are provided with ample opportunity for free play, both inside and outside in well thought out, rich and inviting environments.  (The following images were taken from the EY rooms in my school.  All credits, Holly Fraser)

Materials are selected based not only on their aesthetic appeal, but also their flexibility or open-endedness.  What possibilities do they present?  Teachers refrain from direct instruction/direction as much as possible and instead present “learning proposals,” or open invitations to investigate, explore, and play.

Levasseur says in his article,

One doesn’t read “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” to develop strategy before playing the game. One starts by playing. This is true for all video games. You start by exploring the world with curiosity and begin to develop a hypothesis of what you’re supposed to do. Through trial, error, pattern recognition, logic and chance you continually reformulate your trajectory.

Just like this view of learning to play video games, children at my school and in my class are encouraged to construct their own meaning, in groups or individually, and their working theories are honoured, questioned and documented.

Levasseur continues:

“This model of learning is not only effective for video games but for all digital tools, and I would argue that play — especially in the digital sense — is emerging as a pedagogical keystone for education in the 21st century.”

Students need ample time to play with new technology.  Photo credit: Holly Fraser

I know myself, with any new tool, app, robot, device, etc.that I’m shown/hear about I immediately want/need to go and play with it.  Just like the young children we work with, we need ample time and freedom to explore and play around with a new ‘material’ before we are expected to produce “results” or come to any new conclusions.  

We also need to ensure our students feel welcome and comfortable in their play environment in order to learn optimally. In Play is Hard Work, by Bud Hunt, play is described as finding freedom in the face of constraint.” Students don’t tend to learn in any environment where they feel uncomfortable, unsafe or or unwelcome.  I’ve had similar thoughts myself as a Specialist teacher going into classrooms–some where I am expected and welcome, others were I feel like an afterthought, ignored or met with resistance.  In which rooms do I feel free to try new things, be creative and take risks?  (All necessary for learning.)

Hunt cautions that play isn’t always “fun,” however…. “I think you can play with really serious ideas and concepts.”


I’ve often divided the kinds of play I see in my own classroom from previous years into several categories:  

“Flitting butterfly” playing: aimless, jumping from thing to thing, not settling or focusing on anything, moving on once something is deemed too challenging…(although this “flitting” about is often required before finding something to settle on.)

“Role play/Imaginative” play: (relationship building, problem solving, story telling, negotiating)

Role Play/Small World Imaginative Play. Photo Credit: Holly Fraser

“Object” play (manipulating, creating, building, trouble shooting)

Object Play: Blocks. Photo credit: Holly Fraser

“Physical” play  (gross motor skills; risk taking; balance; endurance)  

Physical Play: Boy enjoying nature. Photo credit: Pixabay, no attribution required

All but the first kind of play (which some kids can unfortunately get stuck on) can and should eventually lead to a deep play, a higher quality of play where they enter into the “zone” or “flow.” This kind of play really does become serious and absorbing-and challenging –but not too challenging–and where real learning takes place.

Getting into the zen like zone of deep learning. Photo, Pixabay, no attribution required.

Nathan Maton’s article,  How Games can Influence Learning describes how “the best games challenge the player at exactly the right level and in the right way to keep the player playing….A well-designed game offers an intricate balance of challenges and rewards that continually pushes players to, and then beyond, the limits of their knowledge and skill.”

New York Times Magazine: Taking Play Seriously looks at play from a scientific point of view, from its evolutionary roots and to the discovery of its role in brain growth and development.

It was fascinating looking at how most mammals engage in play–despite risks (animals–and people– risk injury and even death, the need for play is so strong.)

Research shows play is essential for brain development and growth. Photo Credit: Pixabay, no attribution required

The very extensive research suggests that, “that play contributes to the growth of more supple, more flexible brains.”

‘‘I think of play as training for the unexpected…Behavioural flexibility and variability is adaptive… it’s really important to be able to change your behaviour in a changing environment.’’

-Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado

This constant reiteration of play as training our brains to prepare for the unexpected in an ever changing world makes we wonder why it isn’t given more value, more time, more importance in school and at home–in all our lives.  The time to do so is now.

PBL and how things have(n’t) changed

“The first thing you have to do is to give up the idea of curriculum.”  Dr. Seymour Papert

My heart did a little flip when I read this statement in Seymor Papert’s Project Based Learning, an article 15 years old and yet many of the ideas are still so true and relevant, and sadly have largely yet to come to fruition.

Papert clarifies the above statement by wanting to do away with students learning a particular thing on a particular date, often for no particular reason.  Instead he insists learning should happen in context, with real problems and with immediate application.

Over the years my students of all ages have always done some sort of environmental unit or focus on a problem: litter; energy consumption; e-waste. These “problem topics” naturally lead to students wanting to find a solution, or to find out more about the problem.

Last year my Early Years students (4 & 5 year olds)  looked closely at how our devices and electrical items are built by taking them apart. They noticed all the waste and electrical pieces that came with a broken item.  

Now these children couldn’t solve this problem–but we upcycled by making all sorts of structures and robots out of the pieces and later visited a local recycling centre.  We learned more about what materials can be recycled, and we were happy to note batteries could be recycled.

We also learned more about the metals and minerals in our cell phones with the help of our 5th grade buddies who were studying similar problems for their Exhibition Project.  We worked together as a class learning about these problems, articulating them in different ways and documenting our learning together with the App, Adobe Spark.  

PBL in Early Years: Look Closer… at our Devices

I think about how our cross grade learning supports Paperts bold suggestion of doing away with grade/age segregation altogether:

“We’ve given up the age segregation which is just as, I think, wrong and harmful as any other kind of segregation….Kids working in communities of common interest on rich projects that will connect with powerful ideas.

Great minds working together.

Great minds of all ages working together. Photo courtesy of UnSplash.  No Attribution needed. 

The Buck Institute for Education (BIE) Introduction to PBL “defines standards-focused PBL as a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks… students are pulled through the curriculum by a Driving Question or authentic problem that creates a need to know the material. “

My school’s PYP curriculum with its Central Ideas and Lines of Inquiry can potentially complement this definition, but at times I have struggled with feeling like I have successfully implemented PBL in my classroom.  It’s the assessment piece and still having to report on a set of Learner Outcomes that I feel can hinder teachers from feeling free (enough) to explore PBL. Papert goes on to discuss portfolios as an improved form of assessment:

“ So, as I see it, the trend towards portfolio-based, so-called authentic assessment is very good, but it’s very limited unless it goes with throwing out the content of what we’re testing.”

My school’s portfolios are a move in the right direction.  First of all, we have portfolios as a form of assessment (in addition to traditional report cards, and formal and standardised tests, etc.) with basic agreements about what goes in them to maintain some consistency.  We are currently in the process of moving away from paper based portfolios to digital portfolios.  Teachers are spread out on the continuum of acceptance & readiness, oddly enough, it is our Early Childhood Educators leading the way.  

On the path to success.  Photo courtesy of Picography, by Dave Meier. http://picography.co/

On the path to success. Photo courtesy of Picography, by Dave Meier. http://picography.co/

This is perhaps not so odd, when one considers we had been looking for a platform that would support our focus on Documentation of Learning that was individualised, & often child directed, and with a focus on concepts and skills over specific “Learner Outcomes.” The assessments are on-going, formative and include elements of a project based or problem solving approach. Early Years teachers quickly embraced the platform Seesaw, which allowed them to document all of the above.

Many teachers in the primary school, whose teaching may be described as more traditional (all students working on same task) are working out how to best use the platform.  Many are taking photographs of pencil and paper assessments and uploading them to our digital portfolio system where there are right/wrong answers.  Some are beginning to show pictures of kids actually doing, solving, creating, inventing, making meaning, etc. But many are reluctant to get too creative with posts as they want to know the portfolio system inside and out before introducing elements to the the kids.  They are not (yet) open to the idea that they could be learning right alongside the kids and figuring it out as they go.

Which brings me to Papert’s idea of the importance of teachers learning alongside the students:

“What we need is kinds of activity in the classroom where the teacher is learning at the same time as the kids and with the kids. Unless you do that, you’ll never get out of the bind of what the teachers can do is limited by what they were taught to do when they went to school…. We don’t allow the kids to have the experience of learning with the teacher because that’s incompatible with the concept of the curriculum where what is being taught is what’s already known.”

We must be open to new ways of teaching and learning.  Photo courtesy of Picography, by Tasja. http://picography.co/

We must be open to new ways of teaching and learning. Photo courtesy of Picography, by Tasja. http://picography.co/

How true the above statement is: How often have I avoided introducing a topic or tool to students when I wasn’t fully comfortable with it yet myself.  This is only natural, but with the pace at which things change and technology develops, this practice and mindset needs to shift.  Teachers need to be seen as co-learners and co-constructors of knowledge, not simply bearers, because we can’t possibly know it all, and the curriculum can’t possibly keep pace with today’s changing world and reflect the interests and abilities of its students.

I can only hope that 15 years from now someone will read this post, find it true and relevant, and note how much things have changed.

SAMR and Tech Integration

In my opinion, “Best practice” for Tech Integration is when it is natural and authentic, used to teach digital citizenship & literacy skills, embedded in all/many aspects of curriculum, developmentally appropriate and works to augment, modify and (ultimately) transform teaching and learning.

Does it always look this way?  Definitely not. Do I keep striving to make it this way?  Definitely yes.

Striving. Courtesy of Unsplash (no attribution needed)

I wasn’t entirely sure what my school’s belief of technology integration to be, and how closely my personal beliefs were in alignment. I asked another Ed Tech Coach at the school and we realised that we weren’t entirely clear on what our school’s philosophy statement was, or even where it might be located in our crowded Google Drive.

If I as a (new) Ed Tech coach am unclear, then there is a very good chance most other teachers (and therefore students and parents) are not, either. This is “clearly” something our Ed Tech team (along with Administration and Curriculum to aid teacher buy in) needs to revisit.

I recently I shared some of my “Tech Integration Comments” used in previous years in report writing with colleagues.  As I read through them, I  thought I had done a decent job at seamlessly embedding them into into each of our 5 curricular areas.  Mind you, our Early Years reports are already very transdisciplinary skill focussed rather than traditional subject focussed, but still, I’d managed to embed a Tech themed comment into each of the five areas: Communicator, Thinker, Self-Management, Social, Researcher.  

So when I read  Edutopia’s Technology Integration Guide Description :

“When technology integration is at its best, a child or a teacher doesn’t stop to think that he or she is using a technology tool — it is second nature. And students are often more actively engaged in projects when technology tools are a seamless part of the learning process.”

SEAMLESS. Tech integration at its best. Photo Courtesy of Unsplash. No attribution required.

And again, Kim Cofino’s post, We Are All Technology Teachers:

“I firmly believe that technology is best taught within the context of the core curriculum. The natural use of authentic technology within the classroom setting, just like the way we use paper and pencil without any second thoughts, is always what I’m striving for.

I couldn’t help but think I managed to achieve that in my classroom last year–at least some of the time 🙂  This year feels a bit different, being the Tech Coach, or the “iPad lady” or the “Seesaw Teacher” or the “IT” person.  I am noticing that tech is definitely not yet an embedded or natural practice within most of the classrooms I visit.  (Also I tend to cause mayhem and desperation when I do bring out iPads–the students often aren’t “allowed” to use them at other times.)

Kim also does a nice job likening our changed responsibilities with respect to EAL teaching –we are all EAL teachers, and expected to employ strategies and best practices used by EAL teachers….(simply giving oral explanations day in and day out isn’t enough.) She states:

“It’s the responsibility of the technology facilitator (or coordinator or integration specialist or whatever they may be called) to help their colleagues build their understanding of successful technology-rich teaching practices.”

I’ve been having some discussions with another Early Years colleague about the appropriateness of Technology integration in an early years, play based classroom.  I am constantly wrestling with the best way to do this.  I felt much freer to be spontaneous and try things and experiment when I was a classroom teacher.  Now I often have multiple discussions beforehand about a technique/provocation/app/introduction, etc. The extra discussion and reflection, however, can be beneficial.  Recently we were discussing the SAMR model in relation to best practices surrounding tech integration.  

I admitted to occasionally using an app as a simple substitution, or for consumption mainly (letter/shape recognition/addition practice games, for example).  Sometimes this is a place to start.  

Sometimes a simple Substitution (using a drawing app, like Drawing Pad rather than traditional pencils and paper) has its place and can easily become an Augmentation when used with intention. Of course, this is only one app, and like any tool–when used with intention it can be used to create something great, or, for simply playing about (always necessary when introducing an app).  It is hard, however, for young children to understand this difference, and as a teacher, to know when and how to guide/direct this intention in a play based environment.  

Arguably, there are many Augmentation features to using this particular app: Digital literacy skills are gained: learning how to locate, read and select appropriate symbols associated with different commands; deciding whether to save, share/export, or start over. With some guidance the stamp feature also becomes an Augmentation feature–children who are not yet able to accurately represent objects now can add the stamps to a background to create a much more detailed scene than they could have before. The children can quickly fill a page with rich colour to express a mood. Of course, they can do this with paper, too, but many young children give up this task before finishing as the amount of time and pressure required on their drawing utensil to achieve the same result is too much.

Pencils. An outdated technology? Photo Courtesy on Unsplash, attribution not required

pencils

Pencils. An outdated technology? Photo Courtesy on Unsplash, attribution not required

The downside when the app is viewed through the lens of simple Substitution: fine motor control relating to pencil grip and pressure on paper is lost.  I would argue a different (and equally important) set of muscles are required to draw with one finger, or to select tools, swipe, pinch, etc…which the way things are going with the ubiquity of mobile devices, these muscles will ultimately serve them more often.   

This potential loss of skill reminds me of AJ Juliani ‘s article SAMR is Missing a Level, where he describes E for elimination, located right at the top:

“What happens when technology is no longer “integrated” into what we do, but instead Eliminates what we do because of the advancement?”

He gives the example of school children no longer needing to learn the Dewey Decimal system in favour of Augmented Reality to help locate a book–or even more drastic–eliminating the need for libraries at the University level entirely–at least in the traditional sense– in favour of online journals.

The future? Photo courtesy of Unslpash, no attribution required.


I told my colleague, who was becoming more skeptical as to tech’s value in Early Years, that ultimately I was sold on tech integration when I began to see its true power in two areas–(where I saw us moving along the
SAMR continuum to modification and transformation) documenting and sharing learning in our class blog and when creating digital stories.

Passionate about Tech Integration. Photo Courtesy of Unsplash. No attribution required

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about my class’s learning journey with digital storytelling using Book Creator, ending with:

“This began our lengthy exploration into Stop Motion as a digital story telling tool and prompted the evolution of moving from ebooks to pure movie making magic.  Stay tuned for future posts regarding this process.”

I do want to describe/reflect on this a bit more…but not here, not now. I’ve got a Tech Integration Philosophy Statement to think about.