Innovation…First steps

learning from experts

Paul Johnson, G4 teacher at our school, is modeling being an innovator during his class Genius Day. He wanted to learn how to make tortillas better. So he invited the experts in – a parent from a different class and her daughter – to teach him the secret to making better tortillas. While he did that, his students enthusiastically continued their own projects.

“The first step in teaching students to innovate is making sure that educators have opportunities to be innovators themselves.” -Suzie Boss, Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World

George Couros, in his book The Innovator’s Mindset, defines innovation as “a way of thinking that creates something new and better.”

Don Wettrick, in his book, Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level has created an Innovation Class in his school and he did it by being an innovator himself. He insists that his students each have a mentor to help guide them through their projects. Learning from experts outside of the classroom is a key to success.

As teachers we need to facilitate the connections between students and experts – those who share the same passions.

How might we burst the bubble and create collaborative learning opportunities between students and experts?


wood cutting

movie makingpaper folding

I intend to…because…

As teachers we hear questions like this all day long…

“Can I work on writing?”

“Can I read a book?”

“Can I sketch in my art journal?”

“Can I use markers?”

“Can I go to the library?”

“Can I go get a set of headphones?”

We, the teachers, are constantly evaluating and making decisions for the students. We are doing all of the work and answering the questions with only part of the information. What if, instead, we taught our students to use,  “I intend to…because…”

What difference would it make? Keep reading. It is powerful.

“I intend to work on writing because I am almost finished my book and I really want to get it done to show my mom. I’ve been telling her about it every day.”

“I intend to read a book because I am really nervous about the swimming competition after school today and reading will calm me down.”

“I intend to sketch in my art journal because I want to practice drawing a mouth before I draw the mouth on my portrait. Every time I draw mouths I don’t like them. I need to figure out how to draw them.”

“I intend to use markers because the colours will stand out. The light in space is so bright, I think markers will  be better than pastels for this picture.”

“I intend to go to the library to get the next book in the series because the librarian told me it just arrived and I am so excited! I’ve been waiting a month for it!”

“I intend to get a set of headphones to listen to this video and I don’t want to disturb anyone else. Jack told me that this video had a lot of information about Kepler 186f, and I really want to know more about why it might be habitable.”


“I intend to…because…” is so powerful for many reasons. Here are a few:

  • The students are pro-active and take ownership of their learning, totally engaged
  • The students, not the teacher, think through and assess the reasons why they are choosing to do something
  • The teacher learns a lot about each student as they give their reasons for choosing a learning intention, their reasons are a segue into what they are thinking about and what is important to them
  • The students develop skills of self-management, critical thinking, evaluation, informed choices, and speaking with confidence

I intend to...

 “I intend to…” does not give a free ticket to do whatever.  For example, here is a possible scenario:

student: “I intend to play this Maths game because it is fun and I like it.”

teacher: “Tell me about what you are learning in the game.”

student: “I have to answer multiplication questions.”

teacher: “Is this a skill that you need to work on some more?”

student:”No, I know all the multiplication facts to 100 already! The game is easy! I always win!”

teacher: “So tell me about what you are learning in the game.”

student: “Hmm. I think I would learn more in the game about division. I still need practice with that.”

teacher: “Okay.”

If you, the teacher, are not convinced with the intention, probe (and guide) some more…

“Tell me more about the learning you will be doing.”

“Tell me about your plans to be safe.”

“Tell me about your plans to finish the assignment by tomorrow.”

“Tell me about your plans to…”

“Did you know that you could find out more about X by asking/by reading/by looking at Y?”

Asking the students to state their intentions sends the powerful message that we assume they are capable to make learning decisions. (see previous related post here)

We can teach our students to take control, contribute their full intellectual capacity and become healthy and happy leaders.

What do you intend to do?

(This post was inspired by David Marquet in his book Turn the Ship Around!)

(All examples of ‘intentions’ above were taken from the students in my Grade 4 class.)


What if…?

“Can we do more research and work on our boards now?” asks any student in the class at 8:01 each morning. The enthusiasm to jump into their independent learning projects is unmistakeable.

The central idea of our new unit is:

Life on Earth is dependent on how the Solar System works.


Step One: Immersion…We assume…

We decided to begin the unit with an immersion. Immerse the students with information about the Solar System so they could quickly reach a point of being able to ask relevant questions. Instead of the teachers leading the immersion, we wanted the students to lead it. Thanks to Ewan McIntosh for the inspiration.

We started with a 4 minute Brainpop movie about the Solar System and then we told the students: 

  1. We assume you know a lot already about the Solar System.
  2. We assume you can learn quickly.
  3. We assume you can share your knowledge. 
  4. Choose a planet/sun/moon to research and share your knowledge on a board (called the ‘Project Nest’).


The teacher-led introduction took less than 10 minutes. The students were pumped! We acknowledged their ability to be self-motivated, interested and independent learners and they took up the challenge.

We guided their research by supplying books, pre-viewed videos and Internet sites (the teachers created folders full of appropriate resources on the class laptops).

The Project Nests (class pin boards and white boards) started filling up quickly, knowledge and questions were being passed around from group to group. The class begin a true ‘nest’ of shared learning.

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Step Two: What If…? Provocations

Our plan was to introduce some provocations as the unit progressed. We planned to ask some “What if…?” questions. The students preempted us and inherently started asking these questions to each other. We should have known!


“What if the sun exploded?”

“What if there was water on Mars?”

“What if didn’t have a moon?”

“What if we could walk on Saturn?”

“What if our day was 243 Earth days long, like it is on Venus?”

They had begun their own significant inquiries. The student experts (those that researched particular aspects of the Solar System) supply the facts and drive the discussions forward. Concepts and misconceptions are being challenged. Informed questions are being asked. The students are collaborating and connecting with each other to extend their learning.

My job? Listen to the discussions, ask different provocative questions, and point students in the direction of resources that will help answer their questions. 

“…inquiry is a collaborative process of connecting to and reaching beyond current understanding to explore tensions significant to learners.” – Kathy Short, in Taking the PYP Forward

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Agile Learning

I just finished a fabulous PYP Coordinators’ workshop at the IB Asia-Pacific Annual Conference in Singapore. As usual, one of the great bonuses of taking a course like is meeting interesting and incredible educators from around the world and sharing their favourite resources. I was inspired by a workshop colleague’s blog entry entitled Who Owns Your Classroom? This is my response…

This year I have worked hard at creating an agile learning environment where the students come, ready to take on the responsibility of learning. They own their learning therefore they own their learning space (classroom).

Not only do the students choose where they will sit throughout the day but they also choose how to rearrange the furniture for each learning engagement. So, after the instructions are given, I always end with:

“Think about what space you will need and where you will work. Move the tables and chairs to create the best learning space for yourselves. Also, decide if you want to work alone or with someone – who might you work and learn best with for this activity?”

The challenges have been:

1. Getting kids out of the habit of always returning to the same spot to work (“Hey! You’re in my spot!” was heard a lot at the beginning of the year. I never hear that anymore. Success!)

2. Getting kids to think about the space they might need and to move furniture around (“What?! We can move the furniture? Really? How many times a day? Really?”). I would sometimes find the students squishing themselves between and into tables that had previously been pushed together. The thought of moving the tables hadn’t occurred to them!

3. Choosing effective learning partners. Everyone caught on to this idea quite quickly. It was easy! They all regularly choose someone with whom they will learn except for one set of three boys. They know they usually don’t get a lot accomplished when sitting together but they are not courageous enough to chose other classmates to work with (essentially, they have to not choose each other, and that is hard). They really need me, each time, to say, “I know you are great friends and will have fun together but are you sure you are each other’s best choice for deep thinking right now?” That’s all it takes, they switch places. (We have had private talks together about this, so my input is just the trigger, or the excuse, to make different choices). There are, of course, times when they do work best together (e.g. drama activities, writing a combined comic strip).

The rewards have been:

1. The students are becoming agile learners – taking responsibility for their own learning, making decisions and creating their own space, and making decisions about collaborative learning.

2. The students ‘hack’ the classroom – this an agile learning space which needs to be created  for each unique learning engagement (even I don’t have a desk – my space is as agile as their space is).

3. There seems to be so many possibilities in the room now. Sometimes we move all the tables to the edges and we have a whole room for drama or dancing or building! Often colleagues walk in and say, “There is so much space in here! How did you do it?”

Display Boards →Agile Project Boards
In the past I found that the only person who looked at and admired the beautiful display boards that I put up was me! This year I have changed the pin boards from ‘display boards’ to ‘project boards’ (or ‘project nests’) where the students hang their work in progress. It may not be pretty, it may not be finished, but it visual evidence of the students’ thinking. This work can be looked at by others, questioned and given feedback on. It becomes a place to store, share, learn from and ruminate. Another agile learning space.

artworkmoving around the roomdrama

art on carpet

Less Teacher Talk, More Class Discussion

 Do you ever feel like whacking yourself on the side of the head and saying, “Why didn’t I think of this before?”

Reading Aloud

While sitting on a chair reading aloud to the class one day with all the students traditionally huddled on the floor at my feet I noticed something. All the interesting  exchanges were happening between a student and me, the teacher. It was like a game of ping pong and I was always hitting the ball.

Teacher-student-teacher-student-teacher-student-teacher, etc.

I was having a great book discussion! But what were most of the students doing when they weren’t talking to me? They were picking at their shoes, trying to get a friend’s attention, staring blankly ahead. No engagement. They were waiting patiently for us to finish our conversation.

More than just Reading Aloud

From that day on we decided to sit in a circle when I read aloud. Reactions to the story, comments, questions, and discussions are now directed at each other not at me. Of course, I can’t help but jump in occasionally when I feel like I can’t resist!

Now our ‘ping-pong exchange’ sounds more like this:


What have I noticed?

  • students are expected to listen to and respond to each other, and they do
  • students answer each other’s questions, disagree with each other, build upon each other’s predictions
  • students work cooperatively to construct meaning from the story
  • students govern themselves, reminding each other to be respectful
  • students feel like they have an equitable learning community where the voices of the students and  teachers are equal
  • students take ownership and drive the discussions, allowing them to practice critical and creative thinking skills.

Very much like a Socratic Circle.

More Than Just Reading Aloud

Cultures of Thinking

Teaching is an impossible job. You will fail.

– Dylan Wiliam

Last weekend we were fortunate to attend a conference that our school hosted. The keynote speakers were Dylan Wiliam, Ron Ritchhart and Judy Willis. Dylan put everyone’s inner fears to rest when he declared that teaching was an impossible job. Have you ever felt that you have failed as a teacher?  Well, you have. And you are not alone. It is impossible to meet everyone’s needs all of the time. Sometimes we may even meet no one’s needs!

However, if we keep learning, trying and growing as teachers, we are doing the best anyone can do. Through our reading, our discussions and our professional development we are creating cultures of thinking amongst ourselves.

The moment a teacher stops seeking a better way, stops listening, stops learning, and starts to blame her students for not understanding, she should quit. 

Ron Ritchhart gave us a tool to use to assess our classrooms – do we have a classroom that promotes a culture of thinking? Are we creating a climate where are students feel comfortable to fail, yet to keep on learning?

Ask a colleague to come in to your classroom one day and observe your students using the following list, The 8 Cultural Forces that Define our Classrooms:

The 8 Cultural Forces in our Classrooms

Students model the language and the culture of thinking of the teacher. Ask your colleague to listen into the discussions the students are having with each other.

  • Are the students using respectful language;
  • are they listening and responding to what the other person said;
  • do they give each other time to formulate thoughtful responses;
  • do they feel comfortable asking  questions;
  • are they engaged with the task;
  • do they rearrange the furniture or create an environment that would best suit that particular learning task;
  • do they add to and use their environment to display and develop their thinking and learning?

Not every lesson we teach will be awe inspiring. Yet, it is easy to assess a classroom’s culture of thinking and learning by looking around the room, listening to and watching the students interact. They are mirroring you.

What is the culture in your classroom?

Cultures of Thinking