Posts for January 2012

Thoughtful Learning Blog

The Thoughtful Learning blog features articles about English language arts, 21st century skills, and social-emotional learning. Insights come from the teachers, writers, and developers at Thoughtful Learning, who have been creating top-notch instructional materials for more than 40 years.

Serious Fun in the Classroom

Zurijeta /

Some very clever people are using fun to solve social problems. The approach is called “Fun Theory,” and it’s tackling all kinds of social ills.

For example, Kevin Richardson suggests creating a “speeding lottery.” Cameras that catch speeders can also recognize those who obey the speed limit. Speeders pay fines into a pot, and those who obey are entered into a lottery to win the pot. Check out the speeding lottery video. Fun!

The mayor of Bogota, Columbia, has his own approach to speeding. Anatas Mockus hired over 400 mimes to stand on street corners, making fun of bad drivers. His reasoning is that it is more of a deterrent to humiliate bad drivers than to fine them. His idea has worked, dropping traffic fatalities by more than half. Fun!

And recently, two 17-year-old Canadians named Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad used fun theory to capture international attention for their backyard experiment. They sent a helium balloon nearly into space, including a Lego astronaut, which they filmed in flight. Fun!

What can fun theory do in my classroom?

Fun theory is limited only by imagination—yours and your students’. First, use fun theory on a source of annoyance. What is your biggest pet peeve? What are you constantly reminding your students about? Here’s a beginning list:

Conceptual blending is a strategy that businesses use to inspire creative thinking, but it can also help your students think about and engage any topic.

What is conceptual blending?

Conceptual blending is combining two dissimilar concepts and using creative thinking to work out the dissonances. Here’s an example:

“How can we make our workplace more like a playground?”

Workplace like a playground

At first, you might ask—why would anyone want the workplace to be more like a playground? Work is work. Play is play. The two concepts don’t blend. But let’s think about what playgrounds do well:

  • bring people together
  • get them to collaborate
  • offer equipment that inspires creativity
  • encourage users to return repeatedly
  • create multisensory engagement
  • make people happy and healthy

Aren’t these desirable attributes for a workplace?

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Though you may be unfamiliar with the inquiry process, you use it every day. For example, imagine that you need to go grocery shopping:

You start with questions: “What do we need? What do we want for dinner this week? What could I fix quickly when I get back?”

Step 1
You open cabinets, check pantries, grill family members. You make a list, clip coupons, consider specials, decide how much money you can spend. Step 2
You go to the grocery store and cruise aisle to aisle. You consider prices, ounces, brand names, varieties. Items get scratched off the list. Step 3
It’s time to buy the stuff. You provide coupons, pay your money, lug the stuff home, and put it away. Step 4
That’s when you realize that you got fat-free butter (fat free butter?!) and your kids tell you they don’t like diet root beer. Step 5
You tell them that they can do the grocery shopping next time. Then you start to make dinner—and launch into the inquiry process once again. Step 6

The inquiry process should be familiar because it’s the way we move from where we are to where we want to be.

So you’ve heard of the 4 C’s—critical thinking, creative thinking, communicating, and collaborating—but how are you supposed to teach your own subject and the 4 C’s?

The good news is that the 4 C’s help you teach your subject. They aren’t content. They’re skills for gaining content. Here are 3 simple steps that use the 4 C’s to help students learn your subject:

Step 1: Prompt Critical and Creative Thinking

After introducing and modeling a new concept, prompt students to think critically and creatively about it. Assign a 5-minute activity that students complete individually. Here are some examples:

  • Sentence completion: Ask students to complete a sentence in as many ways as possible.

    Complete the following sentence in as many ways as you can: “The cell membrane helps the cell by . . .”

  • Definitions: Ask students to define a key term, providing its denotation, along with examples, synonyms, and antonyms.

    Define the term “executive branch,” giving examples, synonyms, and antonyms.

  • Problem solving: Ask students to list ways that a problem could be solved.

    List as many ways as you can think of that global economic inequality could be reduced.

  • Clustering: Ask students to write an important concept in the center of a piece of paper and to create as many personal connections as they can to it.

    Write “Supply and Demand” in the middle of a piece of paper and circle it. Around it, write ways supply and demand affect your life.

  • Modeling: Ask students to represent a concept visually, whether in a sketch, a diagram, a symbol, or some other form.

    Create a visual representation of entropy—a drawing, diagram, graph, or other visual.

  • Questioning: Ask students to write five questions about the current topic and to pick the most interesting one.

    Write down five questions you have about logarithms and pick the most interesting one.