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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.

Mouse Potato

Photo courtesy of thepurplefreak from Flickr Creative Commons.

Do you know what a mouse potato is? It’s a person who spends too much time staring at a computer screen. Mouse potatoes are the couch potatoes of the 21st century. In fact, Merriam Webster just added the term mouse potato to its august dictionary.

Perhaps you know a few mouse potatoes. Perhaps you are one. But just learning the term mouse potato suddenly makes you think about how much time you spend in front of the computer. That’s the power of vocabulary. It enables thinking. The size of your vocabulary impacts the size of your mental world.

Vocabulary as Inquiry

All right, so you’re saying, “Here we go—vocabulary. It’s so elementary.” Yes, it is—as in the word element: the building blocks of everything. In fact, the origin of the word elementum is the first three letters of the Canaanite alphabet. When we talk about elements, we are reciting our Canaanite ABCs.

Do you see how one word—elementary—has taken us from language arts to science to social studies? Do you see how knowing that elementum is the same as ABCs influences how we think about the Periodic Table of the Elements, about elementary school, about Holmes’s constant insistence that it is “elementary, my dear Watson”?

A word doesn’t have just one meaning. It is freighted with meaning. In its prefixes, roots, and suffixes, each word stores the DNA of human experience.

Vocabulary therefore shouldn’t be rote memorization. It should be inquiry.

You may have heard colleagues talk about their PLNs—their personal learning networks—or you may have one of your own. But just what is a personal learning network, and why is it so helpful for educators?

What is a PLN?

A personal learning network consists of the people, places, and things that help you learn. By definition, every lifelong learner has a PLN, whether the person realizes it or not. Also, every person who has a PLN is a lifelong learner. Let’s imagine, for example, that you are a relatively new teacher. Your PLN might look like the following:

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.

I just read three brilliant blog posts by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, in which he identifies three parts of our human brains:

An image of the brain.

Though we like to think of the primate brain as the foremost part (after all, primate means “first”), many believe it was the last part of the brain to develop. It is also the last part to receive signals from the spinal cord. So Dr. Hanson deals with the most ancient part, the brain stem, first.

As a novelist, I love sensory details: the red scarf, the crumbling cookie, the scent of coming rain. They’re just words, but they can take us away to other places. The right sensory details allow readers to encounter the writer’s experience as if it were their own.

Using the Five Senses

The different senses are weighted individually, bearing unique effects. Understanding how a particular sense impacts the reader can help the writer create specific effects:

  • Seeing is believing: People trust what they see. That’s why eyewitnesses say, “I saw it with my own eyes!” If you want readers to believe something, show them.

    Jackson marched up the street toward Tawni’s house, the present box clutched in his fingers. Up ahead, her front porch light beamed yellow. He slowed on the sidewalk. He’d have to stand on that porch for the whole block to see, ring the bell, wait, and hope.

    A car cruised slowly past, the driver rubbernecking.

    Jackson turned away and peered at the card on top of the present. It was bent. His thumb had pressed a small crater into the drawing of mistletoe.

    He glanced one last time at the glowing porch, then turned toward the street and crossed it, jamming the card into a garbage can waiting in the gutter.

  • Did you hear that? Hearing is about understanding how a person feels or thinks. To reveal characters, have them speak. Hearing is also about speculation. You hear a footstep. You hear running water. Use sounds to create speculation about what is happening.

    Outside Tawni’s window, a garbage can rattled loudly in the street. An old man shouted a threat, and a young man echoed it. Tawni plucked out her earbuds and tiptoed to the window to peek out.

    No one was there. Rain began to patter in the lengthening shadows.

    Shivering, Tawni drew the sash closed, clicked the lock, and dragged down the fluttering shade.

    “Tawni,” came a muffled voice outside her window, “I’m getting soaked.”

    Her breath caught. “Who’s there?”


    Another voice—Daddy yelling from the basement: “Who you talking to, Tawni-Girl?”

    “Nobody, Daddy. It’s just me—singing to my MP3!”

Let’s say four friends decide to do some fall fishing. All four have varying degrees of experience and success with fishing. For this particular outing, however, one individual, Aaron, is better prepared than the others. His grandfather owns a cottage on the lake, and he has fished here far more often than his friends have. So when they get out on the water, the others will naturally ask Aaron when they have questions about depths, structures, and baits. But they will also share their own ideas about fishing in these conditions. In a setting like this, friends simply work together, and, in the process, they learn new things, experience some success (in this case, catch some fish), and have a good time.

A 21st century classroom should function pretty much like the friends in the boat do—with individuals working (and learning) together to achieve a particular goal, and you, the instructor, serving as the lead learner—the person who knows the lake best. As you learn along with your students, you also provide the necessary leadership and guidance to keep the boat afloat and moving in the right direction.

10 Tips for Being a Lead Learner

  • Marvel at and show interest in all types of ideas and events—past, present, and future.
  • Promote learning through inquiry (questioning), collaboration, testing, rethinking, and so on—an authentic process that occurs in the science lab, in the workplace,
    . . . and on the lake.