Thoughtful Learning Blog

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.

Stone Henge

Photo courtesy of rupjones from Flickr Creative Commons.

People say that Stonehenge was built to be a giant calendar that marks the winter and summer solstices. To me, that claim has always seemed a little odd. Who would spend 1,500 years building a calendar out of stone? Invent paper, people.

But let’s think of a calendar in deeper terms. A calendar doesn’t just track the days of a year. It tells which days are significant and why: Mardi Gras, Passover, Tax Day, Bastille Day, Election Day, New Years. . . . More than that—a calendar tells us what we ought to be doing on these special days. It is a meeting place where we can plan our future. In that sense, Stonehenge is very much a calendar. It wasn’t meant just to track time, but to provide a space for people to come together for meaningful activity.

Your Class Calendar as a Meeting Place

If you’re like most teachers, you’re used to thinking of your class calendar as an organizational tool that you create to guide you through presentation of the material. It’s your plan. But what if your calendar could be a meeting place? What if you invited students into the process of building the calendar—or at least part of it?

Understand that the students wouldn’t be building the class calendar on their own. They would be participating with you in building it. Here’s an example of how you could build a calendar together:

As you know, group work can give teachers headaches and students nightmares. If set up poorly, collaborative projects often result in one person doing all of the work, while others contribute minimally or actually disrupt. Arguments, inefficiency, mess, and chaos follow closely.

When set up well, though, group work taps into the power of collaboration. Here are 5 keys to setting up successful student collaborations.

Group Expectations

Bring Out the Teacher in Your Students

Photo courtesy of marinakvillatoro
from Flickr Creative Commons.

“Look, Mom! See the turtle! He is scaly!”

Spend a day with a small child, and you will hear many such observations. That’s because all of us have an innate human desire to teach. Somehow what we learn isn’t real until we share it with someone else.

“Watch what I can do! Let me show you how!”

The exclamation points are almost mandatory, because we want to teach. “Show and tell” is one of the most popular times in elementary school—the chance for students to become teachers. And much of the appeal of social media is allowing middle and high school students to share what they have discovered.

“I want to show you something. You’ll never believe this—it’s so COOL!”

Teaching—Unique to Our Species

You’ve heard the expression, “Monkey see; monkey do.” It’s quite literally true. Great apes learn by mimicking what they see, but they don’t actively teach. Why not?

Teaching as Triadic Attention

The act of teaching requires “triadic attention.” When you teach, you have to pay attention to three things—yourself, the other person, and the topic you are teaching. If you lose track of any of the three parts, the teaching moment is lost. Triadic attention is a hat trick that other species can’t maintain for long. Human beings, however, are capable of this feat even before they can speak. That’s why toddlers do so much pointing—to teach you about what they are seeing. Teaching is so central to who we are that perhaps our species should be renamed Homo pedagogues.

Belief that you can become smarter and more talented opens the doorways to success. That’s what twenty years of research has shown Carol Dweck of Stanford University. She has identified two opposing beliefs about intelligence and talent, beliefs that strongly impact our ability to learn.

Mindset Chart

Though the fixed mindset has traditionally held sway, many recent studies show that the growth mindset better represents our abilities. Our brains are much more elastic than previously thought, constantly growing new connections. IQ and talent are not fixed, but are mutable based on experience and attitude.

In her book Mindset, Dweck outlines the dramatic effect that these opposing beliefs have on learners:

Fixed Mindset Growth Mindset
Wants to prove intelligence or talent. Wants to improve intelligence or talent.
Avoids challenges for fear of failure. Engages challenges to improve.
Gives up in the face of tough obstacles. Persists in overcoming obstacles.
Avoids hard labor. Sees labor as the path to success.
Treats criticism as an attack. Treats criticism as an opportunity.
Feels threatened by others’ success. Feels inspired by others’ success.

How can you shift your classroom away from lecture and toward inquiry? You can get help from the modern phenomenon known as crowdsourcing—the practice of putting many minds to work on a single problem. Inquiry is, in effect, crowdsourcing in your classroom.

What Crowdsourcing Concepts Can Help Me?

The following four concepts from crowdsourcing can help you use more inquiry in your classroom.

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?