Over Design

One of the most difficult tasks for me as a teacher is planning the curriculum for a given semester. I am conflicted by the vast quantity of “things” that my students can learn from the time that they spend with me versus what is reasonable and achievable for what can actually be accomplished.

When I sat down and planned using the backwards design model developed by Roland Case and Garfield Gini-Newman, also known as Cascading Curriculum, I became so excited with the possibilities, that I quickly realized that I was trying to cover too much. The learning narrative that I was planning allowed for a good balance of skill development, as well as acquisition of key concepts. The problem, which of course I did not realize at the time of writing is that there is just too much.

Granted having more planned than what you can get through has its benefits, but also its drawbacks. I put considerable pressure on myself to teach what I plan, as opposed to using my plans as a scaffold to say “This is the basic direction that I would like to go, and there may be things that pop up during a semester that takes more or less time for the group of students that I am currently working with.” I see this especially with the cascading curriculum around the theme of narrative that I developed for the ASM2O0 – Media Art course that I have had the luxury of teaching again.

In the near future, I will be going through a review process for the cascading curriculum, and determining how to structure and format the flow of learning to create a baseline (all students NEED to learn this in order to reach the overarching learning goals for the course) as well as areas for extension (for students who are genuinely interested in adding more tools and concepts to their repertoire of skills that they want to leave the course and  with).

In order to accomplish this differentiation though I need a tool that can provide the structure for students learning at different paces. And I believe that this is where gamification can possibly come in. I will be following up on this thought in a future post.

Digital Jigsaws

I have been fascinated as of late with the power of Google Docs when implemented in an educational environment to stimulate new ways to get students thinking. A classic educational strategy has been the jigsaw, which admittedly I have not used effectively up until this point. One of my biggest sticking points with this strategy was the difficulty in getting students to genuinely share and discuss the information that they found in their content specific areas for research to bring back to a group that needs to assimilate different ideas and knowledge. Often, this ended up simply as pass the paper and mindlessly copy.

With the use of Google Docs, the facilitation and sharing of the information is much easier. Students co-construct a single document. This allows for focused conversation that can be directed with some guiding questions if students struggle to naturally investigate intersecting concepts. For example, in grade 10 visual art one of my goals for students is to understand the expressive qualities of the element of design (i.e. if you want to communicate humility, what type of line, shape / form, colour, texture, values would you use). I have organized students using a matrix such as the one below.


In this example, all students in a row are working together to understand how the elements of design communicate a particular personality trait. I create a document and duplicate by the number of groups (in this case 5). I then share the document to all members of the personality trait.

Once students have brainstormed and understood the personality trait, they are then moved to their research groups (based on the columns). Here they research a common topic to fully understand it together, and work together to make sure that they understand the nuances.

After all the research is complete, they go back to their original group (the row from the chart) and discuss and examine how the elements work to communicate the personality trait.

What I have recognized is that at this last stage, the best way for students to consolidate their learning is through a thought provoking question. When I do this lesson again, I will have students come back and respond to the following prompts:

  • Write a short paragraph describing the most common qualities that are consistent between elements of design that communicate your personality trait.
  • Summarize the most essential visual qualities of the elements that are used to communicate your personality trait in one sentence.
  • Identify three words that most clearly articulate the qualities of the elements of design in communicating the personality traits.


The Importance of Criterion Thinking

Critical thinking is one of those educational buzz words, along with inquiry based learning, problem based learning, challenge based learning, gamification, personalized learning, flipped classrooms….. Education, like anything else, is full of fads. Ideas come and ideas go. And as I write this, I am not sure whether critical thinking will be one of these fads. What I do know however, is that after exploring many of the above mentioned, one thing that they all claim to promote is improve student outcomes. What makes teaching by critical thinking different: from the outset, the primary objective is specifically intended to assist students in developing criteria based thinking.

What is Criteria Based Thinking?

In its simplest form, it is recognizing that for students to be able to make any particular judgement, the first thing that they need is criteria. Criteria, in essence forms the foundation for any reasonable and important thinking endeavour. Once students recognize that they need to have a standard by which they are able to gather and evaluated information, then they are genuinely thinking. Criteria, in essence, makes the thinking that we ask our students to do every day, more meaningful and purposeful.

The goal though of teaching critical thinking is not to provide students with the criteria, but rather with the tools for identifying and establishing criteria. This includes simple statements such as “the painting needs to be expressive”, but also more detailed descriptions of the identified criteria (e.g. to be expressive means that there is evidence of brush stroke, choice of colour, composition, etc.).

Once students know how to identify and describe success criteria, they are then better able to gather, assess and evaluate information as it pertains to the criteria that they are using as the basis of the judgement.

Why do Students Need Criteria?

It is well known that when students know the criteria in their learning, their ability to successfully demonstrate their learning increases. The research supporting this basic understanding has been around for the past few decades, and now forms the foundation of our assessment and evaluation policies in Ontario (see Growing Success, Ministry of Education, Ontario 2010).

If we transfer this basic understanding to the domain of thinking, it becomes apparent that students need criteria to think effectively and accurately. Students need criteria to be successful thinkers. Teaching students what effective criteria looks like then becomes the foundation upon which our teaching should be built. From there, students can unlock their capacity for thinking, which will improve how they learn and what they learn in every domain.


Why are we under the impression students don’t know how to think?

Another reason that we are under the impression that students don’t know how to think, is simply because they are constantly looking for the easy answer. The easy answer typically does not require the most complex thinking; it provides a superficial exploration of an idea or topic. As educators, it is essential that we recognize that the reason for poor student engagement in thinking is not the sole responsibility of the student.

How we choose (or not) to design our curriculum is an essential aspect of whether or not our students choose to engage with what they are learning. A wide range of authors, such as Marc Prensky, Sir Ken Robinson, Garfield Gini-Newman all understand that students don’t need to learn in our classrooms. They are learning all the time. Education is no longer a means to knowledge. Knowledge is readily available. Education is a means of learning how to use knowledge in creative and innovative ways.

The next time that we see students in our classes that are is engaged, consider that it is not that the student is lazy, but rather that what they are learning has little to no real application to their daily lives. No one is going to think about something that does not genuinely matter to them. Students are no exception.

Engaging students

To engage students there are a variety of strategies. I have tried several – flipped classrooms, student choice, theme based education – but the difficulty remains the same: students need to be motivated to learn or the need to know what they don’t know in order to make meaningful decisions about what they are choosing to learn. In either case, some students do not readily engage with these formats because of the maturity and experience to be engaged in these forms of learning.

Of course, even using a thinking inspired curriculum design will not have 100% buy in by students either. There is no “magic bullet” for educators, only tools that we can identify and use for different students. However, after spending the past month really pushing students with thoughtful questions, I have seen really positive results. The students are willing to engage in significant conversations, reflect more deeply and take risks because the students recognize that they don’t all ways need the “right answer”, only a “well justified” answer. Through open ended questioning, students find that their thinking is valued. When they are feel valued they are also engaged.

Why are we under the impression that students don’t know how to think?

Students are thoughtful and critical by nature. As teachers though, I often hear the lament “Why don’t they think?” Teachers will often base this statement on written assessments, when we ask students to explain, reflect, summarize or justify their thinking. Secondly, the first reason simply could be that they are not interested in what you are asking them to think about. Thirdly, they may not know how to genuinely organize their thinking.

Thinking Through Writing

Not every student is effective in communicating through writing. Many students have barriers in place that prohibit deeper thinking through writing. This could be for a variety of different reasons, such as communication learning disabilities, students with fine motor control (e.g. struggles to form letters, thus slowing down the transfer of thinking to paper), but also a simple lack in understanding what they are being asked to do in their thinking.

Students are routinely asked to complete various thinking tasks such as reflecting, explaining, summarizing, or justifying. But from my experience with the students that I teach, they rarely fully understand what these terms actually mean and therefore cannot effectively develop an appropriate response. As a result, in grade 9 and 10 especially, I have found myself asking questions using these words explicitly and taking the time to consistently remind students how to think through these thinking prompts. As a result, students are beginning to document their thinking more thoroughly when they are writing.

Writing however, is still a problem for some students, and is a limited way of accessing a student’s ability to think. I have increased the amount of conferencing that I do with students as well. Yes, it can be incredibly time consuming, however, the richness of dialogue and seeing students make the connections that deepen their thinking is incredible. As students begin to talk through their thinking, responding to prompts, and seeing that they can be insightful, I have found that this then transfers to them thinking more deeply and critically on their own. With this confidence, they then begin to write more.

Gamification & Learning

The process of gamification in an instructional context is complex. After reading the literature, gamifying learning is more than just simply adding reward structures (e.g. points, badges, etc.) to the learning process. It is about creating a narrative that suspends the player / learner’s disbelief in terms of what and when they are learning. The story provides the context for the material to be learned, and ideally, this story should connect with the reality of the discipline to be learned as well as the broader sociocultural context in which the acquired knowledge and skills are realistically applied.

I have spent the last week reading Karl Kapp’s book The Gamification of Learning & Instruction, and must say that this is one of the few professional learning books in which I am delving back and re-reading and developing thorough connections between what I am doing in my classroom, what the literature supports, and trying to find ways of modifying and adapting my program for a new learning platform – that of the game! I am eagerly awaiting his companion book The Gamification of Learning & Instruction: Fieldbook.

The book itself is highly organized into discrete chapters carefully scaffolding and unpacking a detailed understanding of the connection between games and learning using extensive research from both education and the world of business. What is striking about this book is that it is entirely founded on behavioural psychology, motivation theory, and sound educational principles.

Early in the book, Kapp explains how to tap into our biological drives for what we do, through the application of various reward structures. He clearly explains strategies for developing and thinking about how and when to reward various behaviours within a gave environment.

He also thoroughly discusses motivation. This is an extremely important concept in the face of 21st century teaching and learning, and connects well with the work of Dan Pink. Gamers can be highly motivated when engaged in a game. As educators, enhancing the connection students have with the curriculum, motivating them to explore and learn is essential. Students need to cultivate their ability to direct their own learning. Granted, this is a learned skill and it takes time to mature, but it is still absolutely necessary to scaffold motivational components so that the reason students engage in their learning is because they want to learn.

Kapp also provides a detailed account of how to structure and organize the game and the gaming components around a central theme. As a practitioner of theme based arts education for the past 10 years, I have a strong affinity for this type of instruction. However, being able to sustain the theme or narrative throughout a course is very difficult without a means of tying everything together. Using gamification, the organization of the learning becomes the touchstone for each of the lessons and concepts being explored.

At this point, I have started the process of gamifying my grade 9 curriculum using the organizational structures identified and explained by Kapp in his book. The hard part was simply trying to identify the story that I was wanting to base the game around. Once I had the story articulated and loosely planned, the planning process became much more fluid. However, what I am quickly realizing is that for this to really take off, I am in need of a programmer who is able to assist in creating the interface for how students interact with the game components. This will come, but for now, getting the basic structures in place will keep me busy enough!


Data Wise – An Approach for Improving Instructional Practice & Student Learning

I am constantly looking for ways to improve my instructional practice. And truth be told, it has always been somewhat piece meal – done based hunches, educated guesses, advice from colleagues. I have never really had a tool to use to assess the work that I have been doing in the classroom, using the data driven by my pedagogical choices of instruction and assessment, in order to make substantive and truly justified change to my teaching practice.

Part of this however is a result of the climate in which I have been working. This is not an attempt to down play the work of my colleagues, but a statement of fact that we are a busy group of educators, all with different goals for our students and priorities for how our time outside of the classroom is spent. We can be involved with students in clubs, councils and athletics; we can join committees for the school, board or ministry; we can go home to our families and carve out times during obscure hours of the day to finish the work we do not get finished during our time within the school building walls.

I found Data Wise by chance on the EdX website (a platform that offers a variety of paid and free courses), and have just completed this introductory course to this process of looking at instruction, assessment and student learning. I need to emphasize that this is not a make work project for teachers (some would say that there are enough of these around as it is), but rather a highly structured framework which allows for deliberate investigation, reflection and improvement on the teaching and learning cycle. It is a way of doing, rather than a thing to do.

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The illustration that is posted here demonstrates my observations of how my department would stack up when it comes to their use of the strategies introduced in this online course. Granted, we have never worked with this tool before, so it is expected not to indicate that work needs to be done. However, while I was completing the survey questions that this graphic is based off of, I was primarily thinking about our behaviours as educators and how we go about the decision making process.

In one of the discussion forums, I noted that I work in an Arts Department – that means dance, drama, media art, music and visual art. There are 6 staff members for the department. We offer nearly 30 different courses from grades 9 to 12. That means, on average, each staff member needs to be familiar, proficient in at least 5 different curriculums. That is a tremendous amount to ask, especially when teachers in other departments may be double or triple in staff and have half the number of courses on the docket. The sheer volume of curriculum that we are responsible for knowing, planning, delivering, revising, improving, assessing, is substantial, (and also very important for the development of a well balanced education).

Up until this year, there was a general sense that the work that we did was entirely different from each other, with only minor areas of overlap. I do not think that this is the case. I think there are now incredible areas of overlap that we need to focus on in order to bring cohesion to our department, while at the same time recognizing the uniqueness of each of the discrete artistic disciplines.

Using the Data Wise model can help us really hone in on big enduring understandings (e.g. perseverance through creative adversity), as well as some of the more tangible, building block elements of our teaching practice (e.g. kids need to have a better grasp of vocabulary and terminology associated with the discipline they are studying. I would like to see us begin using this tool more broadly in our day to day decision making process.

Gamification & Assessment Pedagogy

The adage “go slow to go fast” could never be more true than when it comes to learning. One of the most important skills that students need to learn is self-assessment. They need to be able to determine the quality of their work and their thinking using established criteria. In order for students to learning effectively, we need to slow them down, teach them how to assess, so that they can then move forward in their learning more quickly and efficiently.

In education, we have a variety of different forms of assessment:

  • diagnostic, formative, summative – all of which are time based assessments (e.g. when the assessment happens in the learning cycle – beginning, middle, end)
  • assessment for, as and of learning – all of which are based on the type of assessment (e.g. to move students forward, to teach students how to assess, and assessments that are evaluative in nature)

Assessments vary depending on what is being learned and how students are demonstrating their knowledge, but one of the most fundamental skills that any student needs to exit a course with is that they have a better understanding of how to assess their own work and the work of others.

Often, educators are so worried with covering the curriculum that the necessity for teaching this fundamental skill can be overlooked. And as a result, the teacher does the majority of assessing. The teacher must be enabling students to make the critical leap to analysis, evaluation and synthesis of their own work.

Karl Kapp, author of The Gamification of Learning & Instruction, identifies feedback as one of the most essential components of creating games (for both entertainment and education). A colleague of mine, Ellen Bigelow has been leading what I can only refer to as a Assessment and Evalaution renewal at my school this year, and from her comments I am making a connection between the importance of feedback in games and feedback in the classroom. Her passion for assessment has rekindled my own interest in this aspect of my pedagogy. What really strikes me about her pedagogy is her continual culture building of the importance for feedback. She has stated that at first, students are not to sure about the idea of feedback over marks (which I have realized myself earlier in my career), but as students see the importance of timely feedback, they seek it out because they know that the feedback is going to improve the overall quality of their work. She now relates stories of students clamouring over each other for her to fill out the feedback portions of her evaluations; they don’t care nearly as much for the levels but the comments that she provides. This simple little nugget of information will often get forgotten over time as the demands of the profession overwhelm the necessity for formalizing the feedback that students need! The connection that I see between good pedagogical feedback and gamification is that it is the feedback that brings the learner / player back. Without positive reinforcement, and the sense that there is a way to do better, or that progress is being made, learning and engagement stagnates.

With that said, Karl Kapp identifies 8 elements of  feedback that are essential for game development. I see many of these as essential for the development of good assessment pedagogy. Below, the bulleted points are from Kapps book The Gamification of Learning & Instruction pp. 36-37, and the italicized text are my connections to the classroom.

  • tactile: feedback can be felt by the player; it feels to be a natural part of the game

In the classroom, tactile feedback means that feedback ought to be a natural part of the learning process. It should not feel as some sort of add on or extra work that students need to do, or that the teacher is providing feedback for no reason. Feedback needs to have a purpose and it needs to resonate with the learner.

  • inviting: feedback is something desirable

In the classroom, inviting feedback needs to engage the learner. Feedback is something that students need to want. Feedback is NOT a number or a grade, but a words that elevate student confidence while providing them with the means of being more successful.

  • repeatable: feedback keeps coming to help overcome challenges or obstacles

Students make mistakes, just like all people. Students need to recognize that mistakes are where they learn the most. Mistakes are not to be penalized, but celebrated. Mistakes allow for feedback to come, to find nuance in what students are learning or doing to help them overcome the learning challenge at hand. When learning is based on re-occuring feedback, and not grades, students are able to learn better.

  • coherent: feedback is congruent with what is happening as part of the game

Feedback in the classroom needs to be coherent. It needs to make sense in the context of the learning that is taking place. This means that feedback needs to be directly related to the overall learning expectations and goals for a particular learning project. Feedback that is not connected to learning objectives limits or  in some cases can even inhibit the desired learning.

  • continuous: the player does not need to wait for feedback

Many teachers may be afraid that continuous feedback means that feedback is instantaneous. As teachers, we are not algorithms that spit out data based on simple input. At the same time, feedback does need to be timely. That is to say, feedback that is received too far removed from the learning does not offer any opportunity for self-correction. Using different feedback models, such as self- and peer-assessments will help students get the feedback they need, but also their capacity for learning assessment. 

  • emergent: feedback is well-sequenced building the gamer’s capacity

The feedback that is provided needs to relate to Vygotzky’s principle of zone of proximal development. Feedback needs to identify where students are at, and how they can move themselves forward. When providing feedback, you need to be able to identify how to get them moving along a continuum. If the feedback you provide is pushing them “too far up the ladder”, then it is not appropriate. Providing effective feedback requires an understanding of how to scaffold the learning for the student.

  • balanced: the player knows that she / he is receiving feedback, and can act on it; feedback does not overwhelm the  player

Feedback can take many forms – oral, written, even the behaviour (e.g. tone, body language that accompanies the feedback). In some cases, oral feedback may not be considered as formal feedback by students because it is “just in passing”, or worse, students may not even recognize that they have received feedback. As a teacher it is necessary for students to receive a stream of feedback, both formally and informally, but not in such a way that the reception of feedback inhibits or detracts from what and how students are learning.

  • fresh: feedback provides some surprises that inspires further engagement

Feedback needs to be engaging. It needs to be done in such a way that students want it and seek it out. It cannot be artificial. When providing feedback, make sure that you are able to demonstrate that you are connected to their learning (e.g. specific details, reference a comment that was made by the student, etc.).  If you can demonstrate that you are connected to their learning, then they will be surprised, engaged and seek out your perspective more often!

As some one who is not a gamer, and has often undervalued video games, I am slowly gaining a much better appreciation for what video games can teach!




Art as Therapy – Coming to Terms

In many countries’ histories there are particularly painful things that need to be digested. The hope is that a country can heal itself with the help of political art. This challenge is raised to a pitch of difficulty and importance in Germany. The appalling tragedy of Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s calls for atonement, rather than denial or pure lamentation. The need is not merely to say that terrible things happened, but to deal with the legacy of guilt in the hame of improvement. However urgent the need to acknowledge past evils may be, this on its own does not create a better society. – Art as Therapy (p. 212)

Alain de Botton & John Armstrong create a compelling argument for the creation of political art, despite the bad name that this purpose of art received throughout the 20th century from such political regimes as the German Nazi party or socialist realism in the former USSR. The fear that art would be used as a mechanism to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to do things that they otherwise would not even consider is not unfounded, but at the same time we need to recognize that as a society, we are becoming increasingly aware of the power of art. And that art, although it may be political, is not predominantly created with strict control over the artist. In most cases in the early 21st century, political art is created by an independent artist that has an interest in the polis.

The art of Jeanne-Claude and Christo are two such artists that create politicized work, but more as a critique of the institutions of government and what they symbolize rather than as a means of perpetuating government propaganda. In their piece Wrapped Reichstag 1971-1995, they wrapped the seat of German democratic government in over 1 million square feet of material, creating an ephemeral ghost like appearance to the building. The Reichstag had become a symbol of Germany’s sordid past and the atrocities of the Holocaust. By wrapping the Reichstag Jeanne-Claude and Christo essentially unveiled the building a new, giving it a second birth, a new beginning. This event becomes symbolic for the German People, as they acknowledge what has happened, and are able to move forward without carrying the guilt of history.


In Canada, a similar large scale political artwork is required. In Canadian past there are horrors that outweigh those that were inflicted on the Jewish people. In Canada, there has been and continues to be in place, policies and legislation that overtly suppress members of the First Nations communities all across the country. In Canada there have been practices designed to specifically “eliminate the Indian in the child” through the Indian Residential School system, the 60s scoop, inequitable funding formulas for contemporary First Nations education, and the list goes on. Some argue that the atrocities developed by Nazi Germany and the South African apartheid regimes were actually developed based on Canadian law.

But for Canada to move forward, there needs to be much work in first acknowledging what Canada has done to the First Nation’s peoples beyond Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008. Real provisions must be put in place for assisting the the First Nation’s people develop their language, their culture, their families once again, but also educating the general public about what actually happened. Once the true history of Canada is widely known, and accepted by us as citizens, then we can begin to move forward, and a political artwork of the magnitude and symbolic importance of Jeanne-Claude & Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag for Canada will definitely be needed!


Featured Image: Christo & Jeanne Claude Gates, NYC 1979.


Art as Therapy – Functions of Art

This has been one of the most invigorating texts on the history of art that I have read in the past few years. Alain de Botton and John Armstrong present a very interesting perspective on one of the major narratives of art… its essential purpose. de Botton and Armstrong argue that art more than anything is a therapeutic object that helps us to stay connected with the people we associate with and the places we live.

The essential functions of art help us maintain positive relationships, or at the very least, redirect us when we go astray.

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Johannes Vermeer Woman in Blue Reading a Letter c. 1663
  • Remembering: Art helps us remember through the inclusion of details that  we would otherwise forget. As a creator of art, the act of deciding which details to include or exclude reinforce our own memory of a person, place or thing. As viewer of art, we can make associations with the details that the artist has included, spurring our own similar memories.
  • Hope: Often there is a disconnect between what is depicted in art. What an artist chooses to (re)present can make us see the differences between our current reality, what was and what could be. At the same time, our hopes can also be distorted by what artists represent and lead us into many different & difficult roads because our perception of what is has been manipulated.
  • Sorrow: Artists often choose to represent the most difficult and challenging experiences in life. This is not because they are trying to make us feel depressed, but so that they can help us see honour in the worst situations that we can experience. We are not alone in this experience called life, and as we experience sorrow for others, we two can come to terms with what life throws at us.
  • Rebalancing: Our lives are incredibly unbalanced. Art shows us what we are missing. The inappropriate priorities that create for ourselves need to be redirected to those experiences to help us reconnect with our environment and with each other.
  • Self-understanding: Artists are masters of symbolic representation. Symbols are images that stand in the place for complex ideas. In art, we use symbols to help communicate who and what we are. In so doing, symbols used in a network allow us to see a much bigger picture of ourselves.
  • Growth: Artists often challenge the norms and expectations of the audience. In this case, art can help us move past the negative stereotypes and prejudices that we create. This is down through the careful analysis of what we as artists choose to represent, or as a viewer, the analysis that we conduct on an artwork to better inform our understanding of the work.
  • Appreciation: What we choose to depict reinforces the value of our every day lives. Art makes us stop and appreciate the things that we have. Although we are constantly thinking that life could be better, we must be able to find good in the here and now.

For me, these seven principles proved to be an eyeopener in terms of how to teach “art history” to senior level classes. Every year, students grumble and complain about having to do art history because it is ‘boring’. And I have to admit, although I have tried a variety of different approaches over the past seven or eight years as to how to engage students in the history of art, it has always been very passive and past oriented. By adopting these seven principles as the guiding light of student inquiry, my teaching partner and I have found that students are bridging temporal, geographical and cultural gaps as they are researching and creating context for the artworks that connects with their own lives.


Featured Image: Johannes Vermeer Woman in Blue Reading a Letter c. 1663.