Imagination and Empathy

At a recent conference, I was asked to identify the dispositions that I valued most in a learner.   A list of words was supplied to help advance our thoughts on the question.  It included words like: resilient, innovative, persistent, disciplined and imaginative.  I selected and defended the imaginative disposition for many of the typical reasons.  I spoke about how imagination inspires innovation and how it creates a movie in the mind of readers that is necessary for reading comprehension but I never talked about one of the more important reasons that I have learned since then. Namely, the importance of imagination for developing empathy for others. J.K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech called, Very Good Lives, recently helped me connect the two.  In this post, I reflect on the relationship between imagination and empathy and suggest a few strategies for developing both in ourselves and others.  

What is imagination?

During the course of her commencement speech, Rowling acknowledges the role of the imagination in innovation and invention but emphasizes its transformative power.  The transformation Rowling envisions isn’t just a changed mind but also a changed heart.  In other words, she understands the imagination to help us feel what other people feel, without ever experiencing their circumstances.  

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

J.K. Rowling

How does imagination produce empathy?

According to Rowling, imagination creates empathy by allowing us to think ourselves into other peoples places.  She illustrates this from her own life telling how an early day job at Amnesty International’s headquarters required her to read horrific stories of tortured victims, executions, kidnappings and rapes.  These stories changed her life forever because she was able to think herself into the place of the victims she read about.

“Unlike any other creatures on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced.  They can think themselves into other peoples places.”  

J. K. Rowling

The evidence of this transformative impact in Rowling’s life is everywhere in her writings.  The Dursley’s treatment of Harry Potter in one small example of how Rowling invites us to feel her own compassion for those victimized and oppressed.  In her famed Harry Potter series, the Dursleys are a family of three, composed of Harry’s aunt, uncle and cousin. Harry is an orphan who is forced to live with the Dursley’s after his parents are murdered by the power-hungry Lord Voldemort.  The Dursley’s keep Harry safe but treat him harshly, including confining him to a cupboard, locking him in his bedroom without meals and treating as their servant.  As the reader, thinks themselves into Harry’s place, they are provided with an opportunity to feel the loneliness, rejection and powerlessness of anyone in his position.     

Those who refuse to imagine

Of course, imagination is not automatic and sometimes it is even suppressed.  Rowling’s speech contrasts the imaginative person with the unimaginative.  Those who refuse to know about suffering and intentionally plug their ears to the voice of its victims.   

And many chose not to use their imagination at all….they refuse to hear screams or peer inside cages; they close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

J.K. Rowling

Rowling extends this logic to show that those who don’t choose empathy actually participate in acts of evil through their apathy.  

What is more, those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters.  For without committing an outright act of evil ourselves, we collude with it through our own apathy. 

J. K. Rowling

Cultivating Imagination and Empathy

Reading Rowling address challenged me to think about how I am intentionally taking time to read and listen to those who are less advantaged or suffering.  It also made me think about how I’m providing opportunities to empathize and take action on behalf of the vulnerable groups in my classroom.  I thought of two units that I have used in the past to create these spaces for empathy.  The first required my Grade Seven students, to complete a personalized novel study using a historical fiction novel where the hero/heroine is from a different culture, class and race than their own and suffers physically or emotionally in some way.  

Another opportunity I have given students to practice empathy for others is an oral storytelling unit.  To prepare for the final project in this unit, students are asked to read part of a biography on the hero of their choice who has overcome some type of adversity.  In the end, the story is told from the first person perspective–as if they were the hero.  Last year, I can remember listening to one girl in my class telling the story of how Rosa Parks refused to move bus seats in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.  At points in the story, she embodied the voice of Parks so well that it felt as though Parks was there telling us the story in person.  The class rose and gave her a standing ovation when she finished.  This was just one opportunity to identify with a person who did not have the same privileges that many of us enjoy.    

Taking Action

In the last part of her speech to the Harvard graduates, J.K. Rowling sounds a call to action that challenges the class to identify not only with the powerful but the powerless—to really enter into their story.  I hope you were challenged, as I was, to do the same.  

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful but the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existance but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change.

J.K. Rowling

 I would love to hear more examples of how you are giving students opportunities to raise their voice on behalf of the those who have none in the comments below.  I’ve attached the video to J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech below. 

Math Projects that Matter

Math matters when it’s connected to authentic tasks and situations in life.  Doing loads of textbook questions that aren’t connected to authentic situations isn’t engaging for anyone.  This is one of the reasons I have shifted my approach to teaching math over the last few years.  At the beginning of my teaching career, my math class consisted of marching chapter by chapter through the textbook.  In the past few years, I have moved to a project-based approach that has benefited my students in many ways.  In this post, I want to share a few of reflections that I hope will move more educators in the same direction.     

Adaptable to learners at different levels

One difficult part about teaching math is engaging students at different levels.  Unlike the textbook-driven approach, math projects can easily be customized to fit learners at higher and lower levels.  Often this is because the task is more open-ended and can be more or less structured to fit the learner.  Instead of boring advanced students with a set of questions that they quickly motor through and become disruptive to the rest of the class, math projects are easily expanded or made more complex.   

For example, in my pool project last year, I had my students build a circular, model swimming pool out of cardboard to show their knowledge about the area of circles and the volume of cylinders.  I also gave them certain requirements for the pool, such as its capacity and the target audience it would be designed for.  I made sure the target audience included people with a range of heights so that their pool would need a deep and shallow end. Once the advanced learners had this information and we developed success criteria, they began working independently.  I knew a few of my students were very advanced and challenged them to design a pool with a graduated floor.  Others, who were struggling with the general concept of volume, designed two, joint, circular pools with a flat floor.  

This adaption of the project was much more efficient than the traditional textbook approach I had taken in the past.  This adjustment didn’t require research to find more questions and answer keys.  There were no fancy math websites needed for advanced students to stay challenged.  Separate tests or evaluations weren’t necessary. Nor, did it require dividing students into ability groupings that may have prevented the more advanced learners from helping their peers.  In short, the open-ended-ness, that scared me when I started, proved important for customizing the learning to fit my students.  

More side-by-side time

One disadvantage of project-based math units it that they require more time on the front end.   The learning maps, assignment guides or learner playlists are more like a little unit a syllabus than a lesson plan.  In my experience, inquiry-based units often take many more hours of preparation than traditional units.  However, this additional time at the front-end of the unit has also bought more time mid-unit to do mini-lessons with small groups, or work side-by-side with students who need extra support.   This is a huge advantage when you consider that many parents don’t know how to help their children with math at home and others simply aren’t there to help them.  Students need assistance delivered during school and teaching math projects has been extremely helpful for this.

Student choice and engagement

I didn’t actually think about how passive my math class was until I started teaching with projects.  The first large math project I attempted asked students to design their own vacation.  Not long after the project launch, I received dozens of questions from students about the design process.  “Mr. Mayer, will I need to rent a car?” To these questions, I often answered with a question like, “How close is your hotel to the activities you are planning?” My students weren’t used to being able to make choices in math.  Narrowly defined problems with a very specific scenario and a single outcome were the norms.  Giving students dozens of choices to create and design gave them a sense of ownership and pride while engaging them deeply in mathematical thinking.  Recently, one of my students was so proud of the trip she had planned to Vancouver Island that she suggested that her family actually go on the trip at Spring Break.  Her parents adopted the idea and she was able to experience the trip she planned and budgeted for.

Cross curricular and cross competency 

In a textbook-driven approach to learning math, it’s sometimes hard to find opportunities for students to communicate about the math decisions they are making or improve financial literacy.  However, teaching math projects gave students multiple cross-curricular learning opportunities.  For example, in my vacation design project, the students were required to write a travel itinerary for their trip and make a commercial on Abode Spark to “sell” their vacation package to the class.  Writing appealing summaries and video-editing are typically not skills that students associate with math.  In fact, there were a few competencies that seemed quite unique to a project-based approach.  Skills like:

  • Students generating their own ideas about how to solve problems
  • Students comparing information from different sources before completing an assignment
  • Students answering questions in front of an audience
  • Students justifying their financial decisions using math
  • Student presenting their findings to an audience

I think it’s often this lack of complexity and cross-competency work that makes math boring for students.  Working on bigger projects allowed them to use many different compentencies while building their number sense.

If you would like want to shift your practice toward a project-based approach, I’ve linked some of my favourite resources below.  Or, if you have some have a resources that you would suggest, please link them in the comments below.  

Suggested Resources

No Friends in the Factory

Sometimes “eureka moments” come in that strangest places.  Two days ago, one unexpectedly arrived at a student-led conference.  The format of the conferences was slightly adjusted from the year previous.  After the students were finished explaining three areas of learning, three goals would be set. The student, parents and teacher would all set one goal based on their reflections on the term.

Having parents involved in goals-setting paid off in ways that I didn’t anticipate. In one particular conference, a parent hesitated before setting a goal for her son (let’s call him Jack).  She reluctantly added that she could only think of two areas that didn’t really relate to school.  I urged her on by telling her that it didn’t matter if they were school specific.  Her first goal was about Jack living peacefully with his younger sister.  He was always bickering with her and he needed to show more maturity and patience.  The second, suggested better eating and sleeping patterns for next term.  Jack was frequently staying up late and eating too much junk food before bedtime.  This was causing morning grogginess and making him miss breakfast on school days. 

Before the conferences, I had written out my report card comments for each of the students but hadn’t yet published them for the parents to see.  Jack’s comment communicated two areas for improvement that paralleled the two areas his mother brought up.  One was attentiveness during class, I mentioned that he seemed tired and his lack of attentiveness regularly left him confused about instructions in class. The other was constant bickering and joking with other students that distracted him during independent work times.  What first seemed like unrelated behaviours in different contexts were actually linked.  Relational patterns at home mimicked those at school and bad sleep habits at home minimized his focus during class.    

My “Ah ha” moment in this situation wasn’t the link between home and school.  Every teacher repeatedly observes direct links between the home and classroom as they get to know their students.  The surprise was how often views of education in our society exclude or minimize social and emotional learning.  Why do we compartmentalize social and emotional learning and pretend that it is a non-academic skill that doesn’t influence academic areas? 

Schools modelled on factories

Ken Robinson elegantly explains one answer in his TED Talk called, Changing Educational Paradigms. 

 He shows how our current system of education was modelled on the interests and in the image of industrialism. The result is that schools today are still organized along factory lines.  Examples of the factory influences that persist in school are ringing bells, grouping children into batches based on their “manufacturing date,” separating curriculum into separate subjects and standardized testing.  

Further, Robinson argues that the current educational system is also structured on an enlightenment view of the intelligence.  Knowledge of the classics and deductive reasoning were the primary marks of an intelligence in this period.  The educational system was built for compliance to this narrowly defined type of intelligence.  Consequently, the western world was split into two types of people, the academic and non-academic.  As it turned out, most people, who didn’t happen to be good at those few valued skills were ostracized by the system.   

Factory thinking persists

Robinson’s explanation, of what I’ll call, factory education and intelligence, continue to be very deeply embedded in how we think about education.  I think it is one of the reasons that we minimized social and emotional learning (SEL) in our schools.  Examples of this are everywhere in my teaching experience.  Over the last few years, our Middle School has developed house teams across our school to build relationships between students from grades 6-8.  Every student, teacher and educational assistant in the school is divided into four houses team. Each is associated with a colour and an animal–almost like the house system in Harry Potter.  A couple of times throughout the year, we have full days of school that are dedicated to house activities.  These are jam-packed, fun days, full of activities that help students forge relationships with one another.  The response of the school community to this initiative was mixed. Some students fully embraced the day–turning up in the team colours–excited for a day of competition.  Others decided to stay home because we weren’t doing any “work” at school.  The message from the latter group of students seemed clear, building relationships with students wasn’t what school was for.  School was exclusively for “academics.”

The factory view of intelligence also explains why many parents in our school communities wrongly diagnosis their children’s learning struggles.  For example, take the parent who sees their child’s difficulty with math skills and automatically concludes that enrolling them in Kumon is the solution. Kumon may help their student, and I certainly think this program does occasionally help children learn.  However, linear connections between lack of academic skill and additional practice questions often misses the true problem because of a dumbed-down view of human intelligence.  In this type of scenario, considering SEL type questions is just as important, if not more important, than considering the skills themselves.  For example, a parent in this situation might ask:

  • What are my child’s beliefs about math? Does he/she think they are good or poor at math? Why? Are their experiences or people that are perpetuating these beliefs?
  • What is my child’s level of confidence in math?  How could I boost this confidence level?
  • Does my child understand the purpose of learning this particular skill math?
  • Would it be more motivating to try this skill in a real situation?

Education for the head and heart

These kinds of social and emotional realities have a huge effect on student learning and academic performance.  The research to support these connections is well documented. Students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges (Aronson, 2002; cited in Durlak et al., 2011; Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014).   According to a 2011 meta-analysis of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students, those who participated in evidence-based SEL programs showed an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement compared to students who did not participate in SEL programs.  

UBC professor, Kimberly Schonert-Reichl who is a leading expert on SEL, also makes a connection between academic performance and the implementation of social and emotional learning programs in schools. 

In the video above, Schonert-Reichl also references the CASEL organization who have documented similar studies.  Another helpful place to reference SEL research on this point is Vanessa Vega’s article for Edutopia updated with the current research in June 2017.  Her summary of the current research makes Schonert-Reichl’s same point.  Human intelligence involves the whole person-including their emotional life, beliefs, and past experiences.  

That is not to say that academic achieve legitimizes SEL programs.  The development of SEL dispositions and competencies are connected to a greater vision of human flourishing that stands on their own merits. However, showing that SEL development influences academic performance proves that our enlightenment views of intelligence are too simplistic.  When education ignores the heart of the learners to focus on their heads both suffer.   No friendships in “the factory,” means less learning. 

To move our school culture away from the factory model, we need a new paradigm to think about learning.  We also need a different metaphor for thinking about schools and how we define intelligence.  Robinson gives us an alternative picture in his TED talk called, How to Escape Death Valley.  He reminds us that “…education is not a mechanical system, it is a human system. It’s about people.”  Robinson suggests that we should think about schools as organic, living environments that need to be nurtured.  At about 16:25, in the video below, Robinson compares schools to a dormant garden that need to be tended and nurtured in order to grow.  This metaphor is infused with incredible hope for the future. As teachers tend and care for their students, they will flourish.    

I would like to encourage you to take a few minutes to listen to Robinson’s whole talk.  It’s one of my personal favourites. I would also love to read any of your thoughts on these ideas in the comments below. 

Reasons to Read Aloud

It makes you a better reader and writer

A few weeks ago, a friend recommended that I listen to an episode from the Read Aloud Revival podcast that changed my view on teaching writing.    Host, Sarah Mackenzie, asked Andrew Pudewa how students become better writers.  His answer, in a nutshell, was they need to listen to books that are read aloud.  

Pudewa’s link between reading aloud and writing starts with the belief that you cannot get something out the brain that you have not put in.  Reading feeds the brain with new characters, story plots and vocabulary to help it produce written work.  In another article on the same topic, Pudewa quotes Louis L’Amour saying, “A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in it first” However, the input-output cycle is not quite that simple. Good readers are often not good writers.  One of the reasons for this, according to Pudewa, is because the writer is not listening to good reading.  By listening to stories, that are just above their current reading  level, students build up their brain’s database with advanced vocabulary and better absorb formal grammatical structures used in writing.

writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in it first

Louis L’Amour

He holds that reading by yourself doesn’t always yield this same result because the literature may be too simple, words or sections may be skipped and grammar may be ignored.  By contrast, a good reader will help their listeners catch the nuances in meaning, grammatical structures and cultural or knowledge references that readers may not have. 

Are homeschooling, read-aloud fanatics the only ones who think this way? Clearly not, in a 2018 study, conducted by researchers Colin Macleod and Noah Forrin at the University of Waterloo and published in the journal Memory, found that a number of significant relationships between hearing words read aloud and memory retention.  If you are interested in investigating this further, Dylan Hendrick’s recent blog post summarizes a few of Macleod and Forrin’s findings. 

It builds community

This summer I listened to The Hobbit with my kids.  They loved it!  The narrator was amazing. His different voices alone, had my three-year-old captivated even though she barely understood what he was saying.  As we built a listening routine, I was surprised to find that it was good quality time with my kids that led to significant conversations. The same is true of the time I have spent reading aloud as a teacher.  When I find a book that excites a fair percentage of my class, they always ask for and look forward to read aloud time.  As I read, we laugh together, experience the high and low emotions of the characters together and usually watch the movie together.  All of these things created a shared experience and build relationships.      

What is true for students is true for you 

Listening to books that are read aloud not only makes students better, it also makes teachers better. Let me explain what I mean.  I have four children under the age of eight.  From the time I get up in the morning, until the time I sleep at night, these little people swarm our house.  There is little time for any kind of uninterrupted reading.  Perhaps you don’t have four kids but I’m sure you can identify with the busyness that can plague our lives.  Listening to audiobooks is a way to stay literate and relevant as a teacher.  Even when I don’t have time to sit down with a coffee and a book, I do have slices of time when I can listen to books.  Listening to books also inspires me to read other books and buy more books.  The result is an improvement in my reading and writing ability–improving my ability to teach reading and writing . Realistically, it will help me teach everything with more clarity and understanding.   

Tips for Reading Aloud or Listening to Books

  • Pick the right book.  If you are reading aloud to your family or to your class, it helps to have a book that is written for reading aloud.  Some books have short, choppy prose that difficult to read.  One the other hand, picture books–like The Lorax–are written using rhyme and rhythm that is intended for listening pleasure.  One of my personal favourites for middle school students, is the illustrated version of The Lightning Thief .  A family favourite is The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden.  Yan Glasser’s smooth writing style and short chapters are perfect for reading aloud.
  • Pick the right genre. Certain genres are easier to follow as a listener.  For example, listening to one of Malcom Gladwell’s stories, is much more compelling in audio than persuasive writing with fine distinctions and detailed arguments.   
  • Find the right audiobook app or supplier . If you don’t want to read aloud, you could find an app that does it for you.  The app I would recommend is Audible –Amazon’s audiobook app.  It has the best selection of audiobooks, is very user-freindly and reliable.  Our library also has a few apps.  One is called OverDrive, there is also one called Libby that I have on our iPad to download audiobooks–yours might too. There is also a good chance that your local library is well-stocked with a number with a number of CD audiobooks–if still have a machine that plays those.     
  • Pick the right reader.  When you download audiobooks, make sure that you sample the readers voice. If you are anything like me, it will be really hard to endure multiple chapters a voice that you find annoying.  If you are reading to your class, you will want to model the best expression, pacing and funny voices that you can.  But don’t be afraid to make mistakes–these will be instructive for your class too.
  • Pick the right time and place.  Scheduling in a routine of reading before bedtime, on Sunday afternoons or during workouts is a ideal but not always possible. The great part about audiobooks, is that you can download them onto an app and listen whenever you have downtime.  Are you going on a road trip, taking a hike, or doing an workout?  Why not listen to an audiobook?  Do you have a block after lunch that is set aside for reading or creative writing?  Why not mix it up and read a book to your class–or listen to an audio book? Having a reading space with ambient lighting and comfortable chairs or pillows is great for reading aloud to a class.  I often find a relaxed place in the library to read to my class.  


  • Do you read aloud to your students?  Why or Why not?
  • What other reasons are there for reading aloud to students or listening to audiobooks as a teacher? 

Visible Learning PD

On November 5th and 6th, I had the privilege of attending the Visible Learning Institute in Richmond, British Columbia. Here is a summary of the event if you are interested in attending in the future.  To be honest, I’m not a huge advocate of conferences as a mode of professional development but I would highly recommend this one.   

Below,  I have complied a few of the major websites, schools and people that were mentioned during the conference.  I hope these resources will benefit those who want to dig deeper into Hattie’s writings and the professional development resources that his community is providing. 

Twitter Highlights

The Twitter hashtag for the conference was: #vancouvervl .  The Twitter note-taking was decent–there was about 50 tweets per day.  Ainsley Rose (@Ainsleybr) is a Kelowna-based member of the Visible Learning professional development team that was our presenter on the first day of the conference.  Connie Hamilton (@conniehamilton ) and professor/teacher Nancy Frey (@NancyFrey) addressed us on the second day.  Another notable Twitter mention, was Stonefield School (@StonefieldsSch).  This Australian school is one of the only officially recognized Visible Learning schools in the world.   

Visible Learning Resource Links

Corwin, the official publisher of the Visible Learning resources, has a  Visible Learning Plus website devoted to professional development.  The  resource page, linked below, has a number of articles and teacher surveys that are really helpful. 

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are the authors of many of the Visible Learning resources referenced in the website above.  However, their own website has a number of great teaching strategies and literacy resources.

Sebastian Waack also has Visible Learning blog dedicated to gathering John Hattie resources.  Although Sebastian is not part of John Hattie’s official Visible Learning Plus community, he has collected some great podcasts, videos and infographics that I would like to investigating further.

The Teacher Clarity Playbook is one book in a series of Teacher Playbooks that Corwin has published.  It is structured like a professional development course for teachers.  This particular one, focuses on creating successful learning intentions and success criteria for organized, effective instruction.  The video and resource page, linked below, will give you a glimpse of the topics covered in the book.  Keep in mind that the Corwin website also houses a number of PD video resources like this one–should you want to explore further.  

Have I missed any important resources that you would recommend? Please link them for me in the comments below.  Thanks

Teachers Making Themselves Students

An Awkward Teacher Report Card

A few days ago, I was listening to George Couros’ book Innovator’s Mindset and he posed a question that caught my attention,“What is it like to be a student in your classroom?”  Couros’ question shifted my thinking about life in my classroom. I began to wonder how my students were experiencing lessons, activities and feedback in my class. To understand their point of view, I asked my students to give me a teacher report card. The awkwardness of the situation didn’t grip me until I was about to upload my Google Form survey.  Suddenly, I was filled with hesitations and unlikely scenarios began floating through my head. Would one of my students take this opportunity to vent all of their frustrations? Would my class really be able to give me any meaningful feedback?  Coming back to my senses for a moment, it was obvious that fear was blurring my vision

At first, I wasn’t sure why I was stalling but then it hit me–a power shift was occurring.  By giving my class the ability to participate in my formation as a teacher, I was sharing power.  In a way, my class and I were switching roles–they were being given the role of the evaluator and I was taking the role as the student.  Through this role reversal, I discovered that making myself a student was a vulnerable practice that was necessary for my continued growth.

Teachers Who Stop Learning

At the Simon Fraser University, my alma mater, many of the education students identified with the idea of becoming a “life-long learner.”  However, the life-long disciplines required to continue learning are difficult to maintain.  In fact, anyone who has out-lived the magical five-year mark in their teaching career, knows how easy it is to slide from “life-long learner” to “life-long lecturer.”  In other words, it is easy for teachers to become so comfortable in their position or curricular areas that they stop learning. Learning usually involves some kind of struggle but if teachers are too comfortable, they are usually not ready to lean into that struggle. Getting too comfortable could mean that a teacher gets stuck into stale patterns of educating that they are not passionate about.  It could even mean substituting creative endeavours for too much Netflix.  Whatever the case may be, none of us want to get to the place where we stop learning.  

A 41-Year-Old Starts Cello Lessons


One way to counter patterns of lax learning is to intentionally look for learning challenges.  One inspiring example of this is in the second chapter of Andy Crouch’s book, Playing God, where he recalls the story of learning to play the cello at age 41–with no previous experience.  He remembers walking to his instructors house and with a tinge of anxiety “knowing that he was going to spend the next hour failing or flailing” as he struggled to play his scales.  Crouch notes that 15 years had passed since he had a teacher and he knew it was going to be difficult to make himself a student again.  

At one point, Crouch replays a cello lesson experience where his pinky finger would not reach the correct position on the fretboard so his instructor moved around behind him and put his hand on Crouch’s hand to reposition it.  After struggling together for a few moments to get the hand position, he was still unsuccessful. This whole experience left a lasting impression on Crouch because he couldn’t remember a teacher physically positioning his hands since childhood. In a sense, he was being treated like a child and had to have the humility and vulnerability to accept his position as a student.  As I read Crouch’s account of this learning experience, it really highlighted the vulnerability of the learning process and the importance of engaging in these kind of learning challenges as a teacher.

Taking Learning Challenges

For Crouch, becoming a cello player was the answer to a learning challenge that he was searching for.  By “learning challenge,” I mean that Crouch’s choice to learn this instrument wasn’t required by an employer or outside authority–it was self-imposed.  In later section of his book, Crouch mentioned that he was already an accomplished pianist and didn’t really need to master another instrument. In this sense, Crouch is someone who, even though he had experienced success as a writer and musician, stepped out of his comfort zone to continue growing as a learner.      

In his cello learning experience, Crouch exemplifies what Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset.  He is someone who is actively owning his own learning and seeking out new learning experiences to continue growing. This is the opposite of a person who works inside his/her known strengths and becomes increasingly fearful of new areas of learning. Knowing and developing your strengths is definitely an important step for anyone. However, a teacher who is constantly working within his/her comfort zone encourages a fixed mindset simply because it decreases their ability to wade into unknown areas with their students.   

Moving From Growth Mindset to Growth Heart-set

Taking on a learning challenge, for Crouch, goes much deeper than simply cultivating a growth mindset, he understands it as a spiritual discipline.  That is, he suggests that taking on the role of student has the potential to shape ones mindset and heart-set. One change is deeper than the other. The change Crouch envisions goes deeper than a change of “mindset,” it touches  the motivations and emotions of the learner.  He understands this cello learning challenge as having potential to transform the whole person.  For example, consider Crouch’s reasons for deciding to learn cello.  He says that he learn the cello because:

    • It humbled him by making him return to the basics
    • It reminded him of how little he really knows and has experienced
    • It helps to wean him from negative uses of power and the self-importance that accompany even the slightest bit of success.
    • It modeled learning, growing and stretching to his family
    • It contributed to a culture of creation rather than consumption

By stating reasons like increased “humility” for learning the cello, he is signalling that these kind of experiences change his mind, attitude and potentially even his desires.   

All of Crouch’s reasons for learning the cello, are also reasons that make me want to look for learning challenges as a teacher.  To be honest, I like to identify myself a teacher who is in control, as one who assesses and offers correction others. However, constantly thinking of myself in these ways can too easily lead to control-freak tendencies and abuses of power in the classroom.  Taking a personal learning challenge is a great way to detoxify those ways of thinking, cultivate empathy for students who struggle and create a culture of risk-taking in my classroom.

Right now, one learning challenge for me is playing the guitar.  I’ve never played a stringed instrument in my life before so I’ve struggled to make progress over the last few years.  I still haven’t completely mastered the F cord but I like to update my class on my learning journey.  I want them to understand that I’m also a struggling learner and I don’t ever want to be a teacher that stops learning.  What about you?  I would love to hear about some of the learning challenges that you have pursued and where it has taken you.  Please leave a comment for me in below.


What are you learning challenges are you taking that you could share with your class?

How are you being attuned to the vulnerabilities of your students by making yourself vulnerable as a learner?

Photo by Maruska R

Creating More Than We Consume

We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the centre of the home with things that reward skill and active engagement.  Andy Crouch

A few days ago, I was struck by the quote above while reading Andy Crouch’s book called, The Tech-Wise Family.  Creating more than I consume sounds simple but it’s difficult to put into practice.  As I watch my son practice the piano, I’m reminded of how much harder it is to make music than listening to it.  Creating music takes time, effort and skill, but it’s much more fulfilling than pushing a button to upload a song.  I also love to make pizza for my family but it takes work.  Shopping for fresh ingredients, making the dough in advance and preparing the toppings takes time, but the final product brings people together–and tastes delicious.

The reverse is true of the time I spend consuming information.  Scrolling through updates on my phone doesn’t require any skill (our three-year-old can do it) and it’s a relatively passive process that doesn’t engage my imagination.  It’s not that I always want an overly engaging activity that requires effort. Watching a movie at the end of the day can help me relax.  On the other hand, I think over-exposure to unengaged, uses of technology keep me from experiencing some of the best things in life.

In the second chapter of his book, Crouch makes a similar contrast.  He asks the reader to think about the things on the main floor of their house that promote active engagement.  He gives musical instruments, books, board games, and wall paintings, as examples of things that require kids to engage, develop skill and potentially take a risk.  He contrasts these things with other electronic devices in our homes that almost work by themselves.  He describes these items as, “…those toys that work on their own–that buzz and beep and light up without developing any skill.”  Crouch’s commitment to shaping his space with engaging things means these devices must be put in their proper place–on the outer margins of the space.

Photo by Academy of Art Design

As a teacher, I couldn’t help reflecting on how the educational space I create in my classroom can either shape my students into passive consumers of content or engaged makers and creators.  I learned this the hard way in my first couple of years of teaching.  In my second year of teaching grade one, I decided to do a pilot project involving digital learning centres.  The plan was to attach two or three smart TVs to my classroom wall and create interactive centres using iPads that were wirelessly connected.  The idea seemed good in theory but when the TVs were actually installed, they overwhelmed the space.  When the parents in my class saw the barrage of screens hanging on the walls of my room, they were horrified.  Not completely understanding their response, I asked one parent why she was disturbed by them.  She said, “It just looks bad having so many TVs as the focal point of your room.”  Looking back on it, TVs completely dominated my classroom. It wasn’t like I could close the curtains on the TVs for story time. They were constantly inviting the kids to passive consumption of information.  Even though I didn’t intend on using these devices simply for entertainment, my classroom space was sending the wrong message.

On the other hand, last year, the computer lab at our school was converted into a Maker Space.  The rows of desktop computers were taken out and replaced with shelves full of tools, construction materials, robotics kits, breadboards, snap circuits and Keva blocks.  The space itself was inviting kids to create.  It was providing a learning environment that invited students to design or try to make something for the first time.  It invited students to activities that required skill and active engagement.

One engaging feature of my own classroom that rewards skill is a large shelf full of books beside the door.  The commercial fluorescent lights don’t invite reading but I was recently inspired by one of our grade six teachers who opted to use three or four lamps to light her room instead of the tube lights.  As a result, her room has an ambient Starbucky feel that makes you want to curl up with a coffee and a book.

Living in a culture so focused on consuming, it’s easy for me to forget how important it is to fill the spaces in my life with things that reward engagement, skill development and problem-solving.  As an educator who embraces an inquiry-driven approach to teaching, I’m endeavouring to shape the space of my classroom in ways that invite engagement creativity and imagination.


  • Does your classroom space reward skill and active engagement?
  • Are there a few things you could add or subtract to make it more engaging for students?

I would love to hear any of your thoughts, reflections or feedback in the comments.