Progressive Learning Approaches in LEGO Terms

My 4 year old and I eagerly opened a crisp new box of LEGO Disney Princess Rapunzel’s Creativity Tower.  As we began, I ran into a series of unexpected choices.

  • Rapunzel TowerShould we use the instruction manual?
  • How important was the picture on the box to my daughter?
  • Should I dump all the bags of materials out at the same time and let her fish them out, or should we go bag by bag?
  • Should I have her go step by step, or should I have her decide whether she wanted to go in order?
  • The box says “Ages 6-12.”  How much stock should I take in that?
  • How much should I intervene in general when she gets frustrated with pushing difficult pieces together, or pulling things apart?

Honestly, it wasn’t long before I started drawing mental parallels to various modern approaches to learning.  Many questions remain unanswered–on both Rapunzel’s LEGO tower, and the varied viewpoints on 21st century learning–but I found that as I organized the latter in LEGO terms, I can begin to better sort out the bottom-line question:

How do you want to build with your students?


  • Instruction Manuals (curricula)
  • The picture on the box (final outcome(s))
  • Legos (school materials)
  • Construction process (scope and sequence)
  • Age Recommendations (how age is organized)

Traditional Schooling:

  • Instruction Manuals: Teachers of each age group possess the instruction manuals, which are handed down from a variety of organizations.  The sequence of all the steps is usually executed without deviation.
  • The picture on the box: Students who have learned the instruction manual, at least in multiple choice format.
  • The LEGO materials: Teachers regulate when, where, how, and why all materials are used.
  • Construction process: Depending on the step the collective class is on, the teacher photocopies a page from the instruction manual for each student to work on.  They do this for a variety of boxes (subjects) throughout the day, but each box is done during separate times of the day.
  • Age Recommendations: Generally, very strict adherence to age is practiced.

Problem/Project Based Learning:

  • Instruction Manuals: Teachers design projects or questions with specific learning goals in mind, based on the mandated curricula.
  • The picture on the box: Students who can monitor their time and are intrinsically motivated to pursue new ideas.
  • The LEGO materials: Teachers try to provide students with the materials they need to build their learning.  This can be inhibited by limited school budgets.
  • Construction process: Students may spend a day or weeks in investigation.  They typically work in groups with the teacher as the tutor or “guide on the side.”
  • Age Recommendations: Can be applied in any environment, but often done in high school classes.
Bill Ferriter

Flipped Learning:

  • Instruction Manuals: Generally same as in the traditional classroom.
  • The picture on the box: Students who come to class ready for lively discussion, experimentation, and investigation based on the instructional input already received at home for homework.
  • The LEGO materials: Videos–either made by teachers themselves, or found on websites like Khan Academy or LearnZillion–that are assigned as homework.
  • Construction process: Teachers seek to take better advantage of classroom time by removing all lectures to homework via videos.
  • Age Recommendations: Often done in high school settings, but in-class flips are known in elementary classrooms as well.

Sugata Mitra’s SOLE’s, or self-organized learning environment:

  • Instruction Manuals: Mitra has created a SOLE toolkit for educators and parents alike.  This explains how to set up a SOLE, lists examples of “Big questions” the teacher might ask students to research, and cites troubleshooting challenges.  The teacher presents the questions.
  • The picture on the box: Students who can unlock inborn curiosity with collaborative research time–able to find answers to questions without adult instructional input.
  • The LEGO materials: 1 computer per 4 children, paper and pens, and maybe a nametag for the peer helper student.
  • Construction process: The teacher poses a question and then students investigate it in groups of 4.  They can change groups, get ideas from other groups, and move around.  A peer helper manages behavior.
  • Age Recommendations: Ages 8-12 is the current framework for the SOLE toolkit.


  • Valilouve

    Instruction Manuals: Known as “Whole Child Education” in which priority is placed on exploring all learning styles.

  • The picture on the box: Students who have developed values of creativity, self-control, problem solving, social skills, and physical coordination.
  • The LEGO materials: Teachers are trained to carefully set up learning environments that involve work centers by subject.  High priority is placed on aesthetic and order.
  • Construction process: Students are given large blocks of uninterrupted time to experiment with the materials.  Much of the time is self-directed by individual students, although they are also encouraged at times to work in groups.
  • Age Recommendations: Blended ages of young children, often in age groups of 2-3, 3-6, and 6-9.

Sudbury Schooling

  • Instruction Manuals: Teachers are familiar with manuals, but share only when called upon by students.
  • The picture on the box: None–It’s probably been incinerated.
  • The LEGO materials: Available as students and staff vote on school funding according to values on democracy.
  • Construction process: Entirely student-directed at all times.  Visitors often notice the prevalence of play throughout the school.
  • Age Recommendations: None.  14 year olds and 4 year olds may choose to engage in the same activities.


  • Instruction Manuals: None, except those pursued by the learner.
  • The picture on the box: Hopefully, learners who can trust themselves and identify their personal needs to live happy lives.  This is not forced however–if a learner shows no interest in this picture, it will not be forced upon him or her.
  • The LEGO materials: Chosen by each individual learner.
  • Construction process: Students learn at home on his or her own terms.  Parents offer support and encouragement, but do not force any learning on the child.
  • Age Recommendations: None.

Photo Credit:

3 Worthwhile Twitter Chats for Teachers

Looking for some lively discussion among passionate educators?  Or professional development that applies to your personal goals?  Or some inspiration for one of your current classroom challenges?  Or even just to broaden your PLN?  Then join in on one or all of these favorite Twitter Chats!


A Few Handy TwitterChat tips:

  • Introduce yourself when you join in.
  • Use the chat hashtag in every comment you make so others in the discussion can see it!
  • Download a platform like TweetDeck to more easily see all the incoming Tweets (they come fast during a lively discussion).
  • Questions are listed by the moderator as Q1, Q2, etc.  Start your tweets with A1, A2, etc. to correspond with the question at hand, and try to stay on topic!  If you get inspired to begin an offshoot discussion, you can always DM (direct message) an individual!
  • For more support to get started, check out or posts on Twitter in the classroom and PLN’s for beginners.
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Giuseppe Milo
#1: #PYPchat
  • What: PYP stands for the Primary Years Programme for the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, but you don’t have to be a PYP teacher to join in!  We’re all about inquiry, passionate learning, and honest reflection.
  • When: Every other Thursday at 7 pm ET
  • Info & Archives:
  • Sample Questions discussed:
#2: #5thchat
  • What: 5th grade teachers gather to discuss a variety of educational topics, which are voted on every Friday through Sunday.
  • When: Every Tuesday at 8 pm ET
  • Info & Archives:
  • Sample questions discussed:

#3: #IRAchat
  • What: The International Reading Association (@IRAToday) moderates this chat.  Anyone interested in discussing ways to promote literacy is welcome!
  • When: Second Thursday every month at 8 pm ET
  • Archives:
  • Sample questions discussed:

 Others We Haven’t Tried Yet that Also Look Promising:
  • #edtechchat: Mondays at 8 pm ET
  • #geniushour: 1st Thursday of each month at 9 pm ET

Photo Credit:

Praising Students from Kindergarten to 12th Grade

“Rosa has lined up so respectfully for recess.”  “Wow, Ethan is managing his time so well by checking the instructions.” “Check out how Candice has taken the time to carefully revise her piece before publishing.”  Here are 13 reasons–one per grade–to make positive praise one of your most valuable teaching tools.

Kindergarten: Motivate students by attaching their names to something positive.

Don’t we all hope for a little validation for our hard work?  School is a full-time job for students, too, and even your kindergarteners value recognition for their efforts.  “I see Kate waiting her turn to get a drink at the fountain,” goes a long way for a five year-old working on patience.

1st Grade: Highlight those who make appropriate choices.

This is not to be confused with grooming a flock of “teacher’s pets,” especially since that usually involves recognizing a select few.  Teachers should make it a priority to frequently catch all their first graders making good choices.  “I notice David found a great place to read his book,” conveys to the rest of the class what you value.

Helpful starting tip: use a blank class list to actually tally your positive feedback.  Not only will this help you develop awareness of how frequently you praise certain students, it will also help you notice how frequently you issue praise in general.

2nd Grade: Eradicate the common habit of focusing on those making inappropriate choices.

Since mischievous 2nd graders tend to stand out, this is much more difficult than it sounds. Next time you notice an off-task student, instead of going straight for direct reprimands, try praising a student within his or her proximity who is following instructions.  “I appreciate how respectfully John is raising his hand to share his ideas” gives effective feedback both to John and to a classmate who has shouted out, while placing the positive attention on the student making better choices.

Note: We absolutely believe that constructive criticism has its place; however, we contend it should be a secondary strategy–not your primary one.

3rd Grade: Teach students about the balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Perhaps you have set up some kind of extrinsic motivation system in your classroom, such as earning classroom “money” for positive behavior.  Especially when used intermittently, this can be a valuable classroom tool.  However, imagine a statement such as, “I’m impressed that Johnny didn’t even need to earn a bonus to push in his chair.  He has become a responsible enough 3rd grader that he knows how to take care of our classroom without any extra reward.”  There is clear potential there for shaping a student’s desire for self-development, rather than always depending on tangible rewards.

4th Grade: Reinforce your instructions.

It’s exhausting to repeat yourself to inattentive students. Instead, picture this scenario.  As you discuss with your 4th graders the procedure for your latest science inquiry experiment, you jot each step on the whiteboard.  Then, as soon as students begin, flood the transition with simple, out-loud observations of those double-checking those procedures, such as “I see Kalli quickly gathering her supplies as we discussed for step 1,” or “Paul is double-checking step 3 on the board before he proceeds.”

The point: Proper instructions get reinforced, you don’t feel like a nag, and students who follow instructions get some recognition.  Win-win-win.

5th Grade: Reinforce your expectations.

As your fifth graders have generally become quite familiar with one another through their primary years, they often become quite social–which adds both liveliness and challenges to your classroom management approach.  Proactively reinforcing the appropriate times and contexts for socializing may keep the school year running more smoothly.  Some examples of this kind of feedback: “I see Marta respectfully listening to her group member, waiting to contribute her ideas until it’s her turn” or “Joseph wisely chose not to stand by his best buddies in line so he won’t be tempted to chat as we walk down the halls to lunch.”

Chris Suderman
Chris Suderman
6th Grade: Encourage specific growth.

Each year, my feedback tends to center around one idea or theme.  Some have included:

  • Make life easier for others.
  • Say no to distractions. (Inspired by Steve Jobs quote.)
  • You may solve your problems in ways that aren’t problematic for yourself or others.

These themes arose from the opportunities for growth I observed in each class collectively, and I voiced them every single day through my specific positive praise.  “Nancy made Jim’s life easier by stacking his chair when she saw he was busy at the end of the day.” “Robert is saying no to distractions by putting away his pencil during instructions.”  “Cindy solved her problem of losing her permission slip by making a new one for her parents to sign.”  My fifth graders became so familiar with it that they started using similar language in their own conversations.  Daily illustrating what it looked, felt, and sounded like through positive praise had a much more lasting impact than an individual lesson might have had.

7th Grade: Give reminders to off-task students without confrontation.

By 7th grade, most students “catch on,” often manifested by eye-rolling.  A strategy that involves reminding students of appropriate behavior without direct confrontation may be the very tool you need that will preempt power struggles throughout the year.

8th Grade: Build rapport with students.

By 8th grade, overt teacher praise is often officially “uncool.” Depending on the student, you may actually push away certain students if they feel overly recognized.  But as you gear your positive praise toward a more one-on-one level, it can still have a powerful role in building your relationships with students as they sense you respect them as mature young adults.  For instance, you may pull aside a student for this kind of feedback: “I could tell you dedicated some thoughtful reflection in your essay; I have other students that don’t yet understand what that kind of serious reflecting looks like, so I was wondering if you’d mind my sharing it with the class?  I can keep your name anonymous if you would prefer.”

9th Grade: Align your practices with research.

At Purdue University, the Department of Child Development and Family Studies discussed John Gottman’s positive to negative feedback ratio.  According to his research, marriage relationships thrive when that ratio is balanced at 5:1.¹  This research is reinforced in the classroom by numerous additional studies which find that “the use of contingent, behavior-specific praise has been linked to positive student outcomes, including increased student academic engagement and decreased disruptive behavior.”²  We simply must have a greater number of positive interactions with our students than negative.

fasdf via Flickr
10th Grade: Let the modeling of quality thinking and choices come from students’ peers.

21st Century learning and teaching is defined by a technology-facilitated shift: from teachers as sources of knowledge, to guides who coach students to assess and evaluate the knowledge now at all our fingertips.  Embrace this shift by allowing student peers’ work to be the model wherever possible.  Supporting the philosophy that quality ideas can come from anyone–instead of just one wisened individual–is both empowering and realistic in this modern age of collaboration.  For example: “Check out how Lucas is approaching this algorithm.  How can that strategy be helpful for some individuals?”

11th Grade: Encourage students to make better use of their resources.

Let’s say you put some dictionaries in your classroom (or the link to on your class blog homepage), hoping that will help eradicate spelling errors.  Maybe you even give your students a mini-lesson on how to look up words in the dictionary for spelling aid.  However, none of your best efforts will encourage students to utilize that resource as well as praising a student who does so.

12th Grade: Cultivate a growth mindset.

The way we praise students has a greater impact on their development than we may realize.  A motivation researcher at Stanford, Carol Dweck, has addressed the terms, fixed mindset and growth mindset.³  Students who receive praise that focuses on innate ability (“You got 100%–you’re so smart at math!”) develop a fixed mindset–instilling perfectionism, fear of failure, and belief that ability is static.  When the praise centers around effort (“You got 100%–you must have worked so hard!”), students develop a growth mindset–leading to courage, perseverance, and belief that ability is malleable.  See an inspiring video on this subject by Khan Academy below.

  1. Poulson, Shruti S. (March 2008). A Fine Balance: The Magic Ratio to a Healthy Relationship. Purdue Extension, CFS-744-W. Retrieved from
  2. Rodriguez, Billie J. and Sprick, Randy. Why a Positive Approach to Behavior? A Research Summary. Randy Sprick’s Safe and Civil Schools. Retrieved from
  3. Dweck, Carol S. (January 2010). Mind-Sets and Equitable Education. Principal Leadership. Retrieved from
Photo Credit:

5 Back-to-School Posters for Any Classroom

School is back into full-swing for many schools by now.  Amid back-to-school supplies, carefully-designed units, and seating charts, remember to maintain a vision of those things that are most important.  Here are a few of our favorite reminders.

#1: Brene Brown’s Leadership Manifesto


(and while you’re at it, perhaps her “Engaged Feedback Checklist,” too.  Both of these come from her latest book, Daring Greatly, which is definitely a worthwhile read for any educator!)

#2:  Bill Ferriter’s essential technology reminder

Via William Ferriter’s flickr stream

#3: Ann Lander’s wisdom on child autonomy

via Ann Landers
via (@4collegeparents)

#4: Dr. Haim Ginott’s realization on a teacher’s daily influence

Background image by Case Wade
Background image by Case Wade

#5: And this.

printers smell fear
Via @WeAreTeachers

Or maybe just a poster that says, “Serenity now!”  Have a great 2014-2015 year!

Featured Image: (only visible on mobile devices with current layout) Nick Amoscato

Keeping a Window Open: 10 Tips to Keep Up with Education during (Extended) Parental Leave

If you’re pausing your teaching career during parental leave for a few years, we have some ideas to help you keep up with the education world!

#1: Watch for license renewal credits opportunities

When the time comes for you to resume your teaching career, you don’t want to be stuck with retroactively tracking down hours and paperwork!  Develop a professional learning plan now, combing your state or country requirements.  Contact your prior administration for documentation of any accumulated credits during your employment.

#2: Volunteer at your last school

Strap on that Baby Bjorn or occasionally drop off kids with a babysitter to maintain educational ties in your community.  Gauge what’s realistic for your circumstances, though, whether it’s simply to read with students now and then, or to facilitate an extracurricular activity, such as a TED-Ed Club

#3: Volunteer online

Sign up to tutor online! Become a Granny in Sugata Mitra’s “School in the Cloud.”  You can even combine #2 & #3 via interactive platforms like Skype.  For instance, when I was housebound during our school’s annual PYP Exhibition process, I volunteered to mentor a few student groups through weekly Skype “meetings” instead.  The students loved sharing their progress on the webcam, and I loved being involved despite my situation.

#4: Set up a Twitter account!! (and otherwise build/maintain your PLN)

This is probably the best way to keep current: the latest practices, digital tools, and issues are thoroughly shared and discussed on Twitter.  Building your PLN of other passionate teachers around the globe further enhances the professional development potential.  For further convincing, check out Krissy Venosdale’s article, “I’m Not Going to Convince You That You Need a PLN.”

#5: Join webinars & e-courses

Classroom 2.0 LIVE hosts free online shows.  PLP Network offers purchased E-courses (with options for graduate credit, too). And once you’ve established #4, Twitter Chats can be especially helpful–for me, one solid chat usually ends with with about 37 new open tabs of resources.

#6: Organize your old resources

Was packing your classroom materials a whirlwind of items flying into unlabeled boxes?  Then you need to fire up your scanner and read our post on getting organized.  ASAP.  Your sanity will thank you later when you resume teaching.

#7: Organize your new resources

After getting inspired by the 37+ tabs of resources discovered during a Tweet Chat, make sure you can find them again!  Establish a bookmarking system that works for you, be it a Delicious account, or several categorized folders to sort your bookmarks on your browser (Chrome is a great option since it saves your bookmarks across your devices if you’re logged into your Google account).

#8: Develop a Skill

Brush up your old high school Spanish using the free Duolingo app.  Fine-tune your piano playing.  Explore PhotoShop or Prezi.  Anything that you enjoy will enhance your classroom, even if it’s not directly related to your content–after all, your future students need models of adults pursuing passions!

#9: Revamp Your Class Blog!

Browse your favorite class blogs, and then find ways to incorporate your favorite user-friendly features on your own blog!

#10: Re-evaluate your WHY as a Teacher!

Reflect on your previous practices and honestly assess what can be improved or tossed altogether.  Consider how you can return to the educational work-force with an even deeper commitment to authentic learning (on that subject, be sure to check out our tips on becoming a 21st Century teacher)!

And of course, remember to make the most of this precious and swiftly passing time with your little one(s)!

Credit: Mary Wade

Featured Image: Death to the Stock 

How the Digital Age is Altering Education’s Landscape (it’s not the gadgets…)

“There’s something powerful and exciting about the society-wide experiment the digital age has thrust upon us.” ~James Estrin, National Geographic¹

Drip Effect

Whatever shape our personal digital involvement takes, the above statement has become irrefutable. With an exponential quantity of global interaction on our hands, we can already identify many ways our lives have changed.  However, time has yet to fully reveal the long term and unintended impacts of technology, known as “drip effects” (Peter Skillen gives the example of cars, where their original purpose was to simply transport people places; the unexpected drip effect became the phenomenon of city sprawl and suburban life²).  To us, the most thrilling aspect of this “society wide experiment” lies in education.

Sudden Educational Evolution

For many years, education remained fairly static.  Professors of education could share similar concepts and resources for decades, with little deviation.  Sure, the pendulum would, at times, swing between such matters as phonics vs. whole language, but nothing altered too radically.

Now, all that is changing thanks to technology.  It’s not just social media platforms that create customized professional development for teachers.  It’s not just cloud storage like Google Drive that foster global collaboration.  It’s not even just Youtube videos that provide instant tutorials for every topic under the sun.  It’s a revolutionizing and unexpected drip-effect: the manner in which teachers are pioneering new practices.  Since even those who graduated college 5 years ago were unlikely to have possessed a textbook on the benefits of Twitter in the classroom, teachers are tinkering and experimenting with new resources themselves–learning and growing right alongside their students!

The Counterintuitive Effects of Vulnerability

This kind of pioneering requires teachers to share their personal, authentic, and vulnerable learning processes–the out-loud wondering, the messy brainstorming, the trial and error, the failed projects–all are brought front and center in the classroom.  What is the result when students watch adults experience genuine learning?  In the “Pencil Metaphor” below (as shared in other posts), the erasers, ferrules, and hangers-on may fear that exposing their limitations could result in a loss of respect, productivity, or control.  The the rest are discovering the true results: strengthened relationships as students see their teachers as more human; heightened motivation as students are inspired by what lifelong learning looks like; and abundant empowerment for everyone in an atmosphere where it is safe to experiment, fail, discover, and grow.

Retrieved: Clouducation (original creator unknown)
Retrieved: Clouducation (original creator unknown)

During the most recent #5thchat (held Tuesday nights at 8 pm ET), Tyson Lane summarized this approach well:

Such common sharing and learning is also reinforced by the findings of vulnerability and shame researcher, Brene Brown, when she describes the necessary shift in education and business alike, “from controlling to engaging with vulnerability–taking risks and cultivating trust”³ (p. 209.  See her terrific manifesto for leaders here).

Walking the Talk

I was always surprised at how much one phrase delighted my students: “I don’t know.”  Giggles and slightly dropped jaws would consistently ensue, followed by profound discussions on whether I should find out myself (while modeling to them), or whether they could help me figure it out.  My most carefully crafted inquiry questions rarely elicited as much engagement from my students as those three words.  Similarly, I once attempted to create a DIY interactive whiteboard with a Wii remote–a venture that ultimately proved completely ineffective.  Though one might expect that students would respond to such failure with scorn, my students were keenly supportive through every step–and in turn, showed increased willingness to try and share new ideas themselves.

Through blogs, Twitter, and more, I have learned from exceptional individuals who are boldly learning with their students. Listed below are a few:

Trying new technology to improve your classroom is risky.  But even if the intended goal fails, the drip effect of being vulnerable with your students and allowing them to watch you authentically learn is priceless.


  1. Estrin, J. “The Visual Village.” National Geographic. October 2013.
  2. Skillen, P. “The Drip Effects of Technology.”
  3. Brown, Brown. Daring Greatly. New York: Gotham Books, 2012. Print.

Featured Image:

Jason Paluck