Category Archives: 2. Teaching, learning, and assessments

Personalized Learning: Giving Students a Voice

While taking Seattle Pacific University’s EDTC 6103 Teaching, Learning, and Assessment 2 class, we are asked to investigate the following ISTE Educator Standards:

Designer: Educators design authentic, learner-driven activities and environments that recognize and accommodate learner variability.

Analyst:Educators understand and use data to drive their instruction and support students in achieving their learning goals.

While first researching these standards I was curious about technologies role on supporting personalized learning in the classroom. I had a brief idea of what personalized learning was and set out to find out more on how to integrate personalized learning into my classroom with the support of technology.

  • 5a. Use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs.
  • 5b. Design authentic learning activities that align with content area standards and use digital tools and resources to maximize active, deep learning.
  • 7a. Provide alternative ways for students to demonstrate competency and reflect on their learning using technology.

Personalized Learning

One Size Does NOT Fit All

Personalized learning differs from the traditional models of teaching in that it is “specifically tailored to students strengths, needs, and interests while ensuring the highest standards possible”. (Grant, 2019) Instead of teaching every student the same, you are looking to see what each student needs in order to grow. This may also mean that students are learning at different paces and ability levels in order to ensure each student is getting what they need in order to succeed.

For example, if you look at the images below you will see three individuals trying to watch a baseball game. On the left you see that each individual was given the same amount of boxes, this can also be equivalent to a teacher giving the same instruction to all students. There may be those who succeed within the lesson similar to the taller individual, but there also may be those who struggle to understand similar to the individual on the right struggling to see.

Similar to the right side of the picture above, in a personalized learning model students are given access to “tools and feedback that motivate them to capitalize on their unique skills and potential” (Grant, 2019) to be successful. Personalized learning empowers students to take a stand in their education and make it meaningful to their lives and interests. By personalizing students education you are preparing them for the 21st century world we live in.

What does this look like?

In Peggy Grant’s book, “Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology” she provides the following characteristics to a successful personalized learning initiative:

How is this different than Individualization?

When I first began researching personalized learning I was quite confused on how this was different than individualization. Luckily for me Peggy Grant provided the following chart to help me better understand:

Implementing Digital Tools and Resources

Digital Tools

Digital tools encourage student-centered learning by giving students:

  • More control over learning methodologies that fit their best learning style (Grant, 2019)
  • A sense of ownership when choosing how they learn best (Grant, 2019)
  • Accountability for how they choose to learn (Grant, 2019)

“Digital tools also helps students demonstrate 21st century skills such as communication, collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity through the creation, consumption, manipulation, and sharing of digital content.” (Grant, 2019)

Digital Resources

Literacy Resources-“Ebooks, blogs, and discussion boards help students learn as they use their preferred learning styles and interests, as well as 

introduce them to multiple texts on similar topics.” (Grant, 2019)

Web Tools- “Podcasts, wikis, and media editors, allow students to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. Using these tools not only helps students develop important 

technology skills, but also provides ways for students to share their work and benefit from the motivation of an authentic audience.” (Grant, 2019)

Digital Information Resources- “Provide students with immediate answers. Instant access to encylopedia sits, podcats, expert websites and blogs, as well as to social media sites, ensure that students are able to interact effectively with content and experts. “(Grant, 2019)

Learning Management Systems- “Help teachers organize instruction and communicate with students and parents to support personalization by providing a platform for accessing content and keeping records of students’ progress. ” (Grant, 2019)

Khan Academy-Personalized Learning


Edutopia. (2017, September 21). Supercharging the Classroom: Using Technology to Support Personalized Learning. Retrieved from

Grant, Peggy. Basye, Dale. (2019). Personalized Learning, A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology. Retrieved from

ISTE. (2019). ISTE Standards for Educators. Retrieved from

Global Collaborator

Two memories stand out from my early elementary years: checking out my first public library book, which was about a day in the life of children in Japan who were “getting up as I was going to bed,” and writing a report on Australia and learning the song Waltzing Matilda. By today’s standards, these are hardly examples of “global collaborative learning,” but they remind me how exploring different cultures during childhood can leave a lasting impression and shape our identities as global citizens.

In our current module in Learning, Teaching, and Assessment 2, we are focusing on the ISTE Standard 4 for Educators: Collaborator.  I was interested in learning more about standard 4c: “Use collaborative tools to expand students’ authentic, real-world learning experiences by engaging virtually with experts, teams and students, locally and globally” (ISTE 2017).

Benefits of Global Collaboration in the Classroom

Instead of passively reading or watching an artifact created by others, video conferencing and real-time collaboration tools like Skype in the Classroom or Google Hangouts allow students to interact with experts, adults and other students anywhere in the world. In doing so they develop key skills that will help them navigate an increasingly global society.

Figure 1.1 shows the many ways that global collaboration helps students grow into world citizens.

Fig. 1.1 Benefits of Student Global Collaboration. Source: Liebtag et. al., (2016)

What’s Stopping Every Classroom from Going Global?

Tools such as Skype in the Classroom and global education collaboration websites such as,, make it increasingly easy to set up a variety of interactions with experts, teachers, and students around the globe.  Skype in the Classroom for example allows teachers to search by topic and interaction type and input availability. The only technology required is a high speed internet connection, a PC with a web camera and a microphone, and access to video conferencing software. In spite of this, however, interacting remotely with experts or classrooms is rare in K-5 learning.

Barriers & Enablers

Lindsay and Redmond (2017) conducted interviews with a group of educators whose classrooms participate in global collaborative learning to understand what types of things hinder and enable teachers in these activities. They found that typical barriers include a lack of time, autonomy, and importance placed on global collaboration within their organization, as well as not having the necessary hardware and software or technological expertise.

Conversely, teachers who had the support of administrators and other community members for both a global teaching focus and “educator risk taking” (Lindsay and Redmond, 2017, p. 6) were more likely to incorporate global collaboration in their classrooms. A “small and trusting” (p. 6) global professional learning network (PLN) also helped educators learn how to overcome attitude and technology barriers within their schools and share ideas, best practices and tools.

Educator experience and mindset also played a role in successful global learning in their classrooms. Teachers with more pedagogical and technology experience were more likely to try global collaboration. Educator mindset and curiosity also contributed to the interest and perseverance of successful global collaboration projects. One participant in the Lindsay and Redmond (2017) study described it as “Some of it has been a personal interest [in] finding out how technology can transform and enhance learning for students” (p. 6).

Role of Experience with Professional Development and Videoconferencing

Interestingly, several studies referenced by Klenke (2014), show that when educators receive some of their own professional development training through videoconferencing they are more likely to successfully use videoconferencing in their classrooms. In a large-scale project funded by the Canadian government on videoconferencing in education, teachers “…reported that their students had positive student-centered and collaborative learning experiences as a result of their own involvement using videoconferencing” (p. 18).

Types of Collaboration

There are many ways student can collaborate with other students or with experts in the field, but for true collaboration to occur, “Parties [must be] committed to learning something together and cooperating in the achievement of a goal that they cannot achieve individually” (Manso and Garzon, 2011, p. 33).  Once learning goals are established, tools should be chosen that best fits those goals (Manso and Garzon, 2011) and may include a combination of real time and asynchronous technology.

Figure 1.2 Examples of Synchronous and Asynchronous Tools


For real time collaboration with other classes, virtual field trips or virtual visits with experts or authors, video conferencing software like Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangouts can be used, or collaboration platforms such as Empatico or National Geographic Explorer Classroom.


If time zones or scheduling is an issue, collaboration can occur using tools that don’t require real time interaction such as Padlet, FlipGrid, Google Docs, OneNote, or ePals.

Combining Tools

For collaborative project based learning, a combination of synchronous and asynchronous tools may be best. For example, students may video conference to meet one and other, discuss ideas for their project, hold review meetings, or present their findings. Documents and other resources could be shared asynchronously on a jointly-owned online space like Google docs or Padlet. A final presentation could be created with input by both classrooms using PowerPoint (online), Google Slides, Adobe Spark, or Prezi.

Preparing for a Collaboration Session

  • Teachers from collaborating classrooms should work together to establish learning goals. Manzo and Garzon (2011) recommend selecting a topic relevant to what students are learning or that connect with their everyday lives.
  • Students should develop their presentations and practice interaction prior to meeting online. If videoconferencing, it should be decided who is going to speak and in what order. Questions should be prewritten, and if appropriate, provided to the collaborating classroom or expert beforehand. (Empatico Room Setup Guide)
  • The space/time for video conferencing should be considered and the hardware and software should be tested before the day of collaboration. (Empatico Room Setup Guide).
  • Students should understand their roles & responsibilities and how they will be evaluated (Manso and Garzon, 2011).
  • Traditional “talking head” style lectures should be kept to a minimum of 15-25 minutes while video conferencing, beyond which the student interest diminishes  (Greenberg, 2004, p. 16).


Figure 1.3 Collaborative Resources

Here are some examples of products or resources that can be used for global classroom collaboration:

Meet with an Expert

Virtual Field Trips

Collaboration with other Classes

General Resources


Greenberg, A. 2004. Navigating the sea of research on videoconferencing-based distance education: A platform for understanding research into the technology’s effectiveness and value. Waynehouse Research. Retrieved from:

ISTE Standards for Educators (2017). Retrieved from:

Klenke, H. A., 2014. The effects of interactive videoconferencing on elementary literacy : collaborative learning environment. University of Northern Iowa UNI ScholarWorks Graduate Research Papers. Retrieved from:

Liebtag, E., Knight, A., Tomlinson, G. Mansori, M. Van Voorhis, M. Oxley, T. & Kennedy, J. (2016). Global education and equitable preparation: An educator’s digest of facts and figures, 2016., Center for International Education, Inc. Retrieved from:

Lindsay, J. & Redmond, P. (2017). Online global collaboration – affordances and inhibitors. In H. Partridge, K. Davis, & J. Thomas. (Eds.), Me, Us, IT! Proceedings ASCILITE2017: 34th International Conference on Innovation, Practice and Research in the Use of Educational Technologies in Tertiary Education (pp. 293-303). Retrieved from:

Room setup guide (ND). Retrieved from:

Community Engagement Project: Understanding by Design Model

This quarter as part of Seattle Pacific University’s MEd in Digital Education Leadership, our cohort practiced using the Understanding by Design Model of teaching. We were asked to create a lesson plan that consists of student standards, digital citizenship elements, and the use of technology however when planning the lesson we were also asked to use the backwards design process.

This blog post will showcase a Kindergarten lesson I designed for my students using the Understanding by Design Model as well as my reflection on using the backwards design process.


The activity I will be using for this project is a collaborative project in which my students and I will be building a digital classroom E book. We have recently been learning about 3D shapes and I wanted them to begin seeing these shapes in the environments around them. For this project students will take digital photographs of 3D shapes around our school and I will upload them into our classroom computer. Next, the students and I will look at the photographs we took of the 3D shapes and use positional words to make sentences for our book. For example, one page of the book might be a picture of a ball at recess. We would look at the photo and using positional words come up with a sentence like, “The ball is on the grass.”

Kindergarten Concepts
-3D shapes
-Positional words

Technology Concepts
-Digital photo taking
-Creating classroom Ebook

Digital Citizenship Opportunity
-Go over copyright. We took these images of our school and explain how it would be unfair for someone to use our images without our permission or consent. Remember that when we use images online that other people have taken that we must give credit to them.

Creating the Lesson

The Six Facets of Understanding

For my lesson shown above I showed evidence of the six facets of understanding through the following:

  • Students would be able to explain the steps and process of making a classroom E-book and understand why making an E-Book can help others in our school/community.
  • Students needed to interpret what a 3D shape is and properties of each shape to successfully find shapes around the school.
  • Students would apply their knowledge of 3D shapes and Positional Words to create a Digital Page for our Classroom E-book.
  • Students would use their perspective to chose pictures they find best represents 3D shapes as well as a picture they would be able to write a sentence using a positional word with.
  • When reflecting upon making the 3D shape E-Book, students would learn about how our E-Book could be shared with others. They would also learn how to empathize with other classrooms who do not have access to such technologies to create their own.
  • Students would also learn the importance of Copyright and how to empathize when others use their photos without giving them credit for taking them.
  • Students would provide self-knowledge about 3D shapes at the beginning of the lesson when asked to identify shapes they see around their community.

Digital Citizenship

ISTE Student Standard 2C:
Students demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the rights and obligations of using and sharing intellectual property.

In my lesson I incorporated digital citizenship using the experience of photo-taking to discuss basic copyright rules with my young learners. Most of my learners are new to technology and I wanted to find a way to relate a digital citizenship element to something they did during the lesson. I felt teaching them to give credit to photos and documents we read/use online would be a great lesson to pair with their performance task. I felt that discussing respect and rules of sharing online resources while students were feeling proud and invested in the photos they had taken would be more meaningful to the students and hopefully have a bigger impact in teaching them to be responsible digital citizens.

Project Reflection

I felt this project taught me the importance of keeping the end in mind when planning lessons. Many times it can be easy to come up with ideas and projects for students, but you can struggle to find standards or objectives that are relevant to what they should be learning. Using the backwards design ensures that the standards are being met, I am collecting appropriate assessment data, and that my lesson is relevant to what the students should be learning.

One area I would like to continue to improve on is finding age appropriate apps and programs I can use in lessons that allow my young learners to begin exploring technology and learning how to be responsible digital citizens. Luckily for me I am in a program with many voices to provide guidance and suggestions.


Common Core State Standards. (2019). Retrieved from

ISTE Standards for Students (2016). Retrieved from:

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Makey Makey & Scratch: Getting a 4th Grader’s Attention

For the Community Engagement project in this quarter’s Teaching, Learning and Assessment 1 class, I chose to create a lesson that tied a hands-on technology lesson to 4th grade students’ learning about electrical circuits.


I am fortunate to work with a talented technology teacher who introduced me to Makey Makey, a simple circuit board that connects to a PC via a USB cable and can be used, among other things, to show students in a visceral way how different materials either conduct or insulate electrical current, and the difference between an open and closed circuit.

After working with the tech teacher in her classes, I taught a similar lesson in a 4th grade class at another school. I opened with a brief description of conductive and insulative materials and the way that electricity requires a closed circuit to flow. I asked students if they remembered learning about this in their unit on energy, and a few students raised their hands but the rest appeared to not remember. Though the class was very engaged during the hands-on part of Makey Makey, I couldn’t help thinking how much more meaningful the lesson could have been if it had done within the context of the Magnetism and Electricity module of their Science curriculum.

A simple version of this lesson can be done using any app (such as Word) that uses the arrow keys, space bar or mouse since Makey Makey maps these inputs (key-presses, mouse clicks) to places on the Makey Makey board that you can connect different objects to. However to make it more interesting and to integrate coding concepts into the lesson, students can write their own simple program in Scratch (see Introduction to Makey Makey video below).

Introduction to Makey Makey by Teaching Robots (2015). Retrieved from:

Sample Code in Scratch to Move Cat Around the Screen

Thinking About Thinking

The DEL program, and this class in particular, is making me think about thinking, or metacognition, in the context of teaching technology. Because technology classes in the schools I work in are not graded and time with students is limited to once per week, there is no formal assessment done to determine how much students have learned. This will undoubtedly change as computer science classes become mandatory in K-8, but until then each tech teacher has to do their own form of assessing student knowledge.

I used this community engagement assignment to consider, in a perfect world where computer science/physical computing class is part of daily or almost daily learning, what could be done to help students think about what they have learned in the context of the lesson. Though the flashy aspect of the project is memorable (touching a banana made the cat jump!) how can students make a strong connection to other parts of their learning?

Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design, also referred to as UbD (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), invites educators to take a backwards approach to lesson design: start with what understandings you want your students to walk away with after doing the lesson and design the lesson accordingly.

Following the UbD process, I broke the lesson design into three stages:

Stage 1: Desired Results

To establish goals and understandings as outlined by UbD, I reviewed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Washington State K-12 Computer Science standards for 4th grade to determine which could be supported in the lesson, as well as what basic understandings in electricity and computer science appropriate to this grade level could be gained and which essential questions should be covered.

Stage 2: Assessment Evidence

Starting with how I might assess evidence of student learning, as well as how students might assess their own learning, completely drove the lesson plan (which I realize was the whole point of the exercise). I started by trying to determine what the class might already know about electricity and circuits using a class mind mapping exercise (Gates).

Following the completed project, I chose to have student pairs share what they had learned in front of the whole class and complete an Engineering Notebook (document embedded at the end of the post) that encouraged them to think about what they learned regarding circuits, conductivity; input/output, events, and comments in Scratch; and finally, how they worked together as a team.

At the suggestion of my instructor, I created a basic rubric to make it clear to students what criteria they were being assessed on. The rubric also includes a column for students to assess their own work.

Stage 3: Learning Plan

My learning plan broke down the project into three segments:

  1. An introduction to determine what students already knew about electrical circuits, filling in the gaps through discussion and a short video; an explanation and demonstration (or video) of Makey Makey, and a demonstration of how to build a basic program in Scratch.
  2. Hands-on coding in Scratch, testing materials, building the input devices, and responding to the prompts in the Engineering Notebook.
  3. Each pair of students presenting their findings and project to the class as outlined in the Engineering Notebook, followed by an all-class discussion of understandings and essential questions.

The complete Lesson Plan and the Engineering Notebook are embedded at the end of this post.

The Six Facets of Understanding

The UbD process breaks down the term “understanding” into six components: Explanation, Interpretation, Application, Perspective, Empathy, and Self Knowledge (Wiggins & McTighe 2005). In my lesson, I tried to address each as follows.

  • Students can explain what facts they have acquired and their interpretations of the topic through their class demonstrations and Engineering Notebook entries.
  • Students apply what they learned by coding a program, making an input device that conducts electricity, and successfully building a working electric circuit.
  • Perspective can be gained for those students who might not see themselves as having anything in common with programmers or scientists, but suddenly, here they are, coding and experimenting. They might also gain perspective on problems faced during the project while working with a partner who may offer different solutions or ways of looking at the problem, or when watching their classmates’ project demonstrations.
  • Empathy could be experienced through difficulties they face in the project (“this must be what programmers or electrical engineers deal with all the time”), in trying to help their partner understand something, or in relating to any struggles with the project that their classmates describe.
  • Self Knowledge comes into play through participating in the mind mapping exercise, completing the Engineering Notebook (including the page on how well students worked together as a team), and the self assessment part of the rubric.

Digital Citizenship

As part of this assignment, we were to consider how the ISTE Student Standard 2, Digital Citizen, could be factored into our lesson. Most of this lesson, with the exception of using Scratch and watching an online video, is offline. An online component could be added to it, however, by going to the main Scratch website as a class and looking at other posted Makey Makey projects. The teacher could demonstrate how Scratch projects can be “remixed” and how credit can be given to the original creator on the opening page of a project. The teacher could also model leaving a comment on a particularly compelling project that the class voted on.

Screenshot of a search of the Scratch website for Makey Makey projects.

Project Reflection

This project, though challenging given my lack of formal teacher training, was an excellent learning experience. I really appreciated the UbD process and found it immensely helpful to start with the essential understandings I wanted students to gain from the lesson and work backwards from there.

Areas I think need work include the amount of time the lesson takes in its current form. I know that it is unrealistic given how technology classes are currently being taught in K-5. Also, I wonder in my drive to assess knowledge if I am taking some of the fun out of the lesson by requiring them to fill out the Engineering Notebook. I know some students will not enjoy the process. I would try to pair a student who likes to write with one who might prefer explaining things verbally so the work could be shared in a way that allows them to apply their strengths.

If I was working with a class that was experienced in Scratch, I would like to open the project up and allow students to create any program in Scratch that used the minimum 5-6 main Makey Makey inputs, plus more if they were so inclined (Makey Makey has additional, harder to connect to ports on the back of the board). I also would like to encourage students to bring materials from home that they want to test and really get creative with the input device design.

Lesson Plan

Engineering Notebook


DK Findout Energy. (2018). Stanford, O. Dutta, A., Gupta, K., (Eds.). New York, NY: DK Publishing.

Gates, J. 4th Grade Science unit 9, lesson 1, pre-assessment. Retrieved from:

Introduction to Makey Makey (2015). Teaching Robots. Retrieved from:

Next Generation Science Standards – 4th Grade (2013). Retrieved from:

Next Generation Science Standards – 4th Grade-topical model-bundle 2 energy transfer and information transmission (2016). Retrieved from:

Next Generation Science Standards – 4th Grade summary and flow chart (2016). Retrieved from:

Washington State Learning Standards Kindergarten – 12 Computer Science (2018). Retrieved from:

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Storytellers: the Original Computational Thinkers

Over the past few weeks, we have been focusing on computational thinking in our “Learning,Teaching and Assessment 1” class in SPU’s Digital Education Leadership program. ISTE’s Student Standard 5c describes one of the key aspects of being a computational thinker: “Students break problems into component parts, extract key information, and develop descriptive models to understand complex systems or facilitate problem-solving” (ISTE Standards for Students, 2016).

By that definition, I wondered if storytellers may have been the original computational thinkers. As a former English major, I couldn’t help but be tempted by this line of thinking. Also, as a new literacy that has yet to make its way into most schools as a dedicated subject (Bers, 2018), I wanted to look into ways that teachers could embed computational thinking and coding into a subject like Language Arts that is already part of their day.

Computational Thinking

Jeanette Wing, working as a Computer Science professor at Carnegie Mellon in the mid-2000s, referred to computational thinking “…as a set of attitudes and skills a person would need to confidently persist toward identifying, posing, and solving problems” (Krauss & Prottsman, 2017, p. 4). The four key aspects of computational thinking that can be applied to many different subject areas are:

Decomposition: Breaking complex problems into smaller parts

Pattern Recognition: Discerning patterns that can be used to streamline or better understand a process or problem.

Abstraction: Representing data through abstractions, such as models and simulations (Bar, Harrison, & Conery, 2011) ; identifying general rules for creating patterns, or as Nat, a student in my cohort described it, keeping relevant information and ignoring the noise.

Algorithms: An ordered procedure “…with the goal of achieving the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources” to accomplish something (Bar, Harrison, & Conery, 2011).

Example: Storytellers as Computational Thinkers

“Odysseus Resisting the Sirens” photo by Christopher Rose (2011). Attribution: CC BY-NC 2.0.
Retrieved from:

Even before written language, one could argue that oral storytellers applied what we call computational thinking to two problems they faced: encoding the story of their people and keeping their audience entertained.

Decomposition was used to break down a history of a people and the locations where they had lived into individual stories that focused on a particular character and place, like Achilles and the siege of Troy in The Iliad. Explaining culturally significant events in terms of discreet, relatable parts made them easier for their audience to remember.

Storytellers understood that humans like patterns, so narrative and character archetypes and language repetition were woven into their work. Epic poem heroes like Achilles, Odysseus, and Beowulf overcome multiple challenges in a pattern of problem/threat and resolution. In addition to holding their audience’s attention, patterns like this made it easier for their listeners to remember the stories because the narrative structures were familiar.

Distilling a history of events and people into a single story that focuses on individual characters and settings is an example of abstraction: identifying the key patterns, keeping relevant information and ignoring the noise.

Like algorithms, stories are designed to follow a cohesive order so they accomplish their goal of clearly relaying information.

Computational Thinking & Coding as a New Literacy

“Two Little Girls Using Computer” by atikinka2 from Getty Images via Canva.

Even though it can be argued that the four elements of computational thinking described above have always been part of human problem-solving skills, using these elements in the context of communicating with computers to solve problems is a new type of literacy. Just as technologies such as pen and paper and the printing press changed how humans expressed themselves by creating a written artifact of their thinking that could be “…analyzed, deconstructed, and interpreted” (Bers, p. 25), computational thinking as applied to computers gives life to our thoughts and ideas through the code that we create.

Learning computational thinking through coding provides an opportunity to dissect what we often don’t pay attention to: everything from the language that we use to the processes we take for granted. For example, when you code a game that asks users to respond in a certain way, you quickly realize when you watch someone play it that there are many ways to interpret an onscreen instruction. Or, in trying to program a robot to accomplish a task a human could easily do, you realize how complex the process really is. Learning to code helps us to notice things, which often leads to communicating more precisely and devising more efficient ways of doing things.

Marina Bers, who with Mitchel Resnick at MIT developed Scratch Jr., expresses the need to treat computational thinking as a new literacy in this way:

“We start teaching kids to read and write in early childhood. However we don’t expect every child to grow into a professional writer. I believe textual literacy is both an important skill and intellectual tool for everyone. So it is with coding. I do not advocate for all children to grow into software engineers…but I want them to have computational literacy so they can become producers, and not only consumers, of digital artifacts.” (Bers, 2018, p. 9)

Including Computational Thinking and Coding in Language Arts

A lot of the programming instruction for younger children that has been taught in schools and clubs has been solving puzzles, such as getting Angry Bird safely to the pig while avoiding the TNT. Though puzzle solving is a useful way to teach programming concepts like loops and conditionals, if it is the only exposure to coding, it’s like “…teaching them to write by only teaching grammar and punctuation” (Bers, 2018, quoting Mitch Resnick, p. 62). And as Bers points out, “…the lack of opportunities for self expression turns off many”(p.29).

Fortunately, there are ways to combine coding with Language Arts that promotes creativity, learning to code, and Language Arts learning.

Computer Poetry and Mad Libs

“I foot madlibs” Erin Stevenson O’Connor, 2011.
Retrieved from:
Attribution: (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Seymour Papert was the creator of LOGO, the first computer program language for children, and a huge proponent of introducing programming as a tool for creative expression. In his 1980 book Mindstorms, Papert describes a year-long study done by his group at MIT with middle school students. Among the 7th graders was a girl who had been creating “computer poetry” or the poetry equivalent of mad libs. Prior to this programming lesson, she had not understood the difference between parts of speech, nor did she appreciate learning about them. However once she began to program the computer to generate poetry, she suddenly understood the importance and use of the different categories of words and the need for choosing the correct type of word for each instance. Papert said: “What she learned about grammar from this experience…was anything but mechanical or routine…she not only ‘understood’ grammar, she changed her relationship to it” (pp. 49-50).

Even before I read this, I had wanted to try to program a simple mad lib in Scratch as I thought it could be an engaging exercise for kids to learn parts of speech. After checking the Scratch website I quickly realized this was not a terribly original idea – there are MANY examples of Scratch mad libs! I still wanted to try making one myself, however, so here is my addition to the category:

Teachers who don’t want to code a mad lib themselves could “remix” one of the existing examples on the Scratch website, or their students could do the same. Younger students could work with their teacher to create a list of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs to plug into an existing mad lib and see the result. Because you can “See Inside” Scratch, students can look under the hood and see the logic and programming elements needed to build a simple mad lib. Older elementary and middle school students will have fun creating their own mad libs and having their classmates try them out.

Telling a Story

“My Story Loading” by gustavofrazo, Getty Images via Canva.

“Writing to program can also serve as programming to write, in which a child learns the importance of sequence, structure, and clarity of expression – three aspects characteristic of effective coding and good storytelling alike” (Burke & Kafai, 2010).  

Bers found in her research with pre-kindergartners that picture sequencing skills were increased after doing just one week of a robotics and coding curriculum (p. 63). Scratch, Scratch Jr. and Tynker, all block coding languages, can be used by students to create stories that include dialogue, backdrops and user-created or curated media that includes drawings, photos, video, sound, and music.

Though it can arguably be more difficult to program a story vs. writing a story using a word processor or paper, a study with middle school students in an after school Scratch coding club by Burke and Kafai (2010) showed that dedication to the story they envisioned caused students to persevere in the face of frustration with the programming process. This reflects how an authentic project that allows creative expression can compel students to push themselves further.

A unique advantage that coding adds when combined with Language Arts is the immediacy with which bugs in sequencing are noticed. Burke & Kafai (2010) noted that “feedback in the Club was immediate and continuous (and did not rely on us as coordinators) because the direct effects of each coding sequence played immediately out upon the Scratch stage” (p. 351).

Coding & Language Arts Resources


This article from Common Sense Media offers ideas and examples of how Scratch can be used for Language Arts lessons, including an “About You” project and a Science-focused lesson researching an element from the periodic table.

Scratch Activity Guide from the official Scratch website

Coding Mad Libs in Scratch YouTube videos: MIT Scratch – Mad Lib – lists and more and My Scratch project: Mad Libs and variables

CS First with Google Storytelling Activities This is a good resource for learning storytelling for Scratch but I recommend previewing the videos because teachers may or may not agree with some of the Language Arts-specific instruction.


Tynker Elementary English + Coding Lessons. Tynker is a block coding language that offers a variety of coding and subject lessons under a varied pricing model.


Microsoft Education offers a series of Language Arts lessons using Minecraft. To access you must be signed up for a Microsoft Minecraft education account and have the Minecraft Education edition.

Interactive Fiction

Older students can use open-source interactive fiction platforms to create text-based, story-focused games. This article offers a list of resources.

Linking Coding to Common Core Language arts standards

In “Using Coding Apps to Support Literacy Instruction and Develop Coding Literacy” (accessed through a paid or academic database only- see “References” below), Hutchison, Nadolny and Estapa show a number of ways that coding in Scratch and Tynker in Language Arts can tie to Common Core standards. One of the ways which I hadn’t considered is that by learning coding terminology as part of Language Arts, students are working toward “acquire[ing] and use[ing] accurately a range of…domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.6 standard, p. 497). There are many more standards referenced and contained in helpful tables in this article.


Barr, D., Harrison, J., Conery, L. (2011). Computational Thinking: A digital age skill for everyone. ISTE. Retreived from:

Bers, M.,U. (2018). Coding as a playground. New York, NY: Routledge.

Burke, Q, & Kafai, Y. (2010). Programming & storytelling: Opportunities for learning about coding & composition. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, pp. 348-351. Retrieved from:

Hutchison, A., Nadolny, L., Estapa, A. (2016). Using coding apps to support literacy instruction and develop coding literacy. The Reading Teacher, (69)5, pp.493-503.  Retrieved from:

ISTE Standards for Students (2016). Retrieved from:

Krauss, J. & Prottsman, K. (2017). Computational thinking and coding for every student.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Paul, J. (2019). 5 Open source tools to create interactive fiction. It’s Foss. Retrieved from:

The What, Why, and How of Computational Thinking

As part of the Teaching, Learning, and Assessment class in Seattle Pacific University’s Digital Education Leadership Program, we are learning about ISTE student standard 5- Computational Thinker. For this standard I wanted to investigate what ways I can begin introducing computational thinking in the classroom and encourage problem solving skills. To do this, I looked at what computational thinking is, why it is important, and how to introduce the elements into the classroom. Through research, my focus for this investigation was to cover the following standard indicators:

5a: Students formulate problem definitions suited for technology-assisted methods such as data analysis, abstract models and algorithmic thinking in exploring and finding solutions.

5c: Students break problems into component parts, extract key information, and develop descriptive models to understand complex systems or facilitate problem-solving.

What is Computational Thinking?

For this blog post I will be referring to Computational Thinking with Jeanette Wing’s definition of “a way of solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior by drawing on the concepts fundamental to computer science.” (Barr, 2011)

There are 4 main elements of computational thinking:

Information from Google: Computational Thinking for Educators

Computational Thinking is a problem solving process that involves skills you are most likely already practicing every day. One example of using computational thinking I found on Bitesize was the process of playing a video game:

Why is Computational Thinking Important?

“Being able to turn a complex problem into one we can easily understand is a skill that is extremely useful.” (Bitesize, 2019) How we teach students how to deal with complex problems today will determine how they will face similar problems in their future. As shown with the video game example earlier in this post, computational thinking is a skill that can be practiced everyday and shows evident problem solving abilities.

In an article written by David Barr, he states that many skills are “supported” and “enhanced” by the computational thinking mindset. The skills he mentions are:

  • Confidence in dealing with complexity
  • Persistence in working with difficult problems
  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • The ability to deal with open-ended problems
  • The ability to communicate and work with others to achieve a common goal or solution

How to Introduce Computational Thinking Elements into the Classroom?


“Facing large, complex problems will often discourage and disengage the students who aren’t fully equipped to begin the deconstructing process. Decomposition develops the skill of breaking down complex problems into smaller and more manageable parts, thus making even the most complicated task or problem easier to understand and solve.”
(Valenzuela, 2018)

When introducing this element to your students, try to choose a simple task they do everyday such as brushing their teeth. (Bitesize, 2019) “This will help them focus more on their ability to analyze and synthesize familiar information.” (Valenzuela, 2018) To analyze the problem of how to brush their teeth, students would need to consider the following (Bitesize, 2019):

  • Which toothbrush to use
  • How long to brush for
  • How hard to press on our teeth
  • What toothpaste to use

The next step is to introduce them to a more complex and unfamiliar problem/scenario (Valenzuela, 2018) One example Bitesize recommends is solving a crime. Solving a crime would be the complex problem, but a police officer would first need to answer smaller questions to gain information about the crime. (Bitesize, 2019)

  • what crime was committed
  • when the crime was committed
  • where the crime was committed
  • what evidence there is
  • if there were any witnesses
  • if there have recently been any similar crimes

Pattern Recognition :

“Pattern recognition is a skill that involves mapping similarities and differences or patterns among small (decomposed) problems, and is essential for helping solve complex problems. Students who are able to recognize patterns can make predictions, work more efficiently and establish a strong foundation for designing algorithms.” (Valenzuela, 2018)

One way to introduce pattern recognition is to provide a slide with pictures of similar types of animals or foods. (Valenzuela, 2018) One example Bitesize provides is looking at a variety of different cats. “Next, have learners map and explain the similarities/differences or patterns.”(Valenzuela, 2018) Some similarities of the cats would be they all have eyes, nose, tail, fur, like to meow, eat fish, etc. (Bitesize, 2019) Some differences would be tails of different lengths, different colored eyes, different colored fur, etc. (Bitesize, 2019) “Then task students with either drawing or making a collage of cats using the patterns they identified to help them. ” (Valenzuela, 2018) “The primary goal here is to get them to understand that finding patterns helps simplify tasks because the same problem-solving techniques can be applied when the problems share patterns.” (Valenzuela, 2018)


“Abstraction involves filtering out — or ignoring — unimportant details, which essentially makes a problem easier to understand and solve. This enables students to develop their models, equations, an image and/or simulations to represent only the important variables.” (Valenzuela, 2018)

To introduce abstraction to your students it is best to use it along with pattern recognition. (Valenzuela, 2018) The primary focus of abstraction is to separate the general patterns from the specific details. (Bitesize, 2019) Looking back on our cat example of pattern recognition, bitesize has provided the following example of abstraction:

“The abstraction process will help them create a general idea of what a problem is and how to solve it by removing all irrelevant details and patterns “(Valenzuela, 2018)

Algorithm design:

“Algorithm design is determining appropriate steps to take and organizing them into a series of instructions (a plan) for solving a problem or completing a task correctly. Algorithms are important because they take the knowledge derived from the previous three elements for execution.”(Valenzuela, 2018)

Valenzuela recommends keeping it simple when working with algorithms and suggests starting off with problems like tying their shoes, baking a cake, or making a sandwich. “Each algorithm must have a starting point, a finishing point and a set of well-defined instructions in between.”(Valenzuela, 2018)

Bitesize explains of two main ways to represent an algorithm: Pseudocode and flowcharts. Using Pseudocode is similar to “writing in a programming language” and might look something like this:

INPUT asks a question. OUTPUT prints a message on the screen. Image from Bitesize

Flowchart on the other hand is a diagram that represents a set of instructions using standard symbols such as these:

Image from Bitesize

An example of using a flowchart would be making a program to ask people their name and age.(Bitesize, 2019)

Image from Bitesize

Putting it all Together

During my research I found this video that showed a teacher who began teaching her classroom about computational thinking without any sort of digital devices. It was an introductory lesson and you can see within the video the different elements being taught throughout the activities.


Barr, D., Harrison, J., & Conery, L. (2011). Computational thinking: A digital age skill for everyone. Learning & Leading with Technology, 38(6), 20-23.

BBC. (2019). Computational Thinking. Retrieved from

[]. (2016, March 29). Unplugged Lesson in Action – Computational Thinking. Retrieved from

Google. (2019). What is Computational Thinking. Retrieved from

Valenzuela, J. (2018, February 22). How to Develop Computational Thinkers. Retrieved from

Coding in Elementary Classrooms

As part of the Teaching, Learning, and Assessment class in Seattle Pacific University’s Digital Education Leadership Program, we are learning about ISTE student standard 4- Innovative Designer. For this standard I wanted to investigate how to work with open-ended problems using coding to develop perseverance and a tolerance for ambiguity in young learners. Through research, my focus for this investigation was to cover the following standard indicator:

4d: Exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problem

Learning with Coding:

Coding is referred to as “the language of programmers” and is stated to be essential for students to be practicing regularly in today’s digital world. (Team ISTE, 2016)

Playing with Code:

Learning through play has shown time and time again to develop creativity, intelligence, imagination, and social skills. (Bers, 2018) Vygotsky theorized that “play facilitates cognitive development and that make-believe play could foster the development of symbolic thought and self-regulation.” (Bers, 2018) Allowing students to utilize apps such as Scratchjr, in which they are able to learn code concepts and skills through a play-based setting, gives them an opportunity to discover the world around them at their own pace while maintaining motivation and expressing self interest.

Encouraging Young Designers:

The goal is to encourage students to ask “big” questions and attempt to come up with their own solutions through trail and error and learning through their failures. (Bers, 2018) Students explore many powerful ideas during this process such as “sequencing, debugging, and design, which are the core concepts of computational thinking”. (Ber, 2018) These ideas stem from experiences and can be related to Early Childhood concepts and skills such as:

Information from Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom

Curriculum Considerations:

Before implementing coding into your curriculum you should review the following considerations:

  1. Pacing : Do you have a scope and sequence of activities and how long are you expecting students to reach these goals? (Ber, 2018)
  2. Types of Coding Activities: Are the activities going to be more structured or more open ended? Are students working in a group or independently?(Ber, 2018)
  3. Materials: “To code we need tools”, what types of tools do the students need to be successful? (Ber, 2018)
  4. Classroom Management: Are the expectations clear to the students for each section of the project? Are there routines they need to follow? (Ber, 2018)
  5. Group Sizes: Whole group, small group, in pairs, or individual? (Ber, 2018)
  6. Addressing state and national frameworks: Currently there is none, but this could change in the future. (Ber, 2018)
  7. Assessments: How will you assess the learning process and the learning outcomes? (Ber, 2018)

Positive Technological Development (PTD) Framework:

The PTD framework developed by Bers (2012). PTD proposes six positive behaviors (6 C’s) that should be supported by educational programs that use new educational technologies. These are: creation, creativity, communication, collaboration, community building, and choices of conduct. The third column, Program Practice, is left blank for educators to complete on their own based on their own classroom cultures, practices, and rituals.” (Bers, 2018)

Table found in Coding as a Playground: Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom

Content Creation: “The design process and the computational thinking involved in programming foster competence in computer literacy and technological fluency.” (Ber, 2018)

Creativity: “As children approach solving technical problems in creative ways, they develop a sense of confidence in their learning potential.” (Ber, 2018)

Collaboration: “By engaging children in a learning environment that promotes working in teams, sharing resources, and caring about each other.” (Ber, 2018)

Communication: “Through mechanisms that promote a sense of connection between peers or with adults.” (Ber, 2018)

Community Building: “Through scaffolded opportunities to form a learning community that promotes the contribution of ideas.” (Ber, 2018)

Choices of Conduct: “Provides children with the opportunity to experiment with “what if” questions and potential consequences, and to provoke examination of values and exploration of character traits.” (Ber, 2018)

Benefits of Coding

From learning about how to code, to using code as part of a daily routine in the classroom, students gain multiple skills and knowledge about problem solving.(Team ISTE, 2016) Other benefits Team ISTE mentions of using coding in the classroom are:

  • It sparks interest.
  • It opens up a new domain of knowledge.
  • It addresses the gender gap.
  • It leverages the magical power of parents.
  • It provides momentum for CS curriculum.
  • It meet ISTE standards for students.

Tools and Programs

There are many coding programs and apps for kids of varying ages. During my research I found coding programs that were developmentally appropriate for children and allowed them to creatively make sequencing stories and express themselves through programming. One of these programs that I referenced during this post and one I am going to try with my own classroom is called ScratchJr. Here is a video that explains a bit more about the program and shows you examples of young children actively participating with the app:

I also found this list of resources on Edutopia written by Vicki Davis that provides multiple age appropriate coding apps/programs for students:

Youngest Students:

8 and Up:


[MIT Media Lab]. (2014, March 18). ScratchJr. [Video File]. Retrieved from

Davis, Vicki. (2016, November 18). 15+ Ways of Teaching Every Student to Code (Even Without a Computer). Retrieved from

Team ISTE. (2018, August 28). 6 reasons for coding in K-5 classrooms. Retrieved from

Team ISTE. (2016, January 19). Here’s how you teach innovative thinking. Retrieved from

Bers, Marina. Umaschi. (2018). Coding as a Playground, Programming and Computational Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom. New York. NY: Routledge.

Empathy: the Essential Ingredient in Design Thinking

Design Based Learning (DBL) projects grounded in Design Thinking principles have journeyed from graduate design programs all the way to elementary classrooms. Design Thinking appeals to students of all ages because it empowers them to solve problems that are meaningful and that have the potential to change the world in a positive way. Students build cross-disciplinary knowledge and planning skills, learn to work collaboratively, and perhaps most important of all, practice and strengthen their ability to empathize with others.

Design Thinking

The Institute of Design at Stanford outlines the Design Thinking process as a series of five steps (summarized in Figure 1.1) that are repeated until the refined idea solves the user’s problem. Though Empathize is listed as the first discreet step, it is actually woven throughout the design process, integral to defining the problem, generating ideas, prototyping potential solutions and assessing, through testing, whether the needs identified in the Empathize phase are being sufficiently addressed.

Figure 1.1 The Design Thinking Process

During the Empathize phase, designers seek to understand the needs of their user through background research, observation, interviews and context mapping. Context mapping helps designers reach beyond what a user does and says to a deeper understanding of their feelings, hopes, fears, and aspirations through techniques such as “cultural probes” that encourage users to describe their feelings (past, present, and future) about the area being studied (Kriek, 2018). Cultural probes can include journaling or “mood boards,” an example of which is shown in Figure 1.2.

Figure 1.2 “Moodboard”
Source: Sam Town, 2018. Attribution: CC BY-SA 2.0
Retrieved from:

In “Contextmapping: Experiences from Practice,” Visser, Stappers, Van Der Lught and Sanders include a diagram, shown in Figure 1.3, that illustrates how the different types of information gathering techniques during the Empathize phase provide varying levels of understanding about the user.

Figure 1.3: Assessing Knowledge
Source: Visser, Stappers, Van Der Lught & Sanders, 2005, p. 123

When the ideas from Design Thinking are applied within a classroom, there are many opportunities, even with young students, for critical thinking that reaches beyond the expected science, math and engineering insights traditionally associated with DBL. The left triangle in the diagram in Figure 1.3 reminded me of character analysis in fiction. What the character says and does in a story may be very different than the internal dialogue that reveals his or her true feelings. This practice of looking below the surface is an important analytical and social-emotional tool that students can use throughout their lives.

Empathy as Part of Social-Emotional Learning

Though human brains are wired for empathy, children still need to learn how to develop it. They do this by watching and listening to adults and peers, observing how empathy is shown and why it is important (Jones, Weissbourd, Bouffard, Kahn, & Anderson). Through The Making Caring Common Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education has developed a list of five steps for schools to promote and teach empathy:

  1. Model empathy
  2. Teach what empathy is and why it matters
  3. Practice empathy
  4. Set clear ethical expectations
  5. Make school culture and climate a priority

Steps 1-3 above are integral to a Design Thinking DBL project. As teachers explain the Design Thinking process, they convey to students why the empathy phase is essential to solving a user’s needs and why it is important to care about people they may not know or identify with in their community and beyond. Teachers may give examples of how Design Thinking has been used to develop successful products or services by sharing stories, images or video. They might also show examples of what happens when the Empathize phase is skipped and products fail. Finally, Design Thinking DBL gives students the opportunity to practice empathy by deepening their listening and observation skills as they try to understand what the user needs. In turn, they model empathy within their classrooms and for the rest of the school.

The video below shows how empathy for children across the world with limited access to clean water helped students in a school in San Diego design potential solutions to the clean water problem.

Design Thinking: A Problem Solving Framework
Source: Edutopia, September 19, 2018
Retrieved from:

Implementing the Empathize Phase in the Classroom

It seems almost too good to be true that Design Thinking as part of a DBL project not only fosters cross-disciplinary academics but also social-emotional learning. Many teachers might wonder how they could possibly find time to design and prep students for these types of projects, let alone lead them to successful outcomes. Like anything else, it helps to learn from those who have done it. David Lee, the elementary Design Innovation Specialist at Singapore American School in Singapore, has a website with links to many resources, a book, Design Thinking in the Classroom, and videos summarizing Design Thinking projects he has done with his students. The video below describes projects his students did to improve perceived problems in their school environment.

Design Thinking – Improving School Experiences and Helping Teachers
Retrieved from:

I found his examples and suggestions in Design Thinking in the Classroom to be very insightful for the Empathize phase and have tried to summarize them below.

Have Beginner’s Mindset

Encourage students to approach problems with a beginner’s mindset “since empathy cannot be truly attained when students think they already know enough about a topic” and “students need to be aware of and put aside their biases and assumptions” (p. 41). This can be difficult with younger students because they are in the early stages of developing the ability to empathize. In an example of a first grade project where students were tasked with developing a tool to help a classmate improve a specific family activity, some students couldn’t help but design something that THEY wanted as opposed to what their classmate needed. Lee said he had to “reiterate continually” that students needed to turn “their focus away from themselves to see that their end user was more important in the context of their design challenge” (p. 51).

Start Small

In the first grade project described in the previous paragraph, the users and designers were classmates. That kept all research, observations and interviews within the classroom walls so Lee could keep an eye open to what was going on and provide help as needed. It also gave students practice interviewing with people they already knew.

Provide Support

Lee suggests that especially with the younger grades, teachers will need to find and contact experts and users. Though he believes students should be encouraged to develop interview questions, particularly as a whole-class project, teachers did, when faced with time constraints, prepare questions. Teachers also prepped those being interviewed about the project and the types of questions they would be asked.

Encourage Storytelling & Conversations

Lee stresses the importance of encouraging storytelling, asking broad questions and using “Why?” to uncover the user’s hidden feelings and desires. He also found that using the word “interview” made for awkward moments between the kids and the people they were talking to. Instead, he told the students to “have a conversation” with the experts and users and group questions logically so that the interaction had a more natural flow.

Listen, Take Good Notes & be a Detective

One of the excellent side benefits of the Empathize phase of Design Thinking is that student designers must listen closely to what their users are saying without interrupting them. It’s every teacher’s dream! Lee reminds students they must write down exactly what is said so that no insight is lost due to interpretation. (Though he doesn’t say this, it might be easier for younger students to video or audio record interviews as it would be difficult for them to accurately write down every word.) Students must also act as detectives, looking at everything within the user’s environment with the beginner’s mind and fresh eyes in order to catch things that the user’s words don’t. They can use video and cameras to help with this so the settings can be easily revisited.

Digital Tools for the Empathize Phase

Topic ideas for students & Teachers

Here is a sampling of websites that can give teachers and older students empathy-based design topic ideas.

Discover an online platform where students, teachers, and mentors come together to design solutions for real-world challenges

Nearpod + Participate Lessons on the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals offers a series of free lessons for 6-12th grade that could be used to provide background and topic ideas for a Design Thinking DBL project.

The K-12 Lab Wiki lists Design Thinking Challenge Ideas as well as many other resources for Design Thinking in education.

Do Teens can sign up to volunteer, engage in social change or civic action campaigns. Lots of inspiring ideas for how student action based on empathy makes a difference in the world.

ToOls for Research, observation and Synthesis

Students can use tablets, phones, and digital cameras to capture images, audio, and video as they interview and observe users. They can utilize the following software for notetaking, interacting with users, and organizing their research.

  • Notetaking applications such as OneNote, EverNote, and Notability make it easy to type and organize notes and record audio. OneNote even allows you to record video within the app.
  • Mind mapping apps such as Padlet can be useful to lay out artifacts for organization, viewing, and synthesis (see Figure 1.4).
Figure 1.4 An Example of how Padlet can be used to organize artifacts from the Empathise phase
  • If interviews can’t be done in person, classes can use Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts to meet with experts and users remotely.
  • One of the students in my cohort introduced us to Listenwise, an NPR website with radio-based stories on current events, social studies, ELA, and science topics. I found this story on the use of Virtual Reality games used to immerse students in the reality of the war in Syria. As VR becomes more readily available in schools, it could prove to be a powerful source for promoting empathy among students for people outside their immediate communities.

Producing Innovative (and Empathetic) Designers

Design Thinking provides an immersive way for students to develop the skills needed to be what the ISTE Student standard 4 refers to as an “Innovative Designer.” Part of this standard refers to “students
exhibit(ing) a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems” (ISTE Student Standards, 2016). There is no more open-ended, ambiguous challenge than truly understanding the needs of another person. Other than studying literature, I can’t think of a better way to learn about empathy through school subjects than projects that incorporate Design Thinking.


An introduction to design thinking process guide. Institute of Design at Stanford.  Retrieved from:

Context Mapping Basics. Retrieved 2/9/19 from:

Delahoussaye, J. (2015). Virtual games try to generate real time empathy for faraway conflict. Retrieved from:

ISTE Standards for Students (2016).  Retrieved from:

Design Thinking: a problem solving framework (2018). Edutopia. Retrieved from:

Jones, S., Weissbourd, R., Bouffard, S., Kahn, J. &  Anderson, T. R. (2018). For educators: How to build empathy and strengthen your school community. The Making Caring Common Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from:

Kriek, D. (2018). Everything you need to know about Context Mapping (in just one paragraph). Medium. Retrieved from:

Lee, David (2018). Design thinking – improving school experiences and helping teachers. Retreived from:

Lee, David (2018). Design Thinking in the Classroom. Berkeley: Ulysses Press.

Visser, F.S., Stappers, P.J., Van Der Lught, R. & Sanders, E. (2005). Contextmapping: Experiences from practice.  CoDesign, (1)2, pp. 119 – 149. Retrieved from:

Does Digital Mind Mapping Have a Place in K-5 Classrooms?

Organizing information using a combination of visuals and text can be a powerful way to both present new topics and construct knowledge. As part of my inquiry for Teaching, Learning and Assessment 1 in SPU’s DEL program, I wanted to explore what place digital mind mapping tools could play in an elementary school setting. I was introduced to mind mapping software in the 6100 DEL program orientation class and found it immensely helpful in organizing my thoughts and making connections between key concepts. I wondered if it would be equally effective for K-5 teachers and students.

Multiple Names for Similar Concepts

The terms mind map, concept map, knowledge map and synthesis map all refer at their core to organizing ideas or information using a node-link format signifying hierarchy and relationship between concepts.  Figure 1.1 shows how the types of maps relate and differ from each other, according to how they were originally conceived.

Figure 1.1: An Example Concept Map created using
(References: Goodwin & Long, 2002;; Nesbit & Adesope 2006; Ortega & Brame, 2015)

In real-world use, the terms mind map and concept map are often used interchangeably, and in this blog post, I will use mind map to refer to both mind maps as defined by Buzan (Goodwin & Long, 2002) and concept maps as defined by Novak and Gowin (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006).

The Value of Mind Mapping for Learning and Assessment

Mind maps have long been used in education because they lighten the cognitive load when learning new information and trigger metacognitive engagement (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006, pp 418-419).  Through an organized combination of color, symbols, text, images, and (in the case of digital mind mapping tools) audio and video, mind mapping enables better encoding of information and synthesis of multiple concepts by summarizing key ideas and visually relaying the relationships between them. This helps most learners, but can be especially effective for language learners or students with diverse learning styles.  

Even as a teacher-created, semi-passive learning tool, mind maps can be more effective than just listening to a lecture or reading a text (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006). The real power of mind maps comes into play, however, when they are created by students to construct knowledge as active learners (Anderson & Byrne, 2011).

Fig. 1.2: Mind map created using Popplet
Source: Attribution: CC-By-NC-SA. Retrieved from:

Building their Own Connections

When students create their own mind maps, they organize information in a way that makes sense to them and connects to their prior knowledge. This reflects the goal of the ISTE Student Standard 3, Knowledge Constructor, to “…critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others” (ISTE Standards for Students, 2016).

Figure 1.3: The Planets created using iMindMap
Source: Graham Smith. Attribution: CC by 3.0.
Retrieved from:

Students can use mind mapping to take notes in class or while preparing to write an essay or report. This video from Common Sense Media shows how students can actively take notes using a mind map previously created in Popplet while watching a video.  Mind maps can be used to share a student’s knowledge and unique viewpoint, enriching his or her classmates’ understanding of a concept; and they serve as good study guides by summarizing key ideas and showing connections in an easy to remember format.

Mind Mapping as an Assessment Tool

When students create a mind map, it offers a window into how they think and how much they have learned about a topic. Tony Buzan, the creator of the original mind map concept (see Fig 1.1) recommends using a Preview/Review process where students are first asked to map what they think they already know about a topic, then revise their maps once they have gone through instruction and research. For younger students, he recommends a more guided process where the teacher works with the class to build a single preview mind map using an interactive whiteboard.  After instruction and research, students either revise the class mind map together or build their own individual map to show what they have learned. The pre- and post mind maps act as a concrete record of knowledge growth for both the teacher and the students (“Mind maps for pre-and post assessment,”

Buzan’s iMindMap for Education – Pre and Post Assessment 6/11/2010
Retrieved from:

In her article “Establishing Twenty-First Century Information Fluency,” Jennifer Sharkey (2013) describes three types of assessment strategies: assessment for learning, assessment as learning, and assessment of learning. Student-created mind maps can be used in all three types of assessment as they can:

  1. Help teachers determine whether the method they are using to present material is working (for learning)
  2. “Put the student in the center of the process to promote his or her metacognitive development” (Sharkey, 2013, p.36) by using a mind map as a record of learning growth for self assessment (as learning)
  3. Show the depth of understanding and perceived connections students have made at the end of a lesson (of learning)

Collaborative Mind Mapping

Figure 1.4: Geometric Shapes Philippe Packu. Created using iMindMap
Attribution: (CC BY-NC 3.0); Retrieved from:

A number of the resources referenced in this blog post, including Warwick & Kershner (2006), Nesbit & Adesope (2006), Anderson & Byrne (2011) discuss the collaborative aspect of mind mapping as one of its greatest assets. According to Nesbit & Adesope (2006), “student interactions during collaborative concept mapping in science education have demonstrated that this activity can sustain meaningful discourse and co-construction of concepts” (p. 420).  In fact, in K-5, mind mapping should be modeled and scaffolded by the teacher as a class activity so that students understand not only the concept and conventions in mind mapping but also how to use the chosen mind mapping software.

Warwick & Kershner studied two groups of elementary students (6-7 years old and 10-11 years old) in the UK using Kidspiration mind mapping software for science lessons. Among their observations were:

  • Mind Mapping with the younger students was conducted as a whole class activity, with the teacher acting as the mediator and guide of the student’s ideas (p. 119), and at other times “…as merely the physical operator of the technology – the ideas came from the children, as did the reasons for making the links…” (p. 122). The teacher often started with images and key terms already listed on the mind map which was displayed on an interactive whiteboard. The researchers viewed this whole class approach as “…highly effective in encouraging the children to think about school learning and to compare their thoughts with those of others” (p. 120).

  • The 10-11 age group created a “Planet Earth and Beyond” mind map with a group of  4-6 students working on an interactive whiteboard while the rest of the class worked in groups of 2-3 on laptops. The students working on the whiteboard were more concerned with how their maps might look to the rest of the class. There was also more deliberation and negotiation on the whiteboard, and ultimately this group’s mind map displayed “a fraction” of the content compared to the maps created by the laptop groups because “…arriving at consensus seemed very important to these pupils” (p. 115). Also, the researchers noted that “struggling with this construction seemed to help the process of deciding how best to show what was understood” (p. 117).

Benefits of Digital Mind Mapping Tools

Mind maps enhance learning in either a paper or digital format. But digital mind mapping offers these significant advantages:

  • Ease of changing text, color, and node shape and moving items around
  • Ability for students to collaborate online either inside or outside the classroom using the same map
  • Easy storage and retrieval for students and teacher assessment (Anderson & Byrne, 2011)
  • Maps that have been created collaboratively can be viewed/printed out by multiple students so that all can benefit from a personal copy
  • Ability to incorporate more than just text and graphics (video, audio and website links). Imagine if the mind map shown in Figure 1.5 included a recording in Spanish!
  • Some products allow you to export maps into other software for a ready-made outline
  • Tools like Prezi offer the ability to layer nodes for more in-depth knowledge building and the creation of “Synthesis Maps” (Ortega & Brame, 2015).

Digital Mind Maps in Elementary

Figure 1.5: Spanish Class Mindmap created using iMindmap
Source: Liam Hughs; no rights reserved.
Retrieved from:

In their research with elementary students described in the Collaborative Mind Mapping section above, Warwick and Kershner (2006) mention that students sometimes struggled with the technology and typing skills (p. 114), particularly in the younger group, leading to mainly teacher-moderated mind mapping with the younger students. This is to be expected, however, and is true of using any technology in the classroom.  A number of mind mapping apps are now available on the iPad, including iMindMap Kids and Popplet, so clearly software makers are trying to create versions of their products that are more appropriate for younger students.

Mind mapping in some form is an effective teaching tool at all grade levels. In the younger grades, teachers need to provide modeling and scaffolding until students are comfortable using mind mapping on their own. Common Sense Media offers reviews of mind mapping software for various grade levels that can help teachers choose the right product, and Anderson and Byrne (2011) list a number of elementary school activities that can be enhanced by using mind mapping, as shown in Figure 1.6.

Figure 1.6: Elementary lessons that can be enhanced using mind mapping. Created using Prezi.


Anderson, C. & Byrne, R. (2011). Online mindmapping. In S. McLeod & C. Lehmann (Eds.) What school leaders need to know about digital technologies and social media.  Retrieved from

Differences between mind maps and concept maps.  Retreived from:

How to encourage active viewing with Popplet. Common Sense Media. Retrieved 1/26/19 from:

ISTE Standards for Students (2016).  Retrieved from:

Mind mapping and brainstorming apps and websites. Common Sense Media. Retrieved 1/26/19 from:

Mind maps for pre-and post assessment.  Retrieved on 2/3/19 from:

Nesbit, J. & Adesope, O. (2006).  Learning with concept and knowledge maps: A meta-analysis.  Review of Educational Research, vol: 76 pp: 413. Retrieved from:

O’Connor, L. & Sharkey, J. (2013). Establishing twenty-first-century information fluency. References & User Services Quarterly, 53(1), pp. 33-39.  doi:10.5860/rusq.53n1.33.  Retrieved from:

Ortega, R. A., & Brame, C. J. (2015).  The synthesis map is a multidimensional educational tool that provides insight into students’ mental models and promotes students’ synthetic knowledge generation. CBE Life Sciences Education, 14(2), ar14.  Retrieved from:

Warwick, P. & Kershner, R. (2006). Is there a picture of beyond?  Mind mapping, ICT and collaborative learning in primary science.  In E. Wilson, P. Warwick, & M. Winterbottom,  Teaching and Learning Primary Science with ICT.  Maidenhead, Berkshire ; New York : Open University Press.  Retrieved from:

Becoming a Conductor of Knowledge: Guiding Students through Real-World Problems

As part of the Teaching, Learning, and Assessment class in Seattle Pacific University’s Digital Education Leadership Program, we are learning about ISTE student standard 3- Knowledge Constructor. For this standard I wanted to investigate a learning model that allows students to identify a real-world problem, collaboratively collect resources, and create a solution to share with others. Through research, my focus for this investigation was to cover the following standard indicators:

3a: Students plan and employ effective research strategies to locate information and other resources for their intellectual or creative pursuits.

3d: Students build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories and pursuing answers and solutions.

What is Problem-Based Learning?

Cindy Hmelo-Silver describes Problem-Based Learning as, “An instructional method in which students learn through facilitated problem solving that centers on a complex problem that does now have a single correct answer”.(Savery, 2006) This learning model is based upon John Dewey’s belief of adapting lessons based on what interests and engages students as well as demonstrates their investigative and creative instincts. (Delisle, 1997)

In the first phase of problem-based learning, teachers provide students with a problem that they will need to work collaboratively to solve. When designing a problem for the students to research, teachers need to make sure the problem “should be complex, ill-structured and encompass authentic, discipline-based content.” (Ertmer, 2006) In other words, the problem should not have one simple answer and should target a variety of subjects such as language arts, math, science, and so on. Teachers are also encouraged to be the “curriculum designer” where they will need to look at their school’s curriculum and find the best places to implement problem-based learning activities. (Delisle, 1997) One way to do this is to “identify areas in the curriculum that already have problems/issues embedded within them.” (Ertmer, 2006) An ideal problem is able to “capture students’ attention because it is current, real, and relevant to their lives or the lives of people they know as well as incorporate learning of grade-level topics.” (Delisle, 1997) Teachers should also be aware of the age level of the students they are working with, and may want to start small with younger grades such as providing them problems that are based around the school and work up to world-wide problems as they grow older. (Edutopia, 2016)

In order for students to develop a plan they must first identify what they already know about the problem. (Edutopia, 2016) During this phase students are encouraged to make a list of facts based on their prior knowledge of the subject. (Delisle, 1997) Once the group analyzes what they already know about the problem, they then need to consider what they need to know in order to solve the problem. (Edutopia, 2016) Students are then able to divide the work among each other and determine what elements need to be investigated and how to investigate it. (Delisle, 1997) Students are engaged in the act of discovery while they are examining the problem and researching its background. (Delisle, 1997) Throughout the course of this phase teachers are able to provide scaffolds and establish what ideas the students have to solve the problem. (Edutopia, 2016) In my research I have found the importance of scaffolding in problem-based learning to “increase the potential for successful implementation and completion of the learning process”. (Ertmer, 2006) It has also been shown that “students perform better, achieve more, and transfer problem-solving strategies more effectively when their inquiry is supported through scaffolding.”(Ertmer, 2006) During this time the teacher is, “guiding students through the process of developing possible solutions, determining what they know and what they must find out, and deciding how they could answer their own questions.”(Delisle, 1997) For many this can become a difficult task to “guide without leading” and “assist without directing”. (Delisle, 1997)

At this phase of the Problem-Based Learning Model students are analyzing possible solutions, developing a proposal, and determining an answer to the question. (Delisle, 1997) After researching independently the different elements of the question, students are then able to come together and revisit the problem. (Delisle, 1997) Savery states that it is “essential that each individual share coherently what he or she has learned and how that information might impact on developing a solution to the problem.” (Savery, 2006) As a group, students now have a chance to share additional questions or ideas they have based on the new information shared through the research done. (Delisle, 1997) At this time, it is important for the teacher to help students “make links between claims and evidence, questions and information, and project design and learning goals”. (Ertmer, 2006) Students would then evaluate the research they discovered and agree on a proposed solution that “had the most information showing it would work, or that is true to their principles or beliefs.” (Delisle, 1997) However, keep in mind that “the real goal for problem-based learning is not an answer to the problem, but instead the actual learning that takes place through the process of thinking through the steps, researching the issues, and developing an answer.” (Delisle, 1997)

In the last phase of the Problem-Based Learning Model it is important to evaluate the student’s performance, the teacher’s performance, and the problem. (Delisle, 1997) Students should be encouraged to evaluate themselves, their groups performance, and the quality of the problem itself. (Delisle, 1997) Students reflection is critical to help them deepen their understanding and make sense of the key principals of the experience. (Ertmer, 2006) Some examples of reflective strategies for students would be journaling, self-evaluation, and group debriefing. (Ertmer, 2006) Teacher’s should also reflect upon their scaffolding skills throughout the unit. Was the teacher able to recognize those students who needed more guidance? Do they need more practice guiding the students instead of directing the students? (Delisle, 1997) Lastly teachers should “reexamine the effectiveness of the problem itself” and determine what areas the problem they would have liked to change to better plan for their next PBL unit. (Delisle, 1997)

Figures from How to use Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom

Technology Connections

In many parts of the Problem-Based Learning Model you can find opportunities to integrate technology into the learning process. I have listed a couple of ideas below:


Delisle, R., & Staff, Association for Supervision Curriculum Development. (1997). How to Use Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom. Alexandria: ASCD

Edutopia. (2016, November 1). Solving real-world problems through problem-based learning. Edutopia. [Video File]. Retrieved from

Ertmer, P. A. , & Simons, K. D. (2006). Jumping the PBL Implementation Hurdle: Supporting the Efforts of K–12 Teachers. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1).

Spencer, John [John Spencer]. (2017, November 12th). What is Problem Based Learning. [Video File]. Retrieved from

Savery, J. R. (2006). Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1).