Simplifying Complexity.

Making heads from tails is no easy task when it comes to complex thinking.  This week in CEP 812 the Think Tank sought to frame the problem of teaching complex thinking.

Our Think Tank quickly discovered that complex thinking does not have a standard and universal meaning, and to complicate matters even more, it often is used interchangeably with other terms like critical thinking and computational thinking.  As such, our first question in defining the wicked problem of teaching complex thinking became:

Why is it referred to as computational, critical, and complex thinking?

Definition aside, we then moved on to the role creativity plays in critical thinking. Invariably all of the references to complex thinking involved some sort of problem solving and cross-disciplinary approach.  Which led us to wonder:

Why does creativity play a role in complex thinking?

While these 2 questions address the complex thinking aspect of the wicked problem, neither addresses the teaching component.  Considering that the result of the design process will be a plan to address teaching complex thinking, we also framed our discussion around:

Why are classroom environments important for teaching complex thinking?

Armed with our framing questions and the informative results from last week’s survey (open image below in a new window to view details), we are all set to move into the next phase of the design process: Solutions!


Also, check out my Piktochart infographic to summarize our progress to date.





It’s week 3 and CEP 812 just got wicked.  Our think tank is tackling the wicked problem of teaching complex thinking…piece of cake, right?

Complex thinking, “the ability to understand complexity” (Johnson, Adams Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2015), is one of many wicked problems facing the current education system.  While complex thinking is also referred to by Tharp and Entz (2003) as a component of challenging students to apply learning through activities, it is still not unanimously evident how complex thinking is defined.  What qualifies as complex? Is it based solely on creativity and problem solving?  Does it have to be cross disciplinary?  Do traditional teaching approaches support complex thinking?  Does student centered learning support complex thinking?  Does technology have to be involved?  What role does communication play?

To begin to get to the root of the problem and understand how other educators perceive complex thinking,  the following questions were sent via a Survey Monkey survey to my coworkers.  To maintain integrity of the sample, faculty and administrators serving grades 9-12 at an independent school in Western New York, the link will be provided after the sample set has responded and their responses are evaluated on Wednesday, September 21. Questions 1-12 were given a Likert scale with options of Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree.  Question 12 is an open ended response.

  1. Students learn complex thinking from traditional teaching methods.
  2. Students learn complex thinking in student centered classrooms.
  3. Lecture promotes complex thinking.
  4. Project based learning promotes complex thinking.
  5. Technology integration promotes complex thinking.
  6. Collaboration promotes complex thinking.
  7. Complex thinking can be objectively measured.
  8. Cross-disciplinary connections are essential for complex thinking to occur.
  9. Faculty use student centered learning approaches to emphasize complex thinking in the classroom.
  10. Administrators encourage the use of student centered approaches in the teaching of complex thinking.
  11. Parents are informed about student centered learning.
  12. Students respond positively to student centered learning.
  13. Complex thinking is…

Each member of the think tank is collecting similar data and with more insight on how professionals in the field understand complex thinking, we will be better able to address the working components of teaching complex thinking in a meaningful way.  Let’s do this.


Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Tharp, R., & Entz, S. (2003). From High Chair to High School: Research-Based Principles for Teaching Complex Thinking. YC Young Children,58(5), 38-44. Retrieved from

Sit Still.Listen.Repeat.

40,000.  From why the sky is blue to what’s for dinner.  40,000 is how many questions a child typically asks during the toddler years, and sadly it’s all downhill after that…

Why?  Why aren’t students asking questions in school, in life?  Berger (2014) points out that this is in part a result of an education system that asks students to sit still in class, be receptacles of information, then recite it back in due time.  In implementing Industrial Age learning strategies we have groomed students to file into place, sit in stiff uncomfortable chairs, and look to us for facts that supposedly answer some life question that was never asked of or by them.  In light of this, Berger (2014, p.49) then raises two questions of importance:

“What kind of preparation does the modern workplace and society demand of its citizens – i.e. what kind of skills, knowledge, and capabilities are needed to be productive and thrive?”

“What if our schools could train students to be better lifelong learners and better adapters to change, by enabling them to be better questioners?”

While these are most certainly wicked questions with only best answers, rather than right answers, it seems logical that fact delivery in an age of Google is not the key to becoming a productive 21st century citizen.  So how do we break the mold of sit still.listen.repeat and get students questioning again? A wicked question that Deborah Meier took head on in her design of the Central Park East schools, but what if we aren’t in the position to restructure a school from the ground up?

Start small and keep it simple.  It’s natural to look to the person at the front of a room for answers, so get rid of the front of the room.  Embrace technology. And then get rid of those static desks.

I have found that Node chairs and mobile whiteboards have gone a long way in transforming my classroom into one of collaboration, inquiry, and questioning.  Mobile desks and whiteboards allow for a fluid class dynamic and eliminate the ‘front’ of the room.  (Mobile furniture not in your future?  At least get rid of the rows.) When students are arranged in small groups, they face each other rather than the teacher, giving a natural instinct to direct discussion to their classmates.  The teacher is then free to move between groups, quickly key in to the students’ thought processes by surveying their whiteboard, and facilitate their learning.  Ready to review key concepts or have a student present their work?  Simply roll the chairs into a new configuration.  Voila! It’s a facilitated collaboration, not a dictatorship.  fullsizerender

Furthermore, not only are physical spaces important (Barret, Zhang, Moffat & Kobbacy, 2013), but also, the atmosphere for questioning is set by letting and even encouraging students to use the resources that are available – even if they want to use Google, they have to know what to search for and then apply the found facts to the problem at hand – not unlike knowing what word to find in the index of a textbook. Undoubtedly, their first search will simply yield more questions and they realize that the answer to a singular question is not the most important takeaway.


The next step?  Learn to ask better questions…



Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on on pupils’ learning. Building and Environment, 59, 678-689. doi:

Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA.

New Shoes.

In a whirlwind of a week of the academic year and CEP 812 starting at the same, it’s all about new shoes – the physical ones that gave the students (and myself) blisters and the intellectual ones that pushed me to reframe well-structured, comfortable problems into those that are well worth the effort.

In a week of learning that was multi-faceted, let’s start at the beginning.

Problems of Practice:

How do you categorize a problem?  We looked at 3 types:

Well-structured:  These are the traditional, textbook questions that can be graded correct or incorrect in the blink of an eye – multiple choice, true/false, etc.  While these problems appear to give an indication of knowledge acquisition, they do not necessarily correlate to understanding and retention.  Thus, as educators we are encouraged to modify these problems into ill-structured problems.

Ill-Structured:  These problems are complex and require engagement and understanding to solve.  While there is an answer, there are many paths that students can create to formulate their response. These problems involve higher order thinking to synthesize responses through reading, writing, and problem solving. Dan Meyer’s  TED Talk  inspires us to re-imagine well-structured problems into more meaningful ill-structured problems.

Wicked:  These problems are those that we typically face as educators.  There are moving parts that are constantly in motion that continually change the conditions of the problem we are trying to solve.  As such, there is not one answer, but rather, simply a best answer at each specific point and time.  For example, how do I provide the most effective learning environment for a student?  This problem relies very much on the student at hand, and the physical and emotional state of the student on a specific date and time.  In teaching high school, this variable changes greatly due to the nature of adolescent life.  As such, one can only come up with a best plan, and then remain open to change as implementing the plan itself changes the variables.

Using Technology to Address Ill-Structured Problems:

In teaching chemistry, there are a number of places that well-structured problems can be transformed into more complex ill-structured problems to promote engagement, understanding and retention; however, I chose to focus on the teaching style in my classroom, which in and of itself presents an ill-structured problem.  The class (chemistry) is primarily discussion based with a “flipped classroom” implementation of textbook readings.  What then are the implications for students who have an auditory processing disorder?  In a fast-paced discussion in a room with continual ventilation (fume hoods for chemical storage) how am I best serving their learning needs?  If questions are ill-structured and students cannot simply Google an answer, then it is even more imperative that they can follow and engage in class discussions.  And more broadly, these are adolescents – rife with turmoil in so many ways. Remember being a teenager?! It’s tough, really tough! Between navigating social life, athletics, familial life, the college process, where to sit at lunch, etc., how can I possibly expect them to be fully engaged every day?  Let’s be realistic, even the most invested students have a bad day.  Add to that difficulty following oral directives, particularly in a room with continuous background noise, and straining to follow a discussion as it bounces from student to student across the room, and it’s a recipe for anxiety (Ross-Swain & Geffner, 2013).

Fortunately, working at the interface of technology, pedagogy and content (Koehler & Mishra, 2008) affords a solution and that’s where Educreations comes in to play.  This app enables me to make a screencast in which I can record examples and/or give feedback to students.  The screencast can incorporate multi-modal elements with the ability to ink over the screen to emphasize a point or solve a problem – hopefully one that is ill-structured – in real time.  Students are able to pause , ‘rewind’, and re-watch the screencast as many times as needed, and can even make their own screencast to explain it again to themselves or ask a question to the teacher.  (They can snap a picture of their assignment and incorporate it directly into the screencast.) While the ability to re-examine a classroom topic at the student’s own pace, volume setting, and environment directly enhances the learning experience of a student with an auditory processing disorder (Ross-Swain & Geffner, 2013), it also caters to those students who are struggling to understand a new topic because they are having an off day.

Check out this screencast on Educreations.  Not a fan?  Check out Seesaw!


Koehler, M.J., & Mishra, P. (2008) Introducing TPCK. In AACTE Committee on Innovation and Technology(Ed.), Handbook of Technologyical Pedagogoical Content Knowledge (TPCK) (pp.3-29). New York: Routeldge.

Ross-Swain, D. & Geffner, D.S. (2013) Auditory Processing Disorder: Assessment, Management, and Treatment. San Diego: Plural Publishing, Inc.

Evaluating evaluating.

Assessing and evaluating students could be the most difficult aspect of teaching.  Luckily, with the following resources and the advent of learning analytics and catalytics that can offer personalized learning and immediate feedback (TEDx Talks, 2013), the process is becoming easier.

Assessing Creativity:

In Wiggins’ 2012 blog post on assessing creativity, he states “If rubrics are sending the message that a formulaic response on an uninteresting task is what performance assessment is all about, then we are subverting our mission as teachers.”  When I first started teaching, I struggled with using rubrics, as I felt I was essentially turning all creative endeavors into fill in the blank tasks in which I was still determining the outcome of the student work – essentially turning it into a search and find for information.  While they were gaining practice in finding and evaluating sources of information, I still felt as though true learning of the content was missing.  In the following year, I did not use a rubric and while the creativity aspect improved, the content then was missing and the quality was variable.  Through these experiences, I realized that the problem was not in using a rubric, but rather in using a poor rubric that did not account for creativity.  With some adjustments to making the rubric more open ended, I sought balance between the two – afterall, as noted by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) foundational knowledge is necessary for transfer to occur.  Wiggins has an interesting rubric for measuring creativity that can be adapted to fit into current rubrics.

A Sum Greater than the Parts:

Furthermore, in Gee’s 2008 interview Grading with Games, he notes that experiences help to contextualize new information for students and emphasizes that need for learners to work in collaborative settings that are more indicative of how they will solve problems outside of academia.  To this end, he states that groups should be “smarter than the smartest person” in the group.  It is essential that we help students identify their strengths – and weaknesses – in order for them to realize how to contribute and collaborate effectively in teams.  Intellect alone is not enough, as that intellect has to be applied and shared to create an impact.

Ready, Action:

Taking these aspects into account, I have been working to reevaluate my former grading scheme – previously based on tests, labs, and homework – which was neither creative nor telling of skills actually acquired/improved throughout the year.  Rather, I think it may be better to assign a metric based on foundational knowledge, communication, and creativity in application.

Time to hash out some rubrics to see if this scheme works….


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. National Academies Press. Retrieved from

Edutopia. (2008) James Paul Gee on Grading with Games. [Video File]. Retrieved from

TEDx Talks. (2013, January 10). Reimagining Learning: Richard Culatta at TEDxBeaconStreet. [Video File]. Retrieved from

Wiggins, G. (2012, February 3). On assessing for creativity: yes you can, and yes you should. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

MakerEd. At a glance.

Infographics.  LOVE. THEM.

It seems that infographics are used everywhere now.  What better way to convey an immense amount of meaning in a very short amount of time while transcending language barriers?  And what better way to sum up what we have learned in CEP 811?

My infographic is streamlined to  convey the differences between Maker Education and Traditional Education by focusing on the benefits of Maker Education as rooted in learning theory (Bransford, Brown &Cocking, 2000) and TPACK (Mishra & Koheler, 2008).  Maker Education prepares students for life in an increasingly collaborative, innovative and global society in which they will need to construct and apply meaning each and every day.






Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. National Academies Press. Retrieved from

ISTE Standards for Students. (n.d.). Retrieved August 12, 2016, from

Mishra, P., & Koheler, M. (2008). Teaching Creatively: Teachers as Designers of Technology, Content and Pedagogy. Retrieved August 11, 2016, from

TEDx Talks. (2013, January 10). Reimagining Learning: Richard Culatta at TEDxBeaconStreet. [Video File]. Retrieved August 11, 2016 from

A good long look.

In order to connect physical learning space with educational experience, this week in CEP 811 we read Barrett, Zhang, Moffat, and Kobbacy’s (2013) A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on on pupils’ learning, and then used SketchUp** to reimagine our own classroom spaces.  Check out the current space as of this past week,and my SketchUp of its hopeful future for the start of the academic year.  (The wall of windows certainly gives beautiful natural light – although I had to close them to get a good picture! – so I rarely have to use the overhead lights – I think Barrett et. al.  (2013) would approve!)

Sketchup Classroom

My classroom has undergone a substantial shift in the last few years and continues to evolve.  When I first started teaching, the desks were predominantly in rows facing the front board and while students gained valuable content knowledge, I feared that they were not gaining 21st century skills that would allow for transfer of that knowledge.  Ever since, I have continually sought ways in which I could better the space for more meaningful learning.  Here are the transformations that my room has undergone:

  1. Pod it up!
    • My earliest change was to arrange students in ‘pods’ of 4-5 desks so that they could collaborate with each other and ‘talk it out’ when solving problems.  This works great for discussion based classes and allows students to see both the front and back boards of the room.  The downside is that the desks were still very cumbersome and noisy to move (they had the attached seat and were quite heavy!).
  1. Visualize and Share Thoughts
    • To better improve communication and give students a way to lead their podmates through thought processes, I lobbied for department funds to purchase 2 portable double-sided whiteboards to roll in between pods.  (Ideal I usually have 4 pods.)  The size of the boards (2×3) is large enough to accommodate concept mapping and problem solving, but not so large that they become a visual nuisance to navigate through the room.  This idea came from the Node video.
  2. Go Zen
    • Some students experience anxiety when it comes to Math and Science, as they have preconceived notions of its difficulty.  To reduce this worry and make the room more welcoming I made some changes based on the advice of a coworker who researched positive energy in classroom spaces.  First, I moved my desk away from the line of sight when students first walk into the room, as it is linked to power and authority, and instead placed a cozy seating arrangement on the wall opposite the entrance.   The rug and furniture are all repurposed from my home, and the students love the colors of the fabrics – sure enough, they are warm colors that coincide with the research of Barrett et. al. (2013).
  3. Get Rolling
    • The next and very very very exciting change for my room in the 2016-2017 classroom is to get rid of those old clunky desks and instead have the more adaptive Node chairs.  These are quite costly and a number of discussions occurred with my Administration on their utility, but when I visited my classroom this summer, the old desks were gone (note the lack of chairs in the pictures above) so with any luck come August I will have a remarkably modernized learning environment for the students!

Looking ahead…the wall space (though minimal because of the windows, lab storage, and whiteboards) is predominantly white.  Only the ‘front’ wall is colored green.  A creative mural of sorts may be lovely on the half wall that divides the lab space from the classroom…


Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on on pupils’ learning. Building and Environment, 59, 678-689. doi:

**A note on SketchUp….this program is incredibly sensitive and difficult to use without a mouse!  Also make sure you have accurate room measurements (I did not) to help with furniture positioning.**

A picture is worth a thousand words.

No, really.  With the use of multi-modal sources and infographics on the rise, and the ability of visuals to transcend language barriers, visual literacy is increasingly important. Going back to incorporating Chibilights into the Chemistry curriculum, I have designed this lesson that enhances students’ visual literacy using LED stickers.  This lesson incorporates aspects from physics (we follow a Physics First curriculum) and art theory, allowing for cross-disciplinary conversation and meta-analysis of how and why information is included in a visual.  Essentially, students create a sketchbook of visual aids throughout the year to contextualize topics covered in Chemistry.  Discussion and presentation of these visuals not only help to solidify content understanding, thereby supporting transfer of ideas, but also, it opens the door for a deeper look at how visuals in the text and online sources convey information.

Another great aspect of the lesson…it can be tailored to any subject area!  Enjoy!

Challenge Accepted.

CEP 811 is a video goldmine!  This week we were encouraged to “Reimagine Learning” in this TEDx Talk by Richard Culatta, the U.S. Director of the Office of Educational Technology, and contemplate his challenge to “use technology to do entirely new things that simply were not possible before.”  Well Mr. Culatta, challenge accepted.

Add to this a refresher on Bransford, Brown and Cocking’s (2000) basis for learning with understanding and a new-to-me chapter by O’Donnell (2012) on constructivism and the ideas are never ending!  Really, give them a go!

In addition to Culatta’s call for personalizing education, Spector (2013) notes the significant similarities of the New Media Consortium’s 2011 Horizon Report and the National Science Foundation’s funded A Roadmap for Educational Technology.  Both of these independently researched studies arrived at the conclusion that new and emerging technologies, coupled with research in cognitive psychology, support the creation of personalized learner centric environments in which students can learn with understanding based on their current needs and interests.  Personalized learning not only allows teacher’s to meet students at their current position along the learning path, but it also creates the opportunity to address the student’s preconceptions and personal perspectives on a topic (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000).

With last week’s Maker Experience still fresh in mind, I connected personalized learning environments with visual literacy.  More than ever before, science textbooks – and online sources – are multimodal, including visual aids and schema to convey meaning; however, an exploratory study by McTigue and Flowers (2011) found that students struggled to understand the intended meaning of such schema, lacked the vocabulary to discuss schema, and tended to devalue the schema’s importance and thus ‘skip’ the visual aids altogether. Furthermore, as in noted by Serafini (2011), multimodal texts require the reader to synchronously navigate between visuals and text to discern understanding.  Given that these sources are authored and taught by expert sources, it could be that we (as experts) have misjudged the ability of the learner (a novice) to identify meaningful patterns, organize content, and flexibly move between ideas (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000).

In giving the students autonomy in creating their own visual aids, they will not only be able to construct meaning of the content in a personally contextualized manner and thereby simultaneously progress their understanding of the ideas, but also an environment to discuss design elements of the visual aids will be created and as such, students will expand their visual literacy.  If that were not enough, both the act of creating the visual aid and the use of a metacognitive design approach – in context of content and visual literacy – promote the transfer of knowledge (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000) and cross-disciplinary extrapolation (Roswell, McLean & Hamilton, 2012).


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. National Academies Press. Retrieved from

McTigue, E., & Flowers, A. (2011). Science Visual Literacy: Learners’ Perceptions and Knowledge of Diagrams. The Reading Teacher, 64(8), 578-589. Retrieved from

O’Donnell, A. (2012). Constructivism. In APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues. K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). Washgington, DC: American Psychological Association. DOI: 10.1037/13273-003.

Roswell, J., McLean, C., & Hamilton, M. (2012). Visual Literacy as a Classroom Approach. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(5), 444-447. Retrieved from

Serafini, F. (2011). Expanding Perspectives for Comprehending Visual Images in Multimodal Texts. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(5), 342-350. Retrieved from

Spector, J. M. (2013). Emerging Educational Technologies and Research Directions. Educational Technology & Society, 16 (2), 21–30. Retrieved from