Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Breakout EDU "The Best Thing Ever"

Back in December, Janet O'Hara (Red River Valley Education Cooperative Coordinator) dropped off 6 Breakout EDU boxes for our district to use.  Previously, I had heard of breakout rooms and Breakout EDU boxes, but never personally experienced or observed.  I was truly amazed when I observed a class of 5th grade students trying Breakout EDU for the first time.

What is Breakout EDU?
Breakout EDU creates ultra-engaging learning games for people of all ages. Games (Breakouts) teach teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, and troubleshooting by presenting participants with challenges that ignite their natural drive to problem-solve. Speciality K-12 Breakouts can be used to teach core academic subjects including math, science, history, language arts and have embedded standards that apply problem solving strategies within a real world OR collaborative context.

With the purchase of a Breakout kit, you’re able to play countless Breakouts. Each kit comes with a collection of locks, hidden contraptions, timers, keys, and other “diversion hardware” that can be used to play the Breakout challenges available from the store.  Currently, all the games in the game directory are free!

During my first time observing Breakout EDU in a classroom, Kari Melland (Curriculum Technology Partner) provided the introduction to Leslye Thiery's 5th grade class at Discovery Elementary.  While the students listened to the brief set of directions, they could hardly contain their excitement as the locked box became the focus.  And...the timer starts...NOW!  How often do we see students eagerly dive into a learning and problem-solving opportunity.  There was a buzz in the room as the students scurried around trying to make sense of the clues.  I enjoyed watching the group dynamics in action as some led the class down "wrong" paths, while some quietly figured out the "right" path.  Even with the energy and excitement of an entire class trying to figure out the clues, there were no disengaged and uninterested students.

Finally, the "Great Candy Caper" problem was solved as the students happily ate their Kit Kats. Kari and Leslye took some time to listen to the students about what they liked and what suggestions they would have to make it even better for the next time or other groups.  Here are some direct quotes:
"Best thing ever."
"We all had good ideas."
"Working together."
The first thing I noticed was the fact it had nothing to do with the extrinsic reward (Kit Kat), but rather the intrinsic rewards as listed by the students.  I observed a high-level of critical thinking, problem solving, cooperation, listening, and team work.  During the discussion, a student asked, "could we create a game for other students to try to solve?"  This comment was followed by many thoughts about how this could be done.  In education, it really does not get any better than students asking for opportunities to take critical thinking, problem solving, and deeper learning to a new level!  I can't wait to see what the students create.

To the skeptics and nay-sayers, this is not just a "game" for students to play, but an opportunity for deeper learning in all curriculum areas.  When students are empowered to create, their learning and curiosity soar to new levels.  I think it is a safe bet that more Breakout EDU boxes will need to be purchased/built/assembled in the very near future.

For additional information, follow @BreakoutEDU and co-founders James Sanders (@jamestsanders) and Mark Hammons (@mhammons) on Twitter.  Also, check out Maria Galanis's (@MariaGalanis) blog post "Breakout EDU - You Had Me at Breakout!" ( and the related infographic shown below created by Sylvia Duckworth (@sylviaduckworth).  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

To Fail is To Succeed

The fall of 2015 marked the start of a new course at Red River High School proposed and taught by Mr. Eric Sanders called “Innovations and Communications.”  In a blog post by Mr. Sanders, he explains the course and basic structure:

Students choose a problem that needs to be solved. They decide if they are going to work alone or in a group of up to three students. They propose a plan, their timeline, the point value of the project, and at least three CCSS English standards that they will master through this project.
Brainstorming sessions every Monday, working on projects Tuesday through Thursday (Students research their topic, carry out their plans, and build their proposals and presentations, and basically get the job done), and blogging on Friday (reflecting on how their project is going, their struggles and successes, etc.)  When the project is finished, the students present their project to their chosen stakeholders.(
Over the course of the past semester, I followed the progress of the class through Mr. Sanders's Twitter posts, highlighting student blogs and insights into the class.  I also received a phone call and emails from a student in the class inquiring about promoting her group's project through district communication methods. All students learned the real-world skills of reaching out and connecting with adults.

At the end of the semester, I was invited to listen to the the student TEDx talks, the culminating event. Mr.Sanders opened the class with reflections on his role as a facilitator and quest to develop each students' creative confidence.  Each student took their turn to articulate their project, learning experiences, and accomplishments in the class.  Projects included rape culture, transgender, Kindness is Key, hearing impairment, etc.  After listening to all the students, three direct quotes resonated with me:
"To fail is to succeed."

"All teachers should encourage divergent thinking and innovations in all classes."
"Failure and risk is part of the process of learning and innovating."

Failure as part of the learning process was a consistent theme.  It became apparent that as students recognized and became more comfortable with failure, their confidence and learning grew exponentially.  The following infographic by Sylvia Duckworth highlights many points made by the students:

It was obvious that Mr. Sanders created a culture of encouraging students to think big, which provided real-world opportunities to embrace, then overcome failure. Through the concluding TEDx talks, Mr. Sanders received some unsolicited, but resounding endorsements for the course.  In fact, one student even wished that Innovations & Communications class was a year long class instead of just a semester.

When students are empowered to guide their own learning, choose a project they are passionate about, and recognize that failure is part of the learning process, true deeper learning happens. In fact, the learning has already extended beyond the classroom walls as some of Mr. Sanders's students recently presented at the @TEDxGrandForks Open Mic night and some have been asked to speak at other events.

I can only wonder how student learning could become more innovative if...

  • all courses concluded like Innovations and Communications.
  • teachers provided each student an opportunity to honestly reflect on their learning and experiences at the conclusion of the course.
  • authentic and meaningful were words students used to describe their classes.
  • students were empowered to explore topics of their choice.
  • more teachers encouraged and modeled risk taking for our students.
“If we are really wanting to serve our students and help them to develop to become the leaders and learners of today and the future, taking risks in our practice is not only encouraged, but necessary.” George Couros
Thank you Mr. Sanders for taking a risk in starting the Innovations and Communications course and providing your students many opportunities to learn and grow through their failures. While these students readily admitted to their failures, they are now equipped with many more skills to succeed in THEIR future.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Book Review: The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros

Book Review: The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros
I recently finished reading the book The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros and am eager to continue the conversation of the book's contents with anyone.  Over the past few years, I have read all of George's blog posts because his thoughts on education resonate with my educational philosophy.  I heard George speak at ISTE in Philadelphia in June 2015 and again at TIES in Minneapolis in December 2015, so to say I connected with the book would be an understatement.  Here is a brief summary of the book.

We are in an exciting time in education with so many opportunities for ourselves and our students, so George starts by defining innovation " a way of thinking that creates something new and better."  As educators, shouldn't we always be searching and developing new and better?  His positive approach throughout the book encourages his readers to embrace change.  After all, "Change is an opportunity to do something amazing" as educators consider what is best for each learner.  George further develops the definition of The Innovator's Mindset through an explanation of each of the "8 Characteristics of the Innovator's Mindset," which are depicted in the following infographic by Sylvia Duckworth (@sylviaduckworth):

While reading the book, I appreciated George's straight forward approach to change.  He strategically provides opportunities to look at our selves/school/district in the "mirror" through questions posed in the book while opening the door to considering something better.  George recognizes the many aspects not within educators' purview and focuses on those areas which are in educators' control.  For example, education is and always will be about relationships.  The bottom line remains, "...we must be constantly focused on improving our practice, which means we will never be done innovating, growing, and learning" (George Couros).

This book is a must read if you are...
1. an educator or school leader.
2. truly focused on "What is best for each learner?"
3. open to new ideas to ponder, discuss, and develop.
4. ready to challenge the status quo.
5. interested in creating new and better educational opportunities for your students.
6. open to considering well-developed ideas to make school a more innovative place for students.

The words in The Innovator's Mindset are not just words in a book, but rather a thoughtful culmination of George's own journey towards an Innovator's Mindset.  As a connected educator himself, George connects the dots of current education thought and synthesizes the information in a way that encourages all educators to move forward.  As George states; "If we don't really think about the way we teach, and, more importantly how both educators and students learn, we will all miss out on the opportunities that lie in front of us."  Most importantly, "If students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them" (George Couros).  What are you doing to learn and ensure students leave your classroom/school/district more curious than when they started?  Spending some quality time with this book is the perfect place to start.

The Innovator's Mindset is another outstanding book from Dave Burgess Publishing (  I have read most of the books in the Dave Burgess publishing series and found each one to be though-provoking as each author underscores better educational opportunities for students.  As educators read these books and become connected educators, they model what it means to be a learner, for our students.  Even more importantly, these books are outstanding for book study discussions which will hopefully lead to positive changes in your classroom/school/district.