Our Children’s Gears: Do You Like Dinosaurs?

Do you like dinosaurs?

Or did you when you were a kid?



Dinosaurs are neat. They are big, ferocious and were, quite frankly, very successful. They were also the dominant animals of the Mesozoic, for 180 million years. That is impressive.


I never liked dinosaurs when I was a kid. I found them boring.

I was beguiled by the Palaeozoic and early Cenozoic rather than the Mesozoic. The creatures — plants and animals — that lived then were alien, intriguing and awesome.

I could never put my finger on why trilobites and Paraceratherium interested me more than dinosaurs. But there was a pattern in that interest that cropped up elsewhere in my life.

An underlying ecology

When it came time for me to enter university, I knew exactly what I wanted to be — an ecologist. Not a botanist, not a zoologist, not even a geologist, an ecologist. Don’t get me wrong, I was fascinated in zoology, botany and geology, mostly botany, but I did not want to study one thing.

I was interested in it all. I was interested in how it all fit and worked together. I was interested in how life lived on an erratic Earth. Its individual forms fascinate, but mostly as pieces of the intricate whole.

And that, as I later found out, was why I didn’t like dinosaurs. They ate. They fought. They terrorized the land — not to mention other animals. But, until the last ten to twenty years, for me they never belonged — neither fit nor worked — within a bigger system.

They were boring.

In the last decade or two, that changed, or perhaps I became aware of the “bigger” Mesozoic picture. More Mesozoic palaeoecology has been learned and integrated into other disciplines, as illustrated in Harold Levin‘s The Earth Through Time (I have the 2003 seventh edition published by John Wiley and Sons). And now the dinosaurs belong with, influence and are influenced by a bigger lifescape and ecology. Dinosaurs became more and more interesting as they began to fit and work in the puzzle of life and living in a changing, furious Earth.



It is their place in ecology that fascinates me, not their ferociousness nor their reputation.

The point? Even as a child, I was geared toward ecology.

An overarching Universe



My enjoyment of astronomy also stems from the same root. I am fascinated by the Earth’s place and development in the Solar System, and of the Solar System’s place and development in the Universe.

I look at a star as I do a handful of sand and I wonder about its past, about its surroundings, its environment, its present and its future. I wonder about what it interacted — or will interact — with, what it influences or what it is influenced by. I similarly wonder (to the same depth) about the Universe that the star represents and the Earth and rock that the sand typifies.

I remember encountering an ant crawling on a moss and seeing its ecology and the ecology of the ecosystem where it lived. I had no words for these concepts, but I distinctly remember seeing the ant interacting with its environment. I barely noticed the ant outside of this frame. I was in grade two. And I still see ants and stars and handfuls of sand this way.



A far-sweeping magic

Story exists in this way too. With story we build our cultures, societies, histories, skills and technologies. But we also build our spirit and curiosity.

Story exists in a bigger context, constructed of reality and imagination and wonder.

Arthur C. Clarke coined, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I prefer to replace “advanced” with “exotic”, meaning unfamiliar or novel or not (currently) understood.

Ants and sand and stars, ecology and math and story and language are magic. There is always more of them to explore.

Story is a form of species-changing magic. And writing transmits this magic into the minds of generations and far-flung peoples.

In writing fantasy (which I mostly do), one creates the rules of a given world and studies how a story fits and works within that world. It is intriguing to witness story unfold even as one writes it. I am always surprised by what story reveals, about what it says about the world it explores, influences, interacts with and is influenced by.



Story is a key part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I am geared toward it like I am ecology and astronomy.

The gears of our children

In his essay forward, The Gears of My Childhood, to his 1980 book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert eloquently describes how gears shaped how he perceived the world and approached learning when he was a child.

We all have our gears where what we learn ceases to be flat and static and becomes multidimensional and living. Papert describes vividly how gears of different sizes fit together to produce meshing products in a multiplication table. I tried to describe here how interactions are part of my guiding gears. I have students who are ranchers. Others are athletes, artists, scientists, writers. And of course they are each interested in more than one thing and are geared toward truly fundamental world views.



Imagine viewing multiplication as representation of meshing gears. What most affects us, influences our world view and shapes how we perceive and interpret what we later encounter has a great effect and affect on what we learn and how we do it.

Teaching toward our children’s gears might help them understand and learn what we are teaching. It also might allow them to more easily own what they learn, extend it beyond our teaching and keep it for a lifetime. Teaching the student more than the students and the lesson content facilitates her engagement with and conceptualization of the outcomes we wish him to learn.

Papert recounts his discovery that others do not share his world model of the gears, but have different models instead. We have to teach students we know in multiple ways to help them learn what we want them to learn. We have to know and value our students to help them realize their influence, their potential and their dreams.

We might have a class under our charge, but that class consists of unique individuals geared by unique world models. The function and art of teaching is to change behaviour not people. Our gears are as precious as our names. Sometimes all we own are these two things. We need to be careful to nurture and engage our children’s gears so that they might serve our children well in our multi-layered societies.



This post was inspired by David Wees’ draft of a keynote he was invited to present at the 2012 University of Alberta Faculty of Education Technology Fair.


Every Idea Begins With a Spark

I came upon a quote yesterday that I wanted to share. It is a message that every student should hear in some form every day.

Be innovative in your thinking and bold in your learning.

– Sabine Lague 2011

(The original quote is in first person.)

I thought it would be great as part of a BigHuge Labs Motivator poster, but then I found more than one photograph that would be perfect for the poster.

It occurred to me quite abruptly that I have not posted a photo essay in a long while. So the genesis of this post — a mix of photos and quotes.


IMG_0486IMG_0486 © 2008 Chazz Layne | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
Every Idea Begins With a Spark







EUREKA! I Found it!EUREKA! I Found it! © 2008 g d (Gary Dean) t???????d? | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
That Grow With Focus and Imagination into a Dream.



Humboldt GasworksHumboldt Gasworks © 2005 Cassidy Curtis | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
Whatever You Do, or Dream You Can, Begin It,
– W. H. Murray



Foxy!Foxy! © 2008 Wavy1 | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
For Ideas Rarely



The Thought Fox

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Webster, Richard. (2002, 1984.) ‘The Thought Fox’ and the poetry of Ted Hughes. The Critical Quarterly vol, 26, no. 4, 1984. http://www.richardwebster.net/tedhughes.html.




Life Offers Many Paths.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;




Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,




And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.




I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Frost, Robert. (1916.) The Road Not Taken (poem). Mountain Interval. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Road_Not_Taken.


Creamsicle SunsetCreamsicle Sunset © 2008 Evan Leeson | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
Keep Adventure in Your Heart and Pick the Paths that Excite You Most.



Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

– Howard Thurman

Realize Your Dreams.


Success Imagemap



Everything you want in life is right outside your comfort zone.

– Bob Allen

Be innovative in your thinking and bold in your learning.

– Sabine Lague

Engaging Kids: A Little Classroom Humour



There has been a recent rash of puns spreading around one of the schools I sub at. It has infected kids at all grade levels from 5 to 12. Of course, being called in to teach occasionally, I happened to walk into this contagious disease with no warning and no defence last Thursday and Friday.

My kids tried to infect me twice with puns on Thursday. Unfortunately, I was rather vaporous on that day, so I did not catch on to either attack and thwarted the jokes.

The Mistaken Challenge

The first attack came from my Science 9 students. I can not remember the pun and ruined the joke anyway. The students grudgingly revealed what they were trying to get me to say (without getting in trouble). I remember being glad I didn’t. My guess now is that the pun must have been inappropriate to school anyway.

(At this point, I should confess that I am a stickler when it comes to swearing or inappropriate topics from my kids. This deters my kids for about 15 seconds after I warn them not to engage in such behaviour. Then the fun begins: trying to find ways to tease Mr. Urban. This particular pun was their latest effort.)

Still, my kids were unaware that I hadn’t caught on. I am sure they have taken my sidestepping of the pun as a challenge, so I expect more cunning attempts to get me to break one of my own rules.

These kids just crack me up. They are so eager and clever. And for the most part, when I ask them to, they willingly engage in the learning activity at hand.

There is always room to play and enjoy class. My kids like joking with me; I am easy enough to let them bait me, yet usually wise enough to get out of their traps.



The Unintended Lesson

The second attack came from my Grade 12 math students. My Grade 12s were a little more cautious with their pun, choosing one that was barely offensive.

But, again, I did not catch on. And how spectacular the result.

I have watched these kids grow up from Grade 7 and am absolutely fascinated at how mature and confident they have become. I can’t tell you how awed and full of pride of them I am. So, yes, I was targeted again.

The pun was simple. My kids asked me “what is that under there?” and I was supposed to reply “under where?”

I did not.

Being obtuse


Really, it never occurred to me to even ask that. Over there were cabinets and shelves sitting without gap on the floor and a well raised table clearly with nothing under it.

I was supervising a probability quiz and wrote it myself along with them. (Probability, permutation and combination just confuse me. I can not make heads nor tails out of them. The quiz had a few sporting coin questions in it by the way.)

So I was thinking mathematically, systematically and about test question quality. I ended up pitching against the ambiguity of vague questions with my kids, particularly the one they were asking me, and they in turn kept trying rather desperately to get me to ask that magical pun-question. Dialogues of the obtuse are so amusing.

It all ended up in laughter and teacher-student bonding that would never have happened had I clued into the pun at any time.

One boy grinned that the joke turned out better than my kids had planned. A girl told me that I really got her thinking about clarity and definitions. Everyone, including me, ended the day with renewed energy and a smile.

Yeah, I was thick on Thursday. I normally take questions and comments at face value. I rarely look for ways to make this or that perverse by some lateral interpretation. I am eager to help.

And I love the way I am, and my kids. They can fool me any time they want, so long of course that doing so does not interfere with their learning activity.

I feel much closer today to these two classes of students, particularly the Grade 12s, as a result of this jocularity.

A little humour in the classroom is engaging and builds strong bonds. I am ecstatic that I subbed these kids on Thursday. A lot was won.



Math Challenge: All-digits Arithmetic

Dennis Coble, @DennisCoble, just tweeted me this challenge an hour ago.

Here’s 1 that might interest you. Numbers 1-9 all used: 3 digit number, plus or minus 3 digit number, gives another 3 digit number.

As usual, the problem is deceptively simple, as is the solution. However, students could be engaged in their activity of this task for a full period. 😉 And the ordering of student ability and success could be shaken. 🙂


When School Breaks and Learning Turns

Tuesday, June 28, is the last day of school for students in Alberta. They get two months off. Some will visit family, some will plunge into adventurous vacations, camps or clubs, some will relax at home.



At the same time, last Tuesday, June 21 (actually last Monday evening, June 20), was the six-month anniversary of my blog. It turned out differently than I imagined, both following a different route than I envisioned and having fewer entries than I planned.

(I think I will wait for the next Eve before Winter Solstice before I reflect on what I have learned through my blog.)

Today, I wish to address summer break.



Would I teach the same way during the Summer?

In particular, a question occurred to me as the end of the school year stealthily approached.

If a student came to me and asked for some tutoring this summer, how would I teach her (or him)?

  • Would I teach this student as I would in a classroom full of students, following the curriculum and lessons set for me in the middle of the school year?
  • Would I even follow the curriculum?
  • Or would I do something completely, utterly different (after all I would no longer be restricted to the curriculum or to a schedule or to another teacher’s plan)?



My ideal class

Which is more important — the content or the engagement?

Lately, in #mathchat we have been discussing student engagement and how to center math learning on the student.

I think the best thing I could do for any kid is enrich his experience of a subject by exciting her about it. The first thing any student needs to learn about any subject is what is fun about it and how it is used in the world.

Everything else follows after that.

So, what is my ideal class? It is a subject-club-style class. And if the "lessons" happen to cover the curriculum the student needs to learn, then the class would be truly empowering.

How would you teach if you were called this Summer?



Three Things I Learned From My Nephew



This week my nephew is on Spring break and visiting his Uncle Shawn. It is a busy week to say the least. During this week so far, we have engaged in several activities, three of which I thought I would share.

A frog, a snail and a cricket



One can only play Go Fish so many times before one wants to throttle one’s nephew.

Same for Memory.

But what if one plays Go Fish with Memory cards? How does that change the game?

The idea to play Go Fish with Memory cards was my nephew’s.

Go Fish with no pip cards is different. Uncle Shawn doesn’t know the names of the cast of Diego and Dora characters. He doesn’t even know the difference between a cartoon raccoon and a cartoon fox. (That’s funny, Uncle Shawn. Me: It is. I swear, folks, the fox has raccoon eyes!)



The first few games of Memory Go Fish with a cast of Diego and Dora character face cards were rather fun, and funny. One has to describe the card one is looking at without showing one’s opponent. And the opponent has to match the description to a card that might be in his hand. It’s like Picture Charades.

Then one plays Go Fish.

This game was fun for both uncle and nephew. But the lesson here is that kids can create rich, engaging learning opportunities on their own. Sometimes we teachers forget this.

By the way, the title of this section, A frog, a snail and a cricket, refers to the description of the face of one of the Memory cards. It was the most complicated card in the Memory deck, but the easiest to describe. Others are Girl Holding Flowers and Girls With Blue Dress and Book . Try to play Go Fish while describing cards like that.

Uncle Shawn is magic

So what does one do with a bundle of energy and curiosity after tiring of playing Memory Go Fish?

One calms him with magic!

Nothing like a Mobius Strip to entertain a six year old.

So, the second lesson I learned from my nephew: astound him and gain thirty minutes to an hour worth of focused exploration.



The trick, however, is to keep astounding him. If he wants more, you are doing well.

My nephew and I constructed the Mobius Strip together; I cut the pieces, he taped them together end to end. I twisted the subsequent strip, making sure he understood what I was doing; I marked the ends of the strip on the same side and held the marks together while he taped the final ends closing the loop.

Each time he asked what were we doing (now), I answered that he would see. Of course, if one is going to make such a promise, one needs to deliver.

Next, I asked questions. Will we get two strips if I cut the original in half? (Amazingly, the obvious answer, and his, is incorrect.) If I cut the new strip in half, will we get one, two or more strips? (Again, the logical answer is incorrect.) How many strips will we get if I cut this brand new original strip in three pieces (thirds)? (Don’t you hate “I don’t know” answers? Force him to give an answer; provide choices: one, two, three or more?)



Then get him coloring. When cut in thirds, the Mobius strip produces another Mobius strip half the arc length of the original and a two-sided strip twice the arc length of the original strip. Mark one side of each strip with one color and the opposite at the same spot with another color. Then let him go.

Concepts of number of sides and number of edges naturally evolve, making the entire exercise rich with play and learning.

Every subject has its Mobius Strips, things that draw the students into play and learning. One has to identify these “strips” and sell them. Delivery is the key.

A puzzle: Sophisticated abstract

Finally, I offer the following object that my nephew constructed yesterday. Think of it as a riddle.



What is it? When my nephew told me what it was, I was flabbergasted. I promise I will reveal what it is in a comment, but I thought I might get any guesses you might have beforehand.

I will give you a few clues.

  • The object is an abstraction of an abstract concept.
  • The concept is one I am interested in.
  • The object contains several recognizable real concrete components that are way out of scale relative to each other.

This is the third lesson my nephew taught me during his visit this Spring break. Kids can think and represent abstract concepts abstractly. Or is this concretely? We teachers need to allow our students to think and communicate in many ways. When we do, they can surprise us with their higher levels of understanding and communication.

And a final picture

What do you think? Another avatar for Stefras?



I would like to thank my nephew for inspiring this post.