Engaging Students in Active Learning

Engaging students in their education has been an ongoing challenge that increases every year. We all agree that students need to be invested in their education, but the 2016 Gallup poll of nearly a million U.S. students confirms that engagement has been dropping, especially as students advance in grade. Only half of adolescents reported feeling engaged in school while a fifth are disengaged. 10 percent are both disengaged and discouraged. There is no question about it. Engagement is the cornerstone of learning. Teachers want their students to be attentive, taking notes, listening and asking questions, participating in the lessons.

Engagement is a precondition for learning. No learning happens until students agree to become engaged with the material.

- Jal Mehta, Associate Professor of Education, Harvard, quoted from Bored Out of Their Minds

The solution seems so simple. To increase student engagement, teachers need to increase student activity. Ask students to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned. Employ learning activities in between lectures. This will give them time to practice and move around. Students can talk with one another and discuss the lesson. Make your lessons so engaging that students find it difficult not to participate.

It sounds so easy. Put the learner in charge of learning while the teacher merely facilitates. Create a rich learning environment that motivates students to learn. Group projects and activities can help stimulate engagement, but students are unique and individual. They have skills and abilities on such a broad spectrum. This greatly influences their learning style and ability to learn.

If you see human potential as a bell curve and there are only some kids who are going to be great and most kids are mediocre, then engagement really wouldn’t matter. But if you really believe that all kids are capable, then you would build environments that really worked hard to sustain engagement and nurture potential.

- Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program

For the Venn Diagrammer scenario, teacher Lucy Stickler at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina created an activity challenging students to sort organelles as to whether they are found in a plant cell, an animal cell, or both. In Venn Diagrammer, teams of students collaborate to categorize items into sets.

The 21st Century Learning Environment

Education is advancing with the help of technology. The conventional classroom is changing. The practices of the traditional classroom are no longer effective in engaging students.

In the 21st century classroom, lessons are more centered on the students. Teachers are more facilitators of learning. Teachers can help students think critically taking an inquiry based approach and requiring justification for answers. Students are actively learning, working together to solve problems, communicating and collaborating where they are able to apply skills to content.

Technology allows for 24/7 access to information, constant social interaction, and easily created and shared digital content. In this setting, educators can leverage technology to create an engaging and personalized environment to meet the emerging educational needs of this generation. No longer does learning have to be one-size-fits-all or confined to the classroom. The opportunities afforded by technology should be used to re-imagine 21st-century education, focusing on preparing students to be learners for life.

- Karen Cator, Director, Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education, quoted from How Do You Define 21st-Century Learning?

Engaged students at Wildwood School are learning about Disease Transmission. This scenario helps students understand how infectious diseases are contracted and spread. They will learn how different types of medications affect them. With this scenario students experience variations of a simulation of disease transmission in a closed system to deduce the cause of transmission.

SMALLab is grounded in contemporary research that reveals how learning is most effect when it is kinesthetic, collaborative, and engaging.

The mission of SMALLab Learning is to embed teaching with technology into schools and classrooms in order to improve instruction, learning and learning outcomes. Its flagship product⎼the SMALLab Embodied Learning Environment⎼creates a collaborative, full-body learning environment where students can see, hear, and even touch the experience in order to drive more effective learning. Multiple empirical research studies have measured 86% increases in student learning and 6.7X increases in student collaboration.

The SMALLab Experience Program allows educators to see SMALLab firsthand, and even bring SMALLab to your campus for a no-obligation trial period.

Find out how you can visit a SMALLab near you.

Gamifying Language Learning

Jackson Avenue School in Mineola School District uses Spinner in their Spanish class for 3rd & 4th graders.

Jackson Avenue School in Mineola School District uses Spinner in their Spanish class for 3rd & 4th graders.

Foreign language learning in the 21st century is changing. Teachers are now competing with a tech-centric world. Keeping students fully engaged has become a challenge. As 21st century learners, students must develop their critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication skills. Teachers are required to integrate a suitable framework for boosting these skills. Classrooms are requiring a higher level of engagement. What is the best way to achieve this?

Getting in the Language Learning Game

Teachers have played language immersion games in the classroom before. Students must understand the situational context; just like the real world, they must make choices. Games mechanics or rule based simulations can enhance the language learning experience.

In an collaborative learning environment like SMALLab, timers add that additional element that requires fast decision-making. Players must communication with one another, collaborate, work together. The movement requires engagement. The actions of the players reinforce the learning process.

Students at Episcopal School of Baton Rouge use Color Mixer in their French class. Students not only have to know the colors in French, but they must communicate with the other players to let them know when to raise their wand.

With SMALLab, teachers are able to customize activities through our Resources Service. They can create questions that pertain to their specific lessons, geared specifically for their students.

This Spanish 6 class at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina, uses the Spinner Scenario to help their students learn.

The Desire to Succeed

There is something about a game that makes us want to try again. "Good games are designed in such a way that the more we fail the more we want to succeed. It’s this dynamic which language learners can tap into," André Klein, 3 Reasons Why Video Games Are Underestimated In Language Learning. The repetition in striving for the best score or beating the clock, strengthens and reinforces the language and drives a student towards mastery.

Gamifying the process of language learning through educational technology can easily provide framework for achieving positive student engagement...It is clear that gamification should be an intrinsic part of the undergoing revolution of our classrooms.

- Jovana Cenejac, Gamification Is Reshaping The Language Learning Landscape

Social Emotional Learning in the SMALLab

Schools have been known to focus on academics, but a recent update to federal education law has required states to teach, measure, and test social emotional skills as a means to judge school performance. While “grit” has become a buzzword and a desirable outcome for social-emotional learning, advocate Angela Duckworth says, “I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea.”

Around 2011, schools discovered after an analysis of 213 school-based programs academic achievement improved by 11 percent teaching social-emotional learning, but how should this be measured?


“The biggest concern about testing for social-emotional skills is that it typically relies on surveys asking students to evaluate recent behaviors or mind-sets, like how many days they remembered their homework, or if they consider themselves hard workers. This makes the testing highly susceptible to fakery and subjectivity. In their paper published in May, Dr. Duckworth and David Yeager argued that even if students do not fake their answers, the tests provide incentive for ‘superficial parroting’ rather than real changes in mind-set.”  – February 29, 2016, Kate Zernike, “Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills,” New York Times.

Can Social Emotional Learning Be Taught?

While there is still debate over whether social-emotional learning should be taught and what should be measured, critics are also asking how “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?”

September 11, 2013, Jennifer Kahn, New York Times: “Something we now know, from doing dozens of studies, is that emotions can either enhance or hinder your ability to learn,” Marc Brackett, a senior research scientist in psychology at Yale University, told a crowd of educators at a conference last June. “They affect our attention and our memory. If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?”

We want our students to feel good, develop strong meta-cognitive skills and become motivated critical thinkers. With different learning styles, not all students will be inspired to develop positive social skills alone.

One way to boost student morale and performance is through teamwork and collaboration. Students are more motivated to work through activities and projects.

Fostering Social Emotional Learning

Add to this a video game setting aligned to classroom content and students are able to develop an incremental theory of intelligence where “they understand they have certain skills. They are praised for their effort: ‘you worked so hard on that problem, you solved that puzzle.’ They have a growth mindset.”

“Video games nurture an incremental understanding of intelligence. Because players are rewarded for one task at a time — for overcoming one obstacle after another — they learn to understand learning and accomplishment iteratively... Games designed for the classroom can leverage the same sort of motivational intelligence.” May 16, 2014, Jordan Shapiro, “Social And Emotional Benefits Of Video Games: Metacognition and Relationships,” Mind/Shift.

How does a video game relate to social-emotional learning? “70 percent of gamers play their games with other people... Gamers play cooperatively. They play competitively. They share tips and tricks. They work together. They teach each other how to get better at the game.”

Students at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina are using the SMALLab Memory Scenario to learn about the phases of the moon. The timer motives the students to work together to beat the clock!

SMALLab Learning’s empirical research has measured a 6.8X increase in student-to-student conversations and collaboration compared to traditional instruction this collaboration contributes to deeper learning experiences, and retention especially of abstract concepts.

Jordan asks us to “imagine a classroom where collaboration is the norm.” The Embodied Learning ™ framework of SMALLab creates such an environment every time it is used.

Embodiment for Comprehension


Reading and comprehension are traditional challenges for students of all ages whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Building a character profile can help students process and interpret what they are reading by looking for clues about how the character thinks, feels and acts. Using their body as a metaphor, students can act out their identities and gain deeper understanding, as the basis for comprehension.


Retelling the story of a chosen character is easier with concrete actions associated with the words, supported with visual and aural representations. This engagement creates a deeper, more personal understanding of the character. It also gives the students a chance to practice public speaking skills.

In Character Profile, students create the sets of images and sounds that represent these aspects of a character. They can take pictures with phones or tablets, find images, or draw their own. They can record their own voice or use music to bring life to their profile.

These are then loaded into the scenario. When students point toward their feet, the action elements appear. When they hold their hand to their heart, the feeling elements appear. When they raise their hand above their head, thought elements appear.

In the Classroom

In the context of the English Language Arts classroom, students can create profiles of the actions, feelings, and thoughts of characters in the books or plays they are studying.   Students at Spring Hill Elementary in Fayetteville, Georgia, created a character profile based on Billie Jo from the story by Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust.

Reading and comprehension are traditional challenges for students of all ages whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Building a character profile can help students process and interpret what they are reading by looking for clues about how the character thinks, feels and acts.

Middle school theater students at Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina use their SMALLab for character development where they can collaborate and interact.

In the context of the English as a Second Language classroom or when teaching World Languages, students can create profiles as a creative way to introduce themselves and practice speaking. Character Profile can also help record information about historical figures.

Character Profile is easily customized by the student for any project with an oral presentation. 


Digital Games - A Fun Physical Learning Experience

SMALLab Learning Experience
SMALLab Learning Experience

A game is not just a game in SMALLab, it becomes a fun physical learning experience and can help students learn with the most challenging subjects in school.

"In order to take learning to the next level, there’s an experiment in Pittsburgh that brings game designers closer to the educators who want games for learning. The hope is that by working together, within the school, game designers can create products that more directly meet teachers’ needs. For example, when English Language Arts teachers at Elizabeth Forward Middle School were asked to identify an area of the curriculum kids loathe, they named grammar. The teachers then worked with graduate students at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to develop learning games." - Katrina Schwartz, Mind/Shift

Graduate students from CMU designed games for SMALLab to address the specific struggles students experienced around grammar. The team created "a space race game in which students choose pronouns from meteors at the bottom of the mat and put them into their own spaceship. Groups race against one another to launch a rocket into space first." Built for embodied learning, SMALLab spaces are designed to get students moving, while discussing their answers and collaborating in the space.

“It almost feels like they’re inside the game,” said Rachael Egan, a sixth grade language arts teacher.

With only three wands, students often work in groups, discussing strategy, what answers are correct and how to win. They are physically choosing words for their spaceships and working as a team.

Egan says she’s seeing results in her students. “I’ve seen a big shift in ability level,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are in there with, they all step up to the challenge and take things on.”

Read more about How to Turn Digital Games Into a Fun Physical Learning Experience at School.

Engaging in Historical Thinking

History has too often been boiled down to boring names, facts, and dates... this is what history is to a lot of people. Lectures rely too heavily on auditory input and make students passive as opposed to active learners. Students memorize dates and names but soon forget everything once the test is over. How can a teacher get their students to engage in historical thinking?

Tap into Students Curiosity

Consider beginning your lecture with an interactive encounter. Present them with a puzzle with powerful visual images and sounds to be solved.

In the SMALLab Storyline Scenario, hovering your magnifying glass over an image enlarges it for the class to see while playing music or a recording associated with it. See how Blue Ridge School in Georgia uses SMALLab to put history in order!

Historians often see themselves as detectives, unsure about what happened and what it means. Historians also don't always agree. Have your students work together to decide what the order is. " What is this president known for in history?" "Why was this event so important in history?" It's hard to fall asleep when students are up out of their seats pointing to pictures, talking with each other and collaboratively sorting out a giant puzzle.

Use of Processing Strategies

Give your students time to review, interact with the content and with each other. Have the students break into teams and formulate questions about the ideas to help them process the information.

Challenge your students and have them create their own presentation with their own images and recorded sounds that could be in the form of historical music or a quote they record themselves. The challenging team could chose one open-ended question that needs to be answered and solved by the clues provided. Why do they believe things happened in that order? What are the the clues that gave them the answer?

Build on the Discussion

Questions build on other questions and answers build on other answers. Take your discussion the the next level with the tension bar in the Storyline Scenario. Ask the students to raise Democrats north and lower Republicans south. Then discuss where the Federalists, Democratic-Republicans and Whigs stood in between and why. Did they lean more towards Democratic beliefs or Republican?  What quote or clue tells them this?

Present a modern day political issue and ask where a president would have sided - for or against, and to what degree!

Even if history is not a favorite subject, engaging your students with interactive lessons can help them understand ideas you are imparting while building on their critical thinking and investigative skills!

Developing Deeper Learning

We live in a world that is changing—and changing quickly. People and goods move around the world with unprecedented ease. The rapid advance of technology means that televisions, computers, and cell phones consume more than seven hours of the average American child’s day. Signs of our digital connectivity are all around us: every month, 100 billion searches are performed on Google. Every two years, the amount of digital information more than doubles. What is novel and revolutionary today is quickly outdated.

What does this mean for students?

Today’s college students can enroll in majors that didn't exist a few short years ago in fields like biomedical engineering or nanotechnology. Experts predict that nearly two-thirds of today’s elementary school students will one day hold a job that hasn't been created yet.

These changes pose important questions for education. How well will U.S. students be able to use the information and technology at their fingertips, interpret the world around them, and adapt so that they can thrive in such a quickly changing environment? How well are we preparing them for a world that will look dramatically different when they graduate from high school? - The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Deeper Learning as a Solution

Deeper learning is not new to education and most accomplished teachers employ these educational practices already.

"I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they learn." – Albert Einstein

Deeper learning prepares students to:

  • Know and master core academic content
  • Think critically and solve complex problems
  • Work collaboratively
  • Communicate effectively
  • Be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback

Essentially, deeper learning teaches students to learn how to learn. When students are the focus, they are challenged and more motivated. They can apply what they have learned in one class to situations they encounter in another. Students understand how classwork relates to real life and are building an indispensable set of knowledge, skills, and an academic mindset allowing them to learn more effectively. They acquire and retain more academic knowledge when they are engaged,

believe their studies are important, and are able to apply what they are learning in complex and meaningful ways.

Huntsville Middle School - SMALLab
Huntsville Middle School - SMALLab

What would this look like in the classroom?

Dave Carter, a Geometry teacher at Impact Academy of Arts and Technology talks about two strategies for developing deeper learners: Waiting and Organizing from Education Week.

Waiting... This means being patient and let students think about the problem.

“Deeper learning happens in the gaps, in between the talk and during seemingly dead air. At times, when a student discussion comes to a pause, and kids are really grappling with an idea, I feel like I'm actually watching learning transpire.”

It’s not about the teacher needing the student to give the correct answer. It’s about the student’s path to discovery.

“A student-centered classroom is one in which the student experience is at the center, and the teacher simply adjusts the climate so that kids are more frequently in contact with and generating the cool thoughts and ideas and mistakes and epiphanies that abound. It is important to acknowledge that the speed at which students problem-solve is most likely not the speed at which I problem-solve. It's important for me to create open space in which students can think. And the most direct way to do this is simply to wait.”

Organizing... How do you get students to engage with the challenge when they don’t get it?

“In my classroom, it is totally fine to not get it. But what's not fine is to then fail to engage with the problem at all. So, I created an I don't get it organizer. If students don't get a problem, they must use this organizer, which asks them a series of questions about the problem. It requires them to break the problem into smaller chunks, consider the vocabulary in the problem, highlight the numerical values, and identify with precision the moment at which they began to not understand what was happening.”

“As I more frequently used this organizer, I noticed students opting back in to the original math problem because they saw it as a path of lesser resistance over filling out this page-long organizer. In a sense, the organizer is calling a student's bluff - do you really not understand or are you just opting out? Secondarily, as students use this organizer, they start to not need it as much: they begin to internalize the questions asked of them and are better able to ask themselves in real time as they are solving a problem, without the aid of the organizer.”

SMALLab takes deeper learning to a new level, embedding teaching with technology in a meaningful way that improves instruction, learning and learning outcomes. Students are able to visualize the problems in an interactive space, construct, test and apply concepts bridging their physical experiences with traditional knowledge. Students collaborate on teacher guided challenges, making sense of problems and persevering in solving them.

Setting the Scenario with Game Play

Game Play in the Classroom - SMALLab Learning
Game Play in the Classroom - SMALLab Learning

Game play and screen time have often been considered something to be wary of for students, yet 74 percent of teachers report using digital games in the classroom and 55 percent of students play games at least weekly according to a recent survey of teachers conducted by Lori Takeuchi and Sarah Vaala at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. According to Mind/Shift's Guide to Digital Games + Learning by Jordan Shapiro, there is much controversy over the best practices.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children younger than two years old have no screen time at all while older kids should have one to two hours per day of electronic media. They also encourage parents to "establish 'screen-free' zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children's bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner."

Oversimplifying the issue to an on/off situation, creates more problems as "tablets become like junk food, imagined as a temptation that children gravitate to but need to be protected from."

"It is only when electronic media is used to occupy children—like a babysitter that provides parents or teachers with an hour or two of peace and quiet—that justifying its use becomes more complicated."

Jordan recommends using videos and digital media with great intention. "It is not about employing ed-tech for its own sake... but rather about using tools that engage students toward specific learning objectives."

The recent APA (American Psychological Association) article entitled “The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” by authors Isabela Granic, Adam Lobel, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels, surveyed the landscape of video games. They identified four types of positive impact that video games have on the kids who play them: cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social. Here’s a quick rundown:

• Cognitive benefit: Games have been shown to improve attention, focus, and reaction time. • Motivational benefit: Games encourage an incremental, rather than an entity theory of intelligence. • Emotional benefit: Games induce positive mood states; and there is speculative evidence that games may help kids develop adaptive emotion regulation. • Social benefit: Gamers are able to translate the prosocial skills that they learn from co-playing or multi-player gameplay to “peer and family relations outside the gaming environment.”

To best leverage the efficiency of digital tools to serve young learners, technology needs to be employed carefully. Not all apps labeled as "educational" have good content. Games and apps are best applied when they combine the lesson with an understanding of the real world, engaging the student to explore, ask questions, and come up with their own theories. A balance between digital games and learning and traditional instruction can enhance a well-worn curriculum.

Early education should provide a foundation for critical thinking, including thinking critically about technology and digital media.

Read the entire report here.

Beyond the Maker Movement

Quest to Learn, New York

Quest to Learn, New York

Hands-on learning or learning by doing has been taking place formally and informally for years, but technology and new tools have helped recreate this style of learning into the ever popular maker movement. There is no question that students learn through embodied cognition with enriching experiences grounded in the body, but how has it changed and what does this mean for students today? Hands-on learning is a total learning experience which enhances a student's ability to think critically. Applying core concepts to real-world challenges, students are encouraged to plan a process to test a hypothesis, put the process in motion, follow through to completion and explain the obtained results. These hands-on lessons have been most traditionally seen in science and engineering classes doing experiments and building things, but how can this creative thinking be applied to other subjects?

Innovative Educator, Lisa Yokana, shares her ideas with Edutopia, Capture the Learning: Crafting the Maker Mindset:

  • First, identify the content you need to teach.Start with a simple lesson or unit to get your feet wet. Is it atomic orbitals or the grammatical structure of Mandarin? What specific information and material should students understand deeply through the experience?
  • Second, think about the skills that you want the students to use and practice.Do you want them to develop empathy for the characters in a novel or for abolitionists during the Civil War? You can craft a lesson that allows students to practice and hone these specific skills. To teach close observation in biology, ask students to adopt a tree for the year and visually record how it changes over time.
  • Third think about restrictions or limitations for the project. All creativity needs restraints. It could be as simple as the materials you want students to use. Perhaps you limit them to using recycled materials that they gather. Have them explore the properties of the material before they use it, because you cannot assume that students have making experience. How much can wire bend before it breaks? Successful projects don't have to be high tech -- they can be as simple as paper and colored pencils.
  • Fourth, craft a main question, the simpler the better.Ask math students to create a tool that can measure the height of a flagpole. Make it relevant. Ask world history students to make mandalas that demonstrate their understanding of the eight-fold path in Buddhism. How would you show the "right mind" or right action? For math and science students, how can you measure the water output of a stream?

The maker movement mindset can take you past physical manipulatives and into in-depth investigations with ideas that draw meaning and understanding from their experiences.

Asking them to express an idea translated into another medium requires them to know something holistically and more deeply. They must understand both its complexities and its parts. It's the same as knowing something well enough to teach it -- you have to understand it completely, as well as how all the different pieces fit together.

SMALLab games in the classroom
SMALLab games in the classroom

SMALLab Learning applies the maker mindset through thoughtfully designed scenarios for different subjects and lessons. Beyond the scenarios, consider having your students participate in a design program customized for your curriculum whether it is on game design, animation, or 3D printing!

Maker spaces open the doors to new concepts, new ideas, and inspiration. Students are not just sitting and listening, but up out of their seats, collaborating, making, doing and experiencing. Each person has a different perspective that comes together in an embodied and engaging experience that creates a deeper understanding of the lessons making new opportunities for learning. Challenge your students to come up with their own solutions! How are you creatively applying the maker mindset in your classroom? 

Enlightened by Interactive Learning

Interactive Learning - SMALLab Learning

There is no question that schools and classrooms have been changing over the years. For many of us it was a novel idea to have a computer lab with a handful of computers that you would tinker with once a week. Today, students are growing up in a technology-rich environment and are finding it more difficult to pay attention in a passive learning environment copying figures from the board.

More and more schools are turning to interactive learning to inspire students and keep them engaged in their lessons.

Interactive learning is not a new concept. By definition it is a more hands-on, real-world process of relaying information in classrooms. While passive learning relies on listening to teacher lectures or rote memorization of information, figures, or equations, interactive learning invites students to participate in the conversation, through technology or through role-playing group exercises in class.

Interactive learning engages students who are raised in hyper-stimulated environments. It sharpens their critical thinking skills which are fundamental to the development of analytic reasoning.

"A child who can explore an open-ended question with imagination and logic is learning how to make decisions, as opposed to just regurgitating memorized information." - Parent & Child Magazine, Scholastic.com

Interactive learning teachers children how to collaborate and work successfully in groups, an indispensable skill as workplaces become more team-based structure.

These 4th grade students at Blue Ridge School in Dalton, Georgia are working together against the clock to beat their high score. They must all pay attention, talk to one another, and know the information to succeed.

Even for the most prestigious institutions of higher education, interactive learning has impacted classrooms and lecture halls. Eric Mazur, Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard, discovered his success as a teacher "was a complete illusion, a house of cards."

“The students did well on textbook-style problems,” he explains. “They had a bag of tricks, formulas to apply. But that was solving problems by rote. They floundered on the simple word problems, which demanded a real understanding of the concepts behind the formulas.” - Harvard Magazine

Mazur stumbled on a breakthrough one day as he was reviewing questions with the class. He had spent 10 minutes trying to explain one of the questions to the class twice but they were still confused. He decided to have them discuss it with each other. They started talking to each other in one-on-one conversations and within three minutes, they had figured it out.

“Here’s what happened. First, when one student has the right answer and the other doesn't, the first one is more likely to convince the second—it’s hard to talk someone into the wrong answer when they have the right one." More important, a fellow student is more likely to reach them than Professor Mazur—and this is the crux of the method. You’re a student and you've only recently learned this, so you still know where you got hung up, because it’s not that long ago that you were hung up on that very same thing. Whereas Professor Mazur got hung up on this point when he was 17, and he no longer remembers how difficult it was back then. He has lost the ability to understand what a beginning learner faces. - Harvard Magazine

  • Interactive learning triples students’ gains in knowledge as measured by conceptual tests and assessments.
  • There’s also better retention of knowledge.
  • Active learners take new information and apply it, rather than merely taking note of it.
Particle Predator for SMALLab
Particle Predator for SMALLab

In a SMALLab, students collaborate and discuss ideas they are learning, formulate hypotheses and test out their theories. SMALLab scenarios encourage student participation. Lessons become multimodal allowing teachers to use questions that stimulate response and discussion in a hands-on experience. SMALLab lets teachers press for answers, capture and hold the student's attention. SMALLab provides a space where learners of all types, auditory, visual, and especially kinesthetic can engage and connect with the lessons. Find out more about Embodied Learning and how it can impact your learning goals.

Lucy Stickler from Providence Day shares about her experiences in the SMALLab with her class. See more of the interview here http://smallablearning.com/about/success-stories/

SMALLab Learning was founded in 2010 with the mission of advancing embodied learning in schools, museums, and the home. Our products include SMALLab and Flow.

The Benefits of Movement and Play

In an article for the Washington Post, therapist Angela Hanscom goes to middle school and tries to sit still and focus. This is a follow-up to two popular posts about the problems kids face when they are forced to sit still in school for hours on end without a break or any kind of movement and play.

In Angela Hanscom's first article "Why so many kids can't sit still in school today" she discussed how being inactive affects students' ability to stay focused and learn, and in some cases leads to improper diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD.

Angela Hanscom writes:

Except for brief periods of getting up and switching classrooms, I've been sitting for the past 90 excruciating minutes. I look down at my leg and notice it is bouncing. Great, I think to myself, now I’m fidgeting! I’m doing anything I can to pay attention – even contorting my body into awkward positions to keep from daydreaming. It is useless, I checked out about forty-five minutes ago. I’m no longer registering anything the teacher is saying. I look around the room to see how the children a few decades younger than me are doing.

I’m immersed in a local middle-school classroom environment. I quickly realize I’m not the only one having a hard time paying attention. About 50 percent of the children are fidgeting and most of the remaining children are either slouched in the most unnatural positions imaginable or slumped over their desks. A child suddenly gets up to sharpen their pencil. A few minutes later, another child raises their hand and asks to go to the bathroom. In fact, at least three children have asked to go to the bathroom in the past twenty minutes. I’m mentally exhausted and the day has just begun. I was planning on observing the whole day. I just can’t do it. I decide to leave right after lunch.

There is no way I could tolerate six hours of sitting even just one day, never mind every day – day after day. How on Earth do these children tolerate sitting this long? Well, the short answer is they don’t. Their bodies aren’t designed for extended periods of sitting. In fact, none of our bodies are made to stay sedentary for lengths of time. This lack of movement and unrelenting sitting routine, are wreaking havoc on their bodies and minds. Bodies start to succumb to these unnatural positions and sedentary lifestyle through atrophy of the muscles, tightness of ligaments (where there shouldn’t be tightness), and underdeveloped sensory systems – setting them up for weak bodies, poor posturing, and inefficient sensory processing of the world around them.

If most of the classroom is fidgeting and struggling to even hold their bodies upright, in desperation to stay engaged – this is a really good indicator that they need to move more. In fact, it doesn’t matter how great of a teacher you are. If children have to learn by staying in their seats most of the day, their brains will naturally tune out after a while – wasting the time of everyone.

Students more than ever, especially in middle school need to get up out of their seats. It allows them to engage in their learning. They have fun with the lesson and ultimately remember more information and not just to pass their tests. They can develop their own theories and test them in a virtual "lab."

In a SMALLab, students use their imagination, get creative and have the opportunity to play while learning. SMALLab is a collaborative where a teacher can ask a question, let the students discuss the topic, and figure out possible solutions together. SMALLab brings a variety of experiences to the classroom so students can work together, interact, move and play. 

Read the whole article here.

Systems Thinking & Embodied Learning

Can math and robots teach students about behavior and systems thinking? Through human computer interaction and applied learning sciences, math with the help of some clever engineering and robots comes to life! At the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan (known as MoMath), a new exhibit called Robot Swarm is in the final testing before opening on December 14th.

A small group of mathematicians, designers and engineers have put together the nation's most technologically ambitious robotics exhibit. Depending on the mode, these robots beneath a 11 x 12 foot glass floor will swarm, skitter and react to whoever is standing on top of the glass. Cameras above sense visitors in the space with the "reflector pod" which then transmit information to the robots moving in accord with a variety of programmed settings determined by visitors working a control panel.

Hannah Lawrence, left, and Rachel Lawrence playing Robot Swarm, an exhibit in which one can control the movement of differently colored robots. Ozier Muhammad / The New York Times
Hannah Lawrence, left, and Rachel Lawrence playing Robot Swarm, an exhibit in which one can control the movement of differently colored robots. Ozier Muhammad / The New York Times

Playing with and watching these robots creates an interactive platform that demonstrates the mathematics of emergent behavior. Students begin to understand systems thinking by understanding the roles of the players, the robots, and their relationships.

“The rules that govern the movement of the robots are very simple and easy to state mathematically,” said Dr. Whitney, who conceived the exhibit in 2009. “It’s not like each robot is transported out of its body and can see the entire play area. They understand what’s going on in their neighborhood. It’s a matter of doing something little and simple, and following the rules. What you get is more than the sum of the parts.”

Much like our Particle Predator Scenario, local interactions lead to large-scale organized behavior as seen with predators and prey yet they can be boiled down to mathematical principles understanding how behaviors could have evolved. In our Particle Predator Scenario, students can set the rules that define the interactions between each of the six particles including which particles destroy other particles and which replace other particles. Setting rules and testing theories, students are encouraged to create a balanced and engaging game by manipulating the underlying rules between the particles.

Read the whole article here.

SMALLab Games Produced by the BrainSTEM Team

Here's a look at the SMALLab games produced by the BrainSTEM team in the fall of 2012 for Elizabeth Forward Middle School.

BrainSTEM was an interactive education project with Elizabeth Forward School District to develop immersive, interactive experiences for middle school students using the SMALLab.

SMALLab is a unique piece of technology that focuses on embodied learning, which blends learning with human-computer interaction. Embodied learning is collaborative, multimodal, and kinesthetic: by having students interact together in a physical setting, through touch, sight, and sound, they are more likely to remember what they learned long-term.

During this project, a team of students worked with the faculty at Elizabeth Forward Middle School to pinpoint areas of learning that students struggle to master and create embodied learning experiences that transform the classroom experience into a fully kinesthetic learning environment. We focused on Math and Language Arts for 6th and 7th grades, creating 3 fully polished and customizable teaching experiences for the classroom. The games we created focused on fractions, the order of operations, and prefix/root/suffix connections and comprehension.

5 Myths About Learning - How Students Learn and Develop

Things that shape brain development.
Things that shape brain development.

Sam Wang, an associate professor at the Department of Molecular Biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. He gives us some insight into how the human brain develops and changes over time, helping us to understand how students learn and develop. Laura Devaney writes for eSchoolNews, September 19, 2012.

Myth 1: ADHD isn’t real, or conversely is permanent. 

The human brain is always growing and changing. As a child grows, their brain develops systems for processing information. The brain develops from back to front, generating emotions and core functions like paying attention and self-restraint. The prefrontal cortex develops last, reaching full maturity when a person reaches his or her 20s or 30s. A student with ADHD has a slower growth in this area of the brain. Half of these children do catch up eventually.

Myth 2: “Redshirting” kindergarteners is, on average, good for child’s mental development.

One out of 11 kindergarten-age children are held back in an attempt to give them an advantage in the classroom over other children.

Children are social learners and they learn from one another and learn through play.
Children are social learners and they learn from one another and learn through play.

“As it turns out, this practice is not helpful for child achievement. … Any advantages disappear by the end of sixth grade,” Wang said. In fact, children who are older for their grade level don’t do quite as well as children who are young for their grade level.

Children are social learners, Wang said, and they learn from one another and learn through play. If a child’s peers are slightly more advanced scholastically or emotionally, a child has those peers to learn from and to use as examples. Children who are young for their school year typically have more advanced peers to draw upon and learn from.

Myth 3: IQ is the biggest predictor of student achievement.

In fact, the ability to show self-restraint at an early age is twice as predictive as IQ, Wang said. Willpower and self-restraint are more important.

Imaginative play works on self-control. Playing roles within an environment require children to plan for the future. At this age, self-control is more important than IQ. “It’s more important to build up self-control, and it’s more important to praise a child for trying,” Wang said. “Praise for effort, not for intrinsic ability.”

Myth 4: Learning styles are a good way to guide teaching practice.

The brain’s willpower mechanisms are expanded by practice—what brains do often, they do well, Wang said. This includes activities such as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand to build up brain circuitry.

Students can build up a brain circuit by activating it and doing that specific activity often. The brain improves with practice.

Myth 5: Autism is on the rise and is strongly affected by environmental influence.

Researchers believe that autism itself is not increasing in rapid numbers, but diagnoses are, owing to better methods of diagnosing autism. Much of autism is more and more being linked to genetics, Wang said.

“The recognized rate of autism is going up, but in fact, it is quite possible that the characteristics of children have not changed in the last 20 years,” Wang said, referring to the belief that autism rates are not rising so much as doctors’ ability to diagnose autism is improving.

“Autism is a really interesting example about there being an interplay between genes and environment,” Wang said. “It may be a case of bad input to the developing cerebral cortex—the front part of the brain.”

Game on: using computer games to captivate your class

Head of department Ollie Bray is using computer games to get his students excited about learning. Here, he talks about technophobia, teaching and trusting kids with tech. Hannah Gould writing for the Guardian, September 14, 2012. It started with a game like Sims City had students starting at the same point with the same end goal, build a city.

Everyone takes a different route of getting there and that was the part of the process that captures and engages the imagination.

Games can provide the stimulus to get a class excited about learning: children can record authentic data created by their play and teachers can apply it to numeracy lessons. Photograph: Fabio De Paola
Games can provide the stimulus to get a class excited about learning: children can record authentic data created by their play and teachers can apply it to numeracy lessons. Photograph: Fabio De Paola

We'd send home learning tasks and each week during a review session the kids would tell me what they'd learnt. This ranged from improved understandings on pollution and drainage to better insights into local government re-elections. The proof of their learning wasn't just in rich discussion, the class would also share screenshots of what they'd built and we'd have a top city of the week.

"Contextual Hubs" for learning is meant to take an available game and it's up to the teacher to create educational potential around it.

The learning doesn't come from the game itself but becomes the context for learning. If you think about Guitar Hero, it has no educational value at all, but in the hands of the right teachers, it suddenly becomes a project about music, designing CD cases, marketing the band, there are all kinds of links to it.

If you're a teacher who can see the potential in gaming but you aren't confident with technology, what simple pointers could you offer to help introduce it into their classroom?

If a teacher can accept they need the children to set up the console for them, the rest will take care of itself. Games are great because they produce data; one example might be Mario and Sonic at the 2012 Olympics for the Wii. After break, you can get the children to turn the console on and play the hurdles, which takes two minutes. You've got children writing down scores and times, and they give this information to the teacher. What they've done is create rich, authentic data in the context of a numeracy lesson. The teacher at no point has come in contact with the technology and just does what they're good at, which is teach the learner.

You can feel comfortable in the domain of being a teacher and the children can feel comfortable in the domain of computer games; when these overlap that's when it becomes a really interesting space for learning. You don't have to take a leap out of your comfort zone, it's about taking a little bit of a risk and trusting children with the technology.

Games-based learning has allowed teachers to do things differently. Teachers must continue to gain support from their peers across the country and the world, sharing and adapting ideas.

It's all about impact in the classroom and I think that's been the most wonderful stuff that's come out of all of this, is that people have permission, to innovate and do things differently.

Convincing your school to invest in games based learning...

Firstly, we can show them the research which proves it has a positive impact. Secondly, we can put them in touch with other head teachers who have it in their schools. The third thing is to remind head teachers that, actually, what we're talking about is not computer games, it's play. When you get a room full of teachers to play with consoles, they might feel silly at first but they get into it! I'd never say everybody, but with most people, you kind of see this light bulb moment. If you've forgotten what it's like to play and be a child, it's difficult to communicate and therefore it's hard to improve their learning. Many of these teachers are parents themselves but they haven't thought that what they have at home could be useful in schools. It's just about drawing up the dots.

Read the whole article here.

Can Video Games Reshape STEM Education?

Game-based learning has been growing in popularity in recent years as more educational institutions are considering implementing video games in learning. There are still some doubts and from cautious parents as to whether video games can really be used as an educational tool. Chitra Sethi writes for ASME.org, September 2012.

Geckman teaches basics of nanotechnology to middle-school students.
Geckman teaches basics of nanotechnology to middle-school students.

An explosion in his laboratory has shrunk Harold to nanoscale and flung him to the ceiling. As Harold journeys through strange new worlds, his lab partner, Nikki, helps him to understand nanoscale forces to get back to full size. Harold must find all the pages of his notebook and all the parts of the broken shrinking machine but first he must stop a tiny alien race, the Nanoids, who have been stealing his technology.

This might sound like a plot of a science-fiction film, but it is the storyline for Geckoman, an online video game developed by Northeastern University researchers at the Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing (CHN), with funding from the National Science Foundation and 15 Days LLC, a company founded by Northeastern alumni and faculty.

More and more games are teaching complex subjects such as nanotechnology to middle-school students. Principles and lessons are built into the game, "if done correctly, gaming can be a very powerful teaching tool," says CHN director Ahmed Busnaina.

Games allow kids to experiment, explore and solve problems in a virtual environment. "There are certain facts about science that engineers should know but those facts have much more meaning when you use them to solve problems. Video games challenge players with difficult problems and motivate the players to solve problems," says Eric Klopfer, associate professor of education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and director of the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program (STEP).

Video Games in STEM Education
Video Games in STEM Education

Video games can enable STEM education from elementary school all the way through college as they teach skills such as analytical thinking, multitasking, strategizing, problem-solving, and team building. “Traditional learning has provided superficial learning through text books. Games are best at teaching a deeper level of learning,” says Klopfer.

Busnania says that students have a preference to learn through game play over conventional lecturers and the results of student play tests conducted for Geckoman indicate that they are learning new concepts. The Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts did a preliminary evaluation of the game. Three groups of students who played Geckoman were asked to complete content-specific pre-tests before they played the game and post-tests after playing the game. The difference between pre- and post-tests showed that the game was successful in helping students learn the science concepts presented in it.

Video games represent the kind of interactive and self-paced learning that people see as a future guided by technology. Klopfer says, however, games can’t replace traditional teaching methods. “I don’t think games should be the only component. Games do provide students the opportunity for self-learning but students need guidance and mentorship. The role of the teacher here is not diminished but becomes more challenging and interesting in helping the students to learn with this kind of medium.”

Read the whole article here.

How You Move Your Arm Says Something About Who You Are

When Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps steps onto a starting block a few days from now, a Stanford scientist named Krishna Shenoy will be asking himself a question: "What's going on in Michael Phelps' brain?" Jon Hamilton writes for NPR, July 19, 2012.

Researchers studying brains want to know what's happening in an area called the premotor cortex — the place in the brain that gears up for something the body is about to do, like swimming. Above, Michael Phelps dives off the starting blocks in the final heat of the men's 400-meter individual medley during the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials in Omaha, Neb., on June 25.  Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Researchers studying brains want to know what's happening in an area called the premotor cortex — the place in the brain that gears up for something the body is about to do, like swimming. Above, Michael Phelps dives off the starting blocks in the final heat of the men's 400-meter individual medley during the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials in Omaha, Neb., on June 25.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Specifically, Shenoy would like to know what's happening in an area called the premotor cortex. This area doesn't directly tell muscles what to do. But it's the place where the brain gears up for something the body is about to do, like swimming.

In recent years, scientists who study the premotor cortex have found evidence that what it does can be quite complex. And a study just published in the journal Science suggests this part of the brain is involved in planning and strategy, and may even reflect a person's personality.

The premotor cortex isn't important for involuntary movements, like what we do when we accidentally touch a hot stove, Shenoy says. But it's critical for voluntary movements, especially complicated ones like the moving of your arms and legs in a way that carries you swiftly through the water, he says.

The premotor cortex allows us to "consciously visualize a great performance as a way to prepare for an event," says Donald Crammond of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

While scientists can only speculate about what' happening to individual brain cells in people, Daniel Moran and Thomas Pearce did an experiment at Washington University in St. Louis and were able to monitor the activity of brain cells in two monkeys playing a virtual reality game.

The game offered the monkeys an unobstructed path to the target, or place an obstacle in their way, which required them to think of a way to reach around the obstacle.

When the monkeys saw an obstacle, their brain cells began to keep track of much more information, Moran says. Instead of just remembering simple things like which direction to reach, the cells got involved in higher level questions like what the larger goal was and which strategy was most likely to achieve that goal.

"The more difficult it got, the more information the neurons would encode," Moran says.

That was one important finding. But the study also suggested something remarkable: activity in the premotor cortex reflected each monkey's personality.

They found in training that one monkey was clearly more impulsive and a bit hyperactive while the other was more patient and deliberate. "The patient monkey waited until all the information was known to him in order to form a plan," Pearce says. "The impatient monkey on the other hand planned on moving straight to the target as soon as the target showed up on the screen and only later would change his plan if the obstacle got in the way." Based on their personality and preferences through their physical actions and perceptions, the monkeys made decisions about how to achieve their goal.

In SMALLab embodied learning environments, students watch peers perform and they then begin to anticipate the time when they must get up and perform the action, when they do this the presumption is they are also activating premotor planning cortical areas. Our content is designed to activate more neuronal sensorimotors areas compared to regular content, without a performative aspect, we hypothesis this is one of the reasons we see such significant gains in learning.

7 Habits of Highly Effective Tech-leading Principals

T.H.E. Journal recently surveyed principals from across the country to identify the attributes they think a principal who wants to be an effective technology leader should demonstrate. The consensus settled on the seven attributes most frequently mentioned. They constitute our list of "Seven Habits." At the same time, T.H.E. Journal solicited insight into why each of these habits is important from Robert Farrace, senior director of communications and development with the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Jennifer Demeski writes for T.H.E. Journal, June 7, 2012.

We then spoke with three highly effective technology leaders among the ranks of principals to see how these habits have led to the successful implementation of educational technology in their schools. Patrick Larkin, of Burlington High School in Burlington, MA, and Eric Sheninger, of New Milford High School in New Milford, NJ, were recently recognized as NASSP Digital Principals. Lyn Hilt is both the principal and technology integrator at Brecknock Elementary School in Denver, PA. She and Larkin will speak on the topic of 21st century leadership at ISTE 2012.

Here are the highlights:

1. Create an Atmosphere That Inspires Innovation

Eric Sheninger, of New Milford High School in New Milford, NJ, says of his school, "If we're not trying new things, we're not learning. And if we're trying new things, then we're going to fail sometimes. It's creating an environment where my teachers are afforded a certain level of autonomy, but in turn, I need to be more flexible."

2. Foster Collaboration

Farrace: "What we have today are schools that are far more collaborative. We can attribute that in large part to principals who are leading that collaboration in their school.

"One of the things we have to teach our students is how to be collaborative, not just with each other, but on a large scale using digital tools," remarks Patrick Larkin. "If the adults in the building aren't collaborating with each other and having these open conversations using tools like Twitter, then it's not going to translate down to our students."

3. Be Open to New Ideas

Farrace: "It's the principal's job to get everybody in the school involved and invested in a new vision for the school and to demonstrate to them that their input is valued. The two of those feed off of one another. More collaboration contributes to a more solid culture that allows the kind of innovation and vision that all of us are really aspiring to. Great ideas are going to bubble up and sometimes the smartest thing a principal can do is provide support for a teacher with a good idea and then get out of their way and let them do it."

4. Be a Connected Learner Yourself

"If I can pinpoint the catalyst for all of the change and transformation that's taken place in my school, none of it happened until I became a connected learner," remarks Sheninger. "I had no idea what the term web 2.0 was. I had no idea that social media could be harnessed for learning. I was ignorant because I was not educated. Once I started learning from other educators who were doing other things with technology, I quickly learned how much I didn't know."

"As a leader I should not have to sell my staff on ways to improve and get better," he adds. "I want them to truly see the value in these shifts. I'm now sitting back with a smile on my face, watching my teachers take the lead and move us forward. But it wasn't until I actually started meeting with teachers, taking a hands-on approach, and showing them simply that if I can do this, and if I can give them some simple ideas on how to incorporate technology, then you can go from that starting point and really think of more practical ways to integrate these tools into your lessons."

5. Locate and Provide Adequate Resources

Farrace: "Unfortunately, finding the funding for these initiatives is really, really hard. Principals have to become experts at doing more with less...I don't have a formula except to say that principals have gotten very creative about where they find the money."

Funding Burlington High's iPad initiative required that Larkin "think different." For him, that meant combing through past budgets to find areas that no longer needed to be funded once the iPads were in students' hands. "We decided that we were buying no new sets of textbooks," explains Larkin. "Instead of paying for a new history textbook for 250 10th-graders at $100 apiece, we're providing teachers a lot of support and training to find online resources to supplement their curriculum."

6. Take Risks

Farrace: "Risks are really just opportunities. When you frame a risk as an opportunity, then, yeah, of course you want to be taking advantage of it.

7. Have a Visionary Focus

Farrace: "Allow the work to be focused by your vision, because there are a million different things that are crossing the principal's desk every day. What is the stuff that matters? The stuff that matters is the stuff that's really going to contribute to your students' learning."

Read the entire article here.

Upgrading Educational Technologies for the 21st Century

James Bennet and Joel Klein
James Bennet and Joel Klein

A discussion between James Bennet, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, with Joel Klein, News Corporation's executive vice president and former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, offered a realistic assessment of some of the political and practical challenges standing in the way of educational technologies. The Atlantic's Technologies in Education Forum on May 22 brought together experts and stakeholders from across sectors for a stimulating, in-depth look at how technology can and should reshape American education. Amy Southerland writes for The Atlantic, May 23, 2012.

Brandon Busteed, executive director at Gallup Education, posed a thought-provoking question: "What is the ultimate outcome of an education?" Joel Klein responded that there are many worthy outcomes--not just one. However, the outcome he worries about the most, is the one where we are failing the most. We must ensure that students "have the skills and knowledge to be effective players in the 21st century."

Paula Kerger, CEO of PBS, pointed out that employers are demanding an array of skills not taught in classrooms and once a child starts behind, they stay behind. Without early education, students are not prepared for what the workplace of the future will require.

Microsoft's Andrea Taylor and Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, both spoke to the mismatch between the large number fo STEM jobs available and the small pool of college graduates with STEM degrees. As a nation, we aren't cultivating the STEM workers we need to be competitive in the the global marketplace. Though there are ample job opportunities, when young people don't consider STEM careers, there is a disconnect between supply and demand.

New technologies can help empower educators to better prepare our students by increasing student engagement and allowing for individualized learning.

Larry Irving, founder of the Internet Innovation Alliance, called technology "the great equalizer." In a panel discussing the role teachers will play in game-based learning, Dr. Jeanne Paratore, professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Boston University, said that for students who are struggling, "we have power in these games to provide opportunities that aren't there." And Robert Torres, senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, recognized the unique potential of using games that combine high engagement with high cognitive demand to help students achieve mastery using technologies day-to-day.

We have the technology at our fingertips and transformative change is right around the corner.