Leave Unstructured Play Unstructured, Please

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In a conversation about homework and unstructured play, we find an assumption that unstructured play happens outdoors.

  • What about children who live in apartments?
  • Should homework be used as a babysitter?


Unstructured play = imagination.  You can play for hours in a small corner.  My girls play for hours inside.  And outside.  With a myriad of tools or none at all.  Their greatest tool – imagination.

  • Should we provide examples of unstructured play?
  • Do we show parents how to do it?


As soon as we start providing examples, it is no longer unstructured.

While I understand the need for education and examples, I do feel we need to be very careful that we don’t create formulas that can be copied.  The beauty of unstructured play is freedom and choice.  Rather than provide examples, let’s provide the ingredients necessary for unstructured play to happen.

imagination + freedom + choice + inspiration (in the form of a rock, toy, shell, spoon, etc) = unstructured play

After this, let’s just let them play.  It is exhausting work, and when left alone, children can and will do it for hours and hours.  My greatest joy as a parent are the occasional moments when I overhear their play.  It’s inspiring.  And it can happen anywhere.  As long as we stay out of it and let them dream!

Yes or No is the Wrong Question

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-8-15-07-pmWe were posed a question.  Yes or No?  Defend it.

We defended it.  Die hard defended it.  To the point of emotive words and condescensions.  To the point where emotion interrupted listening.

Even though we all really agreed upon the issue.  Were all like-minded.  Were participating in a constructed exercise.

The question was the wrong question.  It drove us apart.

Argument isn’t yes or no, black or white.  It’s a myriad of gray.  Let’s stop bowing to the wrong question and the rhetoric that surrounds it.  If we pose the right questions, we can arrive at alternate solutions and explore every shade of gray in between.

Did we forget the Why behind unit design?

All RIghts Reserved by Pixabay
All Rights Reserved by Pixabay

We fooled ourselves. Created a false narrative.  Told ourselves that if we wrote Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings, planned assessment using a GRASP framework and filtered instructional activities from there, we’d transform learning in our classrooms.  

We built robust digital infrastructures and have thousands of archived units.  Built coaching teams to support unit design.  Created five-year plans for implementation of a fully articulated curriculum.

Does school look vastly differently 10+ years on?  Are students self-directed?  Are they engaged in authentic work.  Perhaps so…but is this the norm?

To what end?  Why are we building these units.  Has it produced the desired effect?  If not, why not?

I would argue that focusing on unit design is the flaw.  The product is the student, not the unit.  The thinking behind the unit design process is flawless, but only when it focuses on the student.  

  • What understanding for the student?
  • What assessment experience for the student?

It is a thinking process intended to change classroom practice, not a template to complete a unit for digital submission.

Here is a very draft learning walk for a backwards design classroom.  I wrote it because I wanted to showcase to teachers the “why” behind unit planning.  It is intended to show what my classroom would look like if I were implementing my unit design and the changes I would see in my classroom.

Let’s remember that a well articulated curriculum that lives in a palatial digital infrastructure is not the goal.  The shift in the student experience is the goal.  Always.  How is school relevant and meaningful to the future of my students?  How do I want them engaged during my class time?  What thinking do I want them involved in?  What will they create?  What will they remember…

What about the Scenic Route?

Wiggins and McTighe use a brilliant airplane metaphor to address the need for planning. They state that when a pilot wants to fly to London, she doesn’t just get into the airplane, set the destination, kick back her feet and hope for an arrival several hours later.  Instead, she monitors progress along the way, makes adjustments based on feedback and lands artfully having been fully alert throughout the journey.  

For years, I have used this metaphor to defend mapping, unit planning and formative assessment.  I still believe in it.  To a degree…

Yet, of late, I have started to question what has happened to this model as it has scaled around the world.

I have seen brilliant units, intriguing essential questions, inspiring assessments for the past 12 years in class after class, discipline after discipline.  I have worked with wonderful teachers who commit to the model and spend hours building curriculum maps and units.  

Still, education has remained largely unchanged.  

Across the world in schools that have adopted backward design (or not),

  • Students still sit at desks and are directed to move by the teacher; even when we’ve shifted to flexible furniture and the students may choose to sit or stand, they are still largely guided by the teacher
  • Teacher to student talk is typically at a 70:30 ratio in favor of the teacher
  • Teachers pose more questions than students do
  • Projects are inventive and “authentic” but are driven by teachers, with tight deadlines and narrow choices; even 20Time Projects have become very scaffolded with rigid timelines

Those beautiful units we’ve designed, a model that I am sure Wiggins and McTighe intended to produce thinking classrooms, have tied us tightly to a linear path of achievement and forward momentum.

So I ask, what happened to the scenic route?

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When I was growing up, Europe by Eurail was all the rage.  A series of destinations over a specific time period driven by the the traveler.  We still know we want to go to Paris, Prague and Warsaw, but perhaps we decide on an extended stay in Slovenia or we veer from our path to take a side trip into Scandinavia.  Perhaps the plane metaphor, albeit well-intended, produced an opposite effect, one in which we fly directly to our destination with no unscheduled stops.  

How could we transform our classrooms if we shifted our metaphor from an airplane to a train?

  • Students are given standards and a timeline, but can choose how to navigate through them
  • Students create the itinerary, pose the questions and do the thinking and the talking
  • Students may step off a path to explore another route; perhaps they get back on the same route, or perhaps they arrive at the destination via an entirely different itinerary
  • We have checkpoints along the way
  • Our planning structures change to that of a thinking plan, not beautifully written documents that live in a digital archive

Perhaps the train analogy is not new but carries some remnant of mastery learning.  Perhaps all things done to scale eventually become too packaged and therefore produce the opposite effect of what they intend.  Perhaps the loosely defined outcomes are scary because we give up control and give it over to the learners.  Perhaps we embrace the plane metaphor because it is modern and because we have become rushed, frantic and too goal-driven as an attempt to counter the rapid rates of change in which we live.  

Whatever our reasons or our fears, as we move further into this century of overwhelming change, I urge us to stop engaging in “work” and start engaging in “thinking”…as educators, as leaders and as students.


Both Wiggins and McTighe have written versions of “How to Kill UbD…”


For years I have scored off the chart as an introvert. I’ve taken the official MBTI three times at three very different points in my life and I am always a definitive “I.” However, I still find myself energized by my colleagues, and when I am grappling with ideas, talking with trusted colleagues allows me to sort out my thoughts to arrive at a better outcome.

I find this interesting. The fact that I can collaborate to produce better work as opposed to going into my “cave” to work on my own. I find it interesting, particularly on the heels of the book Quiet, whereby the world finally took note of the needs of introverts, a book which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I also know that being introverted is far more complex than simply being around people (or not), and I certainly need my time alone to reflect or simply just “be.” But I also need people.

As with most things that become mainstream, assumptions are made, and after Quiet, many have begun to critique the idea of collaboration, noting that it doesn’t honor the needs of the introvert. I take issue with this assumption.

Many people, introverts and extroverts, find it easier to work alone, because collaboration is difficult. It requires listening, cooperation, letting go of ideas, marrying thoughts, and more. This is not an easy skill, and yet, when we come together, we produce better work. Therefore, allowing introverts to work alone because of their personality, need, preference, style or etc. is actually to limit them from learning an important skill that can lead to greater gains in talent, achievement and success.

The issue with collaboration is not with the nature of collaboration, but with how we have often conceptualized it. In Quiet, Cain notes the issues with groupthink and provides a better alternative: individual brainstorming that later contributes to group collaboration. Similar to my need to talk through complex ideas with colleagues after I have thought of things alone, it seems when and how we collaborate is the issue, not whether or not we should collaborate.

I do believe in delving deep, silent reflection, meditation and “quiet,” but I absolutely do not believe there is an either/or. As we begin to honor the needs of introverts in our schools, I hope we will honor their need to build collaborative skills because though we can all benefit from a less harried, less frenetic, slower paced world, we cannot benefit without one another.

Embedding Learning

In The Principal, Michael Fullan makes the distinction between instructional leadership and learning leadership. Instructional leadership, though well-intentioned as a strategy, creates the persona of the principal as the expert instructor and evaluator. In this role, the principal espouses knowledge and attempts to pass this along through individual teacher evaluation and feedback systems. This probably also involves large group, one-size-fits-all professional development.

A learning leader, in contrast, learns alongside the faculty. This leader is a master manager in terms of creating systems and structures that allow for collaboration and embedded continuous learning. The learning leader’s primary role is to develop ‘group efficacy’ by focusing on the group, not the individual. Most importantly, it’s leader remains a learner, someone who models redefinition, refinement and failure.

In my own leadership journey, I have experienced this all too well. Years ago, as a fledgling assistant principal, I was shocked at how little impact faculty meeting presentations or individual goal-setting had on creating any lasting change. Mind you, these were interactive presentations that involved discussion and creation, and goal-setting was personalized and centered on school goals. Yet all too often, most teachers went back to their classrooms and did what they did.

Things improved greatly once we built a master schedule that embedded common planning time into the school day. Teams met daily to plan together, learn together and engage in dissonance together. Still, the efficacy of the team varied greatly, so we added another layer.

Once our admin team became a regular part of team meetings, we really started to grow as a collaborative culture. Though we were largely listening members who attended only once every 2-3 weeks and did not set agendas, we became an integral part of the dialogue. We engaged in regular professional conversations with teams of colleagues and we were part of the planning and goal-setting process. Between team meetings and regular walkthroughs, we knew our programs inside/out, which helped us communicate accurately with the community and cross-pollinate ideas across departments. We were also able to promote fidelity to our mission, assessment philosophy and other school initiatives. And when needed, we were able to help groups function more positively.

We were proud of our structures and our ability to build a culture of collaboration. In fact, I’m still proud of our work in this regard.

However, once we added learning coaches to the structure, things really started to move!

Fullan writes that instructional leadership is a myth because we learn more from our peers than authority figures. Thus, by nature of position, people will learn less from their principal. Certainly, in my own experience, there were times of deflation where I was left wondering why teachers didn’t engage in an idea I had. If all ideas are created equal, why were mine less so?

  • though I was a regular member, I didn’t attend every meeting
  • I was a member of multiple teams, so I could not follow through on implementation of ideas
  • some of it probably was positional, as Fullan notes

Learning coaches, however, can become an integral part of the team. In my last year as principal, I worked closely with a literacy coach and a technology coach, who worked closely with our teams, meeting regularly and setting team goals. The growth in our teams was phenomenal (both in literacy and technology) and we all learned together – teacher, coach and principal.

More importantly, ideas were implemented with the guidance of coaches, so teachers received continuous, job embedded support.

Most importantly, the impact on student learning was tangible and real. Even when one wasn’t in love with a structure (such as Writers Workshop in place of direct instruction), we could not argue the impact it had on student writing.

For years, principals have been schooled to develop the capacity of the individual teacher.  Fullan points out the futility of such exercises, focusing the learning leader on the group so that the leader becomes “the curator of positive contagion…who models learning, but also shapes the conditions for all to learn on a continuous basis.”

Lean In

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In our profession, we often create a deficit-based climate because we focus on what we are not doing rather than on what we are doing. We are constantly looking for areas of growth, and it is common to feel inadequate. In fact, in the blog post “Focus on Your Strengths,” the author notes that it is almost impossible to feel successful as an educator because teaching requires three very distinct and different traits. Hence, we may be strong in two of the three, yet constantly focus on our deficit. Instead of comparing our weaknesses to other’s strengths, he suggests we should recognize our own strengths.  

While it is valid to want to learn and grow and to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is also valid to do so while leaning in to our strengths.  

What strengths do you have and what contributions do you make to our profession because of your strengths?

In the same vein, this is a valid strategy to use with students.  In assessment, ask what they are currently doing well and how can they build upon their strengths and successes?  Lean in to their strengths and they will likely be more motivated, more engaged and therefore make greater gains.

It is exhausting to be constantly seeking what isn’t there.  It creates negativity for all parties and strips away joy and passion.  A colleague recently left me a beautiful closing line to a letter: lean in.

Lean in to the work.  Lean in to what you cannot do.  Lean in to your strengths. Whatever the interpretation, lean in.  I promise, you will learn more, grow more and laugh more!

Reshaping the Future or The Law of 90/10

A couple of days ago, while searching for writing exercises for my Workshop, I came across one titled “Reshaping the Past” on Poets & Writers Tools for Writers.  

  • In Mary Karr’s new book, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), she writes that “from the second you choose one event over another, you’re shaping the past’s meaning.” Think of a significant event from your past that you’ve written about before. Make a list of three other events or changes that were occurring in your life around that same time. Write an essay about one of these “secondary” events, focusing on deriving personal or emotional meaning out of this seemingly less impactful event.

The idea of shaping the past strikes me as interesting, particularly as I have spent years of my poetry exploring perception as truth.  Interestingly though, as I attempted the exercise, it wasn’t the past I was trying to reshape, but the future I was trying to form.

As I think about this prompt and the idea of focus, it is entirely true that we can reshape our past by rewriting (or rethinking it).  However, we can also go a step further and form our future with what we focus upon.

At the moment for example, I am mired in the stress of being new.  As international educators, when we move, we also change jobs, change schools and change communities, all which fall in the Top 20 categories of major life stressors.  

Our New Look

Oddly, for the past few days, I have been consumed with furniture.  More specifically, my dislike of our furniture, which is perfectly functional but not to our taste.  I regret selling all of our nice things in Kuwait rather than shipping them.  I go back and forth between “living with what we have” and spending vast amounts of money so that we can be happy in our space (particularly, as when we left Kuwait and gave away copious amounts of things, we committed to being minimalist in our new home).  

Yet, by focusing on my furniture and spending time mourning what I gave away, I am shaping my present reality in a negative way.  I am forgetting all of the good things that we have here.  The fact that we live in a great community, that our girls have lots of playmates, that we have a spacious villa, that we have a new life to create.  I am literally consumed with my furniture questions.  And to what expense?

The furniture issue will be resolved and it is fairly minor.  Yet, I wonder how many other minor things consume us, shape our experience and change our attitudes and perspectives?  

In life, do we see the 90% good or the 10% challenge?

In my previous role as a principal, I often reminded our faculty (and myself) of the 90/10 rule or the idea that we often spend 90% of our time on 10% of the problem, thereby thinking that the 10% represents the majority.  For example, we may spend 90% of our time working with challenging behaviors in our classroom and forget that the other 90% of the students are not challenging.

Our thoughts and feelings become reality.  Our perspectives and beliefs live in our biology and can significantly impact our future health.  So what if, rather than simply try to “reshape the past,” we change what we see in the present?  At any given moment, there are 2 or 3 or even 10 other options that will “shape” the meaning of our future, and I’m pretty sure I want my future to be about more than furniture…