The Opportunity Question

Today’s lesson was designed based on observations and comments students have been making during our inquiry into grit, tenacity, perseverance and resilience.  I drew upon several ideas.

1. One student’s brother’s advice to the class: he wished he had learned to be more social when he was younger.  He was shy in middle school and now that he is older, he recognizes that he lacks a set of skills that would be very useful.

2.  Driving questions that have emerged from our inquiry.


3. A student’s realisation:

“People like to work with their friends because they like them and know them well. … or with people they work well with, but it’s actually really good to work with people who think differently from you.”

4. A set of strategies that I am able to draw upon because I’ve spent several years deeply immersed in learning how to use them.

Today I took students through a series of activities, each followed by a debrief.  Two are described below.

Activity 1

Students like to sit and work with friends or people they know well.  Teachers create groups to mix it up which is often met with reluctance and resistance.  What can you do to create a culture where students want to work with people they don’t know well? That is the art of effective facilitation and is part of the skill set educators must develop if they are to get their students to the level of collaboration that is now called for.

Desks in our class are arranged in groups of four.  I asked 1 student at each group to remain seated and the others to stand up and move to a new group. No one from the original group should be in the new group.   Once they had moved, I reminded them of the advice the brother (mentioned above) had given about learning to socialize.  I asked the class how many had remained in their comfort zones and how many had deliberately sought peers they don’t usually work with.  Guilty acknowledgement of staying in comfort zones was made.  Once again I asked students to move to a new group and this time they made a concerted effort to find people they don’t usually work with.

We then began a series of activities that required them to engage in conversation and take risks.

a) Draw a picture of someone else at the table, which caused discomfort, apologies and awkward laughter.

b) We talked about how we shut each other down.  One person gives an idea and others are quick to provide all the reasons why it won’t work.  Students played a game that required playful thinking.  They passed a building toy around the group, each time imagining a new use for the toy using the language “Yes…and”

“It’s a table …”

“Yes, and it’s a flower.”

“Yes and it’s a spaceship.”

There was much laughter.  As I observed the groups, interesting things began to happen. One group changed the structure of the toy; this led to new possibilities.  Another group asked if they could change the shape of the toy. All other groups stayed within the constraints.  I called the game to a halt and debriefed pointing out the breakthroughs. We discussed:

  • how one group was able to innovate and how this led to many new ideas
  • why we feel we need to ask permission to engage in new thinking.  We talked about how school causes us to think in limited ways and how difficult it is for rule followers to think differently.  We have been taught to check to see if we are doing what is expected and ask permission to do the unexpected.  This limits our thinking.

Activity 2

The next activity was designed to teach kids to deliberately leverage each other to generate ideas.

Materials: pencil, paper

1. Keep sheets covered so no one else can see what you are writing.

2. Give students a topic, for example cars, and then in one minute write down ideas related to the topic.

3. Ask students to count their ideas.  In our class most students had between 6 and 12 ideas.  One student had 21, another 2.

4. Form a circle and repeat the activity orally.  As a group we were able to generate over 75 ideas.


We discussed feeling panicked when someone said an idea that you had been planning on saying as well as how hearing someone else’s idea caused you to think of a new idea.

1.  When brainstorming the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible.

2. Ideas need to be said out loud because that will trigger ideas in others.

3. When the whole group is involved many more ideas can be generated.

Towards the end of class we pulled it together, relating what we had experienced to our driving questions: how do we create opportunity?

Students wrote reflections – in fact students were eager to write, which our visitor pointed out to me. She came and quietly asked, “How is it that every child sat willingly and wrote? This is not typical.”  I replied, “Because they had something they really wanted to write about.”

The reflections were deeply meaningful and many students experienced breakthroughs.  My favourite came from one girl who had an enormous smile on her face, “I am so happy we did this today.  I loved it.  I used to be shy, but now I can’t WAIT to meet new people and hear their ideas.”

Photo 2015-01-15, 3 24 10 PM


Thanks to 

Rotman Ithink’s Josie Fung and Jenn Chan of Exhibit Change for guiding my thinking on this lesson.





One Comment

  1. Pingback: Creating Conditions for Collaboration | The Amaryllis | Documenting the transformation of my classroom into a 21st Century place for learning

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.