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  • Marnie Birkeland

Thinking with things? If I hadn't seen it and experienced it myself, I never would have believed it.

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

In 2017, I was lucky enough to have a learning experience with the Opal School Museum of Play. When I was there, I saw and experienced things that I had never even imagined were possibilities for teaching and learning. This visit had a bigger impact on my learning than any learning I had done prior to this date.

When I was at Opal, I saw students thinking about really big, complex questions as they manipulated a variety of materials like clay, wire, blackline pens, paper, natural materials, and water and dye.

I watched as the educators at Opal listened deeply to their students and used pedagogical documentation to make their thinking visible. This enabled them to return to their students' thoughts so they could use them to reflect and decide where to take the learning next. With their colleagues, they used their students' words (which I found to be incredibly deep and profound) to think about how they could use the thinking of some to amplify the learning of all.

Getting to experience the depth of thinking and the culture of learning that was happening in these classrooms really rocked the pedagogical ground that I was standing on. It made me question the way I thought about teaching and learning and opened up so many new possibilities for me.

What really made the power of materials clear to me, however, was having the experience of using materials to process my own thinking. We were invited to play with a huge selection of natural materials like wood slices, orange peels and dried roses, small pinecones, seeds, rocks, and shells (to name a few). They asked us to choose materials that would help us to think about the role of the arts and democracy in education.

When I started, I wasn't quite sure what to do, so I simply chose materials that connected to my memories and seemed interesting to me. But, because i had a big question in mind to think about as I played, when I began to move the materials around, I was able to think deeply about my experiences.

Ultimately, the time to slow down and reflect in this way allowed me to develop some new understandings about what I believe about learning.

This is what I created, but it wasn't about what I created at all. It wasn't about the product. It was about the story, the process and the thinking that resulted from my explorations with natural materials.

Here is a snippet from the reflections that I wrote after I played.

I left that experience with some questions of my own.

How can we bring this powerful learning tool back to our district? How can we create experiences so our colleagues and their students can feel the transformative capabilities of using materials as thinking partners? How can we support people to explore materials and use them as thinking tools as they grapple with big, complex questions? How can we continue to create a culture of thinking in our district? How can we make that thinking culture visible to others?

Even though we weren't sure how it would go, we introduced this pedagogical tool to educators at a variety of evening sessions and professional learning days that we hosted.

It was exciting to see the joy in the room. It was so fun to just be playful with our ideas together. At the same time it was very calm.

Being surrounded by beautiful things and things from nature has a big impact on the way that we feel when we walk into an environment.

For the majority of the educators, this was the very first time they had gotten a chance to play with materials as thinking tools.

As they played, we asked them to consider how they might use the 7 OECD Principles of Learning to shift the role of their students, their role as teachers and their pedagogical approaches, the learning environments they were creating, and the resources students were using. Ultimately, we were asking how they were already 'dialing up' the role of the students in their classrooms, and what their next steps might be.

Here is a reflection from Andrea Strang, who was playing with tape as she processed her thinking.

Since the moments when these sparks ignited all of our imaginations about what was possible, educators across our district are giving their students (from Kindergarten to Grade 12) opportunities to play with materials.

They have been exploring a variety of materials (from clay to watercolour paints to india ink, aluminum foil and wire) and at first, they just played to get to know the different things that the materials are capable of (their affordances). They discovered what wire can do. They discovered what india ink can do. They discovered that both of those materials act in very different ways and have 'different languages' to offer.

Once familiar with the capabilities of the different tools, students have been thinking about big questions and have been using the materials in a variety of ways.

Lina, a student in grade 5, can explain it much better than I can. She says, "When you have an idea, one of the big parts of growing that idea is putting it into a new language in art or words. It's like translating. Translating ideas helps other people to understand your ideas better... Before you translate your idea through words or materials, you know it's there, but you don't know what it is or how it works. As you change your idea into something you can say or see so that other people can understand, then you sort of understand it better yourself. It's a way of understanding not just for other people, but for yourself."

Thank you to Lina and all of the other students in our district, thank you to my colleagues, and thank you our learning partners at the Opal School Museum of Play. Thank you for being brave enough to try to think in new ways. Thank you for sharing your thinking and learning with me so I can continue to grow my own thinking and learning. I still have so many questions about how materials can support learning. I can't wait to explore those questions with all of you!

For inspiration and to learn more:

  1. Click here to see our webpage on thinking with materials to find resources that can help you if you are interested in exploring materials with your students.

  2. Click here to see the visual we created to inspire ideas about what materials are possible thinking tools and how to create beautiful spaces for students to explore.

  3. Click here to see the visual we created to show how students (K-12) and educators across the district are thinking with materials.

  4. Click here to see a newsletter about thinking with materials.

  5. To see more thinking materials, click here.

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