DR. ANNMARIE THOMAS is the director of the Playful Learning Lab, creator of Squishy Circuits, author of Making Makers, co-founder of OK Go Sandbox (co-PI), and a professor of Engineering and Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas. Dr. AnnMarie has also given a number of TED Talks and was the 2020 recipient of the international LEGO prize.
Questions That Guided Our Conversation
3:34 – Let’s start off by digging a little deeper into your work at the Playful Learning Lab. What is your mission and vision there, and what does your work look like?
7:36 – AnnMarie, in response to schools closed by COVID-19 in recent weeks, you recently co-created the The PlayLine Resource Guide, which provides play-based activity ideas and hosts supportive digital meet-ups for educators. Can you tell us more about the thinking behind this resource? Who is it aimed at, and what can educators expect to gain when they visit the site?
13:15 – We also need to touch on your receipt of the $100,000 2020 Lego Prize for your work dealing with how children learn through play. How did you earn it? Tell us more about the work LEGO is doing in this regard.
16:40 – As you look across your professional learning network and your own practice, what else is setting you on fire about education and learning today?
19:19 – How are you looking to grow professionally and improve your practice next year? Can you share about a specific professional goal or project that you’re currently working on?
21:13 – Share about one personal habit or productivity hack that contributes to your success.
Voices That Spark AnnMarie’s Thinking and Ignite Her Practice
The Importance of Investing in Student Relationships
Brad recalls the experience of suspending a student who struggled to regulate her behavior and manage her emotions effectively. During a conversation with the parent, the parent said “I just wish you had gotten to know her.”
Brad let that comment absorb deeply, and from that point forward he worked hard to build a relationship with this student. Through the course of the year, they partnered on computer design projects, LEGO drone activities, etc. and the relationship improved. By the end of the year, he was able to leverage the relationship effectively to help this student manage her emotions effectively and de-escalate formerly impossible situations quickly.
The Heart of Education
In Reclaiming Our Calling: Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education, Brad seeks to address the tension between the pressure on schools to meet certain metrics of academic performance and the mission of educators to meet the needs of the whole child. How do we restore balance in education and reaffirm the things that matter most? Brad debunks the notion that high-value learning and a nurturing environment must be mutually exclusive. We can do both well — and stay sane in that process.
The Place of EdTech
When it comes to strategic uses of edtech and developing digital literacy, the guiding theme should be the idea of connectedness. Instead of always being focused on the latest and greatest apps or technology, we should be asking questions like “How will this bring us together?” and “How will this connect our learners to content, to opportunities, and to one another?” Technology tools should connect with the creator and the maker inside every student, because that will be a mindset that transcends their time in schools.
Engaging Students in Learning
Whoever is doing the talking is doing a lot of the learning. When students are actively engaged in reflecting and conversation, that’s when learning really happens.
If we want to reach the YouTube generation, does it not make sense to have kids be active creators and consumers alongside us? We want to scaffold and model and walk with them in a safe environment, with the best of the best: committed and mindful educators.
Having Grace for the Learning Journeys of All Educators
Conversations about leading change, valuing good work, and moving to next steps will never grow old. Sometimes we can get so hyper-focused on innovation and pedagogy that we fail to recognize and value the baby steps of growth experienced by some educators.
Every educator is on a journey, and we need to be careful not to demonize practices deemed “behind the curve” when in fact they may represent progress for someone else. It’s when teachers feel safe to try new things and grow that the most growth happens.
Amplifying Student Voice
In terms of student ownership and learner empowerment, another key to building a positive learning culture is finding ways to amplify student voice from the time they enter school. Learning can’t be done to students, it’s done by students. A student wrote the foreword to Reclaiming our Calling, and Brad’s also had the pleasure of seeing a former student speak at the state principals’ conference.
When we amplify student voice, we also allow teachers to learn from learners. Great things are possible when we invest in student strengths, empower, and give kids ownership of their learning journeys.
Professional Goals, Passions, and Productivity Hacks
This school year, Brad is focused on more meaningful conversations around change and growth. He wants to support and learn from others in his community and across his PLN. Platforms like Voxer and Twitter are fulfilling and making a difference because they inspire and inform across local and global learning communities.
Brad loves competing, and lately he’s been having a blast playing against his kids on games like Crossfire and Risk. He also enjoys playing pickle ball at school and of course reading. Even more fun than talking about books he’s read have been the facilitation of activities that inspire other educators and learners to talk about their reading.
Taking inspiration from his friend Jessica Cabeen’s Balance Like a Pirate, Brad spends some minutes each morning drinking coffee and centering his thoughts with reflection and time in the Bible. He’s found that grabbing his phone too quickly can send him down the rabbit hole of email and social media, and very quickly the day starts to happen to him — instead of moving through the day with intentionality and purpose.
Voices & Resources That Inspire Brad’s Professional Practice
On Twitter, Brad recommends following @PrincipalBoots. Lindsy is a wealth of stories about family, education, and laughs. Check her out for nonstop inspiration.
Instead of pointing to a favorite edtech tool, Brad makes the point that when you know your pedagogical goals, approach, and can articulate them, you’ll know right away if a tool will or will not fit. Brad’s pillars of pedagogy include collaboration, student ownership, digital connectivity, and experiential learning – all grounded in relationships. Those criteria form his judgments when it comes to choosing tech tools.
Over in books, Brad suggests checking out a book first recommended to him by George Couros – one written in such a unique and powerful style that in some ways it shapedthe direction for Reclaiming Our Calling. The book is Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Follow the author on Twitter @PatrickLencioni.
Like the guest before him, Dr. Brad selects the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast by Danny Bauer as his top pick in education. Add it to your daily commute today and follow @AlienEarbud on Twitter to learn more about the show.
There’s some strategy involved with the Gustafsons’ Netflix viewing. Just when their Minnesota winter gets its coldest, Brad and the family watch Hawaii 5-0. It helps them dream of warmer climes and fun in the sun even while things are freezing.
We sign off on this conversation, and Brad reminds us of the best places to follow him. Make sure you grab your copy of Reclaiming Our Callingtoday!