December 5, 2013

Unfolding cardboard school

Filed under: creativity,education,gifted,learning — Candace Hackett Shively @ 9:35 am

I cherish my collection of memorable teaching/learning moments that exemplify how gifted students “see” the world differently. I do not believe that gifted students are alone in their unique views. They are, however, uniquely willing and able to express these thoughts —  or may have them far more often. In any case, I believe we as teachers can learn much from listening to the questions of gifted students who blow away the cliche, “think outside the box.” Their questions, ideas, and thoughtful approaches unfold the boxes, creating something entirely different from the plain brown cardboard called “school.”

One such unfolded view comes in the “visual creativity” Jonathan Wai describes on the Mindshift blog. Wai posits the importance of recognizing and promoting visual thinking (“spatial creativity”) among all learners. I have seen memorable moments of this acuity “unfolding” in front of me, students whizzing through Tangrams and Set so quickly the rest of us missed  the answers before they began another problem!  Visual-spatial skill uses an entirely different part of the brain, one typically underdeveloped in teachers’ verbally adept brains and ignored by tests, Standards, and cardboard school. The Common Core Standards include shapes, slices, rotations, flips, turns, surfaces, and the usual volume and area. CCSS high school geometry standards include endless requirements about relationships and functions that define shapes. There is even one standard that calls for “Apply[ing] geometric methods to solve design problems (e.g., designing an object or structure to satisfy physical constraints or minimize cost; working with typographic grid systems based on ratios). Another calls on students to “Identify the shapes of two-dimensional cross-sections of three-dimensional objects, and identify three-dimensional objects generated by rotations of two-dimensional objects.”  But all of these are within confines (boxes) that are rarely unfolded outside of “math class” or for other purposes and approaches to thinking visually.

Stop to think about the kid you went to school with, the one who was amazing at geometry and stunk in every other math class. S/he “saw” the proofs that you struggled with, even if s/he never quite got them on paper correctly. Remember those kids. I taught them, the gifted kids who scored the maximum 19 on the Block Design subtest of a WISC-R  but could barely write or speak a complex sentence.  Jonathan Wai may be onto something. If promoting talent in visual thinking is good for these extreme cases, perhaps we should be encouraging all students to unfold and repurpose the boxes. I share ten FREE, reviewed resources to get started, since this is not an area most teachers feel adept to address:

Several reviewed, online Tangram games

A collection of virtual, visual manipulatives (requires Java)

Blender 3D animation— a REAL challenge!

TinkerCad design for 3D printers

Foldplay (very cool!)

Box Templates (to make, UNFOLD, and change?)

Origami Club animations of MANY foldables

A new way to look at unfolded boxes (direct link)

Cloud Dreamer (for younger ones)


Another, profoundly memorable teaching/learning moment for me came in a single question from a second grader: “Is the number of grains of sand on the earth — at any one moment– infinity?”  I thought of this question when I ran across this post, an example of a box unfolding to new thinking. Questions like the second grader and blog versions of the grains-of-sand debate defy boxes. They do not go “beyond” a box, they create new folds in our understanding of the world. Like many questions that pop into our students’ heads, these fall outside the scope of cardboard school. But shouldn’t we invite them inside? The BEST source for questions is your students’ own thought questions. If you don’t want them to “interrupt” a lesson by unfolding their thinking out loud, at least offer a virtual graffiti wall using a tool accessible from any device where they can post their questions and “crazy ideas.” How/ how often do you encourage your students to interrupt YOUR thinking with theirs? Here are some sources for questions you and your students can drop into your curriculum, outside the “standard”:


Think (elementary)

101 questions

Super Thinkers

Thought Questions

This is the season of boxes: shipping boxes, gift boxes, ornament boxes, etc. Why not use the inspiration of a few experiences with gifted kids to unfold some of the cardboard in your class’s thinking as a special gift? You never know what you might unwrap.


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