Category: Educational Technology

Beautifully Questioning My Teaching Practice

As I prepared to do this, my final project for my three summer classes, I was stuck. These classes have been exhilarating, challenging, and rewarding. Sometimes there were tears, both frustrated and proud.

Today I created something wonderful and hoped that the excitement from that would fuel me through this post. It didn’t. The hard part is that after so many weeks of pushing myself so hard, my brain was stuck.

So I looked at Twitter, read some news, looked at the ceiling. Nothing. One of

First-graders love coding using ScratchJr

my objectives for the assignment was to apply Warren Berger’s Why, What If, and How questioning methodology from A More Beautiful Question (Berger, 2016) to my own practice. So I eventually, begrudgingly started with that.

I began with creating a list of Why questions related to my teaching. I teach Project Lead The Way (PLTW) to students K-5 in two schools. I teach engineering concepts to all my students and coding to all my students except my kindergarteners.

Unsticking the Lid

As soon as I started asking questions, my imagination took flight. As Frances Peavey once said, a good question is like “a lever used to pry open the stuck lid on a paint can,” (Berger, 2016, p. 15). That was it! I simply needed to start asking questions and I was unstuck, just like the lid of the paint can.

As Berger suggests, I started by asking Why questions. If we’re paying attention, we ask Why when we encounter a suboptimal situation (Berger, 2016). Although I love my job and most of my students enjoy my classes, there are some who just don’t. Those students led me to ask:

  • Why do some students keep asking if they’re doing the problem “right”?
  • Why do some of my students think they can’t code?
  • Why do some of my students refuse to participate?
What If?

As I considered my Why questions, I focused on the fact that “Integrating coding into classes is being perceived by many as a way to stimulate computational and creative thinking,” (Johnson, Becker, Estrada, Freeman, 2015, p.21). Therefore, I decided to address the question: Why do some of my students think they can’t code?

The ScratchJr coding environment is user-friendly for young students, but still offers the opportunity to learn computational thinking.

Pondering this question, I realized that my first and second-grade students have great confidence when it comes to coding. It is my third through fifth-grade students who are more likely to struggle.

With my Why question in my mind, I began to ask What If. During this time of creative, wide open questioning, I asked What If questions to help me consider possibilities for change (Berger, 2016).

  • What if I let my older students start with ScratchJr (typically only first and second graders use ScratchJr)?
  • What if I made time for Hour of Code or other warm-up activities before starting on our unit together?
  • What if I ran an after-school coding club?
  • What if I work more closely with the media specialist to coordinate coding lessons?

Asking How is about focusing on making progress toward a solution, about deciding which ideas to pursue (Berger, 2016). One of the great conundrums of my schedule is that I never seem to have enough time.

I co-teach, pushing materials into each classroom, typically for a couple of weeks at a time. When I’m in a class I have so much to do to complete a module. Also, I don’t want to waste any of the classroom teacher’s time. Therefore, I carefully avoid straying from my lesson plans. The problem is that some of my students simply need more. So I asked How…

  • How can I find time to let some students practice coding more outside of class?
    • After school
    • During lunch
    • On my prep hour
    • During other periods in the school day with a PLTW iPad
    • During other periods in the school day using another device

This practice could be with ScratchJr or with the app they’ll use during PLTW. It could even be a different app, as long as they get the opportunity to practice the computational thinking they need to improve their coding skills and gain confidence.

Next Steps

Prior to completing this assignment, I had vaguely considered this issue in the past but hadn’t gotten much past that. By taking the time to do this questioning process, I feel like I’ve taken my first steps toward solving a complex problem in my practice. My next step will be to talk to my classroom teachers to figure out how we can work together on behalf of our students.


Berger, W. (2016). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

Johnson, L., Becker, S. A., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2015). NMC horizon report: 2015 K-12 edition. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium.


All images in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.

Curiosity Never Grows Old

Since I was little, I have loved to draw. I enjoyed everything about it. I wanted to learn how to make animated movies but never did. Now as an art teacher and technology teacher, I have access to great technologies that can help me. In fact, I spent last year teaching K-5 students coding in ScratchJr, Hopscotch, and Tynker.

This summer I decided to take what I already know about coding from those applications and do what I’ve always wanted to do: make an animated movie. I created this animation using Scratch.

I drew all the sprites, customized the background, and did it. It’s only one minute long, but I am so proud of myself and I’m thrilled with the result. I am delighted to share that movie here:


All images and videos in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.

Questioning the Wicked Problem of Teaching Complex Thinking

Each year The New Media Consortium reports on key trends, significant challenges, and important developments in the field of educational technology. Among the significant challenges of 2015 was teaching complex thinking (Johnson, Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2015). The problem itself is complex enough that we could refer to it as a “wicked problem.” According to Koehler and Mishra, these are described as problems that “have incomplete, changing and contradictory requirements” (as cited in Week 4 – Learn, 2017).

“Rodin’s The Thinker” by Andrew Horne, retrieved from, is licensed under Public Domain.

Because of the changing nature of wicked problems, it is impossible to come up with a perfect solution. Instead, my team Laura Allen, Guadalupe Bryan, Alex Gorton, and I worked to investigate and try to offer a “best bad idea”  in response to the problem of teaching complex thinking (as cited in Week 4 – Learn, 2017).

We approached this wicked problem from the perspective of A More Beautiful Question. We hoped to ask “an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst for change” (Berger, 2016, p. 8).  Although our problem is unsolvable, we can still be a catalyst for change – if we know what to do.

Using the method presented in A More Beautiful Question, we asked Why, What If, and How. The most challenging aspect of this approach was giving time and thoughtful consideration to each phase in order to ask good questions. Berger points out that we’re deluged with answers, but “to get to our answers, we must formulate and work through the questions ourselves” (Berger, 2016, p. 3).

In our shared planning document, we brainstormed and took notes. Together, we asked 55 Why questions. When we ask Why, it helps to approach the problem from an inquisitive, almost childlike perspective. This led to our beautiful, driving question:

How are teachers addressing the complex thinking skills necessary for students to become productive and innovative 21st-century learners?

I needed to give our complex problem the consideration it deserved. Before moving on to the What If phase, I crafted this infographic about the complexity of our problem:

After arriving at our driving question, we responded by asking What If. When we ask What If, we use creative, divergent thinking to expand the possibilities to explore.

Around this time, we surveyed other educators in our professional learning networks (PLNs) about our wicked problem. Based on the results of the survey and on the What If questions we asked, our team singled out one What If question:

What if students had more freedom/choice in developing their complex thinking skills?

With our survey results in and our What If question settled on, we investigated current research around the question of How. We researched four current educational trends around student choice: project-based learning, genius hour, authentic inquiry, and student choice in assessments.

Check out our ThingLink below to see our group’s presentation of this entire process. We describe our methods, survey and results, and practical ways to introduce student choice in a 21st-century classroom. Don’t miss our references in the lower left if you want to learn even more. (If your browser doesn’t allow you to click on all the links, go directly to the ThingLink site.)



Collaborative teamwork is a 21st-century skill that our group used to great effect. Even though we were never all in the same room for this, apps like Zoom, text messaging, Google Docs, and email helped us undertake this complex project.

The process was challenging at times, but the results were worth it. I am excited to try out some of our suggestions in my own class this fall.


Berger, W. (2016). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

Johnson, L., Becker, S. A., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2015). NMC horizon report: 2015 K-12 edition. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium.

Week 4 – Learn. (2017, July 22). Retrieved from


Unless otherwise captioned, all images and videos in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo or the students of MAET Year 1.

STEAM Power for the 21st-Century

Today’s workforce requires graduates with 21st-century skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking, as well as entrepreneurship and innovation. These skills are needed in both the private and public sectors, but many of today’s graduates don’t have them (Jolly, 2016).

Today’s graduates are not qualified to fill many tech positions in the public and private sectors.

Hoping to solve this problem, a new movement focuses on educating students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Yet even with continuing unemployment, many tech companies are still unable to find graduates with the 21-century skills they need (Jolly, 2016).


STEAM: Today’s Answer to STEM?

We need innovators and creative thinkers to help transform our economy. In the 20th-century, that transformation came about through science and technology. In this century it’s art and design that are poised to help facilitate that change (“STEM to STEAM”, n.d.).

This understanding has fostered the STEAM education movement, which adds art, design, and the humanities to the four STEM subjects (Johnson Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2015).


Hierarchy of Education Subjects, Based on Robinson, 2006

Teachers and administrators face increasing pressure from policymakers to meet benchmarks in proficiency and growth. The result is more time spent practicing test taking skills and less time spent in student-centered, inquiry-driven lessons. This narrow-minded focus on testing leads to narrow-minded thinking. The result? “Young Americans are being educated out of creativity” (Pomeroy, 2012).

We need creative students, though. Creativity is closely related to divergent thinking, the kind of right-brained thinking that leads to fresh ideas and new perspectives (Connor, Karmokar, & Whittington, 2015). When coupled with convergent thinking, the partnership produces the kind of innovation we are seeking (Maeda, 2012).

Creativity, “the process of coming up with original ideas that have value,” is now “as important in education as literacy” (Robinson, 2006). Unfortunately, the hierarchy in education places math and languages in a position of importance above the arts. This hierarchy denies the importance of the disciplines coming together. Yet where the different disciplines come together, like in STEAM education, is where creativity flourishes (Robinson, 2006).

Where Is STEAM’s Place if We’re Prepping for the Test?

Research shows that students who have a background in arts do better on standardized tests (Johnson et al., 2015). They are also leaders in entrepreneurship and inventing. Michigan State University researchers studied a group of MSU Honors College graduates. Those with arts exposure were more likely graduate from a STEM program and to own businesses or patents (Lawton, Schweitzer, LaMore, Roraback, & Root-Bernstein, 2013).

Artistic endeavors while young helped foster the kind of innovation that creates jobs and invigorates business. “So we better think about how we support artistic capacity, as well as science and math activity, so that we have these outcomes” (Lawton et al., 2013).

My Own Experience as a STEM / STEAM Educator

My current position is that of a K-5 STEM educator. In my role, I teach Project Lead The Way, a national curriculum with the aim of helping students learn 21st-century skills.

Last year, my kindergarteners learned about pushes and pulls. Their final project was to design and build a model that would move some blocks up a ramp. When I taught this unit at my first school during the first half of the year my students were successful. They all met the design challenge.

Before I taught at my second school, though, I had some time for reflection. I made a few simple additions to my supplies for building day. I brought along some feathers, pipe cleaners, pom poms, and cutoffs from cardboard tubes. I did not tell the students what they were to be used for and the design criteria remained the same: they were to build a model that could push or pull the blocks up the ramp.

The results were fantastic! Yes, they all moved their blocks up the ramp but they became inventors in the process. One student added a “monster sprayer” to her model. A second told me, “And this is a purse; you can carry it.” One of my young engineers told me, “It has a camera, and a hand for picking up rocks, and a hammer for smashing rocks.”

Looking Forward

I feel privileged to be at the beautiful intersection of two STEAM disciplines. Trained as a Visual Arts Educator and earning a master’s in educational technology, I am in a position to infuse art into any STEM lesson that I can. If I am ever back in an art room, my goal will be to put technology into the hands of my art students. Either way, I look forward to educating tomorrow’s creative world changers.


Connor, A. M., Karmokar, S., & Whittington, C. (2015). From STEM to STEAM: Strategies for enhancing engineering & technology education. International Journal of Engineering Pedagogy (iJEP), 5(2), 37-47. doi:10.3991/ijep.v5i2.4458

Johnson, L., Becker, S. A., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2015). NMC horizon report: 2015 K-12 edition. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium.

Jolly, A. (2016, April 29). STEM vs. STEAM: Do the Arts Belong? Retrieved from

Lawton, J., Schweitzer, J., LaMore, R., Roraback, E., & Root-Bernstein, R. (2013, October 22). A young Picasso or Beethoven could be the next Edison. Retrieved from

Maeda, J. (2012, October 02). STEM to STEAM: Art in K-12 Is Key to Building a Strong Economy. Retrieved from

Pomeroy, S. R. (2012, August 22). From STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand. Retrieved from

Robinson, K. (2006, February). Retrieved from

STEM to STEAM. (n.d.). Retrieved from


All images and videos in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.

Technology Supports for Students: Executive Functioning

Sometimes students come across our path who are late to class, missing materials, and disorganized. They cannot seem to plan their assignments and they turn their work in late. These experiences can be frustrating to teachers, but it is important to remember that they can be frustrating to the students, too! There is a cause for these behaviors. In some cases, the cause is executive functioning (EF) issues.

Planning and Organization: An Executive Function

Papers in a box, to be filed later

Executive functioning is defined as “the mental processes that serve a supervisory role in thinking and behavior. It incorporates a number of neurologically based operations that work together to direct and coordinate our efforts to achieve a goal.” (Cooper-Kahn & Foster, 2013, p. 7).  

Executive functioning includes eight core executive skills, one of which is planning and organization (Goia, Isquith, Guy, & Kenworthy, 2000). Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and nonverbal learning disability (NLD) can be significantly impacted in the skill of planning and organization (Semrud-Clikeman, Fine, & Bedsoe, 2013).

Planning and organization is “the ability to impose order on thoughts, tasks, play, and storage spaces,” (Cooper-Kahn, & Foster, 2013, p. 10). Students with poor planning and organization skills have difficulty breaking larger goals into smaller tasks. They also struggle to organize thoughts into a hierarchy. Their brain has a figurative filing cabinet, but they “just open the drawers and throw things in,” (p. 10). Organization of physical papers can be just as challenging.

A person with planning and organization difficulties may just open the drawer and throw the papers in there.

Consider your student who has a disorganized backpack with everything dumped into the main compartment. Call to mind the student who cannot remember to sign up to give a speech in class, despite your many reminders. Think about the student who rattles off information that doesn’t seem to you to connect to anything else that has been said in class. Those students may have issues with planning and organization.

Learning Skills Through Games

Digital technologies now permeate most areas of our lives. They are readily available at school and at home. We only need to look around at parks, restaurants, and grocery stores to see how widely available they are. Used wisely, technology can be a tool for helping students with learning needs including planning and organization.

Students can learn skills and techniques for planning through digital games like strategy games, simulation games, and role-playing games. In these games, they learn skills such as predicting game events and switching between short- and long-term goals. They learn to prepare for an event by stocking up items in inventory, and they learn from their mistakes (Kulman, 2014).

Games like Minecraft help students develop planning and organization skills. Screenshot by Aidan Van Loo


Games like Minecraft, Scratch, and LittleBIGPlanet help to support planning skills through fun and interactive means. Students need “foresight, planning, dividing the plan into steps, and then actually producing the work,” (Kulman, 2014, p. 118) to be successful.

App Recommendations for the School Setting

In addition to games, there are apps that can be both fun and helpful for students who need support with planning and organization. There is a direct application in the school setting as these tools can support students with the business of doing school.

Students learn planning skills through apps when they use productivity tools to set and prioritize goals and when they search through digital content using keywords (Kulman, 2014).

Two apps that support those skills are Evernote and Wunderlist. They are both powerful apps and are both on my list of regularly used tech tools for school. Either one could provide substantial support for a student. Used together, they can help students plan and prioritize commitments and organize and archive information.

Evernote provides the ability to capture lists, notes, photographs, drawings, and websites. Evernote also has excellent capabilities for archiving information. Because it is searchable, anything that is archived in Evernote can be found again.

Wunderlist is also a powerful list-making tool. The beauty of Wunderlist is that it is possible to prioritize list items with due dates, and to include subitems for each list item. Also, Wunderlist can push notifications to the students, so students who have a difficult time remembering to check a list will be automatically reminded.

With both tools, students are able to make notes and write lists in advance of a project due date. Both tools allow sharing of notes or lists with others. Both tools are available online and as a download to the student’s device. If a student discovers that an Evernote checklist would make more sense as a Wunderlist, it is easy to use Evernote Integration via Task Clone to move that list from one app to the other.


Cooper-Kahn, J., & Foster, M. (2013). Boosting executive skills in the classroom: A practical guide for educators. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gioia, G. A., Isquith, P. K., Guy, S. C., & Kenworthy, L. (2000). TEST REVIEW Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function. Child Neuropsychology (Neuropsychology, Development and Cognition: Section C), 6(3), 235-238. doi:10.1076/chin.

Kulman, R. (2014). Playing smarter in a digital world: A guide to choosing and using popular video games and apps to improve executive functioning in children and teens. Plantation FL, FL: Specialty Press, Inc.

Semrud-Clikeman, M., Fine, J. G., & Bledsoe, J. (2013). Comparison among children with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, nonverbal learning disorder and typically developing children on measures of executive functioning. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(2), 331-342. doi:10.1007/s10803-013-1871-2


Unless otherwise captioned, all images and videos in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.

Looking at Self-Portraits Through New Lenses

One foundational project in middle school art class is the creation of self-portraits. Through the creation of self-portraits, students develop several important artistic skills. They practice the skill of portrait drawing, and they practice making aesthetic choices to communicate meaning.

Digital Self-Portrait, by the Author

Unfortunately, some students are self-conscious about drawing or about spending time looking in the mirror. They may be intimidated by the prospect of creating a pencil and paper drawing over the course of many days. They may be nervous about having to add shading and other details.

The good news is that we don’t have to give in to the pressure from some of our students not to do self-portraits at all. In fact, we can keep both the art content and our pedagogy intact. Instead of having students create their self-portraits with paper and pencil, we can have them create using a digital tool like Autodesk SketchBook for the iPad.

Why Use New Technology for an Old Art Problem?

We can find a sweet spot in teaching when we combine our content knowledge (CK), our pedagogical knowledge (PK), and our technological knowledge (TK), referred to as The TPACK Framework (Mishra & Koehler, 2009). In this case, our content knowledge is the knowledge of how to create a self-portrait. Our pedagogical knowledge involves when to model drawing and when to give time for inquiry and exploration.

This work, “TPACK Framework in Digital Self-Portraits”, is a derivative of TPACK by Koehler (2012), used under CC0 1.0. “TPACK Framework in Digital Self-Portraits” is licensed under CC0 1.0 by Sarah Van Loo.

When we add the technological knowledge of a drawing application on the iPad, we find the sweet spot in teaching self-portraiture. By using the iPad instead of a pencil and paper, this assignment may be less intimidating to some students. As a result, they are more willing to explore and investigate. Further, using digital drawing tools, students may:

  • easily create multiple iterations of their self-portrait
  • digitally manipulate the portrait, including tiling, rotating, or flipping it
  • create multiple final versions of a drawing, including using different colors
Looking at My Own Example

In my digital self-portrait example above, I took a different approach to creating a self-portrait than I normally would have. Typically, I would have started by making a line drawing with charcoal or a pencil. I probably would have added some shading, and then I would have been finished.

In my digital self-portrait, instead of focusing on drawing lines, I focused on adding colors, shadows, and highlights. I also used a variety of digital tools, including the airbrush, technical pen, pencil, and watercolor. Having these tools available digitally meant that they were readily available and easy to access; by contrast, using all of these tools in a traditional setting would be cumbersome and time-consuming.

When students are given the opportunity to create digitally, those who may have been hesitant to start drawing will feel like they are at play because of the freedom provided by a wider range of tools. When students enjoy what they are doing, they are more likely to become lifelong artists.

If you would like to try this out in your classroom, here is a link to my plan:


Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. (May 2009). Too cool for school? No way! ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), 14-18.


Featured image: DevilsApricot (Artist). (2016).  Art Supplies, Brushes, Rulers [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Pixabay website: Licensed by CC0 1.0.

Digital self-portrait was created by Sarah Van Loo.

Koehler, M. (Artist). (2012). Derivative of TPACK [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons website: Licensed by CC0 1.0. “TPACK Framework in Digital Self-Portraits” is licensed under CC0 1.0 by Sarah Van Loo.