School’s Out: What has your kid learned this year?


There is an Aboriginal tribe in Western Australia – they don’t celebrate birthdays chronologically – but only celebrate if a person has truly learned something. What if you didn’t celebrate each passing year just for the sake of +1 – but only if you really learned something – gained a knowledge tool that you didn’t have in your belt last year…or the year before…or ever.

What has your kid learned this year?

End of June – you’ve received your kid’s report card. You’ve scanned the pages of columns with the checks and grades – and gotten a snapshot of what? Do you really know what your son or daughter has learned? I’m talking about navigational knowledge – not rote knowledge. Rote knowledge is important – it’s the foundation – it’s the starting point. Truth north. It’s great for calm seas and clear sky.

Is that the future our kids are heading into?

Here’s my question & concern: Are we doing enough to teach our kids the creative problem solving skills that will serve them – when as futurists point out:

We simply cannot know what students will need to know in their future lives.

But we know one skill students will need to know in the future: learning how to learn.

Back to today: We do fine with assessing how a student did on a 6th grade math final.

Report Card lgr

But show me a report card that emphasizes innovative thinking or creative problem-solving skills. These are essential skills our kids will need to navigate a digitized world with boundaries so fluid that student avatars will fare better than classical cartographers.

It is our challenge as educators and parents to take a more creative and far-reaching approach to what we teach & grade in school and reinforce at home.

Below are three categories that probably didn’t appear on any year-end report card. I turned them into a discussion with my daughter about her 6th grade year:

  1. What have you learned about how to learn?

 “We did coding this year,” Natalie said, “and what’s cool is you get to create your own world…your own alternate universe.” I don’t know coding – and Natalie explained that in developing code there are gaps when you don’t have all the necessary information:

“Sometimes it’s like an incomplete puzzle – you may just get a few pieces,” she explained, “but it’s your responsibility to try and imagine the whole picture – as part of solving the problem.”

She added, “It’s like one move can determine the outcome. Might be right or wrong – but you have to try.”

 Research has shown that trial and error is a key component of the creative process and of all learning. Hearing Natalie mention making a mistake or failing at something led to a second question:

  1. What have you learned about how to approach a “difficult” or “confusing” problem?

“At first I got frustrated a lot. You and Mom tell me that mistakes and failure are part of learning. Like figuring out something new on my computer. I still get frustrated sometimes – but I learned – it’s okay not knowing what to do at first. I try to persevere. It doesn’t always work but…..when you’re down – there’s no other way but up. It’s really okay to make mistakes. ”

Time for me to step back – startled that this was an eleven-year old talking. I know when I was a sixth grader in a strict all-boys school – Dickensian schoolmasters publicly shamed and damned anyone who made mistakes or, even worse, failed.

 As parents – it’s so important to allow our kids to make mistakes on their own as part of the learning process.

It’s also important to celebrate their successes. But “What is a success?”   An A+ in history. Yes – acknowledge the accomplishment.

But parents must also be aware of less obvious accomplishments such as:

  • When a student struggles to understand any academic problem (and the fear and insecurity that bubbles forth) and then perseveres and solves it independently.
  • When a student fights through an uncertainty or insecurity and discovers a voice they didn’t know they had and expresses it as an idea or opinion or in a project.

Accomplishments like these are as important as any A+.

  1. What have you learned about creative problem solving?

“That it’s fun! It can be like the best playground. Anywhere!” Natalie said.

Natalie told me about a “great assignment” her science teacher gave the class. Students had to use their imagination to create an environment similar to a cell. My wife and I and Natalie sat around the dining room table one night and brainstormed about different possibilities. Some made sense. Some were ridiculous. But, most important, we tried to create an environment where it was safe to express any idea.

After some trial and error, Natalie came to us with an idea that we hadn’t discussed – the environment of a farm for the model of a cell: the farm house as the nucleus; the silo as vacuoles; tools, shovels etc. as lysosomes; and the surrounding fence as the membrane.


Often times our kids don’t realize the significance of a particular breakthrough. As parents we must make our kids aware of and celebrate their developing abilities in learning how to learn, discovering their unique voice and in creative problem solving.

Hopefully our kids will then circle these points on the map of their developing consciousness. We can help calibrate the compass they will use when facing new territories. But before we feel too self-important – we have to realize it’s the kid’s first compass – a starting point – and they may decide to throw away that compass – or use it in ways we can’t even envision.

Review the report cards you received in the mail. But go beyond the listed categories and check marks – try to discover the less obvious but equally important areas where your child may have broken new ground.

 Revisionist history has not been kind to Christopher Columbus – but he said something that rings true for any learner in a physical or virtual age:

 “You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”


If you’re a parent you might be interested in the following articles from DadsforCreativity:

Let Your Child Daydream: Imagination is more important than Knowledge

Role of Trial and Error in Creativity

12 Books to read before you’re 12!

What if…Your Child’s Imagination Could Soar!


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Role of Trial & Error in Creativity

“Daddy, do you know how to make a paper airplane?” My daughter’s question sparked an hour of trial and error test flights that culminated in our design for a plane that glided the length of our mid-century house: “Daddy,” she exclaimed after our successful flight, “We’re engineers!”

What happened during that hour enabled my ten year-old daughter to discover and begin to develop some basic creative problem solving skills. And in the process we both had a hellueva lot of fun!

Step 1: Drawing on Previous Knowledge/Experience

Building a paper plane from memory. My daughter watched attentively as I carefully folded down the edges of a sheet of paper. My boys school rigid education drilled me in the art of designing and launching planes as soon as a teacher glanced away. So, after pressing the edges of the wing flat, I proudly held up my recreated design:

I held it poised – ready for flight – and then a firm but light arched toss – as my plane flew 24 inches – nose-dived into a downward spiral & as it hit the floor just beyond our feet – my daughter and I erupted in laughter! What an absolute and colossal failure! And we picked it up and laughed again as each tried to launch what was clearly a hopelessly flawed design!

Point: Failure is an essential part of the creative process. Instill this in your kids & students. At the Apple Distinguished Educators Conference in AZ, they had us applaud anytime anyone made a mistake. At first this seemed like a cute pretense, but after a couple of days – the lesson sunk in. And it made so much sense:

 Allowing everyone the freedom to fail – also allowed everyone the freedom to take chances. And from then on – our group of Apple Educators all took chances – to build on our own and each other’s ideas and designs.

Parents must watch for signs of your kid shutting down after any failure – and if you see it – you must swoop in whatever way you know best – & re-program your kid’s response. Applaud your kid for trying. For attempting something. For saying something that comes out wrong. Your kid may not understand process yet – but reinforce the bravery it took to make an attempt.

 Step 2: Collaboration…Trial and Error

At first each of us created original designs. We glanced at what the other did, but came up with our own airplanes. “We’ll see whose flies farther,” my daughter said. The results were better – if you consider a six foot flight is better than a two foot flight. But since we had our sights set on long distance flight, we began to collaborate and share ideas:

We talked about the folds and angles and tips and weight and tried to streamline our designs. Each of us made folds as we passed the design back and forth. We built on planes that flew farther – trial and error – and soon had 8 prototypes scattered on the floor around us. We couldn’t break the thirty foot barrier. We seemed to have exhausted the possibilities and recognized our limitations. We were stuck. Before frustration could shut us down – we took a key step in the creative process:

Step 3: Explore Possibilities Outside Your Circle

I thought of calling my friend, Scott Chasen, who knows as much about the dynamics of flight as anyone. Last summer, as a leisurely sail in LI Sound turned into a race against an oncoming storm to get safely back into the harbor, he calmly explained the aerodynamics of twin-rotor helicopter design and flight. He communicated engineering R&D in such a fascinating and inviting way that anytime he wants to spend an afternoon with a room full of 5th grade science students, he has an open invitation! He’d be a perfect fit for our paper airplane R&D team! I knew he’d have had fun collaborating with us, but now it was too late on a Sunday night to call him for a consult.

Undeterred, Natalie and I reached for a laptop to research various design prototypes online. We compared their designs to ours and began to create a new prototype. Our research finally led us to the world champion paper airplane flyer. We checked the validity of his flight record claims and found the site where he revealed his once secret design:

Step 4: Finally – Make It Your Own!

We built his “record setting” model and tested it. While it easily had the distance capability to cover the ninety feet of our ranch style home – the design needed modifications to suit our goal: the record-setting design continually soared upward & hit the ceilings.

We needed a plane that could fly straight as an arrow down a long hallway.

 After an hour of creative play that followed our initial failure, our energy surged: trial and error led us to shorten the wingspan in order to achieve a straighter flight path.

Natalie launched our new model – our eyes were glued to its flight path as it held a dart-like trajectory down our long hallway, through 12’ high x 3’ wide opening in a brick wall and successfully glided across a huge room bordered by three walls of glass.

And if the glass doors were open – there were three acres of woods for a plane to navigate….

Step 5: Continue to Wonder!

We celebrated our successful flight. And then we wondered. What design would we need to navigate the interior of the house – and then, with the glass doors open, continue its flight path outdoors across the stream behind our house…and beyond?

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