I Packed. I Came. I Shared. And Now I’m Left Wondering.

Yesterday, I had the amazing opportunity to present at the OTF – Teaching Math Through Problem Solving Conference. When Mary-Kay Goindi initially asked me to present, she emphasized that it was important to have hands-on components to the sessions. I decided to facilitate two sessions that were connected togetherone on Math Through Play and one on Documentation. I was excited to bring some “free play” to the conference, and hopefully get people thinking about the math that happens in the everyday and that can be extended through noticing and naming math behaviours. 

As Mary-Kay noted in her tweet yesterday morning, I did not pack light for this conference. 

(Note that the suitcase that’s beside the cart was full of materials as well.)

I’m a big believer in the fact that a Kindergarten classroom provides an optimum learning environment for kids. Math becomes embedded in the whole day, and students really start to see themselves as mathematicians: asking questions, solving problems, and using mathematical vocabulary that we have exposed them to throughout the year. Since I couldn’t bring the people to our classroom, I decided to bring our classroom to the people. 

I really wanted to make this learning authentic, so I chose to present the materials, in much the same way as we present them.

  • There were no signs.
  • There were no posted questions or activities.
  • I told the participants that they could touch everything, move things around, and use items in any way that they wanted. 

For both sessions, I created Padlet walls, where people could add links, ideas, questions, and comments. During the Documentation session, I also printed some documentation examples to include around the room, and encouraged people to document their play: even talking to other educators during the process, as a way to analyze what they observed and discuss and determine some possible next steps. I was so excited about this! I loved the fact that these sessions were not going to be “sit and get” ones, and that as teachers played more, they could discuss different options to link “learning” and “play” in all grades. I’ll admit that in my dream world of how this was all going to come together, we would all get to listen to and participate in rich discussions, ask questions, and leave with new ideas to contemplate and new things to try. 

And while this did happen with a group of participants, something else also happened: in both sessions, the majority of people left early. In the second session, the room almost cleared out completely as soon as I told people that they could “start playing.” In the first session, it took a little longer for this to happen. Some people came to talk to me first, and a few were surprised that our “play time” is our “learning time,” and all tools become “math tools.” Our conversations continued for a little while, but often after talking (and normally without playing), people left. On one hand, I can attribute people leaving to factors such as,

  • this was the second day of the conference, and people were tired.
  • there were lots of interesting sessions happening at the same time, and people wanted to see other ones.
  • my second session was close to lunch, and people were hungry.
  • many people attended both of my sessions, so by the end of the second one, they may have seen and explored everything.
  • people got the ideas and the links to the presentations. Maybe for some people, this was enough.

But on the other hand, I’m left worrying and wondering if there were other reasons for them leaving.

  • Did the sessions not meet their needs? Should I have shown a bigger variety of examples to the full group, and not just have included the links in the Padlets?
  • Did I “release responsibility” too early? Did we need to engage in more playing and documenting as a full group before people went to do so on their own?
  • Was “free play” too “free” for adults? Are we looking for “instructions,” and does this eventually lead students to do the same? How might we change this, and is this something that’s worth changing?
  • “Sit and get” PD is often criticized (I do this as well), but is this what some people wanted? Why? Or did I just need to find a better middle ground?

Criticism is rarely easy to take, but I think that we can learn a lot from all kinds of feedback. I’m making inferences based on my observations from yesterday, and while I did receive some very positive feedback, I also can’t ignore what I saw. Now I’m hoping to hear more. If you were at these sessions, what did you think, and if you weren’t, what might you suggest based on what I shared here? Yesterday, I was excited about the possibilities of “play,” and while some play happened, many materials were left untouched. The learner and questioner in me, needs to find out why.

Can you help?


25 thoughts on “I Packed. I Came. I Shared. And Now I’m Left Wondering.

  1. This is sad…. I wish I was there to take part!!! I do think that as adults we are so used to the typical PD of sit , watch , listen and take…. passive PD, it is hard to flip and be actively involved in manipulating, interacting, exploring new ideas, deep thinking. This IS harder work and some people, more than we would like to admit don’t like to ‘work’ that hard.
    I have been involved in new ‘instructional round PD’ over the last 5 years as a participant and a facilitator, which fully puts the members into uncomfortable, highly accountable, highly interactive and deep thinking, risk taking situations. I have to say that it has been the best learning of my career. Many involved (those with growth mindsets) thrived in these sessions, but just as many were turned off, scared, avoided interacting and felt threatened…. some to the point of withdrawing from the PD!
    Heavy lifting and accountability are hard work. We should all be willing to have a go. That’s what we expect from our students. Model, model, model!!!

    • Thanks for your comment, Joanne! This sounds like some amazing PD. The interesting thing is that none of the sessions in this conference were “sit and get” ones. Walking by different doors, I saw people really partaking in these other sessions. So why the difference? I continue to wonder if “free play” was too open (which does make me sad, but that’s another blog post). Were people maybe looking for different kinds of hands on options? I know that this wasn’t true for everyone, and I did have some great conversations with people there. But I’m looking at those people that maybe didn’t engage as much, and I’m wondering if I could’ve done something different.

  2. ‪Aviva, I think a lot depends on the context and the people. We just did a hands on minds on session – STEM inquiry applying math learning. We had 24 K-3 educators doing inquiry with the same materials we would give to kids. Everyone took part, everyone shared and made their thinking visible to the others. Why? Dunno!! Was it the materials? Was the the fun of the challenges (building a marble maze,etc). Was it because the context (STEM learning) was something they felt a personal need to develop (VS math – maybe math overload this year?) I think your reflections all have merit. A wise person once told me that everyone who attends a session like yours or mine, has responsibility to take something away from it. That responsibility does not rest solely on the presenter. Food for thought?

    • Lots of food for thought! Thanks for the comment, Jill! I think about the STEM session you described here (which sounds amazing, by the way). I wonder if people are more willing to play if they can see/understand/know the outcome and/or what is expected. I didn’t post challenges/activity suggestions/etc. as this is how we play in our classroom. I love seeing how students use materials, and often in ways that I don’t anticipate. This is when we question and extend learning. But was this play too “free” for adults? I wonder if they were looking for more direction and/or something different. When planning this session, I really wanted to hold true to how we play, but I continue to question if this worked for everyone. Thanks for adding to this discussion!


      • As always, Aviva, you ask some really reflective questions. One activity was more open as you described. But it was with some familiar objects that would have at the very least caused people to wonder why we would have put them all together in the same bin. It provoked some sorting and classifying- a comfortable spot to be sure. You are right in saying that most of our session had a defined “outcome”- use the materials to create a marble maze, etc. And this is because this is the feedback we have had- educators want practical hands on “activities” that they can take back and use. Our situation then, is different that the one you were in.
        In order to meet our metrics- we give what brings people in. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Thanks for always causing me to rethink and re-re-think!!! Happy Saturday!

        • Thanks for sharing this, Jill! I think that more defined “activities,” may be what people are looking for. So is this where we should all start, or is there value in being uncomfortable and starting with no defined activity? If we go this other route though, how do we support educators in exploring in this kind of environment? Did I need to question more? Did I need to provoke more? Should I have maybe created some defined activities for at least an entry point for some people? We are all at different places in our learning, and that’s okay. Maybe I needed to think about this more. I’m not sure, but your comment is causing me to continue to reflect … thank you!


  3. Hi Aviva,
    I was at your first session and I stayed right to the end. For me, it was super useful, and I left with many new ideas I’d like to implement in Grade 1. I saw math concepts and learning in all of the materials you brought. I’m definitely going to provide melty beads, water beads, loose parts, more outdoor play, and so much more. I’m going to work on “noticing and naming the math learning as well. So thanks for sharing your ideas, philosophy and materials. If you are feeling discouraged, I guess I would suggest you just think about the idea that all teachers are at different places in their learning and all of your participants, even if they left early, would have learned a lot from what you shared and brought.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Anna! You were one of the people that I thought about when I mentioned connecting with some educators there. I loved your excitement at the time about implementing some of these ideas in Grade 1, and reading your comment now makes me even more excited. Lucky students!! Thank you for sharing from the perspective of being there. It’s great to hear what people think, and also be reminded that we are all at different places in our learning, and that’s okay too. Hopefully everyone was able to leave with something. Please keep me posted on how things go in Grade 1. I can’t wait to hear how the students respond!


  4. I would have liked to have been there. Sounds like a wonderful time for learning and exploring. As an ECE I’ve attended many hands on workshops like your’s. I am wondering if it’s mind set. New progressive teachers vs old school. Personally I always experience a bit of discomfort meeting new people and participating in something that asks you to jump in, interact, engage and share. But that’s me and I know getting past that will result in rewarding learning. Maybe a bit of a show and tell with slides showing kids engaged with math might have broke the ice.
    Aviva, I always love and admire how you embrace and reflect on those difficult moments. You courageously look at the “that didn’t go so well” moments that some would sweep under the rug. You reflect on them, internalize them and use them to become stronger. Kudos to you!

    • Thanks for your comment, Donna! I would have loved for you to be there. I think that this kind of play could have been uncomfortable for some, and maybe I needed to consider this more. For my documentation session, I had two pieces of documentation on one thing that a child did in the classroom. I was going to get people to discuss the math learning and some possible next steps. Timing made me reconsider this, and move to exploration. I wonder if this discussion would have been more beneficial. I also put out some documentation with the play items around the room (at the second session), but maybe more should have been on the screen for us to discuss. Maybe I should have also included and discussed more examples from multiple grades. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, I guess. 🙂 This experience has definitely caused me to do a lot of thinking, and with input from people like you, I’m able to think even more. Thank you!!


  5. Hi Aviva,
    So great meeting you at the conference!
    I noticed many of the same things you noticed. As soon as you said “play,” many participants sat at their tables. I got up, eagerly wanting to explore the materials – yet I looked around and saw many continue to sit and chat. I do not think it comes down to the session not being meaningful (because I do believe that every person took at least one idea away from it, even if it is reflecting on their own practice), but rather the fear. There is a certain level of risk-taking that goes along with play, especially free play (both in children and adults!) There were no instructions, which as you mentioned would allow participants to make their own connections to the different grade levels, to see opportunities for play in their own classes, and to get a bit messy! I do think adults fear play, and we get so used to sitting down and listening in conferences that as soon as the routine is changed, some may not know what to do. I think we are all coming from different backgrounds and different points of our learning journey, and even though some of us may be ready for that release of responsibility and to be vulnerable, I think some are not yet ready to act (which is not a negative – it just takes time! Going back to the conversation we had in the Water Cooler). It is so challenging (almost impossible) to reach all participants in a session. I think you did an amazing job at letting participants try something different than the typical “sit and get” – there needs to be more of this when we think of the structure of professional development. The more adults play and experience hands-on PD, the more vulnerable they become and more willing to break from the ‘norm.’

    • Thank you, Melissa! Knowing that you were one of the people there, your comment definitely means a lot. I think “free play” certainly does come with a degree of vulnerability, and while there were people there like you that jumped right in (thank you!!!), others did not. Maybe the table conversations were safer for some. Maybe this is what people needed at the time … and that’s okay. I just wonder if I could have inspired a few more people to embrace the messiness that is free play … as it’s truly where the “wonderful” happens as well. And maybe when in the safe space of a classroom, at home, and/or surrounded by friends, this free play will start to happen more.

      I will say that I absolutely loved the discussion at the water cooler session, and connecting with the amazing group from YRDSB. While I’ve met some of the people there before, this was my first time chatting more with all of you. We all became a little “vulnerable” in what we shared, and maybe it’s when we get to this point, that we’re truly open to new learning.

      Thanks for sharing about your junior experiences! I’d love to hear more about how your learning, and the learning of your students, evolve.


  6. I did a “learn through play” presentation once WITH learning intentions stated – they still wouldn’t touch the materials, and I was very sad as the joy comes from the manipulation of material and modelling is so important for the middle age learners-the ones we really want to be inquiring. I too still wonder why. I also know that quite often children won’t work with certain tools for months, so perhaps it is comfort with the environment?

    • Thanks for the comment, Eileen! It could be that, and maybe if these materials were offered repeatedly over multiple days with more discussions, the amount of play would increase. I did see more involvement in other sessions, but the materials were presented differently. The learning outcome was clearer, and the “activity” was definitely there. Maybe this is what people wanted. I know that there were exceptions to the rule in my sessions, but maybe this was true for the majority. You have me wondering.


  7. I’ve seen this happen too. Here’s my take:
    1) Conferences are not for deep learning, no matter what the style of session.
    2) people want ideas to spark thinking or to add to their repertoire. Then they go away and either think or do right away
    3) True learning is uncomfortable and effortful, so many don’t like it.
    4) Many educators may not even know how to start and a session may seem like the wrong place to them.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sue! When I wrote this post, I couldn’t help but reflect back on the conversation we had at BIT16 in November. I thought of the informational sessions that I delivered then, and the need to change things around to be more hands-on. When planning for these sessions, I thought of your tweets last year, and I tried to move away from the “sit and get” PD, even though I was delivering two short sessions. But then I wondered if I went about things wrong, as I wonder how many ideas people left with and if they could leave with more. I know that the session that made me feel the best in the end, really wasn’t a session at all but a water cooler conversation. So many of us shared fears, ideas, and possible next steps. This was an amazing discussion with some educators I admire as well as some new ones that I’m so excited to learn with now. Based then on what you said about conferences, how do we help people get the most out of our sessions? What other learning opportunities are out there to maybe get to “deep learning?” Yes, I love the EdCamp format and informal conversations with educators, but are there other good options? Thoughts? Thanks for always making me think!


  8. Different structures have different purposes, which is fine. What is the purpose of a conference? And what is the purpose of the different structures within a conference?

    • Hmmmm … Good questions, Sue! I would think that the purpose of a conference is to inform people of different practices, plus give them some new ideas to try. The hope is that the sessions do this. I think that a conference is for learning. I know that I leave conferences with new ideas, new thoughts, and often, new perspectives. I wonder how others would answer these questions of yours. How would you?


  9. Although I wasn’t able to attend your sessions, I’ve been to a lot of professional learning in the past couple of years that involves long periods of time to play with materials. I usually find there is too much time allotted for play, and maybe it is because there isn’t enough structure for me. I think it’s also partly that I don’t play that way in my regular life, so it’s not comfortable and I don’t see the value in it for what I need to learn. My purpose in attending a conference is to gain new learning that I can connect with what I already know or to give me ideas for how to extend learning for my students. My question is, do children and adults learn the same way? Do adults want or need to play when learning? Or should we be trying to put ourselves in a child’s frame of mind when presented with an assortment of materials? When I’ve had long periods of time for play during professional learning, I’ve noticed adults end up chatting about their experiences with students more than exploring materials. Sorry for the long response, but this topic is something I am very curious about!

    • Thanks for your comment, Andrea, and for your very open and honest response. I might ask, how do you think that adults learn? Why would it vary from how children learn? When would this change? Some people question if children really learn through play, or if the learning only happens with the input/questioning/comments from the educator or parent. I think that we can all learn in this open, hands-on way, but that it’s an uncomfortable way for many people to learn. Adults tend to be looking for the activity, the guiding questions, or the explanation of what to do. How do we change this? If we want kids to play, do we also need to see the value in the freedom, risk-taking, and learning that comes through play? Do we need to experience this ourselves? In our classroom, my teaching partner and I talk regularly about the “time” needed to really play. It’s often just past our point of uncomfortable. This is when we see the richness that comes from play. Do adults maybe need more time to get to this point? Or since it’s been so long since we’ve experienced this “play” as children, have we forgotten about how to play and the value in doing so? This makes me sad, but I wonder if there’s a way to change this. Thoughts?


  10. Aviva first of all I wish I could have stayed long enough to see you. Presented the same time as you.

    Lately I have found the same thing as you. What I have tried to do is talk a little at the beginning, let others explore but then have a discussion point as we go through the exploration or at the end.

    Not too sure if that helps but I’ve found that most want to come and hear your wisdom and expertise.

    Also I think we are at an interesting cross roads in learning. Many of us grew up learning from sit and get but we teach mainly through constructivist ways. Creates deliemas in PD.

    Great questions though.

    • Thanks Jonathan! I wish we could have connected too. Thankfully there will always be another time. I think that your final point is the crux of the problem. We are not used to this new way of learning, and often, even when we’re encouraged to try this constructivist approach, most people want the “sit and get” instead. I’m not sure how to change this — maybe there’s some scaffolding we can do — but it is definitely an issue.

      Thanks for sharing your approach as well. This was actually what I intended to do, but in both sessions, people left before our final opportunity to discuss and share. It was the “play” that led to the leaving. Maybe I need to scaffold the play more, but I struggle with this as well. This may produce a blog post of its own.


  11. Aviva,

    I’ve really appreciated you sharing your observation, and your commenters for sharing their honest takes on the situation. Melissa’s reply strongly resonated with me, as did Sue’s (conference purpose, plus her numbered ideas). I agree with Jonathan’s point about providing something near the end – a bridge, so to speak, to help us as adult learners move from one style to another.

    At MakerEdTO’s conference (I hope I’m not revealing “state secrets here”), we noticed an improvement in the Playground portion this year over last year. Last year, not as many people “stayed and played”. What did we do differently? We placed our keynote (and prizes) at the closing slot, and we also scheduled some “Spark Talks”, where individuals spoke for just 30 minutes. We also populated the Playground area with more core team members who were able to talk with the participants so they could see the connections. Also, some of the Playground areas did have specific challenges. Is this scaffolding for grownups? Is this helping us move eventually to a more open-state?

    This was a powerful question of yours:
    Was “free play” too “free” for adults? Are we looking for “instructions,” and does this eventually lead students to do the same? How might we change this, and is this something that’s worth changing?
    I liked the respectful dialogue between you and Andrea about age and play. I hope that turns into a separate blog post!

    I could write paragraphs more, but let me stop there.
    Thanks again for the brain food!

    • Thank you so much Diana for sharing your comments, as well as your connection to MakerEdTO’s conference. This whole topic of age and play has me thinking, and I think I’m going to need to write another blog post. I’m playing with it in my head right now, and hoping to blog in the next couple of days. Your comment about having “core team members” in the “playground” really made me think more about the need for this adult interaction while playing. Is this how we make sense of the learning and ultimately spark further learning? I could probably write a blog post of a reply here, but maybe I’ll save that for my next play post. This is a topic that I think deserves more discussion.


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