Category Archives: Destination Imagination

Why Do We All Need to Know More About Executive Functions?

Executive functions consist of those mental processes that allow us to participate fully in a variety of roles and relationships through planning, focusing and remembering while controlling our impulses and working systematically to achieve goals. There is an expectation that students arrive at school with a number of these skills already developed, enabling them to participate in a group learning environment. While children generally begin developing these skills at a very young age in their homes with their families, the development of these functions continues through adolescence.

The relationship between giftedness and executive functioning is an interesting one. Some studies have shown that math abilities correlate significantly with executive functioning with some variances. (Rebecca Bull and Gaia Scerif, 2010.) Other studies find a correlation between executive functioning and achievement. (St. Clair-Thompson and Gathercole, 2010.) In gifted education we know that cognitive abilities do not guarantee academic achievement and underachieving gifted students-could this be related to struggles with executive functions in some cases? In his work, Re-examining the Role of Gifted Education and Talent Development for the 21st Century, Joseph Renzulli speaks to the necessity of talent and cognitive development going hand in hand with what he calls the “character strengths” of executive functions. These are developed through addressing novel situations that require children to draw on and develop these skills for success. But what does this look like in practice?

A week ago I was working with three gifted 8 year olds on one of the Destination Imagination challenges. Designed to foster curiosity, courage and creativity, I use this program not only as a means to challenge my students to solve novel and complex problems, but to create scenarios where I can help them cultivate their virtues (gifts of character) as they learn project management skills and collaboration. They were trying to solve an instant challenge that involved building a tower within specific parameters when things fell apart. Two of the students took over the task while the third withdrew with tears streaming down his face. I quietly acknowledged that I saw his tears and sat with him while we waited for the other two students to complete the task.

After measuring the height of their structure we began debriefing the teamwork part of the challenge at which point they acknowledged that it had not gone well and that there had been some conflict. I spoke to them about conflict arising when there is a difference in  the individual interests in carrying out a task and asked each of them what had been important to them as they were working on the challenge.

“To do it right,” the boy with tears responded.

“That would be the virtue of excellence,” I said, writing the word on the board.

“To work on it together,” responded the girl who had taken the structure away from the boy.

“That sounds like the cooperation virtue is important to you,” I said, writing it on the board beside excellence.

The third student responded that they were frustrated because the boy had not explained to them what he was doing before starting to build the solution.

“You needed understanding,” I said, writing that virtue on the board. “Now look at the things causing your conflict. They are all virtues. Are they important virtues to nurture on your team?” All three nodded. “So how can we get these virtues working together?” I asked.

After some discussion they agreed that communication was important and also came to understand that communicating with words was sometimes difficult for the boy. After we agreed that this was something we would work on together they were ready to move on. We had an incredibly productive morning and this new understanding continued the next time we met.

What really touched me about this incident was the ability of these children to see the virtues in each others actions despite the fact that they had really struggled. It empowered them to understand themselves and each other better as they moved forward to complete more tasks successfully.

“Children aren’t born with these skills[executive functions]—they are born with the potential to develop them.” -Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University

This statement reflects the premise guiding the Virtues Project as well-that children are born in potential and as with anything that is “in potential”-seeds, executive functions, virtues, habits… require certain conditions to grow and develop. Those of us privileged to work with and parent children need to understand our role in creating those conditions and not give up when we don’t see in some children what may seem innate in others as it is an opportunity to play our part in their development.

“Providing the support that children need to build these skills at home, in early care and education programs, and in other settings they experience regularly is one of society’s most important responsibilities.” -Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University

For more insight on this topic check out the overview video at the Centre on the Developing Child-Harvard University  which does a brilliant job of explaining executive functioning and self regulation. The website itself highlights the relationship between working memory, mental flexibility and self-control and stresses the importance of children having opportunities to apply these skills in coordination with others. You can also learn more about executive functions at Hoagies Blog Hop by clicking here or on the icon below:

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Are You “In” or “Out” of the Box?

This past week I was working with my Destination ImagiNation teams as they were at the beginning stages of planning their solutions for their team challenges. One of the activities we were doing called “Number Boxes” involved placing 12 numbers in 9 different boxes in a way that accumulated points  based on the number of “rules” that you could satisfy through the placement of your numbers. A highly engaging activity, it led into a discussion afterwards around divergent and convergent thinking, and how different kinds of thinking come into play when we are being creative and attempting to solve problems.

Inevitably the discussions with each team circled around to what it means to “think outside of the box” an expression that most of them know quite well. As we explored what may actually constitute “the box” one young man put up his hand and asked, “Don’t you think most people are outside the box trying to find a way in?” I smiled as I remembered the first time he was on one of my teams. He was a walking talking calculator in a story about bugs.

In the RSA version of Sir Ken Robinson’s viral TedTalk on How School’s Kill Creativity, there is this image of a graduating class coming out in a big box that resembles one you would use to ship wine in with a label that says “Class of 2010”. And as much as that image is provocative regarding the impact of standardization, there is always the reality of surviving in a world with sufficient “executive functions” that allow us to successfully co-exist and find a place where we can make our contribution. Was it a yearning I heard in this young man’s  question about being on the outside looking in? Is it any less of a yearning than I hear in voices of his team mates as they struggle with how to create something that has never existed before for their challenge?

The teamwork for this group isn’t always easy. In instant challenges, our young questioner throws things into the mix that can upset the plan and derail their solution causing frustration. And then later in the day when they are researching and planning how they could build a robotic creature and making a list of the supplies they need, he walks around the room and scavenges through my junk box and office supplies instead of getting to work. But wait. The next thing we know, he has put together a grappling hook gun that he then uses to take their attention off their task when he shoots it at them. Suddenly, the team is excited. Their robotic creature could have a grappling hook gun…and somehow he has lured them out of the box and they have brought him in. For now…

Finding our place in the world can be a challenge. Whether we are struggling with  a way to forge our own destiny or struggling with how to fit in the boundaries we encounter, “this” is what learning is about. And just when we think we have it all figured out, the boundaries will shift once again. But in this moment…

We ought to be like elephants in the noontime sun in summer, when they
are tormented by heat and thirst and catch sight of a cool lake. They throw
themselves into the water with the greatest pleasure and without a moment’s
hesitation. In just the same way, for the sake of ourselves and others, we should give ourselves joyfully to the practice.
Kunzang Pelden (b.1862, Tibet) The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech (2007, p. 255) taken from The Descartes Lecture by David Jardine in the Journal of Applied Hermeneutics, July 16, 2012.

Why I Do DI (Destination ImagiNation)

I think it might be a record…I’ll have to ask when I get to Tennessee. In the past four years I have managed and co-managed (with a LOT of help) more than 50 teams. In the weeks leading up to the big tournament, I do my best to stay off  the emotional roller coaster that many of my teams feel compelled to ride. I bite my tongue when I have an idea that would make things much more straightforward and simple. I wrack my brain to keep from asking leading questions looking for ones that will help the team move forward. I talk to them about the unity, trust and trustworthiness virtues while they argue over details like who will do the paperwork or clean up the mess. I go home at the end of the day with sparkles all over my butt, duct tape stuck to my shoes, paint spots on my pants and a sheepish look at the custodian as I make my way out the door.  And I swear to anyone who is still talking to me that I WILL NOT DO THIS AGAIN!

And then I go to the tournament. If there is last minute drama, I don’t really notice it (mostly because I am rushing from room to room to get to all my teams).  I watch the presentations as some come together as never before, while others run into glitches and soldier on.  I listen to the genuine laughter of the audience as they watch the performance of original scripts.  I watch things quit working and then get to observe one or two of the members leap into the gap to lead the way out. I watch my engineers beam with pride as the appraisers ask them about their ideas. I watch my artists talk earnestly about their process. I watch the faces of the parents as they see their children present. I go home feeling so proud of every one of them, not because of the results of the tournament but because I have experienced the journey.

I know the degree to which the teams developed their perseverance, diligence, cooperation, trust, trustworthiness, forgiveness, humility, self-discipline, respect, unity and enthusiasm. I’ve seen the perfectionists take risks, and the introverts step out. I’ve watched the highly sensitive student learn to manage their emotions while they taught the rest of their team about empathy and flexibility. I’ve watched teams dream big dreams and then learn how to scale things down to make them work. I’ve watched teams start small and then keep adding bits and pieces until they surprise themselves with how it all comes together.  I have been to the messy, complicated, complex, tearstained, joyful heart of creativity and observed its power of transformation. And that is why I do DI.

Creativity and Giftedness

 I have been given the wonderful gift (and challenge) of managing 13 Destination ImagiNation teams.  Why a gift?   Not only do I have to be more organized than I’ve ever been in my life which is no easy task in itself, but I also get to see creativity in all its various forms, which, if you read this article by Joyce van Tassell-Baska, is full of nuances. But possibly the biggest gift of all is the requirement that I harness some of my own creative problem solving so I can see where other paths lead and in that process, observe the limitations of my own creativity. So why is all this important?

I suppose it rests on my belief that creativity is our path out of so many things: tragedy, destruction, problems, despair… when we think the world has ended as we know it, creativity offers us the option to make something new. As I watch my 13 teams I can see how some students are lost when things go wrong, while others just bounce off in another direction. Finding the balance between rescuing and motivating as well as freedom and control has been hard, particularly when we are on a tight schedule. How long do we need to stay lost? How far should we bounce in another direction? Each team challenges me to see creativity and giftedness in a new way.

Should all gifted students be expected to be creative? I can think of two who would give me an emphatic “no!” Despite all the problems that some of us see as a shadow over our future, there are some things that are going well and require experts to keep them running and working effectively. Can being too creative interfere with this? And if so, do we squash creativity in order to keep things comfortable? You can see where the polarities are going to take us. Once again, the argument for inclusive education is made. We need different kinds of minds working together, struggling with the balance and embracing that struggle as part of the challenge of being human.

So I work with my 13 teams to embrace the struggle, whatever that individual struggle might be and see that struggle as a necessary part of life. Creative or not, each one of us plays a part in making things happen and keeping things going. If we can master respect, kindness, humility and a few of the other virtues as we go, this struggle might be peaceful…or at least fun!

Making the Best of a Pull-In Situation

This coming week I am off to Denver to present at the NAGC Conference on the work I do with the gifted program here. What am I going share with people from across North America and around the world about what we do here that matters? It’s surprisingly simple…not particularly easy.

In the pull-in program I only have 8 days of direct contact out of an entire school year to try and support our gifted students. At first it seemed like a really insignificant amount of time and I wondered how on earth I could make those days scattered throughout the year matter to our students in a significant way. The first year I tried to make curriculum links and extensions for students from grades 4, 7 and 9 but even though we had some great projects and discussions, the links felt weak. The next year, with the support of students, parents, teachers and the Centre for Research and Innovation, we brought Destination ImagiNation to Grande Prairie and into the program.

Fostering creative thinking, teamwork and problem solving program, Destination ImagiNation forces you to “teach” in new ways while engaging the broader community at the same time. It helped me embody teaching practice that did not “steal” the opportunity to learn something new from the students. And it helped me change my focus. If I cannot interfere with the students as they solve their challenges, what do I do? In the mayhem of creative chaos, it didn’t take long to figure out. Teamwork, creative and critical thinking and deadlines collide in very interesting ways with the perfectionism, over-sensitivities and fear of risk taking which can be the calling cards of many gifted students. I had what Joseph S. Renzulli in the Fall 2011 edition of Gifted Child Quarterly said was imperative to focus on in gifted education…”meaningful, direct experiences through which young people can internalize the positive behaviors that go beyond the knowledge base that should be the responsibility of a good general education.” p.308

In the midst of the tears, frustrations and struggles of figuring out a tough solution to a challenge, I introduced the Virtues Project. A program that inspires the practice of virtues in everyday life, it gave me the language to help students reframe their difficulties into empowering language. “Bossy” students were honored for their idealism yet brought to recognize the need to grow their flexibility. “Crybabies” were honored for their commitment and encouraged to grow their detachment. Perseverence and patience were recognized as virtues we are constantly working on as the instant and team challenges insist that we learn from our mistakes. When students get angry and frustrated with their teams they are encouraged to ask for what they need. Courtesy, kindness, caring, trust…they become the language we use to navigate the creative chaos and help my gifted students grow the virtues that are present within all of them.

It can be difficult when students get off task and do things that appear to be cruel and disrespectful to use the language of the virtues over a “Don’t do that!” or a punitive response. But I’ve seen amazing responses to statements like “I know you can be respectful and I need to see it now,” when I remember to practice my patience and believe in the character of the student. I’ve been having a great year, searching for and acknowledging the virtues in my students.

This is what I will be sharing in Denver. The convergence of two great programs and how they’ve made 8 short days intense and meaningful for both my students and myself!

Creating a Space for Gifted


The part I love the most about my job is working with students. Despite having gone through a screening process and being considered a unique group of learners, when they come to visit me to work on their challenges and projects, they are as diverse a group of students you’ll find anywhere. In fact sometimes I think even more diverse as their exceptionalities often place them in completely different spheres of passion with varying degrees of intensity. When I think about my role as their “teacher” in a pull-n program, it is more about creating the space for them to explore their own “giftedness” as opposed to working toward any specific outcome.

In Renzulli’s Triad Model of giftedness that you see above, you can see the space I am talking about, it’s right there in the middle. And in that centre is also the heart of some controversy over whether the potential for giftedness (above average ability) is enough to merit involvement in gifted programming. Without task commitment and creativity can one be considered truly gifted? As I work toward carefully constructing the space where all three can flourish, I encounter all kinds of obstacles living there: unusual expectations, fear of taking risks, vulnerability, sensitivities…I try to navigate them carefully and encounter some of my own fears: Did we get anything done today?!? Am I giving them what they need?!?

On Friday night I went to talk to Cameron Tofer a local game developer (Beamdog.com) about how to mentor some of my students who are working on developing computer games. When I asked him what program I could buy or where I should get the students started he gave me a very interesting look and said something like this: “I don’t start my day knowing how to do anything I want to do. I start my day with an idea and then I go online and find a way to make it happen.” It was a humbling moment as I wonder how often I’ve crowded that creative space with my presence and my own preconceived ideas about how to make that creativity and innovation happen.

Destination ImagiNation tells me that I cannot contribute to the solution of my teams. Sylvia Rimm and Susan Winebrenner tell me not to steal a student’s struggle. So my goal is to open the space and keep it safe. And seek out mentors who can help guide the way.

Getting to the Essence

What a few months it has been since my last blog! Getting 15 teams ready for the Destination ImagiNation tournament was a whirlwind. Once again I have been in awe of the students on my teams. This is a different kind of teamwork and it can be messy and emotional as the pressure of “competing” draws closer. But it is in those final moments when you really get to see students come into their own.

This year the team heading to Tennessee worked on the fine arts challenge: a four minute movie trailer that included an original soundtrack, cinematic effects and the incorporation of two nations into their story. The Super Ninja Chix embraced the genre and were very dedicated in creating fantastic sets, a gripping story and an amazing soundtrack. The pressure of the day was pretty intense, but in the end they really did a great job!

Since I have had the luxury of working with this team and the winning team from last year, I also have the chance to reflect and compare what “winning qualities” they possessed in order to come out on top and I’d like to share my observations. 

First of all, I’m going take hard work and organization right out of the equation because this was a quality that I saw in many of the teams. I couldn’t say that it was about teamwork because even though they all came together in the end to make it happen, there were some very interesting dynamics that happened along along the way and many of the other teams were more cohesive. I’m also going to remove creativity because all the groups were incredibly creative in very diverse ways. So what might account for the difference that gave them the edge?

Please remember that my observations are based on a very small sample and are non-scientific BUT there was one conversation that I had to have with both of these teams that I didn’t have with any of the others. The conversation went something like this:

“Is there any way that you can simplify this project to make it manageable and still fit within the parameters of the challenge?”

“No.”

“Will you be able to make what you have planned work?”

“No.”

And with that began the painstaking process of editing/scaling down/pruning without losing the brilliant parts.

I read an article once that described how Leonard Cohen wrote many verses to his song “Closing Time” before paring it down to the three that are included in his recording. Those extra verses are really important even if you don’t include them because they are a part of the creative process which includes making your way through all of the possibilities. But eventually you have to get to the essence and remove all of the extraneous pieces that distract from either your message or your task. It’s hard because we’ve often fallen in love with these pieces for a variety of reasons but to finish, we must let them go.

Both groups were faced with this dilemma and both managed to find their way through. At the ripe old age of 13 going on 14 and in grade eight…that’s pretty amazing.

Beyond Destination ImagiNation

I have been busy since the tournament, talking to appraisers, managers and students about their experience with the program. The feedback has been very positive. Most can see the potential of the program to develop outstanding innovation and teamwork skills. Many of the teacher managers are seeing ways they can incorporate aspects of the program into their everyday classroom practice. The students are recognizing the importance of teamwork and how the program has helped them develop their confidence. Appraisers saw the connections, how Destination ImagiNation can develop the “real world” skills that our 21st Century Learners will need. As promised, I have compiled my top ten list of things I learned at the tournament and I would like to share that now.
10. Not everyone loves Justin Beiber.
9. Fridays at the college are busy.
8. We need more than one registration table.
7. Crazy hats lighten the mood.
6. Tournaments are emotional.
5. Pressure can pull teams apart.
4. Pressure can pull teams together.
3. There is a lot of learning in watching other teams.
2. It’s impossible to guess at what a student may or may not be getting out of the experience.
1. Watching students share their talents can make you so PROUD…especially when you know the journey they were on to get to this place.

Countdown to Destination ImagiNation

If you come to my classroom you’ll see beautiful paintings stashed in various locations, as well as fascinating machines in all sizes and shapes of boxes pushed up against the walls. My coat rack has a two foot square piece of wood hammered to the top of it, I have piles of receipts (mostly sorted) on my desk, and my supply of drinking straws and paperclips is dwindling. It’s been a crazy few months getting ready for the March 18th tournament as 15 teams have come through my classroom designing and creating solutions for their Destination ImagiNation challenges. After school and weekends have provided some time for extra meetings, but now, two weeks away…time is running out!

I’ve undertaken a few ambitious projects in my teaching career…survival camps, Guinness World Book Record challenges, sailing trips, an interdisciplinary project that included a summit at the University of Calgary…but Destination ImagiNation has definitely pushed the boundaries for me in almost every way. I thought it might be worthwhile creating my top ten list of things I’ve learned from Destination ImagiNation before the tournament, because I’m certain our first tournament (complete with more than 160 students, 40 managers and 50 volunteers) will have its own top ten list by the time we’re through!

So here we go…what I learned from DI this year.

10. There are tools we can use so we can get much better at brainstorming.
9. Most of us don’t know how to work in teams.
8. As a teacher I often rescue kids from their learning.
7. Students can get me to give them the answer if they wait long enough.
6. The answers that I give students aren’t necessarily right or helpful.
5. It’s hard to cut ABS pipe straight.
4. It can take a long time just to make a box.
3. The good ideas come about an hour after you’ve given up.
2. If it doesn’t say you can’t, you can.
1. We manage to kill most great ideas with cynicism, fear and self-importance.

So there you go. Give me a week or two after the tournament and I will have another list. One of the things on the list will definitely be: You’ll never know how much people care about education until you ask them to volunteer. The response to our request for help has been so inspiring!

Why Destination ImagiNation?

When Dr. Janneke Frank (former Director of the Centre for Gifted Education at the U of C) suggested the Destination ImagiNation for the Challenge Pull-In Program, I was a little skeptical. I am not good with what some have called “cookie cutter” approaches to educating and when I got all the “stuff” I was worried. I emailed my worries back to her and before I knew it I had Roger Garriock, the Canadian Director on the phone trying to explain to me how it was different. I was still skeptical and so he suggested that his wife Faith, who has been involved in running tournaments in British Columbia for more than 20 years, come to Grande Prairie and do it with teachers and students.

I was won over when I saw how the students responded as were the teachers who attended as well as the Centre for Research and Innovation who are sponsoring the program this year. While it is not the panacea that will meet the needs of all gifted children, it does hit on some key areas: challenging students with open-ended projects, providing a safe place for them to take risks, allowing them to integrate their passions and creativity into the work they do and offering them a real world audience with whom to share their work.

This is the first time I’ve done Destination ImagiNation…I am sure there are going to be a few bumps along the way. Bumps make us slow down and review how and why we are doing things.

You can learn more about Destination ImagiNation here.