How We Can Inspire Students to Go Further through Inquiry-Based Learning, with Founder of How Cool Is That?, Reuven Tzalmona: Podcast Transcript

Ludo Millar
Hello, and welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast, the podcast that brings you the latest in the world of tutoring EdTech and education and hopefully inspires in us a big change that each and every one of us is capable of.

Qualified Tutor is an industry-leading tutor training organisation and an online tutoring community for 1000s of tutors around the world. This podcast is the voice of this community, where we aim to hear from tutors, teachers, entrepreneurs, coaches, business experts, students, tutor printers, and more from the world of tutoring about what inspires them every day, how they can help tutors like you and what they’ve learned about tutoring along the way.

The question is, what will you learn today?

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Ludo Millar 1:09
Hello, and welcome to the 109th episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. I am Ludo Millar, the host of this podcast Welcome back to regular listeners. Welcome to any of you for whom this is your first time listening to the Qualified Tutor Podcast. And of course a huge welcome to today’s guest, Reuven Tzalmona. Welcome to the podcast.

Reuven Tzalmona 2:22
It’s a pleasure to be here.

Ludo Millar 2:24
Thank you so much for joining us. I first met Reuven back in November of 2021. And I was, to be honest, I was blown away by our first meeting. Reuven brought a ton of energy and enthusiasm for teaching and learning. And I learned a great deal about the live workshops he runs for kids. I’ve, unfortunately, never had the chance to attend one of his workshops but if they have half the energy he brought to our first meeting, they’ll be the most exciting lesson that you’ve ever had. Now, hailing from Toronto in Canada, Reuven was able to transform his live, in-person classes into online sessions when the lockdown first struck but he’s always asserted that there is no replacing the in-person touch and feel of interactive learning and since last year, he’s been running sessions in person again, helping students and parents see the power of hands-on and inquiry-based learning with experiments and projects such as, I’ll reel a couple of them off: Battle Tops, Marble Maze, Zipliner, Airplane Launcher, to name just a few. Reuven is smiling gleefully; I mean, these are all his inventions. And don’t worry, if you don’t know what these are, you’ll hopefully have a better idea of some of them in about 25 minutes’ time. So that is Reuven Tzalmona. Welcome, Reuven, what’s giving you reason to smile today?

Reuven Tzalmona 3:51
I always love sharing my passion for education with people who understand where I’m coming from, you know. It’s funny that sometimes you go to parties, and people ask you what you’re doing and you tell them you’re a teacher, and people are just gonna start walking away because they don’t want to talk about how poorly they did when they were in school. So whatever, I get a chance to really share my passion with other people who understand and share the same feeling and it always brings a smile on my face.

Ludo Millar 4:24
Well, hopefully you’ll bring a smile to the faces of our listeners today as well, Reuven, I’m sure of it. And part of that may be in a little exploration of a school report that you managed to find in the last week or so. Now, just briefly, our listeners may have heard over the past few episodes, I’ve been asking guests to see if they can find any old school reports from their childhood and bring them to the podcast and read any that they find amusing or interesting or symbolic to the first few moments of the podcast. So, Reuven, I’m going to hand over to you and let you read out a school report that you’ve found.

Reuven Tzalmona 5:06
Yeah, so this particular school report is, it’s a comment that stuck with me in the way it was phrased pretty much my whole life. This is from my grade 7 report. But pretty much all my elementary reports were the same. So I just picked this one out, because the teacher was very eloquent, he was very good with his diction. So he chose just the right words to always keep it in my mind and make it memorable. And I hope you guys find it kind of amusing, too. But it says, ‘Reuven is a highly intelligent student who chooses to do just enough to get by … he is outstanding in mediocrity’.

Ludo Millar 5:54
‘Outstanding in mediocrity’ … yeah. And you remember reading that?

Reuven Tzalmona 6:01
Well, I remember reading it, because I knew that it was true. And it’s part of the reason why I became a teacher myself, because until I got to grade 10, I’d never had that teacher that really inspired me and motivated me to want to do more. I literally just did enough to get by, because I knew that that’s all I needed to do. And I had other interests, you know, there was sports, there was video games, you know, school wasn’t at the forefront. But then when I was in 10th grade, I had that one teacher that I think all of us can think back and relate to, that you have that one teacher that really makes learning fun and inspiring and wants you to do better, not because they’re forcing you, because you want to. And that was the first time I learned that student-led learning is really where education happens. And at that point, I knew that I wanted to be an educator.

Ludo Millar 7:03
So how have you flipped ‘Reuven is outstanding in mediocrity’ into why you do what you do today?

Reuven Tzalmona 7:12
So, once I realised that a teacher’s job isn’t just to repeat information. And the student’s job isn’t just to regurgitate it back to you. Once I realised that, that school has more meaning, and that the stuff that I was learning was more than just what I was reading on the textbook, when I realised that there’s real world applications, and then you can really strive to do something better. And this particular teacher, you know, he left me with a phrase that always stuck in my mind. And, you know, the funny thing is, he was a gym teacher, right? But he said, ‘I’m not here to show you how to do it my way. I’m here to inspire you to learn the basics, and then find a better way’. And that’s the kind of attitude that I always take into the classes that I teach. That I’m not here to just get you to repeat it the way I do it, I want to inspire you to do better, because our kids, the next generation, they’re the future of whatever’s going to happen in our world over the next 20, 30, 50 years. And so it’s not just them, repeating what we tell them to do. It’s them finding better ways and more innovative ways to do things. And then we see how the world has evolved over the last 20, 30, 50 years, since a lot of us were in school, and you can’t even recognise that world. And so that is because we had a handful of people who were innovators, who thought out of the box, who who were inspired by their teachers to do something better. And I walk into the classroom and I walk into every workshop that I run with that attitude, that I’m here to show you the basics, to inspire you to do better, and a lot of the times the kids end up teaching me and surprising me. And it’s that back and forth, that makes everything worthwhile.

Ludo Millar 9:09
So, the basis of the live educational workshops that you’ve come to start delivering that I was mentioning just in that introduction, have they come from this approach?

Reuven Tzalmona 9:24
So no, not really. Basically what happened is when I first started teaching as a classroom teacher, I was a math and science teacher and I taught some English and history and so on. But then I’m lucky enough that I happen to work for a school district that’s very progressive thinking. And about seven or eight years’ ago, they asked me to become the STEM director for the school district, which was an extremely exciting challenge and an awesome opportunity and just when the position was offered to me, the ideas that already started going through my head were limitless, right? Because in my classroom, I used to do a lot of hands-on building and constructing an engineering application. But I always had to kind of weasel my way around the curriculum in order to fit everything in. But with this new position, they basically gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted, which was incredible. So I became the STEM director. And then for about two years, I was doing it in my school, and so on. And then one of the rec centre directors in my city approached me and said, ‘Hey, you know, we love your programme, my child was in your class, it’s amazing. Would you mind doing a couple of free workshops or a couple of workshops at our local community centre?’. And I’m like, sure. You know, to me, it was just about the opportunity to inspire more kids, that’s why I got into this in the first place, not just the kids in my classroom, let’s get this to the community. So that opportunity was incredible.

So I went and I did a couple of workshops, and they were a huge hit. I had something like 55 kids attending the first one and 70 attending the second one. And it was an amazing experience. And I came home and I was just glowing, I was bursting with energy. My wife couldn’t contain me at this point, right. And I mean, at the time, I was also running my tutoring business, on top of teaching, and then it came down to simple math, right. When I tutored, I would charge between $50 and $70 an hour for tutoring. But I get to see one child at a time, and even the two, three hours a night, okay, it was good extra income. But then the math was simple. If I get 20-30 kids in a room at one time, each paying $20 apiece, I mean, the math was easy. And then at that point, I started seeking out more opportunities to run these kinds of workshops, I started approaching schools and rec centres and camps and synagogues and churches, and basically anywhere they have kids, I would approach them and see if they do want to run this kind of workshop. And to show them some of the creations that the kids make as part of the workshop. And everybody wanted to be a part of this. And that’s when it kind of started snowballing to where we got to today. I mean, today we run educational birthdays, we do, you know, the funny thing, it’s a funny story is that when we just went on vacation in Mexico, and on the way back from Mexico, we had a 12-hour layover in Mexico City. And the kids were bored, my kids were bored. So I went and I picked up a couple of pieces from the convenience store, like some straws and popsicle sticks, whatever, we started building right there in the airport. And next thing, you know, I had a group of nine kids sitting with me building these projects. You know, I had two kids that only spoke Spanish and one kid, they spoke German, and the rest spoke English. But we all kind of figured out a way to work together. And we had an awesome time. And were able to do this for two or three hours. But yeah, and kids love doing this stuff. And when you give them the opportunity, this is what really makes that difference.

Ludo Millar 13:15
So what is you’ve- maybe just explained it that in that little story about the airport, what is the power of these sessions? Why are they so popular?

Reuven Tzalmona 13:23
Okay, so really, what it comes down to is the core philosophy behind what How Cool Is That? is in my teaching philosophy. And it’s that if you understand, and you can apply math and science, you can build amazing things using common household items, or by spending $5 at most at the dollar store or a big box store, right? Because the point is, and one of the things I was explaining about when I was learning and inspired is that the curricula that we learn in school isn’t just for us to read and repeat, or for us to be able to do the equation and solve the problem. These things are real world applications. So if we can take, you know, a pizza box, and five straws and a sheet of cardboard and build a working anemometer, that is where the magic happens, right? You don’t need to spend 1000s of dollars on kits and materials. The material in the kits that you need is all in your head. It’s all about ingenuity and imagination and trying to figure out how to use this for what I need to do it right.

The definition of engineering is how to solve a problem with the materials that I have available. Sometimes I don’t have $1,000 worth of materials and a full workshop to solve a problem. How do I use what I have in front of me, but if I understand math and science. So this is what I try to show the kids if we understand math and science, we can build these awesome things. And like you mentioned, there’s a whole bunch of projects that you’ve listed off. And you know, I’m sure I could list off a whole bunch, but I don’t want to waste a whole podcast on that. But the idea is that we build hundreds of projects with the same materials, no project costs more than $1.50 on materials. The materials can all be found at your local big box store, dollar store. And on top of that, I think one of my biggest motivations when running How Cool Is That? is I want the kids to be inspired to do more after class is over.

So when I was running my science class, before I started being STEM director, I remember bringing into class one of these outside groups that did awesome experiments. And they started doing cool stuff with dry ice and all this and it was amazing. But after class was over, one of the kids came up to me and said, ‘I want to do more of this, where can I get dry ice from?’. And I was like, no, no, right? I don’t even know how to store it, where do you order it from. And that’s when it kind of hit me, you know, now that these people left with their dry ice, so what? The learning is over? But that’s ridiculous. That’s really not our job as teachers, our job as teacher is to inspire the kids to keep learning after we’re not there. So by using dollar store materials, now the kids can go home and start tinkering on their own and building new stuff. And when I see kids coming back the following week, or the following month, it’s amazing the stuff that they’ve come up with on their own.

Ludo Millar 16:32
Those must be some of the more heartwarming moments, Reuven, when you see that in action, you see your inspiration in action.

Reuven Tzalmona 16:40
Yeah, you know, on a daily basis, I see these kinds of things happening from a learning standpoint, which is incredible. But I actually want to share a different story with you that for a second, if you will allow me to please, you know, because I do a lot of hands-on stuff with the kids. You know, it’s just fun, right? The kids think they’re playing, they don’t realise how much they’re learning, you know, so we build like that anemometer that I told you about. And then we use the formula for calculating the circumference of a circle to try to measure wind speed. They don’t understand they’re learning. They think it’s fun. They’re playing games. And now they have a challenge to figure out how to do this. But about two months ago, one of the kids in my classes. And I didn’t know this at the time, but his family went through a severe trauma and his older brother died in a car accident, it was very tragic. And this child hasn’t spoken to anyone in two months. And he came to my class, and he’s, you know, working and all this. And he’s not saying a word. And I was like, why is this kid never talking? You know, but he’s so engaged, right? And then at the end of the class, he came up to me and started talking to me, and showed me what he did. Sorry, I’m starting to tear up. And his mom is at the door, and she’s crying. And then she tells me the story. And I was like, wow, you know, just like not only the connection that made with him on an educational level, but the fact that this fun, engaging environment could create the the connection on other levels. You know, that’s what kind of keeps me going.

Ludo Millar 18:26
That is such a powerful story, Reuven. Thank you for for sharing that.

I wonder then what that tells us about, because your philosophy Reuven has has always been exactly what you’ve just been speaking about, this inquiry-based learning, inspiring kids to ask the questions themselves, through your guidance, through your scaffolding. For those who don’t know who are listening, can you just tell us a little bit more about what inquiry-based learning means to you?

Reuven Tzalmona 19:07
Yeah. So, you know, one of the things that frustrates me about education and the education industry in general, whether it’s, you know, kits that you buy sometimes at stores, or teachers in general, is that we don’t really adhere to basic educational philosophy. There’s two basic educational philosophies that all teachers should really abide by. The first one is Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s Taxonomy is divided into six levels. The lower three levels, three called lower order thinkers are just understanding, repeating and applying. Those are the lower three levels because basically, it’s just me telling you something and you’re repeating it back to me or writing it down in a different way. That’s basically all it is. The higher three levels. This is where we want to try to get. Here, it’s to be right. We want them to become higher order thinkers. And all of us can look up Bloom’s Taxonomy on the internet. I mean, it’s all there. But really, the the higher level thinkers are able to evaluate, synthesise and create. So basically, they take what they learned in the lower three levels. Now they evaluate what they learn, they put in a new situation by synthesising and then they create something new based on the knowledge they’ve had, that they’ve received. And so the scaffolding works because we teach them the information, but then we challenge them to synthesise and create using that information.

And then the second educational philosophy is Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. And again, this is something we can look up. But it’s basically creating three circles. So there’s a small circle, a medium circle, and a large circle. The small circle in the middle, this is what a learner or a child can do on their own. And the large circle on the outside is where we want them to be. In the middle circle, this is our job as teachers, that we guide them from the inner circle to the outer circle, by scaffolding and showing them the steps until they’re able to grow, and our job as teachers is to help kids grow. But we can’t do that by being the sage on the stage, right? The focus shouldn’t be on the teacher, the focus should be on the student. So instead of being the sage on the stage, as teachers, we want to start being the guide on the side.

So by doing project-based learning, the kids are manipulating tools and materials that they find at the dollar store, or the big box or whatever, we have to create something. And our job is to interject and guide them until they get to their ultimate goal. Now, what is that ultimate goal? Well, it’s different from child to child, right? Because every child eventually after we taught them the basics, the lower level thinking, after they’ve repeated and learnt that material, as they jump on to become higher level thinkers, every child might string in a different direction. And that’s where we have to guide them. And reinforce the math and the science that we’re trying to teach them. And just to add a couple of things. You know, the first thing is, you know, the way we teach things at school is actually really counterintuitive to the way things work in the real world, right? I’ve never heard of a job where you go in and from 9:30 to 10:30, do maths, but then from 10:30 to 11:30, you do geography and then from 11:30 to 12:30, you do science, right? It doesn’t exist every day. We have to draw knowledge from everything that we learned in order to create a final creation. So by adopting project-based learning, this is exactly what we do. So for example, one of the projects that we build is a Morse code machine. Well, the Morse code machine is really a method of communication, and I started the lesson by saying, ‘Look, this is text messages in the 1930s, right?’. But we got to talk about things like the Enigma machine World War Two, the Allies and the Axis, but because the kids are fully engaged in building this Morse code machine, and they’re able to send messages back and forth through their Morse code machines, and they develop their own codes, they are fully, 100% engaged in this project. They took ownership of this project, this project is theirs, and they want to know more about it, because now this becomes student-led learning, right? How do I create a new code? How do I decipher someone else’s code? How is this used through history? And then we are able to incorporate all these other strands of the curriculum into this project. So it’s not just a science and math or STEM project, now there’s history, there’s language, and there’s teamwork and fine motor skills and collaboration and creativity, and all these things that go into one. And it all starts with one tiny little project that costs $1.50 and materials, you know.

Ludo Millar 24:13
What do you want education to look like by 2030?

Reuven Tzalmona 24:20
So I think everybody can already see where my passions lie when it comes to this. And like I mentioned, I’m a STEM director for a progressive school district that appreciates the value of STEM. But I believe that every classroom and- let’s forget about classrooms, right, like tutors, parents, instructors, whether it’s a camp or anywhere, we have to adopt a project-based learning approach, because this not only encourages creativity, imagination. But you know, I’m gonna throw out some statistics that you’re right now you might, this generation that’s going on right now is considered to be about 57% less proficient in fine motor skills than any previous generation in history. And the reason is, as I call it, I call it the ‘tablet generation’ or the ‘screen generation’, because everything that they do is on the screen, right? So if I take my child, my children, for example, you know, my son plays Minecraft, and he comes up to me, and he says, ‘Hey, Daddy, look what I built on Minecraft. It’s this castle with this and that and that’. And I looked at him and said, ‘You did nothing, right, all you did was swipe your finger across the screen and the machine did everything. Let’s go in the garage, let’s go and get some of the stuff from the dollar store. And let’s actually build, right?’.

Hands-on application is really important for fine motor skills. Also, for collaborations working with other people coming up with new ideas. Our education system is flawed in that, in 200 years that the modern education system was created, it’s barely changed, right? Kids are still going to class, sitting in a group, reading out of a textbook, repeating information, solving math equations, writing essays, what have you, but the world around us has changed drastically. So why hasn’t the education system evolved, just like the world around us. So project-based learning is really the way to do that. Because, I’m not saying that what we are teaching in school is not important, but as I said before, there’s lower level thinkers, our job is to create higher level thinkers. And by adopting project-based learning, we’re allowing every instructor whether you’re a tutor, or a parent, or a teacher, in a classroom, or camp instructor, or whatever you are, to inspire and push kids further by bringing this kind of education to them.

So project-based learning, it has such a positive impact on every child that comes through, even the kids who are amazing at the standard way of teaching, the way we do it in the classroom, they come in like, ‘Wow, look at how much more I can do’. You know, I walked into a grade 10 classroom, I did a workshop, and we built a machine called a clinometer. And a clinometer is a little device, they are able to measure the height of any building or a tall structure, using, we use a piece of paper, a straw, a paper clip and a strain. And just with those four items, I can measure the height of any buildings, but we have to use trigonometry. And at the end of the class, the kids will come up to me and say, ‘Wait a second, Reuven, you’re telling us that there’s actually a practical application to trigonometry?’. I’m like, ‘Yeah, look at that, right’. So it’s, yeah, when that light goes off in the kid’s mind, when they see that there’s a real world application from the stuff that they’re learning. Just like I told you, that beginning about me, when I needed that inspiration to see that there’s more, that’s exactly what it provides the other kids.

Ludo Millar 28:10
And if you want to become that educator, who is able to inspire the next generation of students who’s able to be that teacher whom students look back on in 20-30 years’ time and say, ‘That was the educator, that was the tutor, that was the instructor, the guide, who changed my perception’, then please reach out to Reuven after this. As you can tell, he’s incredibly happy talking about what he does, and very, very generous in the way he talks about what he does. Howcoolisthatteacher.com is where you can head to find out a little bit more about Reuven and his workshops. And if you want to become a licensee of the How Cool Is That? method and approach and methodology with loads of resources, and videos and guides as to how to run these workshops, Reuven offers licenses to educators so you can get in touch with Reuven and be part of this wonderful philosophy and approach of inquiry-based learning and project-based learning. If you’re not convinced after that, I don’t know what else Reuven has to do to convince you.

But Reuven, thank you so much for joining us. That was a really action packed and also very moving 25 minutes. So thank you for sharing. I hope you enjoyed talking about what you do … ? We will have you back on very shortly because our listeners, I’m sure ,will be very appreciative of not only what you do, but also the why behind it. And hearing that again is a very inspiring thing for educators, not just for students. And those are the kind of guests we like having on this podcast.

So Reuven, thank you so much for joining us. Next time we’re going to be joined by a Brand Ambassador of the platform, Superprof, who are an international tutoring platform that connect tutors and students. He is called Pablo. He lives in London and we’ll be chatting to him a little bit about about the platform Superprof and also about language learning. So do stick around for that next time. But for one final time, Reuven, for our 109th episode, thank you so much for coming on as a guest and cheerio.

Reuven Tzalmona 30:24
It was my pleasure. Thank you very much, and I’ll talk to everyone very shortly.

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Ludo Millar

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