The Foldable Problem

 foldable problem 3Inevitably, someone asks a variant of “Is this right?”

If you’ve found this blog and you’re reading it, you’re probably a teacher, so I won’t review the particulars of hot dog folds versus hamburger, but I will offer a basic definition just so we’re all on the same page. New teachers and laypeople, for whom foldables are origami and hexaflexagons, might also find this useful.

An example of a hexaflexagon in action.

An example of a hexaflexagon in action.

The term “foldable” refers to a piece of paper folded in such a way as to delineate spaces for information. A foldable’s purpose is to help students recall and define concepts, and to give an example or apply a term. Although the task of making a foldable falls on levels 1-3 on Bloom’s Taxonomy, the task engages visual and kinesthetic learners because the foldable frequently includes a picture clue or example, and the act of folding paper involves some movement. For these reasons, a foldable will often trump fill-in-the-blank worksheets, unguided notes during a lecture, or even CLOZE notes.

When students construct a foldable, a teacher gives directions and often an example. Depending on the age and the experience of the students, a teacher might walk students through the process of folding the paper just-so and demonstrate what to write and where. Even in middle school, I’ve found that there are a few students who will fold the paper the wrong way, skip a step, and mix up their information, and these students start over, fall slightly behind, and ultimately borrow a group member’s foldable to copy. Most teachers accept this because we know something the students don’t: The foldable is not a product to be graded and turned in; it is a study tool.

The simple tech-savvy solution is to video yourself constructing the foldable before class

Using technology to model making a foldable.

Using technology to model making a foldable.

using your smart phone, webcam, or document camera. You can then play the video on a loop as you walk around the classroom making sure every student has the paper folded correctly. If you choose to give notes at this stage, I suggest filming those as well, so you can monitor the class. Having a student make a foldable before class and filming that is always a nice trick. This is digital model and practice, even if it’s just folding paper.

But I suggest we’re doing it wrong. We’ve been doing it wrong, and even when we incorporate technology to solve a simple problem as explained above, we’re doing it wrong. This process actually limits creativity and encourages students to become passive in their learning—even though they are drawing their own pictures to illustrate the concept, even though they are writing their own examples.

As useful as they are, I propose getting rid of this understanding of the foldable altogether. Here’s why.



Teachers confiscate notes from students all the time at every grade level. These notes are rarely perfectly flat 8.5”x11” pieces of paper. They are folded. Depending on the students’ age and how many origami books your media center has available, some of their notes are very complex. Students know how to fold paper, but when we teachers model a particular foldable, we often spend too much time on the thing itself instead of the thinking behind it. This reinforces to them that the foldable itself is more important than their learning or creativity, and they become passive learners, hardly different from photocopiers. If the foldable is a grade, then students are more concerned with neatness than making sure their product matches their individual understanding and identity.

So, here’s the fix:

Start by explicitly defining what a foldable is and its purpose. Say, “You are more likely to remember the information if you have to write it, illustrate it, and play as you do it.” Tell them their grade depends not on neatness or how closely it compares to the teacher example but on how well the foldable as an object matches the thought process and understanding of the lesson. In fact, save yourself some prep-time and don’t make an example. Distribute paper, and ask the class to spend 1-2 minutes folding paper the most creative way they know how. Give them time to share with an elbow partner. Some may fold an elegant crane, others might fold a paper airplane. Let them. Don’t help.

Next, tell them what the foldable will have to do. For example, you want students to know the three branches of government and the purpose of each, and to connect this information to a picture clue as well as identify some current examples. Then tell students their foldable will have to have to have at least three parts each divided into four more parts. Draw a picture of a blank sheet of paper on the board and divide it into sections to give students a visual. Ask students if they think their current foldable would be a good fit for this information. Let them discuss.

Foldable fast fail.

Foldable fast fail.

They might discover they have to start over, so distribute more paper and ask students to find some ways to fold a piece of paper to show this information. Give them time to fold, pair, and share with their partners and the class.

At this point, you still haven’t covered the content, and it might seem like a waste of time, but this is an invaluable step. This extra time gets students invested in solving the problem of matching a product to an objective. Since they do this themselves without a model, they are more likely to take ownership of their original work. Students are active learners.

Once the class has seen three to four examples, give them the content. Have the students read the information rather than presenting slides, video, or a lecture. Give them time to read silently and to take notes using their foldables.

At the end of the activity, provide a checklist for assessment. It should include the content and the relationship between the different types of content. For the example above, the checklist should itemize the key terms, definitions, and examples; it should also ask, “Does my foldable make it clear that President Obama is a current example of the Executive Branch? How does it make it clear?” Possible answers might be, “Yes, because Obama is underneath ‘Executive Branch.’” Review the checklist’s items, clarify how to assess work using the checklist, and then pair students up, have them switch foldables and check their work. Collect the checklists for a grade, and then have students reflect on this process by answering, “How does your foldable help you learn? What characteristic of your foldable are you most proud? How would you improve its design?”

So, now the question is, “Does this work?” and that is a much more valuable question for our students to ask.

But what do you think? I’d love to hear your comments below. If you like it, share it on Twitter: @KineticEd.

Resources, Rationale, and Inspiration


Technology and Paper in Art:

Mathematical paper:


Problem: Students don’t have enough examples or don’t know where to start.

Solution: Provide baskets full of many different foldables and let the students pick one to try to copy.

Problem: This is too easy.

Solution: Tell students the day before the activity to research “foldables” online and to come in to class with a few blank examples of their favorites. Or provide a restriction on the foldable: tell students they must use at least three cuts to make their foldable or that the shape of the foldable must match the content’s theme. In the end, the foldable exercise shouldn’t be difficult, because, again, the reason we have foldables is not for students to have folded pieces of paper, but for students to have a handy resource with all of their notes.

Problem: This wastes too much paper and time.

Solution: It is okay if the students take their time figuring out how to make folds and get the paper to do what they want it to do in their minds. This is the first step in design. Students must play, experiment, make mistakes, and make a bit of a mess. If you are worried about supplies, communicate with parents that you will be teaching a lesson on product development, and you need plenty of paper so students can create many different prototypes to learn which best suits their needs. Ask for donations. More than likely, you’ll get some.

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One Response to The Foldable Problem

  1. I am thinking about scaffolding and addressing the needs of different types of learners. I love the ideas you have that include problem solving as part of the process. I am considering a ‘bridge’ to that strategy with a guided problem solving.
    -Provide students with outlines or concept maps of the material.
    -Give them the opportunity to visually see the linear/logical organization of the concept.
    -Allow students to research various types of foldables (or provide examples) and they can select the type that will fit their understanding of the organization.

    I believe this would eliminate some the frustration that some learners have and provide differentiation, scaffolding, support, or that most current strategy that your school has adopted.

    I am one of those learners who struggle with the transition between the literal and the spatial. I bombed those tests that required you to ‘fold a box’ in your head then select the final shape from a chart. I teach how I learn, then steal other ideas from great teachers!


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