Five Reasons to “Like” Project Based Learning

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I’m the Aug 1st kickoff speaker for the 2011 PBL Summer Institute held at the Valley New School in downtown Appleton WI.  As the opening keynote, I’ll be setting the stage for what should be five days of valuable workshops, culminating in Project Foundry training – an effective PBL management system. Tweet us at #VNS11 and view our Twitter visualizer here.

To get things started I’ll highlight five reasons why the traditional approach to instruction is failing our students:

  1. Teaching isn’t telling.
  2. There’s a new literacy that alters the traditional information flow beyond the classroom.
  3. Life’s become an open-book test that has devalued lower-order thinking skills.
  4. Students need to be able to succeed in an unpredictable world.
  5. Most classrooms rarely engage students in reflecting on their progress as learners.

Along the way I’ll use activities and sample projects to illustrate five reasons to “like” PBL. Click here for a link to my presentation website with a variety of PBL resources, videos and more.

The conference is co-sponsored by the TAGOS Leadership Academy and the Wisconsin Project Based Learning Network

Image credit: flickr/FindYourSearch

How Does A School Foster Hope?

One of the best aspects of my work is that I get to meet many talented educators. I’m on the road this week, and I invited two of them to do guest posts. This second post is by James Steckart, Director of Northwest Passage High School. I met Jamie this past summer at the Project Foundry unConference.


“Hope… which whispered from Pandora’s box after all the other plagues and sorrows had escaped, is the best and last of all things.”
 Ian Cadwell (The Rule of Four)

Portage We can disagree whether hope is the best of all things, but let us suppose for a moment that Cadwell speaks the truth. What does hope give the student, the teacher, the parent, the community? Most parents wake up and hope that the lives of their children are better than theirs, whether they live in poverty or in opulence. The community hopes that its members contribute in some positive way to the better of the whole. Most children when they grow have real meaningful dreams of hope. Finally, most teachers hope that their work contributes to the healthy development of the students in their charge.

This concept of hope is common sense, yet most schools do not understand how they can produce hopeful students. In fact for a majority of students working their way through the a conventional school system, I would argue and data we have would suggest that their overall hope disposition decreases with the more time spent in school. Why would anyone stay in a place where their dreams, questions, and hope are called into question and disparaged?

Let’s look at a school where the concept of hope is front and center. At Northwest Passage High School (NWPHS) the mission of the school is simple: Rekindling our hope, exploring our world, seeking our path, while building our community. Embedding hope into our mission statement, we sought a way to measure this concept to see if we were fulfilling our mission.

NWPHS is a small progressive charter school where half of the day students work with their advisor designing projects that meet state standards, and the other half of the day they are in small seminar classes focused on an interdisciplinary topic involving field research and working with community experts. In addition, the school schedules between 30-45 extended field expeditions to further enhance learning. In a typical year the students travel and conduct research in a variety of urban and wilderness areas throughout the United States and 2-3 select international sites.

Each fall new students to our school complete the Hope Survey for new students, and each spring every student completes the ongoing Hope Survey. The survey measures student engagement, academic press, goal orientation, belongingness, and autonomy and is administered through an internet browser.

This allows us to get a sense of how much and whether hope is being grown. For us the longitudinal data confirmed what we knew in our hearts about our philosophy and methodology of working with high school students. Our ongoing students last year had a high hope score of 50.74 out of 64 possible. What lessons has this given us to share with others?

  • First, hope is built when you give students choice and autonomy. At NWPHS, project based learning gives students real choice while they meet Minnesota graduation standards. We track their learning with a sophisticated project management tool called Project Foundry.  
  • Second, we focus on building positive relationships with youth. We do this through intensive field studies, advisories, and service learning.
  • Third, we have faith that students will learn when you help them develop short and long-range goals through the use of continual learning plans and student run conferences which include the student, their advisor and at least one parent. These conferences last 30-45 minutes, and the student leads the discussion on their progress using their continual learning plan as the guide.
  • A student devoid of hope is a shell of a human being. They walk around listlessly living each day by the seat of their pants. Our job as educators, parents and community members it to instill a respect of these students and provide opportunities for hope to flourish.

Image: James Steckart

Back To School: Will It Be Test Prep or Project Based Learning?

In the coming weeks, schools across the country will reopen. I feel badly for the many teachers and students who will return to the grueling routine of test-prep. Perhaps they have convinced themselves that the foundation of teaching is to tell students something they did not previously know. As Donald Finkel has described it – teaching as telling. Do they see students as computers waiting for instructions? Teachers of high performing students forced to "install" the SAT / AP files while teachers of low performing students "upload" minimum competency on state exams. Different students and goals, but equal in the outcome that nobody will be having much fun.

Last week I attended Project Foundry's "2nd Annual unConference" in Milwaukee and was reminded that there is a growing core of schools and teachers who have rejected the mind-numbing routine of test-prep. I was uplifted knowing that these teachers and their students were getting ready for the rewards of a school year of project-based learning.  

Project Foundry is a leading provider of online learning management systems with a focus on the needs of PBL classroom. Their conference assembled 60+ educators from across the country. These PBL teachers share a belief that students can't be programmed for the tests. Instead, they strive to provide a supportive learning environment that will foster the skills, motivation and responsibility for the students to become genuine life-long learners. (Not just the empty promise of typical district mission statement.)

The PBL teachers came from a wide variety of schools  (urban / rural, experiential / career, charter / public school, high / low-needs students). They embodied many approaches, but they all shared the goal of helping students take increasing responsibility for their learning.  It was no surprise that my keynote talk – "Supporting Reflective Learners" was warmly received by the attendees. See my post for more on my Taxonomy of Reflection.

Reflection  As I walked into the unConference's host school – the Milwaukee's Professional Leadership Institute, I couldn't help but notice the powerful display of student work on the wall. (At left). It embodied a reflective, project-based approach in action and reminded me that across the country a small, but increasing number of students would embrace a new school year laced with the promise of self-discovery and personal growth.

Note: "In My Shoes", was a school studio project in the arts enrichment program offered by Artists Working in Education (AWE) and proposed and hosted by Milwaukee's Professional Leadership Institute. For a full description of the project see the excellent blog post by unConference attendee, Angie Tenebrini.

As NCLB Narrows the Curriculum, Creativity Declines

Newsweek Magazine recently discovered “The Creativity Crisis.”

“… Since 1990, creativity scores have consistently inched downward.”

Creativity is on the decline among our children. Walk into many classrooms and you’ll see why. Our kids are too busy being force-fed a diet of “test-prep” to have any time to explore their learning in deeper, more open-ended approaches. NCLB marches on – narrowing the curriculum to the point that many elementary school no longer have time to devote to non-tested subjects. As if being a struggling learner is not punishment enough, students are pulled out of art and music  – classes that offer hands-on learning and outlets for their creativity. What awaits them is likely “drill and kill’ that doesn’t sound like much fun for students or their teachers.  (Of course, daily reading, writing and application of math should be common to every class. Let music students explore the mathematical elements of rhythm and then journal what they had learned. But that’s another post!)

While NCLB began with the admirable goal of narrowing demographic performance gaps and putting an end to sorting kids on the “bell curve,”  because of its myopic reliance on standardized (we don’t trust teachers) testing – it has failed. And the great irony is that while our students spend endless hours honing their test taking skills, the demand for routine skills has disappeared from the workplace. Anyone know of a meaningful and rewarding career that looks like filling out a worksheet?

What’s needed to restore creativity as the centerpiece of schools? 

Creating requires both a strong foundation in content knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge in new ways – usually across a variety of disciplines. It begins with a firm grasp of the basics and includes analyzing patterns and needs, evaluating alternatives and finally creating something new. When seen as as “a new combination of old elements,” creating is not  limited to the “creative.” It’s something that all students can do.

Learning must engage student in rigorous thinking at higher levels of thinking – analyzing, evaluating and creating. Are students expected to just consume information, or are they asked to create something original that demonstrates their learning? Student must have an opportunity to figure out their own process rather than just learn “the facts,” and be given opportunities to reflect on their work and their progress as learners. For more on reflective thinking see my post: “The Reflective Student.” Readers might also enjoy my post: “9 Questions for Reflective School Reform Leaders.”

In education we have a history of “over-steering.” Let’s hope that that NCLB is declared DOA and that we rediscover a curriculum that sets our students and teachers free to explore a more engaging project-based approach. Our kids are inheriting a world with a host of problems that will require some out-of-the-box thinking and solutions.

I should note that later this week I will be keynoting at a the Project Foundry® Un-Conference – a gathering of 50 project-based-learning educators from across the country.

Image credit:  Flickr / ePi.Longo

Still Thinking About Innovative Teaching and Sustainable Farming

I’ve been asked to return as the keynote speaker at the Project Foundry® Un-Conference – a gathering of 75 PBL educators from California to New Jersey. This year it will be held July 29th – Friday July 30th 2010 in Milwaukee, WI. If you’re looking to network with innovative educators who are committed to project-based learning, I urge you check this conference out. Plus they are one fun group!

Last year I keynoted at Project Foundry’s first conference. The experience inspired the blog post (August 4, 2009) that I am reposting below: 

Project Foundry  Innovative Teaching is to Sustainable Farming as Test Prep is to _____?

Recently I spoke at a project-based learning conference in Wisconsin. I had been reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” so I had farming on my mind as I drove from the Milwaukee airport to Janesville WI past vast cornfields punctuated by enormous grain silos.

Pollan observes that high-yield corn is a product of genetically identical plants that can be densely planted without fear of any stalks monopolizing resources. As corn dominated the midwestern landscape, the region became an agricultural monoculture of expansive corporate cornfields – pushing out other crops and more diverse family farms. Cheap corn created the “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation,” where never-ending truckloads of feed are used to fatten cattle in the least time possible. “Big” corn and cattle production are artificially supported by vast, but unsustainable, industrial inputs of fossil fuels, petro-chemicals, and an elaborate transportation system.

And somewhere on the drive to Janesville, I got thinking that Pollan’s indictment of corporate agriculture might be extended to some aspects of education. The testing regime is turning our kids into a high-yield, uniform commodity. Rows and rows of competent, standardized students, that can be delivered according to employers’ specifications for a “skilled workforce.” Children “force fed” in test prep programs in efforts to quickly “fatten” the scores to meet AYP. Like the cornfields and feedlots that are disconnected from local ecosystems, the movement toward national educational standards erodes at local control and innovation.

Fortunately when I got to the conference I saw another side of contemporary education – innovative teachers. It was like walking into a sustainable farmers’ market.

The conference was held at the TAGOS Leadership Academy and hosted by Project-Based Learning Systems, the developer of Project Foundry, a web-based management tool for innovative learning environments. Teachers had come from across the country – Chula Vista CA to Waterville ME. Like sustainable farms, their schools were deeply rooted in their communities, each closely tied to its unique local social ecology. Their programs fostered interdisciplinary learning, like the symbiotic polyculture of a farm based on a rotational interplay of crops and animals.

The PBL approach is based on the notion that rather than simply apply bodies of knowledge to problems, the exploration of problems can generate new bodies of knowledge. Teachers didn’t attend the conference to simply “sit and get,” they were there to share. After my introductory talk and a planning session using my audience response system, the teachers self-organized into a series of peer-teaching sessions that took them through most the rest of the conference. 

The next day I headed home feeling upbeat. I had met many fine teachers and instructional leaders who reminded me of why I went into education. Most of all, I thought about the scores of teachers across the country, working in innovative schools (or perhaps subversively innovating in traditional schools), committed to raising a “crop” that can sustain itself through a life time of learning.