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.

PF-plans 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.

Managing Project Based Learning (PBL) and Student Portfolios

I’m an advocate of project based learning (PBL) because students grow when they are actively involved in tasks that give them choices in product, process and evaluation. Throughout my teaching career, I looked for ways to shift responsibility for learning to the the student by designing academic experiences that provoked authentic student reflection. Unfortunately, I often felt like the “system” conspired to make that instructional shift very difficult – and the “forced march to AYP” didn’t make that transition any easier!
Despite the challenges, there are growing numbers of teachers and administrators who want to move to PBL – an approach that values student creativity over test prep. Yet many are still hampered by a system tied to the standard report card /gradebook. After all, even the most innovative educator can get turned off when paperwork gets in the way of teaching and learning. 
ProjectFoundry Recently I heard about ProjectFoundry, a Milwaukee-based team of educational entrepreneurs who are tackling the task of bringing real-world feasibility to managing PBL. I was new to ProjectFoundry, so I  spent some time with their operations manager, Shane Krukowski touring their program via GoToMeeting. Shane and the ProjectFoundry team are veteran teachers with extensive experience in urban schools. It was clear to me that they have a genuine appreciation for the institutional barriers that often hold back student-centered innovations. 
I was pleased to see how their ProjectFoundry system simplified the PBL process – from proposal, through project workflow, to product showcasing, and evaluation. ProjectFoundry fostered student engagement with peer evaluation and feedback. All the work products easily flowed into a student portfolio with a variety of formats to export and share with peers and parents.  And the folks at central office will be pleased that the entire process can be quickly aligned with state and district standards.
ProjectFoundry has asked me to be the keynote speaker at a summer conference devoted to managing project based leaning and student portfolios. I look forward to the chance to meet educators from around the country who are having success with ProjectFoundry and those that are looking for ways to more easily manage their PBL process. 

ProjectFoundry Summer Conference: July 21-22, 2009
Location: The Tagos Leadership Academy in Janesville, WI. 
Audience: ProjectFoundry users and those interested in PBL management
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