Monday, August 27, 2012

Project-Based Learning: Gimmick or Game-changer?

This is the second of several reflections on project-based learning. 

I.  A question of values

What are you teaching toward

I don't mean what are the goals or objectives for a unit; I certainly don't refer to the so-called "Essential Questions" of a well-known curriculum planning template. 

I'm asking you to describe the vision of the world for which you are preparing your students. I'm asking what you believe they need to know, and why you believe that.  I ask because curriculum theorist Eliot Eisner (1994) writes that in education, values and beliefs are what shape ideas about what schools "should teach, for what ends, and for what reasons" (p. 47). These values are expressed thru decisions about curriculum, evaluation, teaching, etc. 

"Well, duh," I can hear you thinking. But Eisner's not talking only about elements of schooling that you can see, i.e., a course catalog. He's also talking about the elements we're so familiar with that we don't even think about them. Ways in which schools organize time, physical space, daily operations-- all of these emerge from certain ways of seeing or thinking about the world; in turn, they become powerful conveyors of cultural values, with long-term implications. 

For example, schools organize children by age, moving them in age cohorts from grade to grade. Eisner (1994) writes that this orderly practice
reinforces the idea that the task of being a successful student is to learn the content of the grade, a condition that results in promotion to the next. It also reinforces the idea that knowledge is fixed and tidy, that smart people possess it, that textbooks contain it, and that the aim of schooling is its orderly transmission (Jackson, 1986). (Eisner, 1994, p. 55)
Eisner is asking us to think about a specific practice, yes, but he's also asking us to consider that practice as a metaphor for aspects of a larger cultural system. 

Think about the powerful lessons to be found in spelling and math (and standardized tests): the important aspects of school have single, correct answers; the teacher knows these answers; the student's main responsibility is to learn them. Eisner again:
The school creates an environment that does not put much premium on imagination, on personal spirit, or on creative thinking. It emphasizes a form of rationality that seeks convergence on the known more than exploration of the unknown. It emphasizes the virtues of hard work. It limits the degree to which personal goal setting can occur and it rewards conformity to correct outcome more than it rewards productive idiosyncrasy. [My emphases]
Leaning heavily on Eisner, my question asks you to consider what values or beliefs shape your world. Because that world that you carry within you, that's the world you are teaching toward. 

II. How does the question relate to Project-based Learning?

PBL is not just a different, 'cooler', way to cover academic content. Its purpose isn't primarily to "engage" kids, or to "make learning fun,"  even if these frequently are outcomes. Nor is PBL just a different way to do the same old curriculum.

Ultimately, the most effective PBL is built on a different way of seeing the world and the teacher has simply structured class around this way of seeing. 

For example, students are seen as capable and independent. We can tell this by the ease with which students 1) ask questions, 2) talk about their mistakes not as failures but as cues they can use to determine their next move, 3) decide for themselves what they think.  

Students own the learning. We can tell this because they are active in planning and doing, in assessing the progress of the group and themselves as individuals, in problem-solving about the nature of the project's structure and overall organization-- often to the point of expressing more opinions or ideas than the teacher. The teacher talks with students how to do all these things effectively. And, the teacher seems to take his/her cue from the students; s/he appears to be responding rather than initiating or directing. 

The world that students from this classroom are heading toward is not a world where single answers to problems exist, or where people wait for someone to tell them what to do, or where an individual will work alone to accomplish something. 

In other words, the 21st century. 

It's exciting to see/hear the buzz of excitement about project-based learning. But I hear Eisner's caution-- and invitation-- when he says, "As long as we remain oblivious to the values that animate our intellectual life, we will be in no position to modify them" (p. 51). Implementing project-based learning without reflection has just as much potential to be the new gimmick in town, the flash and dazzle that dresses up the same old thing as it does to be a game changer. 

So, you're thinking about trying project-based learning. What are you teaching toward? And, more important, why?

Eisner, E. (1994). The educational imagination : On the design and evaluation of school programs (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan .

Image credit: Universe in a Magic Drop by h.koppdelaney is used via Creative Commons License BY-ND 2.0

Friday, August 17, 2012

Project-Based Musings: A Beginning

watch it
The upsurge in conversations hashtagged #PBL-- Project-based Learning-- streaming through my Twitter feed has been fun to watch. I'm interested in the current surge of interest in PBL because I spent most of my secondary teaching career as the Language Arts teacher in a year-long, challenge-based experiential program for high school seniors. And while I love reading about and hearing some of the experiences people have had with project-based learning, I  also think that some important things either go unsaid or get glossed over when we strive to step-- or think-- outside the box that education has become.

For the next period of time, I want use this blog to reflect on some of these unsaid, glossed-over, invisible things. I do this in part as a way to think through some aspects of my dissertation, in part as a way to reflect on the course I just finished teaching, and in part because, well, aren't we supposed to feed the Commons? (Is that Howard Rheingold's phrasing?) IOW, if I have experience that might benefit another educator, let me put it out there.

In the challenge program I mentioned above, I developed and taught the Language Arts 'curriculum' that wove through the different segments of the program, including backpacking, extensive community service projects, and long-term career internships. Other colleagues focused on Social Studies and Environmental Science, as well as related electives. Together my colleagues and I co-planned the experiential aspects of the program and facilitated the students' processes through them. We were guided by our beliefs, and others', that when students confronted and had to work through challenges, they would develop the confidence and dispositions with which to build meaningful adult lives.
Adirondack Mountains 2003

In other words, when the students were backpacking, so were we. When the time in the school year came to do something tangible for somebody else, we coached the students on how to identify a need, devise ideas to meet the need, contact someone in the community, etc. We taught kids to write resumes and make cold calls; they interviewed for and secured internships in careers they wanted to explore.

Me, I asked them to write. A lot. All the time. On mountain-tops, on the job, in a class meeting. We wrote, shared our writing, wrote some more.

Through each experience, we asked students to set personal goals and reflect on what they had done to achieve them, as well as to work through the barriers in their own thinking that had held them back. "You can do more than you think you can" was like a mantra humming in the background of everything we did. And the students could, and often did.

For that matter, so did we. Because in any project-based learning experience, everybody is a learner. And that can be a very humbling experience for a teacher.


watch it by emdot used via Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.0
Adirondack Mountains 2003 by Karen LaBonte 


A few PBL-related resources that splashed across my Twitter stream:

Friday, August 10, 2012


I could sum up my grading practices in five words: I have to submit them.

Once I wrote on a syllabus:
Grades come with assumptions that can undermine the creation of a community learners. These include the beliefs that 
  • teachers decide the value of student work, 
  • grades are objective assessments of student performance, 
  • grades are indicators of student potential. 
There are practices around grading that foster negativity, such as when grades are used as a way to control behavior, show who’s boss, punish a student or class.  
There are negative effects of grading: a student can work for a grade and  never engage emotionally or cognitively with the subject, never learn to work persistently at understanding and/or creating knowledge for him/herself, never learn how to be genuinely curious or how to seek to know.   
Ultimately, there are subtle beliefs that can evolve and become deeply rooted. I get Cs so I must not be as good as a person who gets Bs.  
In short, I think grades can be impediments to student ownership of the process and products of their own learning. That’s on a good day. All too often, though, grades & grading seem to have the same effect as the Dementors of Azkiban.  
In the literacies and technologies class that just ended, grading is absolutely counterproductive to the atmosphere of experimentation I want students to experience.

Several years ago, students in my classes began to indicate that they had no memory of schooling without high-stakes testing. I know because I asked; I ask every semester. By now, every hand is raised.

I began asking after I noticed something different in the feel of classes. Students were increasingly cautious. They needed to know exactly what they were supposed to do to the point of not attempting to independently interpret the assignments. Anxiety about grades was sometimes almost palpable. Increasingly I find that students are quite skilled at masking their feelings about classes. How successful the American public schools have become at churning out obedient young automatons adults!

In the literacies class, I ask students to set goals for learning at the start of each week and to assess their progress toward those goals at week's end. This takes place on a Google Doc shared by the student and myself. I believe-- I hope-- that this might spark or affirm a subtle shift in attitudes about who is responsible for learning in the class. At the end of the semester, the students evaluate their work and assign it a grade. Nine times out of ten, the student and I are in complete agreement.

What matters to me is that students begin to work, learn, and think for themselves.

I think that happened in the course that just ended. Which is probably why I forgot to do grades yesterday. But I remembered today.

I submitted grades because I had to.

Image:"Bill Gates Talks 'Free Education'" by Libby Levy/opensource, used via Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Make the Road by Walking: Six Weeks Closer to the New Unknown

I give my students, pre- and in-service teachers, a lot of credit. After about five weeks of intensive reading (i.e., new literacies, participatory culture, youth and digital life, etc. ), venturing into the wilds of the Web to play with a wide range of tools (e.g., Google Docs, Google Reader, Animoto, Flickr, podcasting, blogging, TitanPad, TodaysMeet, Adobe Connect, Skype, Twitter), they've gone off in teams of two and three to create a product that will feed our class Commons (hat tip to Howard Rheingold and Lawrence Lessig for that concept), and address a question or idea that matters to them related to teaching, learning, and/or "English." Their overarching mission is to see what happens when they try to use principles of new learning as the context for their teaching.

The idea that educators work with a trio of knowledges-- pedagogic, content, and technological-- within a social & cultural context comes from the TPACK model. According to the TPACK Website
Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) attempts to identify the nature of knowledge required by teachers for technology integration in their teaching, while addressing the complex, multifaceted and situated nature of teacher knowledge. At the heart of the TPACK framework, is the complex interplay of three primary forms of knowledge: Content (CK), Pedagogy (PK), and Technology (TK). 
All I do is insist that my students swap an Industrial Age context for a context comprised of new definitions of literacy, new mindsets about communication, knowledge, economies, and participation in society, and new technologies.

There are lots of lists of the elements that make up the new contexts for learning. To keep it simple, we use five. Drawn from the work of Howard Rheingold and others, they are: Connection, Collaboration, Creation, Crap Detection, and Commons-Sense. These five terms capture the spirit of the complex and varied ideas about the new literacies needed for our evolving social contexts.

What students need to know how to do, ways they need to be able to think and work-- all of these things are radically different in a world described above than the Industrial world in which so many of us grew up.

Being Connected means being conscious of living in a world larger than one's immediate life and seeking connections to that larger world, usually by means of technologies, i.e., the World Wide Web. Collaboration speaks to new ways of working made possible by the dissolution of rigid social lines. Creation is the act of making new knowledge for the benefit of the larger community.

Crap Detection: the skills to 'read' messages being conveyed about people, places, ways of being.  Postman's (1969) "Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection", for example, and Rheingold's 2009 "Crap Detection 101" encompasses media and information literacies, as well as skills described as essential for a participatory culture (Jenkins et. al., 2008), and even broad ideas of critical literacy (Luke).

Commons-Sense refers to the belief that, in this new society, information must be freely accessible in order for people to continue to build knowledge that can benefit everyone-- i.e., the Commons. Ideas that information can be "owned," i.e., via copyright, are counterproductive to knowledge creation, and Creative Commons Licensing is a new way to protect rights of content creators while making information accessible to others.

I imagine that this is not what many of my students expected from this course. It would be so much simpler to write a list of Web-based tools on the board, ask them to dream up cool ways to use the tools in the classroom, and then to require that these be written up as lesson plans. But that's not what's needed for the transformation of education. It's barely even change. It is the substitution of new technologies for old, in order to do the same old thing, only more efficiently-- "old wine in new bottles" (Lankshear and Knobel. 2006. p. 55).

I keep telling my students that this is really hard. That we don't know what the answers are. That, together, we will create them.

Some students are keen to try their hands at seamless integration of tools into lessons. Others are trying to see how/if traditional concepts of humanities could be brought to a new place within the new context. Still others are trying to see if sustained silent reading could transformed. I can't wait to see what they've created.

Jenkins, H., Purushotoma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., & Robison, A. (2008, March). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Retrieved from
Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2006). New literacies: Everyday practices & classroom learning (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tech in Schools: It's Not Just the Tools, Stupid

At Educon a couple of years ago, I heard someone-- maybe Will Richardson?-- say that he was thinking that the best kind of PD session would be to take a bunch of teachers, throw 'em in a room with computers, and say "Figure it out." I think that was true several years ago but I'm starting to believe that learning to weave a seamless flow of tech, curriculum, and practice is becoming much, much more complex.

One problem-- challenge-- is the multiplicity of competing, sometimes conflicting realities: the stakes for testing will get even higher as test results become linked to teacher evaluations. We thought NCLB drove learning toward teacher-centered practice, drill and kill test prep, and increasingly narrowed curricula? I predict we ain't seen nothin' yet.

Let's look at one conflict. As districts scramble to understand and implement the Common Core standards, I'm hearing about PD that is not only boring, it's increasingly dictatorial, moving toward telling teachers what to teach and how to teach it. This despite the oft-repeated CCSS assurance (in the Myths section) that this is exactly what should not happen.  

At the same time, the push to move beyond tech-for-tech's-sake-- AKA "engaging" the connected learning environments and real-world contexts is calling teachers to transform the way they think about teaching, learning, and the structures of schooling.  At least, it would if teachers could get access to social networks in their schools.

This push-pull starts to look like "use technology to get kids to do low-level thinking while we trick them into practicing filling in bubbles on Scantron pages." Of course, no one not many intend(s) for this to be the goal, it's just that there's no time allotted for authentic, teacher-driven brainstorming about how to create and work toward a different vision.

So. Enough bemoaning the difficulties. What can we do?

  • Teachers, especially those with tenure who know the bureaucratic ropes of their districts, can come together across academic subjects and meet with IT folks, Superintendents, etc. to get specific social networks unblocked: Google Docs, VoiceThread, Glogster, Skype are the ones I see teachers talk about most often. I would add Storify to that list, especially for Humanities teachers.

Strategies need to include

  • Concrete examples of how the tech will be used and for what purposes. For example, an argument about developing interdisciplinary work that would build cross-discipline  inquiry-based learning environments across the entire school would be a great way to start using the Common Core to inspire a...well, a common theme for the whole school, perhaps even a grade-level concrete problem to solve or goal to accomplish that every academic subject could connect to 

  • Concrete examples of what other schools have done and the results (of course, the positive results). Schools that are similar demographically and/or in closer proximity to your own will carry more weight. There are a couple of YouTube videos you could share-- URL only, because YouTube will undoubtedly be blocked in your school. Here's one: Teachers and Principals Talk about Google Docs

  • The Connected Principal, a blog by a group of connected principals, would make great reading for your school leaders. 

  • Teachers, even one or two, can commit to spending 1 block of time --and yes, it will probably be after school, and yes, it will undoubtedly be uncompensated-- playing with new tools, and, more important, to talking about ways to use them to build new dimensions in curricula. Teachers can pick a book to read together. I make some recommendations here.
  • Parents who are connected will be invaluable resources. Draw on their expertise and ask them to bring other parents on board. 
It's not all about the technology. It's always about power-- what is the tech that matters? That doesn't? The rationale for any decision? Who decides? 

I want to hear teachers' voices loud & strong in the push for change. 

It's time. 

Image: Speak Up: Make your voice heard by Howard Lake used via CC  AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by HowardLake