What a great issue!  Nearly every piece offers values to educators seeking to provide 21st century learning, and learning by doing meaningful work, by addressing and solving authentic, real-world problems, and to do collaboratively, digitally, and on-line.

An appreciative round-up:


Solving Problems that Count.  The title is a great expression of how to organize learning, and this unapologetic Dan Pink fan is delighted to see author Dana Maloney apply the ideas of his Drive to student learning.

When offered degrees of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, students will engage more fully with their learning. Yet let’s be truthful: All too frequently, we ask students to learn without autonomy, without opportunity for mastery, and without purpose. So how can we use these forces to create more meaningful learning experiences for our students?

Maloney is an AP English teacher, and I like that she seeks to take traditional advance English assignments, such as novel comparisons, and take them toward addressing real world problems that students are engaged with and inquiring about.

teams of students speak on the topic of “being the change they wish to see in the world.” All my students are determined to enact change, and they all believe they are capable of doing so, both now and in the future.

Students want to make choices, be directed by purpose, and master content—and schools can offer students meaningful learning experiences by having them play a role in solving the world’s problems. In doing so, we release the potential in our students, make effective use of 21st century literacy tools, and create learning experiences that are deeply meaningful for both our students and our world.

Call me romantic, but I love this message.


Carol Dweck, one of my favorites, tells us Even Geniuses Work Hard, and that students will strengthen their growth mindset when they are challenged to do “meaningful learning tasks.”

Meaningful learning tasks give students a clear sense of progress leading to mastery…

Homework assignments should not feel like mindless, repetitive exercises; rather, they should present novel problems for students to solve, require them to apply what they’ve learned in new ways, or ask them to stretch to the next level.

For example, suppose that students are learning about the rise and fall of civilizations. Their homework assignment might be to apply their learning by designing a civilization that would either thrive (by building in positive factors) or implode (by building in risk factors). They can write the story of their civilization and what happened to it.

I also appreciate her advocacy for the use of the words “not yet:” these should be a feature of every classroom.   At St. Gregory we conversed, at length, only yesterday, (in our excellent Critical Friends Groups) about using grades to promote learning toward mastery:

At one high school in Chicago, when students don’t master a particular unit of study, they don’t receive a failing grade—instead, they get a grade of Not Yet. Students are not ashamed of that grade because they know that they’re expected to master the material, if not the first time, then the next time, or the next.

I find this topic coming up again and again, from Tony Wagner and many others: why do we award C’s, D’s, and F’s?   Give them an A for exceeding all expectations, a B for covering them, and an I, or a “Not Yet”, for everything else.

The word “yet” is valuable and should be used frequently in every classroom. Whenever students say they can’t do something or are not good at something, the teacher should add, “yet.” Whenever students say they don’t like a certain subject, the teacher should say, “yet.” This simple habit conveys the idea that ability and motivation are fluid.

Some teachers my colleagues and I work with tell us that they’ve shifted their grading system to consider more growth-mindset criteria, so that no student can coast to an A and students who struggle and improve get credit for their effort.

Understandably, Dweck, who is not a classroom teacher (or principal!), may miss that in our school cultures, our parents (and others) are often holding us accountable, a problem that can cut against her advocacy above in two ways.   When we reward students for their “struggles,” and they do not learn the material, the misunderstandings we create can come back to haunt us.   But even more problematic is when teaching students who can, and do, usually “coast to an A.”  Without a very thorough parental education program, some parents may throw fits when we report that their child, who may be easily mastering the expectations normal to this grade level, is not being awarded an A because they haven’t stretched themselves vigorously enough.   Don’t get me wrong; I think this approach is the better approach.   But our parents will not understand it, nor appreciate it, easily.  (Of course, this is why we would do better to foresake letter grades altogether, as my friend Josie Holford passionately advocates for.)


Two fine fellows, John Larmer and John Mergendollar,  from the excellent Buck Institute weigh in on Seven Essentials for Project Based Learning; we are working hard at St. Gregory to move toward more PBL (T), so this is good to see.

A classroom filled with student posters may suggest that students have engaged in meaningful learning. But it is the process of students’ learning and the depth of their cognitive engagement— rather than the resulting product—that distinguishes projects from busywork.

A project is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose. Well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning is meaningful in both ways.

Their Seven Essentials?

1. A Need to Know. Yes.  the authors speak here of a process to whet a student’s appetite: why would I want to pursue this learning and understanding via this project?    I love the use of the “entry document,” which is used to effectively in New Tech Network schools.

An entry event can be almost anything: a video, a lively discussion, a guest speaker, a field trip, or a piece of mock correspondence that sets up a scenario.

2. A Driving Question.

3. Student Voice and Choice.

4. 21st century Skills

5. Inquiry and Innovation

6. Feedback and Revision

7. A Publicly Presented Product.

A few comments.   First, though our authors call for skillful collaboration in section 4, above, 21st century skills, they leave understated the importance of facilitating students learning of skillful collaboration.   Often, effective PBL, as at New Tech Network Schools entails students preparing a detailed contract of assigned responsibilities, and accountability for their fulfillment.

Second, the discussion of public presentations is limited to in-person; technology allows our students so many new and excellent ways to present product on-line, and we should embrace them.

Third, there is no broader discussion of accountability for student learning beyond the confines of the project itself.  This may be my predilection, but I think we need to assess how confident we can be students are learning what we need them to learn; I fear restricting our assessment to internal views doesn’t get us there.  This article is rooted in practices at High Tech High in San Diego, which I respect greatly, but when I asked HTH’s research director how they used external, more objective, tools to assess learning, she told me they don’t and they don’t care to.   New Tech Network schools, by contrast, are using the CWRA and other tools to measure whether the PBL techniques they are using are resulting in the learning of the 21st century skills they are intended to be learning.


It is good, then, to see a balancing act from the research department at Ed. Leadership.  In an important piece, Choice is a Matter of Degree, from Bryan Goodwin, we get better data on PBL.

A meta-analysis of 35 studies of inquiry-based science strategies (for example, posing problems and asking students to conduct scientific experiments to resolve them) reported only modest gains in student achievement compared with conventional methods. However, the results indicated much larger gains in students’ critical-thinking skills (Smith, 1996); this appears to be the area in which project-based learning yields the greatest benefits.

When I read a sentence like the above, of course, I am forced to ask: what is more important, especially today, for our students, than critical thinking?  Let’s move to PBL.

Another study—an examination of a middle school history course that combined direct instruction with project-based learning (having students create a short historical documentary)—found that students gained more content knowledge in this class than with traditional methods, and they also gained more skill in historical thinking—the ability to interpret historical facts (Ramos & De La Paz, 2009).

To make PBL more effective, he explains further, and it is perfectly aligned with the Seven Essentials article: Use a Driving Question.

A major shortcoming of many student projects is that they tend to become “doing for the sake of doing” (Barron et al., 1998, p. 274). Educators can avoid this phenomenon and realize the potential of projects to promote students’ critical-thinking skills by framing projects around a driving question.

In a revised version of this study, the researchers framed the project around a driving question—a request for rocket designs from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which would select the best design for use in other classrooms. Researchers asked students to determine whether the rocket would go higher if it were painted or left unfinished, whether three fins were better than four, and how a rounded or pointed nose would affect the rocket’s trajectory. Students who completed the revised assignment demonstrated better knowledge of important content (such as the principles of aerodynamics) as well as the ability to think like scientists.


Stacy Kitsis has a great piece, The Virtual Circle, about using online blogging and wiki use for her 8th grade and 12th grade literature circles.  I first observed this technique used brilliantly at Urban School in San Francisco, and I am thrilled with the work being done with this format by our English teachers at St. Gregory, in sixth through 12th grades.

Our students are constantly connected to one another through what may seem to outsiders to be a mind-boggling stream of status updates, text messages, and tweets. Today’s learners crave immediacy, reacting quickly and expecting the same from others. They are also highly social, often preferring interactive or team-based learning environments (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005). Social-networking technology can provide the rapid responses students value without putting an undue strain on the teacher.

My students’ level of engagement, a key measure of how meaningful they find the work, was high. When I asked students to share with me their impressions of the assignment, Alex wrote, “It was interesting to look at the blog right before going to bed and to see how my peers had responded to my posts.” Compare his interest to that of students we have all seen stuffing meticulously graded papers into backpacks or trashcans without a second glance. In my classes, I saw students who almost never turned in traditional homework regularly contribute to the blog.


My sympathies are aligned especially to those students, sometimes in the top of the class and sometimes in the middle or bottom, who are just too plain shy, or a little bit slower, in formulating their thoughts.   For them, in-class discussions, whole group or small group, just don’t work.  (this was me!).  But the chance to do this discussion in on-line discussion groups, asynchronously, is wonderful.

Blogging led to much more equally distributed participation than traditional discussions did. Students who were used to engaging at a superficial level found themselves forced to expand on their contributions, and that small handful used to dominating discussions got to practice listening to their peers. Specifying the number and length of comments helped with this, but other dynamics also came into play. Tom, a prolific blogger who rarely spoke up in class, explained:

I don’t always have good thoughts when I’m in class, or a way to say it. So when I’m at the computer, I can think about exactly what I want to say, without having to worry about people moving on to a new topic.


I am going to do a followup piece soon on the two homework articles in this issue.  Congratulations to the folks at Ed. Leadership for this excellent issue.