lightbulbHeadBenchmarks, projects, inquiry, presentations— these words trip off the tongue of Science Leadership Academy as easily and frequently as do the words test, quiz, and paper for most “regular” school students.

But, in contrast,  they do so with a different intonation, a tone of pride and seriousness of purpose.

I’ve just completed spending a day visiting classrooms in session (last time I attended educon, this day was a snowday and school was cancelled) and speaking with, listening really, to SLA students, as this was the agenda for day 1 of educon.

There are many things to be impressed with and excited about at this school– to be sure.   So student centered is it that one friend here, Greg Bamford, observed in conversation, “The sign of SLA’s student-centered genius? When you walk into a class, everyone’s working – but you have no idea who the teacher is.”

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It is a  a cliche, perhaps, of Educon observations that these students are especially articulate about and proud of their school– and I heard this loudly.   Students told me they think their PBL education is far preferable to the norm, that it “requires they become more independent, responsible, and collaborative, that it is better preparation for college and life.”

They say that at first their friends at other schools are jealous that, mostly, educon students don’t have tests and quizzes to stress about, but that envy diminishes as they recognize increasingly how demanding it is to have “benchmarks” every quarter in every class.

But what interested me most specifically was how fluent these students are with the school’s “jargon,” its practices and concepts of inquiry driven, project based learning.   Every student I spoke to went there, explained it to me, often patiently in the manner of someone who has to explain it often, and proudly.

In working with educators on developing PBL, project-based learning,  so often these days, I often hear– and anyone who works in this field often hears– the response that as much as the teachers think it is valuable or important, they regularly encounter push back from their students– their students don’t want to do PBL. 

photo (29)The group with whom I enjoyed lunch today had this same conversation– describing their school’s initial forays into PBL and the kids pushing back.

Sometimes, (too often), I fear, some educators venturing forward with PBL hesitantly or with conflicted emotions about the initiative grab onto this student pushback and use it is an excuse to abandon the effort.

I remember a parent communicating to me a few years back that she was pretty unsure about my whole 21st century learning initiative.   Why, I asked?   Because my daughter tells me she much prefers to sit back and listen to teachers lecture than to be forced to work in class on projects and the like.

In the work of PBL advancing, I often focus, as do most others, on the educators: writing to them, making videos for them, training them on best practices in PBL.    I frequently, for instance, find myself explaining for instance, the essential and critical difference between true, meaningful Project-Based Learning and its false pretender opposite, Project Oriented Learning.  (See the High Tech High video, What PBL Isn’t)

But what it lingering with me from today’s observations and conversations with SLA students is that it is not just the educators who need to be educated in quality PBL– it is the kids too.   They have to buy in, they have to be invested as these students are, because if they are not, often, (not always), the best efforts of PBL teachers will go awry.

This is what makes PBL so much more challenging to implement in a non-universal PBL environment.

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In my days visiting New Tech Network schools, I saw this too– that they had built a consistent and universal culture of PBL throughout the school, so students  learners were as thoroughly acculturated to the specific language, jargon and norms of PBL as were their teachers facilitators.

At SLA, clearly, they’ve made this same effort and are being that much more successful for having done so.

In my conversations I asked about this, and a very confident 9th grade girl explained to me at length the SLA Summer Institute, which served exactly this purpose.

As the SLA SI web-page explains,

 the week will be built around our philosophy of student-driven, hands-on, project-based learning.

We want to introduce our students to SLA’s core values of InquiryResearch,CollaborationPresentation, and Reflection from the start, and get them acclimated to the high expectations we have for their high school careers.

Using The Franklin Institute and other Philadelphia sites as their “classroom,” students will begin working to explore a variety of questions and problems relating to their surroundings and their place within it.  Our students will practice the art of “seeing in new ways” as it relates to the process of observation, analysis, and interpretation.

During Summer Institute, students will work to ultimately create a collaborative project to present to their classmates, while, at the same time, establishing positive relationships and a sense of themselves as first-year SLA students.  It will be an exciting, enriching, and energizing way to gear up for the year.

For my work in advancing PBL, I’m determined to carry this with me.

We have to do more than train the teachers, we have to develop meaningful, intensive, serious methods to acculturate, illuminate, and inspire the students to and with the norms and expectations, the language and concepts, of high quality Project-Based learning, so that all students are just as capable of explaining, confidently, knowingly, proudly, PBL practices as their teachers are, just as capable of doing so as are the students of Science Leadership Academy.