March 2013

“I told my faculty members when they’re applying for summer grants for PD: only research-based practices will get priority funding for grants; the rest of the applications go to the bottom of the pile.”

“When speaking to one group of the faculty, be sure to provide research-based evidence for Project-Based learning; some of these teachers are very particular about that.”

“As a caveat I would not accept any data found from a nonacademic non-peer reviewed resource as reason for change or implementing new strategies.”

I’ve encountered each of these messages separately in the past few weeks, and I value them all as good reminders for me to try harder to ground my educational positions and advocacy with evidence from quality research, especially from academic peer-reviewed journal published research.

So what about Project-Based Learning?   PBL is a practice I advocate for frequently here at 21k12, and I do based largely on my own  2008 research, in which I spent five days shadowing students at PBL immersive schools, including High Tech High in San Diego and New Technology High School in Sacramento, and spent about 15 days doing the same at more traditional high schools, and concluded that the PBL schools were far superior in the way they engaged, challenged, and enriched the students and their learning.  It was a bit of an overwhelming recognition, the degree of difference and the degree of superiority I observed. I’ve written about this at length here.

But, in all fairness, this “research” hasn’t been published anywhere other than on the blog, and it hasn’t been peer-reviewed in  by academic researchers.

But there is very good peer-reviewed journal published research available on PBL; let’s review.

Over at Buck Institute for Education they highlight the meta-analysis studies published in the 2008 Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(1), 4-11.

In the journal’s introductory article which I’ve embedded below, by Jason Ravitz, Ph.D. until recently the Research Director for Buck Institute for Education, the research is summarized. (Note: I assisted Jason with editing this piece, for which I’m recognized in the acknowledgements).

The available evidence is promising. Compared to alternative teaching methods, PBL holds its own on standardized tests of concept knowledge and excels on other kinds of outcomes. Walker and Leary’s meta-analysis combined 201 outcomes reported across 82 different studies. They focused on the average effect size of differences in studies comparing students who received a PBL-based curriculum to those who did not. (more…)

View this document on Scribd

How do we make it real?
How do we deepen and clarify and make most meaningful the problem which should always sit at the center of service and place-based learning? 

Saturday nearly forty Arizona educators, mostly Tucsonans, spent what was certainly the most beautiful weekend day in months indoors, at Tucson’s downtown charter City High School, grappling with this question.

At the annual City High Spring Symposium,  the program’s focus upon “how we can use our schools and classrooms to create sustainable communities through place-based education and service learning.”

The day was structured in a remarkably de-centered, inclusive, collaborative way, using Critical Friends Group tuning protocols and other formats to ensure plenty of sharing, reflection, conversation, and feedback.

But at the heart was the question, how do we make it real?  How do we connect service learning to genuinely meaningful, rich, situated community problems?   How do we structure the experience of service learning such that students are engaged, empowered, and motivated?   How do we advance the possibilities that what they’re doing has an impact that is recognizable and rewarding?

Joe Brooks, of the Community Works Institute, provided the keynote,  and excerpts from his slides can be seen in the embed at top.    CWI is an agency with a wealth of resources and a compelling mission,

to support educators in creating curriculum with place as the context, service-learning as the strategy, and sustainability as the goal.

As Joe explained, service-learning is best implemented when deeply rooted in place-based education constructs.   As we know from design thinking, problem-finding is key, and the problems we find for students to tackle will be that much better when they are local and immediate, in our own neighborhoods and communities.

In one small group discussion, an elementary school teacher expressed that common refrain about how to find time/energy/resources to initiate place-based service learning, and counsel came back to him to start small and immediately local.

  • Walk around the block and observe.  
  • Invite grandparents who live nearby to come for interviews about their lives.    
  • Count the number of plants or animals which can be observed within a 100 yard radius– and then work from these beginnings.    

The teacher expressed some relief: “it doesn’t have to be grand or extraordinary.”

place based cwi

To make this work, Brooks explained, students have to have a deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness we all have with each other, the local knowledge to appreciate where they can have an impact, and the metacognitive skills of confidence and awareness of one’s own ability to make a difference.  But that is not enough; the experience must have a compelling sense of purpose, something which “resonates with students and teachers, personally, and has clearly understood value to the community.”

Three questions can be applied to better promote Intentionality & Service Learning:

  • Is the need real?
  • How was need identified?
  • Do students understand the need?

This comment prompted an important conversation, when a participant pressed the presenter: How?  How do you find these kinds of problems, how do you choose issues which so resonate? (more…)

The good folks at CORE in New Zealand have published recently their ten trends for 2013, as part of an ongoing annual exercise seeking to evaluate critical developments in learning and predict its course forward.

I’m a bit of a sucker for this kind of work.  Admittedly, we know it is not easy to do and that expert predictions rarely are borne out as predicted (in fact there is some amusing research easily found online of how poorly experts predict the future, worse than if they’d thrown darts at a bulletin board).

But the value isn’t in the substance of the predictions, necessarily, but in the thought-provocation of the predicting.

The ten trends published this year parallel nearly exactly that of the year prior, with a single small tweak.


  1. Open-ness
  2. Ubiquitious Learning
  3. Smart Web
  4. Data Engagement
  5. Virtual Learning
  6. Personalisation
  7. Digital Citizenship
  8. Social Learning
  9. Thinking 3D
  10. User + Control

The one tweak is that in 2013, “Digital Citizenship” has become “citizenship,” which is fascinating to me because we had exactly that same conversation at OESIS during our Digital Citizenship session.   In the 21st century and our increasingly digitally connected and empowered age, how easily can we speak of citizenship which is not digital?   How can we be effectively, meaningfully, powerfully connected, collaborative, responsible, demonstrably respectful, without a digital presence?

As they explain in their discussion of the trend of citizenship in the slides above:

Citizenship involves understanding the rules and boundaries which exist in our expanding world which include the virtual, relearning the rights and responsibilities of being a good citizen in this new landscape.

How well is the concept of global citizenship embedded within your school curriculum?

Do you have a vision for the global future that your students will inhabit?

What is your personal/school vision for being digitally literate?

How are the practices of cyber-citizens being modelled in your school?

There is a lot of content here, but I’ll focus on six of the ten sections, in three pairs.

User+Control and Thinking 3D

I often write to explore and enthuse about the value and significance of 3d printing and “maker-spaces,” and on-line creation and participation, such as is represented by blogging by students.  I’ve also been slow to catch onto, but am now finally recognizing, the importance of coding in this same broader category: I’m so intrigued and impressed, for instance, by the coderdojo movement.   (more…)

So as much as I’m a intrigued by and enthusiastic for the exciting opportunities, engaging challenges, and powerful differentiation game-based learning is offering, I’m not a gamer myself (at all, to the disappointment of my sons), and I don’t write often about gaming in learning.

But tonight my ten year old son and I took a few minutes to watch the video above about Minecraft– a huge passion of both him and his 14 year old brother– and then we jumped quickly over to the video at bottom.  The videos come from PBS Ideas, and were featured on KQED Mindshift blog today.

The videos are great fun and well produced– and the presenter Mike Rugnetta does a great job communicating the value of minecraft for learning.  As he points out, learning is enhanced by environments which are immersive, fluid, and flexible, which allow for and cater to self-initiative, relative autonomy, socializing, collaboration, and creativity: all of which Minecraft does. 

Note the distinction he draws between this kind of game-based learning and the “canned” kind we are all so familiar with such as Mavis Beacon typing and a host of others which operate at a level which was perhaps mildly entertaining and engaging for students under 8 five or ten years ago, but which very quickly get old and do very little to extend or enrich learning beyond fairly simple low level skills.

I’ve seen all this in my boys.   We were on vacation in France last year, not touring/traveling but just hanging out at a family home there,  and my 14 year old spent many, many hours teaming with other kids in Australia and the US designing and building a Hunger Games world, with different subsets of the group assigned to build each of the 12 regions of that world in detail.    There was constant checking of the books, discussion of the interpretations of the book’s descriptions and relationships, incredible design challenges, cross-cultural dynamics among the kids, and huge creativity.

Tina Barseghian’s MindShift blog has had a good little series of posts about Minecraft for learning, and I’ll share some more information there from one of those posts, written by Katrina Schwarz.

Teachers like to use Minecraft because it’s a “sandbox” game — it provides players nearly limitless freedom to build within it. As a player’s skill develops, the game’s complexity increases ad infinitum. In multi-player levels, players collaborate on building complex structures, use programming features to build contraptions, games, or compose music. Meanwhile, beginning players use their problem solving skills to scavenge for materials. They learn to mine stone for building, and coal for making fire.

Another post shares uses of Minecraft by kids as young as 2nd grade, (more…)

If students designed their own school?  They did.

“What would such a school be like? No quizzes, no grades, not even classes.  Most of the time  it would have no teachers and no adults.”

What would it take for us to better support our students to “design their own school?”

The video above is excellent- an inspiration to all of us to rethink how we’re doing honoring student voice in the design and implementation of their learning.  It also leads educators to wonder: how could we better grab and embed the practices of this student-designed and student-managed learning environment into the current norms of our adult-facilitated learning?

The “Independent project” explained in the video is a one-semester opportunity for students to design their own learning.   It is composed of three parts: the weekly questions, the individual endeavor, and the collective endeavor. 

Weekly questions take up roughly half the time.

Every Monday each students comes up with a question based on something they are curious about related to a core subject.  Students spend a week doing research and experimentation, and on Friday, each gives a formal presentation about what they learned.

It is great to see the focus on questions as the frame and guide for the work of the week.   Why shouldn’t we use this approach with every student every week: questions first, questions throughout, questions driving the learning.

Clearly this is a format– learning following a question and directed toward making a presentation or creating a product– which closely aligns with the key elements of the Project-based learning model I promote here at 21k12.

The other half of their time is the individual endeavor, an ambitious project for the entire semester.   There is also a collective endeavor, in which they develop their collaboration skills and group problem-solving.  Great stuff.

The video is, I think, a terrific resource, and I’d love to see it shown in faculty meetings and PLC’s: what interesting conversations might follow it.    How are we incorporating student voice;  how are we welcoming students to design their learning;  how are we incorporating these student-designed learning practices into the mainstream of our program?

And what if we showed it to our students?  Wouldn’t it be a fascinating little experiment in our schools to show the video to middle school or high school students, and then observe what happens next?  What would it say to us as educators if nothing at all happens– if not any of our students, after watching this video, engage us in pursuing this kind of program?

What might we infer from such a lack of student follow-up?

And, if students do pursue with us these concepts, think of the richness of those conversations.   Even if there is no way, immediately at least, for our schools to implement exactly the kind of program promoted in the video, use the opportunity the video presents to explore and examine practice.   “Well no, we can’t do this exactly, but let’s wonder and ponder and consider how we might move in this direction or incorporate some elements.”  Couldn’t that be great for our schools?

My compliments and appreciation go to the video producers, the educators, and most of all the students involved with this video and with the program.


kegley100910stg1821Call me crazy: Common Core Assessments aren’t too long in testing duration and shouldn’t be shortened.

Forgive me for being contrary: I know I threw a few friends when I wrote last week we shouldn’t assess projects in PBL (though my full argument was far more nuanced than my headline/thesis), and now I know I take the risk of irking more friends by making the argument which follows.

Among the many caveats to my argument, I’ll prioritize these two:

First, I too am appalled by the misuse and abuse of current or future standardized testing, particularly in regards to punishing schools and teachers.  What Bill Ferriter wrote recently on this topic is nothing short of brilliant. “It’s time that you start asking your policymakers some difficult questions about their positions on value-added measures of teacher performance.    If Jackson is right, those policies — which have rapidly become the norm instead of the exception in most states in America — are wasting our time AND our money.

I want quality testing to be used for meaningful purposes: advancing student learning, not teacher-bashing.

Second, these important advances in testing are certainty not the end of the line; they don’t represent a complete arrival at a place of testing excellence.  They are instead a significant and meaningful advance from the status quo toward that place of excellence, an advance I think we should applaud.  For more on the continued advances needed, see this recent Edweek post and the report from the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education upon which it is commenting.

But here goes: Common Core Assessments PARCC and SBAC (Smarter Balanced) tests shouldn’t be any shorter in their time duration than they are planned to be.


1. Because we shouldn’t be so quick to call this testing time “lost” to teaching and learning. In even only a moderately good testing experience, testing time is learning time– sometimes superior learning time.

2. Because these new tests assess in ways far more authentic and meaningful than any previous generation of standardized K-12 educational tests, and assess the deeper learning our students greatly need to learn to be successful (learning which far too few are indeed learning), assessment information we need to improve their “deeper learning.” 

But both of these things will be compromised or lost if the tests get any shorter.

The length of these tests is being hotly debated and combated.

Edweek published last week a short article about the duration of the tests, and it is worth reviewing.

New tests being designed for students in nearly half the states in the country will take eight to 10 hours, depending on grade level, and schools will have a testing window of up to 20 days to administer them, according to guidance released today.

The tweets which followed the Edweek piece were not at all positive: the following tweet is entirely representative of the attitude in the feed of tweets about the Edweek post, although it is not entirely representative of the tone of those tweets, because many were more vulgar.

Let me flesh out my argument:

1.   We shouldn’t be so quick to call this testing time “lost” to learning: in even a moderately good quality testing experience, it is quite the opposite.

I don’t believe that time spent taking a good test is “time away from learning.”  It doesn’t even have to be a great test– just a good test will do.  When I look back at my K-16 education, I am certain that on average, I learned more, was more engaged, more challenged, more interested, more analytical and creative, when I was taking a half-decent test than I was when I was sitting in class watching a teacher talk in the front of the room.

Quite often– though not always– my test-taking times as a student were among the very most intellectually exciting and growth-oriented events and experiences in my education. (more…)

Above are my slides for the webinar I presented yesterday for Simple K12.   The full 30 minutes webinar, on video, can be found at their site here, though if you are not a member there I’m afraid there is a $17 fee.

(The slides include a few prepared originally by Suzie Boss for our presentation together at NAIS.)


[Note: I’ve added further clarification to my argument in a comment below the post]

We call it PBL– Project Based Learning– but inevitably as we immerse ourselves in the practice and the thinking about it, we recognize the limitations of this term.

As I increasingly write and share thoughts about PBL, I find, and I know others do too, especially helpful the clarification provided by explaining what it isn’t– as for, example, it’s not Project-Oriented Learning, not an enrichment activity or an independent assignment– and the illumination offered by the metaphors– PBL is not the dessert, it’s the entree.

One of my concerns is that the term PBL makes a mistake in reinforcing the understandably pervasive, but in my eyes problematic, perception that the project itself– the thing students make or present or publish or post– is what the PBL experience is all, or mostly/especially, about.    It isn’t.    But saying PROJECT based learning makes it sounds as if it is.

“Learning by doing,” (LbD), or “Learning by Project Preparation” (LbPP) would, I’m arguing here, better capture convey the heart of what I call high quality, 21st century PBL.  (as do inquiry based learning and challenge-based learning, both of which are in the conversation but, in my experience, far less prominent/established as PBL).

Rethinking PBL this way helps us rethink how best we assess student learning in PBL, something for which that many teachers in surveys report feeling especially under-prepared for and lacking in proficiency.

The heart of my argument here is that despite the understandably common norm,  we shouldn’t assess the project.  Don’t.  

Don’t choose or create and apply a rubric for a “quality project,” and don’t tell student that their grade is based on the quality of their project.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t grade student learning– although I realize there are many who wish we could dramatically reduce or eliminate grading.   No– I’m operating inside the current conventional world of schooling and grades, the same one in which most of us live.

Assess not the project, but instead, assess the 3-6 things you’ve decided you want students to want students to know, or know better, and be able to do, or do better, at the end of the unit.

In assessing these concrete, specific, public things, you will most certainly seek and accept as evidence of their learning their final projects/products, but we’ve now re-conceptualized that assessment in meaningful ways.   And, essential to remember, is that we will seek and accept other things in addition to the project as evidence of their learning.

Time out here for a minute.  Let’s review what other key PBL resources say about assessment.

First up, the excellent free guide from High Tech High entitled Work that Matters.    Here from that book is the guru Ron Berger on the topic.

Assessment isn’t just about the final product.   Teachers often mistakenly presume that a project’s final product is the only thing they should assess, which leads them to assume that they should be able to tell whether the kids learned what they needed to learn by looking at the final product.

Actually, assessing what kids know is ongoing throughout a project. The product is the motivation for learning the material, but it won’t demonstrate that they learned it all. For example, in the physics standards project (see page 51) each kid only demonstrated one physics concept, so how do you know that they learned the rest of the material?

The answer to this question is that the project isn’t the assessment. You can assess what they’ve learned before the book project comes out, and afterwards. In Physics Standards they gave all the students a physics test with all the concepts in it. You need to do assessment throughout the project so that when they’re doing great artistic stuff, you know that they know what they need to know. You can’t leave it all to the end.

Ron Berger, Chief Programme Officer,
Expeditionary Learning

Note the emphasis he places here on not leaving assessment all to the end, and indeed, the project might not be able to capture and convey all the things you want students to learn.   You have to assess more than just the project, and you can give tests along the way, even.  Tests! 

work-that-mattersOn the following page of the High Tech High booklet, this is reinforced: “You may want to have a separate assessment of knowledge, such as an exam.”

And more:

Has the student learned the curriculum content required for this project?

The process followed here is much the same as for the assessment of skills,with one important difference: your project plan should include the essential curriculum content for the project. As a result, much of this will be considered ‘non-negotiable’, though it is still important to have students co-construct the process.

So, for example, you might ask students to determine how they will present the content knowledge they’ve acquired through the project (they might do this through an essay, quiz, presentation, film, etc). (more…)

It was a dynamite four days in Philly last week at the NAIS annual conference: although I was unsure how it would feel to be attending in a different capacity, not as a Head but in my new role of writer/consultant/presenter, it ended up very fun and engaging.   As always, the best parts are outside the formal conference in the camaraderie and fellowship found there with so many pursuing with parallel passion the meaningful and rewarding work of remaking learning for our fast-changing times.

The slides above come from a most fascinating session sharing what I’d argue is genuinely breakthrough work from the folks at the Index group on what they call their new Mission Skills Assessment, MSA, for Middle School Students.

(It was a big team presenting, including Lisa Pullman from Index, Tim Bazemore from New Canaan Country School (CT), Jennifer Phillips from Far Hills Country Day (NJ), and Rich Roberts from ETS; see the last slide for all their names and contact info)

As they explained, and as I often try my best to pursue here at 21k12, we have long as educators believed and proclaimed that character development, defined broadly, is of importance equal to that of intellectual and academic development, and yet truly, outside of the not-always-deeply successful advisory programming and a few assemblies here and there, how far do we usually go with this character education?

And, when students know that grades are the coin of the realm and that nearly all of the grades they earn and the feedback they get is on the academic-intellectual side, how well are we signaling to them the importance we place or guiding them with the feedback which is so important on the non-cognitive side of the equation?

Here with the MSA, the group has identified, after review of both the research of what makes for success out there, and of what our schools state in our missions we do in here, six key traits, and I love this list:

Teamwork, Creativity, Ethics, Resilience, Curiosity, Time Management. 

As the slides demonstrate, this has been an investigation carried out in the most serious of ways, spread out over five years and drawing upon the expert resources of and collaboration with ETS.  Their ETS partner, Rich Roberts, explained that as surprising as it might seem, ETS has been working on Noncog for over a decade, and indeed, the pursuit of noncog assessment which can match the quality of cognitive assessment goes back more than 60 years.

Roberts argued that the consensus view after decades of study is that noncog is not, no it is NOT, twice as important as cognitive skills and attributes for success in life– but it is EQUAL.

But assessing it has never been easy– this is the rub.  But, the research here conducted finds strong validity and reliability for a tripartite approach, as described in the image below, of student self-report, teacher evaluation, and a third tool for “triangulation.” NAIS and the Mission Skills Assessment from the Index Group   21k12

These third tools are discussed in slides 36-38, and include Situational Judgement Tests (SJTs), which were similarly touted at the Boalt Hall Law School study I described here, biographical studies, and Creativity Performance Tests.

For those that are skeptical that even with this triangulation we get to an effective measurement, check out the discussion of reliability and validity on slides 48-55, where reliability is found to be just a tad less than on the SAT and validity in prediction better than standardized test scores and GPA for student quality ratings and student well being and just a little less well than standardized test scores for GPA.

As for the inevitable question– whether and when this tool will become more broadly available, beyond the membership of the Index group, it appears as I view it that these questions have yet to be answered.   As soon as they are, I’ll do my best to report that news here.

But, there is no reason for schools outside of Index to not use these ideas and resources to advance their own work in assessing student development of these essential qualities.