[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…)

Just last week I was asked by a colleague for a readily accessible, engaging and stimulating short introduction and overview of 21st century learning he could provide his faculty, and, somewhat embarrassingly, I found myself a bit stumped.

I know of plenty of great books, but what the best single short and free resource?

One option, and it is a pretty good option, is the pamphlet from NAIS, A Strategic Imperative: A Guide to Becoming a School of the Future, (which I was pleased to be a small contributor to).   But it is written a bit more for school-leaders than for teachers, is a bit long, and is a little dry.     It is still a great resource though; I’ve embedded it at the bottom of this post [after “more…”].

So it was with great satisfaction that I scanned the above first publication of Brain Food for Education, which comes from the innovation firm Unboundary and was produced by my good friend and highly esteemed educational blogger and thinker, Bo Adams.

This is a great tool for the purpose I described, and as such, includes of course great links for those who want to dig deeper and learn more.

4 things I like especially: 

1.  The visual look and graphic design is tremendous: bright, appealing, professional.

2.  The Discussion prompts shared on page 19 are very helpful: they could be a great resource for schools working to generate more and better conversation among all their constituencies as they facilitate change.    (for an additional resource, see the discussion prompts included in the guide to becoming a school of the future,page 36).

3.   The schools selected as exemplars are inspiring– from the nation of Finland (and I was glad to learn of the RSA video about PISA here) to High Tech High and Nueva Schools in California.    As Bo writes, “just seeing even one example can help us raise our aspirations and trajectories.”   Indeed– and I’d underscore, try to go and see them first-hand.


The Innovation Portal - Online Collaboration for the Creation of Engineering Portfolios   Online Collaboration for the Creation of Engineering Portfolios-100957

Two of my great interests and enthusiasms regarding 21st century learning have, until now, felt a bit divorced from and at odds with each other.   Yesterday, however, I learned more about a fascinating bridge developing for them.

The first is high quality, authentic 21st century assessment: if we are going to make new pathways in learning that is more meaningful for students, more preparatory for the futures they are inheriting and more engaging for the people they are today, we need to have tools that allow us to evaluate effectively their learning, both to provide meaningful endorsements of these learning paths for the skeptical and, more importantly, to correct our courses to keep doing so more effectively.

The second is the joyful messiness of open-ended and unstructured project-based learning that is found in Fab labs, design-build studios, design thinking centers, and maker-faire type spaces.   These places ought to be free from tight strictures– they should celebrate experimentation, learning by doing, trial and error, fast-failure, and never be stifled by narrow or miserable “testing.”

It might be cruel to introduce assessment to these labs and studios, but I want those teachers and students who want to find a way to build in more structure, such that they can better evaluate their own progress, get external feedback, and meaningfully improve their work to have quality ways to do so.

Clearly I am not the only one to think this (and I never am).

The Innovation Portal was launched in the last year or so, (with strong support from Project-Lead-the Way, itself also a valuable resource),and as you view the site you can see it is still developing and rounding out.  It provides a platform for

students to create, maintain and share digital portfolios. The portfolios can be used to meet a class requirement or they can be used to submit the portfolio to a scholarship or open contest. The contest owners – or anyone else invited by the student – can evaluate a student’s portfolio. (more…)

This free publication, dated to February 2012, is a valuable and economically efficient vehicle for enhancing the understanding of any faculty which is making the move toward PBL.   If it were me, I’d think about distributing it widely, making it available in a printed version for those who prefer reading that way, and use it as a faculty summer reading option or for part of a year-long faculty study of PBL.

Coming as it does as an addition to the existing literature on project-based learning, and most particularly the many resources available from BIE, both free and priced, the new book offers both reiteration, valuable as that is and well supported with examples, and a few new notes.  I thought it’d be most helpful to identify what it adds to the conversation, and most particularly where its emphases are different/additional to what BIE calls the 8 Essential Elements (and, of course, which I think are especially important).

These differences/additions can be best summarized with four C’s:

Currency, Critique, Collaborative Colleagueship, and (Traditional) Components. 

1. Currency: The booklet opens with a helpful commentary on why PBL now.

There have been two key shifts that have reignited teachers’ interest in project-based learning and helped it to shake off its stigma.

Firstly, and most obviously, digital technology makes it easier than ever before for students to conduct serious research, produce high-quality work, keep a record of the entire process, and share their creations with the world.

Secondly, we now know much more about how to do good, rigorous projectbased learning, and we can evaluate its effectiveness.

Surely all of us exmaining PBL would find many more reasons to add to the mix, most importantly that an embrace of PBL methodology follows naturally upon the previous embrace of teaching 21st century skills as our first and foremost “outcomes” priority.

2.  Critique.  BIE’s essential elements includes, importantly, one entitled “Revision and Reflection”  (though I’ve always been curious why in that order: wouldn’t one normally reflect before revising?). (more…)

Certainly among the greatest highlights of the NAIS Annual Conference this year was the presentation and speech by John Hunter, 4th grade teacher and founder of the World Peace Game. John is a member of what I think is among the very most exciting school districts in the country, the Albemarle County School district headed by the terrific Pam Moran, about whom I recently wrote as a model of leading learning forward.   What is exciting for the members of NAIS is that he is becoming in a sense an adjunct member of our association, thanks to his recent appointment as a Fellow of the Martin Institute, which is a program in Memphis of Presbyterian Day School, an NAIS member school headed by Lee Burns.

When asked what he was to do as a teacher first starting out, he was answered “what do you want to do?”   Let’s invite teachers to teach to their passions; let’s ensure they have the opportunity to do what they want to do even as we ensure they are carrying out our school’s mission.

Quotes from his very inspiring talk, which you really should take the time to see.

The game has these 50 interlocking problems and I throw them into this complex matrix and they trust me because we have a rich deep relationship together.

They learn to overlook short sighted reactions and think in a long term, more consequential way.

Student: You are learning to take care of the world.

I can’t tell them anything because I don’t know the answer.  I admit the truth- I don’t know.   Because I don’t know, they have to dig up the answer.

Maybe this game will help you to learn how to fix the world for us.

Who’s in charge of this classroom?  It is a serious question. Who is really in charge I have learned to cede control of the classroom to the students over time.  There is a trust and an understanding and a dedication to an ideal that  simply don’t have to do what I thought I had to as a beginning to teacher to control every conversation they have in the classroom:  their collective wisdom is much greater than mine.

That’s the kind of engagement you want to have happen. I can’t design that, I can’t plan that, I can’t even test that.   But it is self-evident assessment; we know that’s an authentic assessment of learning.  We have a lot of data but sometimes we go beyond data with the real truth of what is going on.

For more about John Hunter and his World Peace Game, a new movie is available.   The trailer is below; I have a copy and hope to see and share thoughts about it soon.

(This is the third post in a series; be sure to read the first for context).

This Class project was a year in the making: It began last spring, and I posted then about the class plans and my conversations with the working group as they “pitched it” to me and sought my approval and sponsorship. It is worth checking out this previous post to show the sequence, beginning with designing and planning and now culminating in completion:

Below are the student overview of the project’s purpose and procedure, and after the jump (more)  is the Solar Oven Project.

Purpose:  The purpose of this project was to provide the school’s students with an environmentally friendly way to charge their laptops.

Procedure 1. Screw wooden beams onto the preexisting structure. 2. Cut L-shaped metal to the correct length to fit the desired mounting angle of the panels and cut L-shaped metal to fit the length of the panel. 3. Attach the metal to the panel. 4. Attach the panel supports to the metal running the length of the panel. 5. Put the panel on the roof. 6. Attach the panel by screwing it to the structure. 7. Run conduit from the panels to the wall. 8. Drill a hole through the wall. 9. Run the wires from the panels through the hole. 10. Attach the panel wires to the charge controller. 11. Attach the charge controller to a car battery. 12. Attach the car battery to a power inverter. 13. Run a power cord from the inverter to a wall outlet outside. (more…)

I’ve been writing recently about FabLabs (here and here), and the importance of providing times, ways, and places for students to design and build their own “solutions” to problems, especially problems they discover, and to refine those “solutions” in multiple iterations.

(Be sure to see the two other posts sharing class work also: here and here).

At St. Gregory, where we aspire to “create innovators,” one of our most important and most exciting initiatives over the past two years has been the steady advance of our “Design Build”  Tech Innovations class,  taught by the amazing and awesome Mr. Dennis Conner.   It is an entirely PBL formatted class, with no set curriculum other than having students investigate “problems” and choose one to design and build solutions for.

The class continues to be a great success, and the difficult question looming for us at St. Gregory is whether to decide to move it from an optional elective (it is taught pass-fail, students can take it as many times as they wish, and it has received great enthusiasm from its participants) to a required freshman or sophomore class, formatted as an “introduction to and foundations of innovation” class.     The jury is still out on this one.

Suzie Boss, an edutopia blogger and author of Reinventing Project Based Learning with Technology, and  who visited St. Gregory last spring for two days, wrote this recently, in a piece entitled “How Design Build Curriculum Can Transform a Community.”

Where does a project like this fit into current discussions of 21st-century skills?

Our students are learning skills like welding and carpentry, 2D and 3D modeling. But those are the vehicles to do something else. We blog as much as we’re on the table saw. We’re giving them tools for entrepreneurship, for innovation, for local citizenship and engagement. We’re giving them a way to think through problems in their own lives. Design is all about possibility. For a student, that’s the best gift you can give them.

With the fall semester now completed, I want to share, in this post and in two following posts, examples of student work completed in the past few months by their own reports.  You can find the whole set on the class website here.

Spencer B’s project: a HEXAPOD

This is a hexapod. A hexapod is a robot with 6 ‘legs’, in this case with 3dof per leg. And before I bore you, I want to tell you that this is quite possibly the greatest project I have ever worked on. It has cost me, so far, just below 1k. Bit expensive, no? But the experience and result has been worth it. Intrigued?

This has been a labor of love. It’s been frustrating. It still won’t walk, this is because I had no idea about its power consumption. 8 amps? Despite that ridiculous number for a rather small robot, the control program (which consists of a virtual cube you can rotate with arrow keys and change with a few keystrokes) is nearly there! I’ll post it later on.

The robot was constructed primarily out of anodized aluminum parts and 18 servos. It includes a high amp regulator, as well as a microcontroller and a radio module. It looks like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. Here’s a link to where I got the parts:   WWW.LYNXMOTION.COM


Clayton M’s project: Rockets!

Michael and others: the Trebuchet 2:

Filmed at our soccer field just behind our Science Laboratories, and also at a Trebuchet competition held in October on the campus of the University of Arizona, in which our students competed.