“Are you going to make us craft as homework a home-made California mission in middle school and high school?”  


Sometimes when educators speak about project based learning (PBL), parents, students, and other educations think that what we mean by project based learning are at-home activities which kids are assigned as an extension of their classroom learning, and which parents often bear the burden of.

As regular readers know, I am passionate about the importance of project based learning as a core component of 21st century learning and of “becoming a school of the future.”   But I am equally passionate about the importance of being more precise about our definitions of and standards for high quality PBL, and carefully distinguishing it from learning extensions or enrichment via “activities.”

So I am delighted to see the fine educators of High Tech High, which is proudly a high quality PBL school, offering videos to clarify further what is and what isn’t high quality PBL.   In one video, entitled, What PBL isn’t, teacher Jeff Robin explains carefully what PBL isn’t is Project Oriented learning.   (I really wish I could embed these videos here, but I could not get the video embed code to work.  Apologies, but follow the link).

Project oriented learning looks something like this: First, teachers decided they need to teach students everything they need to know, getting all the basics down first, and then they ask students to do a project about what they learned.

“All right kids, two weeks to go in the semester,” the teacher says “ok,  kids let’s make a project.” The project is oriented toward the things the kids have been learning in class.  Then the kids do the project and then do the exhibition or presentation.  There might be some smart things in there, but it is not PBL because  the kids did not have to learn all these things to get the project done,  the project didn’t run the semester: the semester ran and then kids did the project.    (more…)

In a recent post I shared a guest post by a visitor writing about  the excellent use of the block schedule format by teachers at St. Gregory.   In that same vein I want to share my observations of a terrific 75 minute period I enjoyed last week in the classroom of Corinne Bancroft as she taught 6th grade English.

Sadly, this is all too rare an event, my spending an entire period in a single classroom, but I give credit to Ms. Bancroft for her persistence and warm enthusiasm in encouraging me to visit her classroom.

The 75 minute period was divided into three parts:

  • students worked in groups on a project for 35 minutes;
  • Ms. Bancroft facilitated a group book discussion for about 20 minutes;
  • and students worked individually on their laptops on an essay they were writing for the class while Ms. Bancroft individually conferenced with them for 20 minutes.

Class began with the direction to work in groups on their major end-of-year project, the Gathering Blue project based on the book of the same name.  Ms. Bancroft developed this herself, derived from her classroom discussion of reading this YA novel (for more information you can follow the link or see at bottom, where I have pasted it into the post.) (more…)

Suzie Boss, co-author with Jane Krause of Reinventing Project Based Learning with Technology, visited St. Gregory for the past two days, and it was a great pleasure to share our school with her and discuss together project based learning with technology at St. Gregory.  Her presentation to our faculty (to reiterate, it is  Suzie’s presentation, not my own), is above, and it stimulated conversation for several days.

I have listed links to  the resources she shared in her presentation below at bottom (click more).

After her presentation to the full faculty, she then was kind enough to spend the next day and a half visiting with small groups of teachers for a block at a time; in each block teachers shared with Suzie for her feedback projects either already implemented or already in development.  I am intending in a near-future post to share some of our teachers’ “take-aways” from these conversations.

Project Based Learning with Technology has been identified by the National Association of Independent Schools Guide to Becoming a School of the Future as a core “Unifying Theme” of Schools of the Future.   Many in 21st century learning, including the Partnership for 21st century skills, High Tech High, and New Tech Network Schools emphasize PBL-T as an essential vehicle for students to better actively learn and master skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communications– the skills we highlight as essential goals for our St. Gregory students.

I didn’t participate in most of the faculty sessions, but I enjoyed a sequence of dinners and lunches with Suzie and various others, and over the course of two days’ conversation several key themes about PBL emerged for me.

1. We need to be cautious about the idea that PBL can be effectively deployed as a primarily at-home/homework event. (more…)

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of sitting to hear a “pitch” from a group of four students proposing a new green energy patio area as a laptop recharging station.  The students are all participants in our new Innovation course, called Design/Build Technology Innovation, taught by our excellent Physics instructor Dennis Conner.

This is the proposal the students submitted in advance of their “pitch.”


  • Use the Maintenance Building as a “base” for a solar panel recharging system.
  • (Set up display that monitors energy output from the panels.
  • Construct a ramada/patio area that showcases these technologies.
  • In future, we would like to add a wind turbine to the power system.


  • We would like to use the storage closet next to the storage room(old photo lab) to house electronics that should be shielded from the elements.
  • We would like to use the roof of the building to try various orientations of solar panels. (more…)

PBL being a favorite topic here, I am always excited to learn new opportunities and applications for project based learning in our classroom.  NAIS,  in its own hard thinking about the future of education,  has identified high level, academically rigorous PBL as a centerpiece of the educational program of Schools of the Future.

Project-based learning, as an integral part of the school’s program, [should be] woven throughout all grade levels and disciplines.

My emphasis has been primarily on PBL with Web 2.0 technologies, as best demonstrated in the work of New Tech Network schools, which I have visited several times, and in the writings of Suzie Boss, which I have written about often.

But often it is great to set aside the computer (says the blogger who really ought to be packing right now for NAIS), and facilitate our students in making stuff from scratch with their own hands, knowing that this requires a thoughtful and thorough process of planning, preparation, design, collaboration, analysis, and action, and results.

I’m inspired by a both a short session I enjoyed recently at Educon by Laura Deisly (below) and a recent EdWeek article, Encouraging the Hand-Mind Connection in the Classroom.

One of the defining characteristics of our species: Our ability to construct the things we need to understand and function in our lives. How did we manage to get so far off course, to take something that is so quintessentially human and make it so alien? (more…)

On my recent post about the disappointing PBL-Explained video, I got a great comment today from Jill Gough, a fine independent school educator and blogger (Experiments in Learning By Doing); she argues that the PBL video explained, while not perfect, is a fine introductory PBL video.   Jill writes

HTH is one of a very few examples shown to me as a classroom teacher…over and over and over again. My colleagues’ reaction: “If it is so easy, why aren’t there more examples? How many times are we going to watch that video of the Blood Project?”

Here, for your viewing pleasure and information, are more exemplary videos articulating the value of PBL in forms more substantial and sophisticated than the disappointing PBL explained video.  In each case, there is a demonstration of excellence in the completed student products that testify to the serious academic rigor PBL can accomplish, a rigor about which, I  believe, PBL skeptics are often skeptical.  Three school networks are represented in the following videos, New Tech Network, High Tech High, and Envision/Metro Schools, and I am pleased to say I have spent entire school days shadowing students at schools in each of these three networks.


A Presentation by St. Gregory’s Science Department Chair, Scott Morris, Ph.D, and Dennis Conner.

Project and Problem Based Learning has a rich history at St. Gregory, and it continues to advance.   This week our 9th graders are embarking on a ten week interdisciplinary project, and this project memo demonstrates many aspects of outstanding PBL:
  • an assignment grounded in a real-world situation;
  • a clear timetable;
  • important roles and responsibilities for the team members;
  • a sense of “professionalism” as students act as they would in a job setting;
  • an integral and essential use of technology to support their project;
  • clearly defined, high standards for the project to be completed;
  • and a rich academic subject, in this case bioethics.
This project was designed and is being implemented by English teacher Kate Oubre, Ph.D., and Biology teacher Kevin Rolle.
Bioethics Webinar Project

Ourolle Educational Consultants has been hired by Arizona Department of Education to create an educational program dealing with bioethics, which they consider the most important set of ethical issues facing humans in the 21st century.  They have designated the topics that they want covered as well as the grade levels in which this program will be implemented.

They realize that this program cannot be fully implemented within the standard curriculum already in place, and they are not ready to provide teacher training, but they still want this material covered. Therefore, they have hired you to create online lessons. (more…)

PBL, and particularly PBLT (with Technology), is a frequent topic on this blog, and I appreciate the value of video.   Kudos to BIE for recognizing the importance of video communications as a tool to promote the value of PBL, and engaging Commoncraft to produce this introduction.

Unfortunately, I think this intro falls too short.   It might be helpful to certain population segments who really have no idea what PBL is, but it doesn’t speak to most educators, who understand as much as this shows already, nor does it to the critical parent segment: the concerned or skeptical.    The weakest spot is the discussion of the flu-transmission presentation, where some students “get away” with a poster of kids sneezing into their elbows as their “product.”  Sorry, but that doesn’t cut it, and for those of us who are advocates, it is almost an embarrassment to us that it can be depicted as only that.   Overall, too, the video doesn’t demonstrate deep, rich, penetrating thinking and learning, leaving advocates vulnerable from those who rightfully fear PBL can lack rigor. (more…)

St. Gregory, as is often discussed here, is very excited about its initiatives in education for innovation; our students are having many new and terrific experiences developing innovative mindsets and exercising their innovation skills.     Innovation isn’t always about new technologies; it can be terrific practice for students to develop skills of collaboration, design, problem-solving and ingenuity even with old-fashioned technologies, such as catapults.  Enjoy the videos from our students in their excellent Design/Build Innovation Tech class.


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. (more…)

Michael Horn, Clayton Christensen, and Curtis Johnson return with a new edition of Disrupting Class, and a new whitepaper on a topic of concern to all of us, Student Motivation.   I reviewed favorably and discussed Disrupting Class about two years; it is an incredibly important book to thinking about where K-12 learning is headed, even if it is perhaps overblown and inflated in spots.

That book really influenced me in my embrace of “reverse instruction” and Khan Academy: if students increasingly can get the content knowledge delivery online, we have to think harder about how to use our classrooms in a way which offer more value than the lectures they can now get elsewhere.

This new white paper takes us further in asking us to address this same question: in an age of powerfully stimulating and engaging electronic networks, and online learning, what does school do for for kids? Instead of asking the question the normal way–  what do we provide students which we think offers them value– this paper argues we need to turn it around and ask of our students: what are they hiring us for? “Teachers and parents ‘offer education’ but many students are not buying what is being offered.” (more…)

RSA Animate offers us a visually compelling view of an important talk by Robinson, who continues to emerge as an incredibly valuable global voice for new forms of education.   The video speaks for itself, in many places; the history is familiar, but still informative.   The 75 second digression upon ADD/ADHD I find less well informed, and less illuminating, than other parts of the video.  Robinson’s questioning of age-level groupings in school also leaves me conflicted; of course he has a point that it is is odd and problematic to group kids by age rather than ability, but he doesn’t acknowledge either the incredible social value of age groupings, nor the dramatic downsides to ability grouping.

But there are many essential points.    One is that as the world becomes more stimulating and fascinating, (and distracting), and as there are more and more “channels” by which students can acquire and process information and learning, school is going to become duller if it stays the same.   It mustn’t stay the same.

Robinson’s discussion of divergent thinking is intriguing and disturbing.   It adds to many other voices in making the point that young children are indeed already fine scientists and thinkers, and that schooling must advance, not retard, those strong young minds in a way that is not now often enough the case.   Standards and testing which compel children to search for the one right answer may well diminish the power of divergent thinking, and we need more (many more) tests and assessments that ask students for many right answers, and analysis of each, rather than one right answer.

I like his discussion of the centrality of collaboration in growth and learning: “most great learning happens in groups.”   School cultures which view collaboration as cheating, or don’t actively act to advance student collaboration, are setting us backward.

Finally, a big appreciation here for his argument that separating out the intellectual from the practical is a myth.   We need to embrace more practical learning in our classrooms where students can apply and reinforce their academic learning.   I love it all: I love to see students discuss symbolism and imagery in Shakespeare, and I love to see them building robots in Tech Design class.   (more…)