Three views into the potential and power of project-driven learning. #iProject #iVenture

My dream is to build the world’s first underground park in New York City.

I always knew as a kid that I wanted to make a difference, and to somehow make the world more beautiful, more interesting and more just. I just didn’t really know how.

Dan Barasch: A park underneath the hustle and bustle of New York City

My dream is _______________________.

What a powerful sentence starter. What a powerful action starter. If we only treated it that way more often. What a profound entry point into an endless supply of worthwhile projects. And not the kind of “dessert-at-the-end” style projects that are all too common in schools when the “important content” has already been “covered.” But the kind of projects that serve as the meal and the fundamental sustenance on which the nutrients of interdisciplinary topics are baked in and intentionally made part of the main course. (On a brief aside, this makes me think that we might need “nutrition labels” on projects — like those nutrition labels on our cereal boxes and cans of food. But in this case, the learner would progressively include what learnings are contained in his or her project.)

People from all over contact me to talk about project work. I think more than a few struggle with seeing what others view as robust and vigorous projects. So, I look for examples to show people. Dan Barasch’s TED talk is just one such example. And it’s an excellent six minute view into how dreaming can materialize into a vibrant project of inquiry, innovation, and impact.

When Dan shares his vision and work on the Lowline, I also see the potential for almost any high schooler or middle schooler to showcase similar stories of their dreams and projects. Maybe they would’t have the 3D computer renderings of the proposed space, and maybe they wouldn’t have the solar arrays built for a pilot installation. Or maybe they could. With partnerships of internal and external experts. If not, they could be coached and supported to produce comparable and lower-resolution prototypes, sketches, concept drawings, etc.

So many possibilities to dig into one’s dreams. And as an integral part of schooling.

As this blog post was bouncing around in my head waiting for me to put it in writing, I re-watched October Sky with my family.

I was reminded of how Homer Hickam’s project started with an observation of Sputnik, a curious spark about rocketry, and a teacher who did not let her lack of knowledge about rocket science allow her to say, “I can’t do this — I don’t know anything about rocketry and it’s not part of our curriculum.” Still, Homer’s project, at least how it was portrayed in the movie, was mostly confined to time outside of school and the project work only “counted” in school thanks to the science fair possibility.

But what if that work had actually been a fundamental part of Homer’s schooling? And not simply confined to “Science” class, but originated in a project-block such that the subject-areas were allowed to weave together as they naturally do, unbridled by the typical boundaries of 55-minute, subject-narrow periods.

At the risk of seeming like this post is “all over the place,” I also remembered Dolphin Tale as my family watched October Sky last Friday night and visions of the Lowline project connected in my mind. Dolphin Tale is another “based on a true story” movie that shows how a student struggling with typical school finds a project that lights his heart and mind on fire. I first saw the movie on Oct. 1, 2011. I know because I walked out of the theatre and had to quickly record a blog post by phone.

Why do so many project ideas seem to happen outside of school? Why can’t they BE school? At least a part of school.

So, here are three examples that I believe help many people visualize the power of project-driven, transdisciplinary learning. I hope they help you see the potential of drawing this form of working and learning into our next iterations of school.

Moonshot teaching: “real-life problems that require hands-on solutions”

“Getting Our Students to Own Their Educational Experience”
Raymond W. Cirmo
Independent School Magazine
Winter 2014
(HT @nicolenmartin)

If our interest and motivation are piqued when we work on tasks that interest us, that directly involve us, that have outcomes based on our abilities, and that succeed or fail based on our level of understanding, effort, and involvement, then why not apply this same logic to student learning in our classrooms?

To do this, we first need to realize that the students are not in our classroom, we are in their classroom. And the room is not set up for us to teach; it is here for us to be facilitators in the students’ learning. We are here for the students, not the other way around. This means that we need to educate them in a fashion that makes sense to them and the world they live in. And the best approach I have found is to assign them tasks involving real-life problems that require hands-on solutions — in other words, learning by creating and doing.


Real-World Impact: Guest Post @TylerThigpen #MVPSchool #MVIFI #MVImpact

Today, the Upper School parents at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School (where I work, learn, serve, and play) received a letter from Head of Upper School Tyler Thigpen, and I am quoting a significant section of the letter below, with his permission, as something like a guest blog post.

To give just a bit of context, the Upper School students at Mount Vernon experience (and share voice in the iterative implementation of) a very purposefully researched, designed and orchestrated transdisciplinary program. Using MVPS’s developed model of design thinking – DEEP (Discover, Empathize, Experiment, and Produce) – faculty and students focused on discovery and empathy phases in September, October, and November. Then, in the first week of school in January, students engaged in a mixture of content/context workshopping, vigorous presentation production, and iterative pitching to convince expert panels to approve further work on the projects into the experiment and produce phases. Pitches were evaluated on ten comprehensive criteria, and projects were also rated by degree of difficulty.

Okay, now onto the guest-blogging-by-way-of-parent-letter…

Dear Upper School Family,

Happy New Year!

I have been itching to share with you the deep learning, college preparation, and marketplace training that have already occurred this year.

Last week, thanks to an innovative plan crafted collaboratively by both students and teachers, Upper School students positioned themselves to leverage content and skills from their classes to design and pitch capstone projects aimed at real-world impact.

They developed creative solutions, honed their presentation abilities, and used constructive criticism to correct previous knowledge and improve ideas. Examples of diving deep in search of learning outcomes in some of their classes included: students writing algorithms, researching flora and fauna, learning profit maximization, understanding search engine optimization, and performing comparative analyses.

Students received pointers from visiting professionals such as the SVP of Business Operations at Turner Broadcasting, SVP of Communications & Investor Relations at First Data, VP of Marketing at Popeye’s, VP of Financial Planning & Analysis at Manheim, Chief Development Officer at Metro Atlanta YMCA, Councilman at City of Sandy Springs, and numerous others.

The learning that is taking place is truly remarkable.

Colleges appreciate when students come equipped to learn how disciplines overlap and how humanistic and scientific approaches can be applied to real-world issues and challenges. Both emphases were front and center last week. About this approach, a Wake Forest University faculty leader writes:

“Mount Vernon’s innovative move, allowing students and curriculum to cohabit in a learning environment, should serve as a model for all schools. The difference between knowing about and knowing is profound. When students engage the realities of their study–the good, bad, and the ugly– the result is ownership; students become actors who come to believe they can act. The point of education is to sanction agency for students to win their future. Hats off to Mount Vernon.”

– Dr. Allan Louden, Communication Studies Department Chair, Wake Forest University, and Director of United States Grant for the Ben Franklin Transatlantic Fellows Institute

From the private sector, another professional comments,

“Mount Vernon’s transdisciplinary approach focuses on building strong critical thinking and problem solving skills that will better prepare students to compete in a global marketplace.”

– Joanne Burke, Banker, Goldman Sachs; and Member of Board of Overseers, Boston Symphony Orchestra

Lastly, one of last week’s panelists remarks,

“Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of such an exciting experience! Not only was it meaningful to me because I witnessed tremendous growth in the students…but it was also incredible to see students tackling problems that exist in the world outside MVPS, offering significant and relevant solutions. I am impressed with the level of thoughtfulness and detail students put into their projects. Thank you again for allowing me to join!”

In my career I cannot remember seniors, during their final semester of high school, spontaneously celebrating success by running down a hallway and high-fiving classmates because of a school project. But that is what happened.

Levels of engagement, relevance, and challenge are high, and I look forward to sharing more updates as the process evolves.

Tyler S Thigpen

Head of Upper School

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

Numbers Count: Contextual Assessment and Quantitative Measures in #PBL #DTk12

“He got one out of three!,” said Phil.

“Wow! Can you believe that?!,” responded Ann.

Did the “He” in this short story experience success or failure? Context makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it?

I can imagine one context: A teacher on a team is reviewing assessment data, and Phil announces to his team that a student “got one out of three.” The tone could be disappointment and disbelief, indicating that Phil thought the student had more command over what had been assessed. The teammate, Ann, knowing how hard the team has been working on the lesson study and assessment echoes Phil’s consternation. In fact, I’ve heard just such a conversation.

I can also imagine a second context: A young boy relatively new to baseball is talking to his mom about a player hitting one out of three at-bats during a season, as the boy figures out what batting averages of .333 mean versus averages of .250. In this context, the exclamations indicate wild excitement at reviewing the success of the young boy’s friend who made the All-Star team. The mom is reflecting the excitement with a big smile on her face, saying, “Can you believe that?!” In fact, I’ve heard just such a conversation.

As schools examine and employ strategies like project-based learning and design thinking, I believe the stories above can be catalysts for talking about quantitative feedback in context. Why is it that the same fraction and decimal is called “failure” in one context and “success” (great success!) in another? Could it be that many of us have a “movie in our mind” playing – one that shapes our beliefs about what it means to get a one out of three based on experience with traditional quizzes or formative assessments? Could it be that we have come to assume that the content and skills on such assessments should be evaluated in such a way that only 70% and above would be considered “passing?” Considering an ed psych concept like Vygotsky’s ZPD (zone of proximal development) might lead us to believe that the scaffolding and instruction is in misalignment with the student’s learning. In context one, many might view one out of three as a problem.

But in the context of baseball, a 33% means something very different. It involves a mental movie that tells us that one out of three is grounds for Hall of Fame induction if the player can do that consistently over a career. Why is 33% so different in this context? Could it be that the high-quality activity of being face-to-face with a pitcher throwing serious heat causes us to shift our expectations and see 33% in an entirely new perspective and point of view? In context two, many might view one out of three as a celebration.

As schools, when we design project-based learning and design-thinking exercises, how might they be informed, in terms of assessment, by the contrasting contexts of taking a quiz versus standing at bat? Are we putting new wine into old wine skins (please forgive the mix of metaphors) when we apply traditional grading practices and certain quantitative measures to more high-quality, intensive contexts that refuse to be assessed with the same mindsets that have historically been applied in the classroom?

How might we be more purposeful and intentional about the interpretation and context of mathematical feedback?

About 14 months ago, I counseled a group of four boys who said to a colleague and me that they had failed.

“Why do you think you’ve failed, guys?”

“Well, Mr. Adams, we only got 2 out of 10 – 20%. In school, 20% is seriously failing!”

“But in your case, through your project, you helped 2 out of 10 unemployed human beings get a job! In your case, your point of view of 20% might need to shift a bit. Just because 20% on a quiz or a test might have indicated real disappointments and ‘disasters’ to you in the past, a 20% employment-bump statistic in your job-fair project could be seen as a wildly successful outcome. It’s more like a batting average than a vocab quiz. That’s how Ms. G and I see it. You positively changed 2 people’s lives this week. Your ‘20%’ will cause ripples that will send significantly positive waves throughout that community.”

When we in schools apply quantitative measures – 100 point scales, 4 point Guskey scales, whatever kind of scales – I believe we need to do so very thoughtfully and carefully. We need to be proactive about our strategic communications surrounding these assessment measures. Students, teachers, parents – we all bring existing mental movies with us into the school setting.

Even if we don’t apply numerical measures – we did not do so in Synergy in the case of the food-desert, job-fair project – we must be aware of the mental movies and previous experiences that students bring with them to these contexts of project-based learning and design thinking. Those four boys did not receive any kind of “final grade” on that project (our course was non-graded, but heavily assessed), yet they applied previous context to a new situation and drew some profound conclusions about their perceived success. It was a powerful learning moment for me. One that has likely taken me the entire 14 months to fully process.

During the past few years, as I’ve consulted with a number of schools, more than a few are applying relatively traditional grading practices to the assessment of skill sets and dispositions. For example, on a report card or progress report, one might find a column or row labeled “Collaboration” and another labeled “Critical Thinking.” Next to the categories one might find an “82” or a “2 on a four-point scale.” One might also see a “B-” in the scoring cell. Or one might see initials like “PG” – “Progressing.”

I realize I am telling a very incomplete story here. I imagine some readers writing to me in the comments or email or Twitter and saying, “Bo, you’re missing the whole point! High-quality PBL shouldn’t even be getting a quantitative measure. It should be performance-task assessed with only narrative, negotiated feedback. No numbers at all! What’s wrong with you?!” With this post, I really mean to provide a catalysts for thinking and doing with those readers and schools who ARE trying to marry quantitative-assessment measures with high-quality PBL and DT. I, too, have serious questions about the “Why?,” and I am also deeply interested in the “How?” if a school just will not consider non-numerical assessment reporting, even for certain courses, strands, projects, assignments, etc.

Are the challenges we are curating or creating causing us to think deeply about the nature of the challenges relative to assessment? Are we orchestrating experiences that are more like the intensive match up between a super pitcher and a batter – ones in which the quantitative measures we apply communicate All-Star results at “33%?” Or are we trying to place new wine into old wine skins and facilitating experiences that challenge kids so slightly that it’s assured most will “pass” or view their Herculean efforts as failure because we’ve neglected to help everyone involved reconceptualize and pivot perspectives on what “one out of three” might really mean in our context?

Design for America – an incredible realization of empowering real-life problem-solving students.

From Liz Gerber, “Design for America: A Network of Students and Designers Solving Real-World Challenges,” published on GOOD, January 23, 2013 at 8:00 AM:

When I was an engineering student, many of my professors assigned me to a team and asked us to solve invented problems, like how to propel a ball across a room using only cardboard and rubber bands or how to build the tallest structure out of toothpicks and marshmallows. Other professors asked us to design specific things, such as laparoscopic suturing devices or fetal monitoring devices. But my favorite professors allowed me to choose my team and encouraged us to find our own problems to work on. Those assignments were the ones that made me feel I was helping others most. As a design engineer, I wanted meaning—and I wanted to choose my team.

And, a bit later:

What kind of community could I create to help students think that they were capable of helping others? What kind of process could I teach that helped students to think that they could collaboratively tackle the messiest and more daunting problems such as our obesity epidemic, failing schools, and polluted waters? As a professor, my job is to teach students how to reliably and creatively come up with answers to engineering design problems. Could I create an organization or environment that, like the Obama campaign, would inspire students to carry out their mission—as they envisioned it—in their own creative ways?

Here’s what I created: Design for America pulls together teams of volunteer faculty, students, and professional mentors in a local community. Interdisciplinary student teams meet weekly. Anyone who wants to be part of a design team can be. The only requirement is that participants must work, not just talk about the enormity of the problems. DFA doesn’t give students problems to solve; it guides them to walk around their community to find problems they believe are meaningful.

It’s like Synergy 8, but for college. (Link to the Synergy 8 category on It’s About Learning)

(HT to @SAISNews for making certain that I saw Liz Gerber’s DFA piece!)