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.

The driver and the passengers. Is school driver’s ed or passenger’s ed?

When traveling in a car, who tends to learn the routes better? The driver or the passengers? Who better internalizes the paths and roads and mental maps of the journey?

It’s an interesting metaphor for schools, isn’t it? If we say we want children to be and become deep learners who internalize the cognitive and social skills and knowledge to direct their own paths and journeys later, then how much are we willing to commit to letting them be the drivers more often?

While it’s certainly not always the case, I’ve found that subject-area organization of school – the traditional math, then English, then science classes for a little less than an hour each – tend to be driven by the teachers, and the student-learners are more the passengers.

If you want to test that assumption, then ask a K-12 student to describe to you what they will be doing and studying during an upcoming day or week of school. Then ask them who decided on that plan – that route.

Yet, in project-point-of-origin settings, where the learners launch projects based on their curiosities, interests, wonderings, and passions, the students tend to be in the drivers’ seats, and the teachers can become more like navigational passengers (not backseat drivers!) on the journey.

Who are you letting drive the learning? What’s your school’s balance among time for the teachers to drive and time for the students to drive? Whom do you say you want to engage in deep, powerful learning?

So, I can’t help but ask: Do we want school to be more like “Driver’s Ed” or “Passenger’s Ed?”

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Inspired by Krista Tippett’s interview with Dr. Adele Diamond.

Related posts on It’s About Learningsearch category: “Curiosity”

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?

Teaching innovation and innovating the system. #BothAnd

From Thom Markham, as read on MindShift, April 1, 2013

One overriding challenge is now coming to the fore in public consciousness: We need to reinvent just about everything. Whether scientific advances, technology breakthroughs, new political and economic structures, environmental solutions, or an updated code of ethics for 21st century life, everything is in flux—and everything demands innovative, out of the box thinking.

The burden of reinvention, of course, falls on today’s generation of students. So it follows that education should focus on fostering innovation by putting curiosity, critical thinking, deep understanding, the rules and tools of inquiry, and creative brainstorming at the center of the curriculum.

This is hardly the case, as we know. In fact, innovation and the current classroom model most often operate as antagonists. The system is evolving, but not quickly enough to get young people ready for the new world. But I do believe there are a number of ways that teachers can bypass the system and offer students the tools and experiences that spur an innovative mindset. Here are ten ideas: (emphasis added)

Read the full post here.

I think Thom’s post is excellent. The three intro paragraphs are profound and thought-provoking – and, hopefully, action-provoking. Also, I appreciate his willingness and ability to empower teachers and classroom practices. Thom’s thinking and examples resonate strongly with me and with my experience co-designing and co-implementing Synergy – a transdisciplinary, community-issues, problem-solving course for eighth graders.

But I am also left wondering about and wanting more concerted efforts to actually affect the system purposefully and intentionally, rather than feeling that our only, or most practical, choice is to bypass the system.

How are you and the schools with which you are involved systematizing the learning of innovation? All of us – in education, in for-profit business, in non-profit organizations beyond education, and in our personal lives and families – should be more focused on such questions, issues, and solutions. The citizens can affect such change and impact current and future quality of life – if we commit to doing so. Of the people, by the people, for the people enables us to do so. We can affect the system. The system is made from us, by us, and for us. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

PROCESS POST: Putting it all together OR Mood board for school=life

When I talk to people, it is highly likely that I will end up sharing something that I have been contemplating and studying for years. I just can’t help it. It usually emerges in, at least, one of two forms…

If school is supposed to prepare kids for real life, then why doesn’t it look more like real life?


School, in its current form, is a profound interruption from our natural ways of learning as humans.

Think of how children tend to learn before formalized schooling. Picture the events of childhood learning – to crawl, to walk, to talk, to play, etc. Now, picture “school.” In what ways do your two mental-imagery exercises match and differ?

Repeat for the learning that typically happens after formalized schooling, during our adult lives. How do your mental images compare?

I’ve shared here before that my own sons did not “disaggregate” their explorations and learnings about the world until they started formalized schooling. In other words, it wasn’t until school that PJ started to say things like, “Oh, that’s math.” Or, “that’s language arts – that’s not math.” Before school, all of the learning was more integrated and holistic. When he could start to put it in rooms, some doors closed.

Two posts caught my eye just moments ago – one on Twitter and one on Edutopia’s blog. I think they help illustrate the idea of re-blending ways of knowing and integrating various capabilities. I think they provide elements on a mood board for re-imagining school and how to blur the lines between school and real life.

Here’s the first – a tweet from SciencePorn:

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 11.15.54 AM





Here’s the second – a post from Shawn Cornally (@ThinkThankThunk) on Edutopia. To whet the appetite for a full click on that link, I offer a few quotes that resonated with me.

As the media coverage and administrative spotlight is turned on these new benchmarks, I’d like us all to keep the following in mind: Engagement trumps all.


we have millions of children in schools learning things on narrative arcs that they had no part in authoring.


As more and more references to STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts and Math) flood my Twitter feed, I can’t help but wonder how long until we all realize that lessons go where they will, which results in unplannable but reflectable STEHALM (Science, Tech, Engineering, History, Arts, Language and Math) experiences.

Isn’t that great! STEHALM could be letter labels in that photo of the PDA + the video camera + the laptop + the watch + the beeper + the cell phone + the Polaroid + the Walkman. Just two representations of the same overarching idea(l).

When will we act to make “school” more like that iPhone, instead of carrying around the discreet elements as separate and disaggregated pieces? Even if we subdivided the day and did some of each – integrated project-based learning where challenges and issues drive the agenda, as well as some time for exercising the disciplinary lenses sparked by those authentic explorations – I believe we would be moving in a right direction to help make school more life like.

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Thanks to those who inspired with those posts!