Dreaming #PBL: Whatever It Is I Think I See Becomes a PBL to Me!

Whatever it is I think I see becomes a PBL to me! [sung to the tune of 1977 Tootsie Roll commercial embedded below]

If you were alive and watching TV in the mid to late 1970s, then perhaps you remember this 30 second advertisement from Tootsie Roll…

Simply replace “tootsie roll” in the jingle with “PBL.” Occasionally, my wife and sons will catch me singing this around the house. Truly, just about everything I see becomes a PBL idea to me. This visioning, though, is the result of purposeful and deliberate practice, as I have tried to grow in my capacity to develop “uppercase PBL” opportunities.

On January 4, 2012, I published a blog post about “Contemplating pbl vs. PBL.” In the post, I constructed a two-by-two matrix that helps explain how I think one can move along a spectrum of “lowercase pbl” (essentially project-oriented learning) to “uppercase PBL” in which learners are addressing genuine community challenges and engaging with authentic audiences of co-interested citizens. But how does one even think of such capital PBL ideas?

Based on countless conversations over the past few years, I get the feeling that more than a few educators struggle with the notion of originating and implementing uppercase PBL ideas. Actually, I think the struggle resides more in the implementation than in the origination, but that may need to be its own separate blog post. For now, let’s stick to the topic of originating, or concepting, the uppercase PBL ideas – creating the grand challenges that tend to integrate studies and promote community engagement from our student-learners and ourselves.

A Habit of Seeing and Recording

Concepting and brainstorming ideas for PBL is as simple as developing a habit of seeing and recording. Some may feel that such is easier said than done, but I believe it is really that easy. To form a habit, of course, one must commit to trying and rehearsing. Anyone with vision can develop a habit of seeing and recording, but it does take practice – just like anything else. In today’s world, though, the tools at our disposal make it easier and easier to develop a habit of seeing and archiving potential PBL ideas. Keeping a digital observation journal is a fabulous practice and discipline, if you want to build a resource pool of possible PBL opportunities.

I imagine there are countless ways to keep an observation journal. In essence, though, an observation journal is simply a space in which to record thoughts, questions, and images about the things that one sees while walking around. Because I almost always have my iPhone in my pocket, I rely heavily on this tool to keep my observation journal. As I walk around school and the greater Atlanta area, I often take pictures of things that raise my curiosity. For example, over the Christmas and winter break, I walked my dog quite a bit, and I captured the following images around a few bridges traversing Nancy Creek – the bridges are very close to my school, and Nancy Creek runs through my school campus.

Just from recording these images with my iPhone, I am wondering about fieldwork investigations of the science, math, economics, and history of Nancy Creek. Myriad questions come to mind…

  • What is the water quality of Nancy Creek? How does it change over a year’s cycle? What kind of life is supported by Nancy Creek? Is it safe for my boys and dog to play in Nancy Creek?
  • What data is collected by that big metal box? How does it collect the data? Where does the data go? Who uses the data and how is it used? How could schools help the organization named on the sticker? Could students participate in this data journalism of Nancy Creek?
  • What was the significance of the Nancy Creek area during the Civil War? What is it’s economic and ecological significance now?

Often, to record these images and questions, I upload my pictures and observations to an email-based blog system called Posterous. Then, with categories and tags added, I am developing a significant library of PBL ideas. In Synergy, we use a group Posterous account (see related post) so that all 26 of us are contributing to the pool of potential project ideas. During the first semester, we accumulated over 400 observation-journal posts. Out of those posts, we developed six projects together.

Imagine if a school faculty and/or the entire student body employed such a school-group Posterous (or any such collaborative tool for seeing and archiving) to collectively organize a virtual fleet of observation journal ideas! The PBL opportunities could be endless!

To develop such a habit of seeing and recording is to follow the initial practices espoused in design thinking:

At Design Thinking for Educators, where the above image was screen captured, this five-stage process of designing is more fully explained. For now, though, just think of observation journaling as a means into “discovery and ideation.” As one takes pictures and records questions for one’s observation journal, one is also engaging in a bit of “interpretation.” By posing questions and potential research curiosities, we begin to interpret what we are seeing, as we begin to formulate what projects could emerge from such wondering. To engage in such design thinking is to return to our roots as childhood learners. As Robert Fulghum has said, “LOOK!” may be the most powerful word we articulate (after mama and dada, of course!). And Mary Ann Reilly, in a recent post about “Making Art & (In)Forming Life,” reminds us of the power and potential of observation. We just have to re-open our eyes to that which we might have started to take for granted. We need to teach ourselves to see again…with that childhood enthusiasm for discovery!

A Key for Innovation

Relearning and leveraging our amazing human capacity for seeing is not just a fun way to generate ideas and enjoy the possibilities of challenge in school curricula and instruction. Seeing – as a multi-step, complex system of discovery, interpretation, and ideation – may be the key to educational innovation. In my eyes, innovation is about dreaming, teaming, seaming, and streaming. To dream is to envision. To dream is to “see” with more of our senses and being. To dream is to contemplate what could be.

May we dream big for our schools and our students. May we dream big for the challenges our world faces. Here’s to seeing…together.


[For more about PBL ideation, see the Buck Institute for Education resources, and the Apple Challenge Based Learning resources. I turn to these resources quite a bit!]

[Cross-posted at Inquire Within on September 3, 2012.]

Learning to See & Seeing to Learn #Coaching #DBL

My oldest son, PJ, is seven. He loves art, and he sees himself as an artist. According to Dan Pink, in A Whole New Mind, many children grow out of identifying themselves as artists. I hope and pray that PJ always sees himself as an artist. I believe that visual communication and design will only increase in importance as PJ grows up and inherits this world. No matter what he becomes professionally, I believe design and visual communication will be critical as our professional communities address the issues and problems of society.

I possess great hope that PJ will continue to identify as an artist. I possess this hope because PJ has a coach, also named PJ (so I will call her “PJ2”). My son PJ asked if he could take art lessons this year. Thanks to my wife and a good colleague, we were able to find an art teacher – PJ2. PJ2 comes to our home on Tuesdays, and she coaches my son PJ in “learning to see and seeing to learn.” I love this! She is helping him understand the shapes and forms of things. She helped him see the circles, ovals, rectangles, and frowny faces in the frog that my son PJ drew at his first lesson. My son PJ knows circles and rectangles, so he believes that he can do this drawing thing. He is learning to draw what he sees by looking at the whole, breaking it down into parts, and reproducing a creative whole of his own.

At his second lesson, PJ drew this bear and fish. My wife and I are trying hard to follow Carol Dweck’s advice in Mindset and praise the specific, repeatable behaviors that are helping PJ enact his seeing, drawing, and learning. We are trying hard not to say things like, “Wow, you are such a great artist.” It’s really hard not to say such things. I mean look at what he is drawing! A proud dad, I am.

But, I think I am even more proud as an educator than I am as a dad. We all have this capacity within us. We may not all have the interest or passion that lasts, but I believe we all have the capacity. PJ2 is “simply” teaching my son PJ to see what is in front of him. She is coaching him to transform a piece of blank paper into something from the future – his drawing. She is drawing out of him what is already there. She is coaching him to see this capacity in himself. She is practicing educare – to draw forth what lies within. She is coaching him in design thinking.

Recently, a colleague of mine who lives and educates in New York sent me this “Personal Best” article by Atul Gawande from The New Yorker. I am meandering through the article because it is so rich and full of wisdom about COACHING and the teaching profession – all professions, really. I am fascinated that she sent me this article at this moment in time. She and I do not converse or exchange messages at any regularity. But, at the time in which my son PJ is receiving coaching in art, JB sends me this article about coaching and the critical need for more coaching across the board.

I hope you will make time to read the article from The New Yorker, and I hope to write more about learning to see and seeing to learn. For now, I am merely recording some emerging thinking at the crossroads of an article and my son’s personal experience.

Coaching seems the key ingredient. In the article, Gawande describes coaching as “outside eyes and ears.” These coaching insights help us to see the future of what we can do and become. We need coaches. We need to be coaches. Coaches may be the central ingredient to schools making the transformation that faces us now in this 21st century. Coaching can help us see what is possible. Coaches can guide our processes of learning to see and seeing to learn. Coaching is more akin to what I hope to do next professionally.

May we all retain the childish belief that we are artists. May we all work diligently to repeat endlessly that word which Robert Fulghum described as the first real verbal magic of childhood: “LOOK!” May we lead from the future to transform blank canvas into beautiful works of art. The capacity to do so is in us all – if we will learn to see and see to learn.

Thanks to the visionaries and coaches!