Category: PBL (page 1 of 2)

10 Big Student Goals For the New Year

The following are a few ideas intended to promote future-ready, critically- and creatively-thinking students during the coming school year. They have been rattling around my head as a result of several road and plane trips this summer where I’ve been able to pass the time studying computational thinking, design, innovative schools, etc. Some could feasibly tie easily into content standards in multiple subjects. Others are big-picture, broader actions that involve life skills beyond the scope of subject-area objectives.

In no particular order, every student will have the opportunity to:

  • help design the most effective learning space possible.
  • go through a process of creating something, testing it, failing, and doing it better the next time.
  • communicate with someone in another part of the world in real time.
  • share an accomplishment or work they are proud of with an audience beyond the walls of their home or school.
  • study something they choose and do something they want to do with it.
  • work with a team and, at least once, as a leader of a team.
  • teach something to the entire class.
  • ask lots of actionable, open-ended questions.
  • read books of their choosing from multiple genres, including non-fiction.
  • effectively defend a viewpoint on an issue of importance to them.

Rapid Reaction: Most Likely to Succeed

The latest education-themed book I have finished is Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. It is a compelling, challenging book that questions a vast list of things that we take for granted as being fundamental in education: subject areas, daily schedules, grades, traditional assessment, standardized assessment, college entrance exams, college in general, and much more. It should generate powerful, change-inducing discussions if selected for a school or organizational book study. It is a fascinating and entertaining read, as well, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

I had the opportunity last night to view the related documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, at a screening in Austin. The film is much narrower in scope than the book, as is almost always the case. Rather than visiting a wide range of schools and taking on all of the issues of the book, the film focuses on 2 classes and, primarily, 2 students in the very non-traditional setting of San Diego’s High Tech High School. There is just enough historical background and future predicting to give context and purpose to the narrative of the students, then we are presented with a brief view into the day-to-day lives of the principle subjects. It is an entertaining documentary and has you rooting for the students to succeed. As a father and educator, it struck several chords with me and, honestly, made me a bit emotional at times. The following are a few takeaways from the film for me.

  • Traditional school curriculum is soul-crushing. We rely on perky or entertaining teachers to make our students’ days bearable and, occasionally, enjoyable. Make no mistake, though, most kids are riding it out, disinterestedly waiting for the bell day after pointless day.
  • The entire purpose of school as we have created it is to pass tests. Unit tests, benchmark tests, practice tests, state tests, college entrance tests, on and on. We don’t admit it, but that is our purpose as educators–not to help them succeed in life, but to help the kids pass tests.
  • committeeof10We are at the mercy of a bunch of rich, powerful men who died a century ago. The power and sway that a group of elite, white academics and industrialists still holds over education in the United States is baffling. Not that their intentions were bad–their world was simply an entirely alien place that bears no resemblance to ours, yet we still run our schools as if we arrived at work in our Model T’s.
  • Parents have a really hard time letting go of the past, Strangely, most adults do not recall how boring and meaningless much of our educational experience was growing up. Our lack of accurate reflection makes it extremely hard to imagine our kids surviving and thriving in a world without bells, subjects, and textbooks.
  • Students, especially high achieving ones, have the same hard time as parents. Top ranked kids know the routine, know what’s expected of them, and often don’t want their attention to be diverted to anything but gaming the system, getting a high SAT score, and getting into the Ivy League. New paradigms and routines can be very hard for these kids.
  • Is “college for all” really in kids’ best interest? This is especially thorny when kids experience a school like High Tech High or other bastions of creativity and imagination, then get to head off to the land of talking heads and academic loftiness (where they get to drop a couple hundred grand for the privilege).
  • Students engaged in meaningful, challenging work will exceed our expectations. It truly was staggering to see the quality of work of everyday, ordinary kids in the film. Likewise, the grit, leadership, and self-motivation they displayed was a beautiful thing to imagine.
  • hopeThere is hope! I see more evidence all the time of a trickle of  radical, powerful, completely new models emerging. They are models that put kids first, not tests, not rankings, not college acceptance. Strangely, their kids seem to do quite well on “the tests” and at the next level, probably because the challenges they have undertaken already are of greater complexity, difficulty, and meaningfulness than what they face in the established system. It is not an easy thing to achieve. It involves critical self-examination, humiity, open-mindedness, creativity, extreme working hours, new goals, communities with vision, and more. But it is occurring, and that gives me hope and faith in the profession I’m called to.

Image source, Committee of Ten

Image source: Hope

Latest Podcast: #17: Why Ask Why?

This is a 15-minute followup to the blog post about Beautiful Questions. Like I stated, this book has my head bursting with ideas and implications, and there will be more to come. Happy Memorial Day weekend, everyone.

The Power of the Beautiful Question


I am currently listening to the audio book A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger. I’m only in the third  chapter, and the implications for education and my own work are already mind-blowing. I have spoken in presentations of the importance of giving students opportunities to ask questions and, very importantly, of teaching them how to ask questions, but Berger is placing even greater urgency on me to get the message out. Berger has conducted extensive research into the importance of asking good questions and the implications for both business/industry and education. He defines a “beautiful question” as

ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

Put simply, questioning why things are the way the are or how things might be done differently has the potential to lead to real inquiry, which in turn leads to real problem solving. Teaching our students to ask these kinds of questions encourages creativity, innovation, and critical thinking.

Unfortunately, this is severely lacking in our schools today, and it has been for more than a century. Schools as they largely exist now are relics of an industrial age, which Berger explains emphasized rote, quiet, routine-filled activities designed to produce factory workers performing static, routine-filled jobs. Many of us in education have known this for years. I read a report just this week by a UK think tank that espoused filling students brains with as many facts as possible, a so-called “classic education.” This report was just 2 years old, and it was painful to read. Berger challenges the reader to ask what the purpose of school is. Is it to impart countless facts and figures as fast as possible, in order to produce citizens that can regurgitate information on a state-mandated test? Or, is it to create lifelong, self-driven learners capable of solving the problems of tomorrow? In a world where routine, assembly-line work is outsourced to countries with the cheapest labor, it should be obvious that our competitive advantage will be maintained by supporting the latter.


Why not?

Photo credit:

Technology has given our students unimaginable access to the knowledge, thinkers, and experiences of the world. However, if we fail to give them the opportunities to explore these resources based upon their own questions, we cannot expect them to be the citizens of tomorrow who will tackle poverty, sustainable energy, disease, crime, and so on. Berger talks extensively about the way schools and, often, businesses, discourage questions, because they slow things down or deviate from agendas established by those in authority. We value correct answers, not well-crafted questions. It is imperative that we change this, and we can start in simple ways:

  • Recognize a “Question of the Day” from a student. Celebrate questions at least as much as answers.
  • Designate group discussion times to explore questions about a topic before, during, and after a unit of study.
  • Embrace the fact that students will ask questions for which we don’t have the answers, and get to work helping them find them.
  • Teach students how to ask “Why…”, “How…”, and “Is it possible…” types of questions.
  • Strip out some of the pre-determined instructions and questions from class activities. Let students’ own questions and curiosities drive them.
  • Engage students in solving real-life problems, not just covering the textbook or curriculum.
  • Utilize technology’s unique capabilities for creativity, inquiry, collaboration, and exploration.
  • Give up control. Start by designating small blocks of time to regularly let kids share and then investigate what fills them with questions and wonder.

As I stated at the outset, I’ve barely scratched the cover of this fascinating book. I’m sure there will be more posts forthcoming on the ideas it inspires. If you are looking for a good read for the beach or poolside this summer, I highly recommend this one. I truly think it will inspire and challenge you to examine the role of questioning in your own classrooms or even with your kids in your own homes and inspire changes that will make each places of excited, engaged inquiry.

New Podcast: Why Have Conferences?

The genesis of my latest podcast is the reflection I’ve done on last week’s TCEA conference in Austin, and on some of the Twitter conversations that took place last Friday after the conference ended. The discussion centered upon the nature of most conference sessions, and whether or not they could get past edtech bling and focus upon how we teach and learn. Here is a sample exchange from some folks I hold in very high regard.

Jon Samuelson (ipadSammy) on TwitterJon Samuelson (ipadSammy) on Twitter-1

I share my thoughts on this discussion in the podcast. In Readers’ Digest version, I agree that we need more focus on pedagogy, less on the tools, but I don’t think the tools discussions are completely unworthy of our time or attendance. I’ve ranted against the “list” sessions myself, but I still manage to see a few things that I can use in almost every one I attend. I always try to imagine how the resource might help a student as they work on a project or promote a skill (creativity, critical thinking, empathy, etc.) that students need. I also think we have to remember that effective and desirable teaching practices (in contrast with what we use to teach) can’t possibly be covered in a typical conference session. We can pick up or share small pieces, but real change in terms of classroom practice takes lots of time, practice, collaboration, coaching, etc.

I also share a few thoughts about some sessions on project based learning that I had the chance to attend. Sometimes, you can learn more from mistakes than successes–I’ll leave it at that.

Please take a few minutes to give a listen, and I always relish your thoughts, questions, arguments, whatever!

Innovativeness and Creativity Inspired by Cardboard?

cardboard challenge 1I’ve often stolen a page from Sir Ken Robinson by asking a group of educators whether or not they considered themselves to be creative people. The responses have always been overwhelmingly negative. I’ve then asked them to answer the same question, but to do so while imagining that they were there kindergarten selves. This always elicits a laugh and an vast majority who responds in the positive. Somewhere along the line, we stop seeing ourselves as creative beings. There are probably numerous reasons for this, but the way we school our students is without a doubt a key contributor. Somewhere in the sea of the school routine, the drills, the worksheets, the test-focused, inane curriculum, we forget how to imagine, to create, and to invent.

cardboard challenge 2Yesterday, I had the pleasure of leading a group of teachers in a “maker” workshop at TCEA’s annual convention. The workshop only had time for a couple of activities, unfortunately. Participating educators used cardboard to create chairs and MakeyMakeys to create video game controllers. This was the first time I’ve done a cardboard challenge with a group of teachers. They worked in groups with the instruction to build a chair, which would be judged based upon aesthetics (art/design), strength (physics/engineering), and comfort (engineering/design).

cardboard challenge 5As I circulated among groups, observing their interactions and work, I felt a sense of pride and excitement that no other presentation or professional development I had previously designed had ever given me. It was truly as if that creative, innovative kindergartener was reborn. Groups created chair designs completely unique to one another. They planned, built, tested, analyzed, and revised. They engaged in genuine critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving. All of this through the use of cardboard, tape, and a few other, low-tech tools (such as MakeDo, a set of really cool tools for building with cardboard).

cardboard challenge 3In the educational technology world, it is very easy to become enamored with flash and style. As a certified gadget junky, I know this all too well. It is commonplace to become infatuated with the newest tools and to want our classrooms to be outfitted with a magnificent array of interactive whiteboards, tablets, laptops, student response systems, digital projectors, document cameras, and on and on. However, these are all nothing more than tools, and like any tools, they are only as useful as the skills brought to their application. If we have only learned how to use a hammer and apply that to a screwdriver, the screwdriver is useless.

imageIn education, if we are going to continue to use our tools in the same ways we used the tools that came before, they become a colossal waste of time, resources, and money. We have to learn new ways of teaching, not just the latest, shiny things. When we create opportunities for students to build, create, innovate, and invent, we open up incredible possibilities for our technology resources to foster the 21st century skills we give so much lip service to. In fact, as the cardboard chairs demonstrate, we can even do this without the latest gadgets. Technologies simply up the possibilities of our students imagining and creating the truly revolutionary.

So, how do we do this in the classroom? Here are a few steps I would suggest:

  1. Begin with a great (open-ended) question. Even better, begin with a great question that comes from our students. Great questions as things like: How? What if? Is it possible? It is perfectly appropriate and okay to use the curriculum to inspire your questions–objective statements can be great question starters. 
  2. Since our system expects grades, assess students based upon clear, simple criteria. Whenever possible, let students establish the criteria and participate in the assessment.
  3. Turn off the traditional teacher mode and try to get into the role of advisor and mentor. Focus on the process students are going through and ensuring that they have what they need to answer the question or design the solution. This is one place technologies can play a big role.
  4. Teach students how to respond to failure and mistakes. Students need to know how to analyze their efforts, regroup, change plans, and try again. Don’t accept failure, but expect and embrace productive failure.
  5. Don’t look for standardized responses. Imagination, creativity, and innovation lead to endless possible solutions. Be prepared and embrace this, and expect the unexpected.

Finally, we need to be patient (but not too patient) with ourselves. Chances are that you, as did I, grew up in a school world that focused upon the passing of knowledge from the teacher or textbook to students’ minds. As a result, this is what we know, and this is what we do. Changing our habits will take practice, skill, and time. It’s a change that must be made, however, even in the face of an incessant, seemingly overwhelming call for standardization of everything. Our kids are not “standardized”. We as educators have spent too much time and effort on completely impotent “reforms” and initiatives that are, at their core, just doing the same, ineffective things more frequently, more loudly, with new buzzwords, and with more conviction. This isn’t change or reform or anything worthwhile. Anyone who honestly and critically looks at the results of the past decade and a half of school reform mandates and efforts can come to no other conclusion. Quite the opposite, the results have demonstrated that a complete re-imagining of what we are doing is going to be the only way to truly revolutionize education. Look for opportunities for students to ask questions, solve problems, create, invent, collaborate. Create learning spaces that are filled with tools and resources that encourage inquiry, experimentation, and exploration. Start small, if needed, but dream big. Just like I experienced yesterday, I believe it will leave you and your students feeling amazed and inspired at what can transpire.



Shut Up

A recent conversation about interactive whiteboards with an administrator had me suddenly feeling and responding a bit  Gary Stager-ishly. While I don’t quite hold IWBs to the same level of disdain as does the esteemed Dr. Stager, I find myself moving more to his point of view and growing consistently less tolerant of the type of teaching such technologies almost inevitably fertilize, that of the teacher-expert-lecturer standing in the classroom spotlight, seeking to fill students’ brains with some pre-determined list of important facts. Listening to Robert Wolk’s Wasting Minds yesterday as I drove to Austin, the author brought up the question of what we are actually here for. Is it to ensure students have a prescribed brain-load of knowledge and skills needed to ensure acceptance to the college of their choosing? Or, is it to create thinkers and problem solvers who can successfully navigate, respond to, and, when needed, even change the world? The best approach to teaching is radically different, depending upon which answer you subscribe to. As for me, I wholeheartedly believe in the latter, and it is what I want for my own children. As such, I want to offer some advice I wish I had been given as a rookie teacher 23 years ago: shut up. Our kids don’t need you constantly standing in front of the room (with or without that $2000 technological marvel hanging on your wall), dazzling them with all you have to share. They need you setting the table for learning by getting them interested, supplying them with the tools for learning, listening to their questions, directing and redirecting as needed, and modelling what a real learner looks like. You might be the foremost expert on plate tectonics, or the Constitution, or whatever, but think back to your own schooling for a minute. What was the most memorable learning experience of your school life? Was it an amazing, inspired lecture? Or, was it an engaging act of discovery, where you can barely remember the role of the teacher? What do you recall? What are your thoughts on the matter?

Oh, and I apologize for the title–I know it probably makes elementary folks cringe. 😉

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