A Project-Based Journey: Research I

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After reading the first three posts, it occurred to me that a blow-by-blow account of how my first foray into somewhat authentic PBL would not be of interest to many. Thus, I will space out my reflections a bit more. A couple of weeks have passed, and the students are deep into the first phase of their research. I’m fascinated by the variety of research styles the kids, who have all been exposed to the same scaffolding, are utilizing. My contribution to that process was the belief that good research is more about generating questions than answers. Once the best questions are defined, the answers represent the substance of the work that is contemplated: in this case, an essay.


The figure above illustrates the work of a student who took my advice to heart. Approximately half the class is operating in a mode that makes questions the primary goal of preliminary research. The rest of the class is using a variety of techniques ranging from the very basic lists of facts they have uncovered to hybrid methods that include diagrams, concept maps, and other visual displays of their thought processes as well as very basic notes (all of this material is posted on Seesaw). As always, my first inclination was to intervene with the latter group of students, helping them to see the light. Upon reflection, however, I deferred to varying skillsets and learning styles, wondering how the kids would arrive at a place where they would write a compelling preliminary thesis and summary argument by next week.

I call this phase of the project Research I because there is also a Research II phase that will occur after spring break. The first phase focuses on developing expertise in the historical subject matter most closely related to the students’ topics. Then they take a break from research and begin to hypothesize responses to the big question they identified earlier. The goal, as stated above, will be to develop a preliminary thesis and summary argument, and if that proves too challenging, to be afforded the opportunity to revise the big question to make it more manageable. Research II will then be driven by the preliminary thesis and argument, with a goal of evidence gathering rather than information gathering.

My earlier posts warranted feedback from PBL veterans, who advised me to be less formulaic and structured about the process students used to achieve their final goal. I hear and understand that feedback, but am not ready to let go of the fundamental structure of a lengthy research project for high school sophomores. I am letting go of the daily strategies these kids use to achieve the shorter-term goals we have set as a class (meaning I have convinced the kids of their value). My reasons for holding on to the structural scaffolding of the project has less to do with a loss of control, which is rarely a concern to me, and more with the students. It is their expressions, body language, and comments on a daily basis that communicate to me that they want to scaffold. I also understand the notion that their desire for scaffolding is a teachable moment that permits me to empower them. I am happy to empower my students, but I hear them saying they are not quite ready. They are only exposed to the PBL approach in my classroom and then return to a traditional classroom for four other courses. Without outside reinforcement, both programmatically and culturally, I find myself on an island with my students and thus am concerned with their intellectual survival. If my judgment is off target, I am struggling to determine at what point in the process I will know that.

A Project Based Journey: Day Three

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I’m now a project day ahead of my posts, providing me the gift of hindsight. Fair? The deeper I dig into this project, the more I am encountering personalized learning. We’ve moved to the next step of the process, the Project Plan document, even though some students have not settled on their big question or the scope of their research. The biggest challenge: keeping track of where each student is in this critical thinking process.


My instinct is to worry that some kids are “falling behind.” Then I kick myself and recognize that kids learn in fits and starts. Some move more quickly now and others will thrive in later stages of the project. How will I know when a student is in trouble, you ask. I already know; who has a topic wth low analytical potential, who is not comfortable with the process, who can’t commit to a scope of work and big question. Today I had a conversation with a student who has missed five classes this term. He had contracted “mono.” We spoke today after class about the challenges he will face navigating a large project with his lack of energy. His response to me was, “I’m more worried about my other courses. I love my project topic and always want to work on it.” That response echoes a different culture than the one in which I was raised.

Today the first draft of the research plan was due. There will be no more due dates for this document. Students will revise it as needed and appropriate, but also understand that this is their way of telling me how they are attacking the project. Without an accurate research plan, i will misunderstand their approach. Does that matter? Today, I still think it does.

The document consists of four sections. The first is a narrative of the scope of their research. Since the kids did a scope of work visual exercise, they are now translating that visual into narrative (another higher order thinking skill). Second is the historical background and context of their big question. Here’s a sample Big Question:

How did the Scramble for Africa change the nature of colonialism from a trade-driven to a market-driven system?

Yes. That question was written by a high school sophomore. The third section of the plan is the Sources/Historiography section. More to come on that portion of the plan in the next paragraph. Finally, each student explains the mechanics of how they will find their sources. When do they have to go to the Library? Will they need support from a research librarian? How will they keep their notes and sources organized (I am recommending an amazing app called Liquid Text)?

Returning to the Historiography portion of the plan, I understand this is one portion of the project in which the students will need my help (and perhaps that of my colleagues). No high school student develops a historiography for a topic in World History on their own. However, the student who wrote the question above made an attempt by searching out the Wikipedia article on The Scramble for Africa, jumped to the end of the article, and listed the authors in the References section. It was not a perfect solution, but it was a creative one. Even if kids find the shelf where the books on their topic live, each book will look the same; every author is simply another author. They can’t distinguish Martin Klein or Paul Lovejoy from Joe Smith. I don’t have any brilliant ideas for making the historiography exercise a student discovery experience. Suggestions?

The next installment will talk about evidence of real learning, both in class and in the Seesaw Portfolio.

A Project-Based Journey: Day Two

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There are few more interesting classroom activities than asking students to visually brainstorm a topic. One learns so much about the way in which they each learn, and it is a key example of why it is difficult to assess the interim steps of project-based work. Our inclination would be to assign the highest grade to the most organized and informative brainstorming piece. But the reality is that some kids learn by creating order from chaos, and thus they must begin with chaos. Others formulate order in their minds before they commit to paper. Do we penalize those who need to begin with chaos because it doesn’t fit our traditional notions of evaluation?


The question is: will I be able to predict how each project will fare by examining the brainstorming exercise? More importantly, will I be able to help the students look at their own brainstorming and determine where their thinking is as they plan a major piece of work on a specific historical topic? I wasn’t able to have a F2F conversation with every student, but I was able to provide them all with feedback in the form of questions and suggestions in the form of Seesaw comments. We also spent forty-five minutes looking at each brainstorming map, asking the students not what was required to make it better, but what the next step was. I wanted the students to understand this work and the remainder of the project as a progression and development in their thinking rather than a discrete submission subject to evaluation.

At the end of the class, I introduced the Scope of Work step for our next project meeting, and asked students to choose a partner by messaging me privately. I asked for a name and a rationale for choosing that student. How would the partner’s talents help to make one’s project successful?

Scope of work was another step that I generally did not have the time to try in a traditional class. It is challenging because it taxes critical thinking skills. At the top of the submission, students were asked to write out the project Big Question as they understand it at this point. Then they were to draw a T-chart with brainstorming topics that would be included in their study on the left and topics excluded on the right. In short, what would their project address and what would not be examined? Again, we used the immigration theme to mock up a sample so kids could see how the process worked. I later received feedback from a colleague suggesting that the exercise of scaffolding scope of work with the entire class participating might not be as effective as asking each student to try out this new approach individually before doing the assignment. Next time, I will test that hypothesis.

While it is still early in the project, I am starting to see things that inform my understanding of which students will need the most support, which will change topics before very long, and which will thrive because they are immersed in an endeavor that is high interest and allows them to produce a work product that they will be proud of. As always, the teacher is me wants to step in and “save” some of them from certain disaster, and the coach in me fights to leave them alone until they stumble, and then support them as they begin again.


A Project Based Journey: Day One

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In order to move forward with the big project, my students needed two things: a project topic or Big Question and a strategy. Day One would focus on the project topic, perhaps stopping short of a Big Question to answer, and the start of a strategy.

Students were provided with a list of general topics from which they would choose one and then begin the process of refining and narrowing that topic. The goal was that they would begin experiencing the process of developing historical research as it was actually done, rather than shoe-horning the process into an assignment sheet. There was a schedule, but it was flexible as long as we maintained a realistic pace. Given that these kids were not graduate students, it was necessary to provide them with a list of topics. Here is a portion of the project list:


For Day One, the assignment was to read all of the possible fifteen general topics, do some light research on the ones that were of interest, decide on one, and explain why the student chose that topic in a paragraph. I explained that this topic needed to be a labor of intellectual love, as each student would live and breathe that topic for sixteen weeks. As I  parsed through my caution, I realized that my students had never focused on one topic in any subject for sixteen weeks, and that recognition was clearly painted on their faces. For some kids, continued interest for sixteen minutes was an accomplishment. For a couple, sixteen seconds was about the limit. It was too soon to tell just what kinds of challenges we might face as the year progressed.

In class, we walked through each topic chosen with the understanding that no more than two students would tackle one general topic, and the pair would approach the topic from different perspectives. All was well until we discovered that five students wanted to embrace The Great Depression as a worldwide phenomenon. For some, the reasoning hit a little close to home: “My great-grandmother lived through it and she used to tell me stories about how she had to survive.” Good primary source narrative, but not the stuff of good historical analysis. Four of those students moved to other topics. I asked each student why they had chosen their topic, and alas, some had to read the paragraph they had written in order to respond. That’s what happens when your masterpiece paragraph is immediately followed by ten polynomial equations. Our cup runneth over, as the cognitive brain scientists would say.

In the final twenty minutes of the seventy minute class, I introduced some scaffolding on the process of brainstorming a topic. I chose one they would not be addressing, but had some familiarity with: immigration. I had them rapidly cover the board with keywords, phrases, and questions. I then asked the kids to choose one of the questions; ultimately one that began with “why”, as it invited analysis. After choosing a question, the students  crossed out the keywords that did not apply.

Their assignment was to duplicate this process/skill with their project topic. The net result was to be a Big Question that would begin to define the scope of work.

Stay tuned for the results of that exercise. Transferability of skills did not shine on this particular day.

A Project-Based Journey: Introduction

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I haven’t posted in four years; not because I was out of ideas, but because I was distracted by other priorities. I’m no longer distracted


How many teachers are crazy enough to redesign their course in the middle of the year? To further complicate matters, this was a multi-section course, meaning that my students had to somehow align with their peers in the other sections.
The course was sophomore World History, and we were five projects into an eleven project course. Before I completed my final year in the classroom, I wanted to try a more orthodox PBL approach, knowing that I would be unable to follow the principles to the letter and still remain somewhat aligned with the other sections. Still, my students would each complete one large project followed by a public exhibition of their work. That effort would be followed by a culminating sub-project in which all the students would combine their expertise at a mock world forum where they would forecast the next twenty years based on their collective contributions of modern history. The collaborative experience would be satisfied by pairing students during the large project so that each pair would operate as a mutual resource and critic for their respective partners, and that role would be part of the overall project assessment.
The course alignment challenge would be met by continuing to read the course text at approximately the same rate as the other sections, anchoring the Big Questions for the large projects to the text, and interleaving single day workshops to introduce the skills the teaching team agreed to.
Rationale for the change was driven by both students’ visible lack of passion for the subject matter and a feeling on their part that they were unable to submit their best work due to the time constraints inherent in the multiple project structure. While some may view the student response as an excuse, I sensed there was a sufficient degree of truth that a change was warranted. In a sense, my shift in approach would call their bluff since the new expectation was better work products.
The approval process began with my students. Their initial ènthusiasm for the rationale and description of the new curriculum was somewhat tempered when I suggested that our new approach would likely be more work and more rigorous than the former approach. They would be asked to take more responsibility for their learning, and although there would be numerous checkpoints, they owned the work product. I gave them a second opportunity to consider which approach they would like to take, and again they opted for the new modified PBL course. I then communicated with the course leader and my department head. Both were very supportive; however, my department head asked me to keep a journal, so here we are. I’ll post a synopsis and analysis each day we work on the project.

Technology Integration is the Messenger

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For the past twenty-two years, I have partnered with teachers to integrate technology in the classroom. During that time, my partners have fallen into three broad groups with a corresponding range of experiences. The first group consists of those teachers who recognized at some point that student engagement could be radically improved without sacrificing rigor. As a result, these folks were open and willing to experiment with technology tools that met their learning goals, even if some experiments failed. In most cases I served as an enthusiastic coach in the wings just in case something went wrong, encouraging the teacher to take the lead. The second group was open to trying new things, recognized the student engagement issue, but was not completely sold that some form of technology integration was the best solution. They wanted me to play a more visible role, raising their comfort level and being present when the new tool was launched so the kids would see me as a partner in crime with the teacher if the lesson went south. The third group was convinced technology integration would take on a life of its own, and would detract from the classic content and skills that defined the goals of the course (the distraction argument). They weren’t completely closed to the notion that some technology tools might support student learning that was difficult to achieve otherwise, but those scenarios required convincing and a strong support commitment (I’ll work by your side until the bitter end).

This pattern was repeated for many years in a culture where faculty were encouraged, but not required, to innovate. in short, we wanted the development of faculty innovation to move at the pace most comfortable for our teachers. And why not? Their existing teaching was not broken, and in many cases met that high standard of excellence. Our idea was to “future-proof” teaching and learning so societal and technological changes would not take us by surprise. Then one day we changed the rules a bit. We gave every teacher an iPad, but still did not ask anything of our faculty other than to experiment and assess whether this tablet device might help us enhance teaching and learning. Shortly thereafter, however, we did require our students to purchase an iPad. The rationale was that if teachers incorproated great apps to use in and out of the classroom, every student would be able to participate in the new experience. The response, as always, was mixed as the program evolved, but there was a different tone to the negative responses. For the first time, I heard anger. The source of this anger is wonderfully articulated in this post by Terry Heick on the te@chthought site.

I agree with most of Terry’s points, but there is one that stands out for me:

And this is where things get stressful. Technology doesn’t make teaching better or worse, simpler or more complex–it changes it all entirely. The frameworks. The models. The training. The instructional design. Curriculum. Lesson design. Assessment. Learning feedback. Classroom management. School design. All of it.

Not everybody articulates all of these challenges on a regular basis, but they persist as subliminal stimuli that can serve to frustrate and sometimes enrage a teacher who takes great pride in what they do on a daily basis. Again, Terry articulates the underlying reasons; that edtech tools tend to make everything we do more explicit and exposed to the outside world:

Further complicating matters is the difficulty of effectively integrating technology in the classroom. This is hard for some educators (who do it well) to appreciate. You have to understand content, teaching, and technology on nearly equal terms, and when you don’t it all has an awkward way of illuminating the holes in a teacher’s expertise. That doesn’t mean that teachers that question edtech do so simply because they’re not good at it, but rarely do you hear people complain about things they do well.

When edtech consisted of a chalkboard, we walked into our classroom, closed the door, and engaged in the art of teaching. When all of your course content, explicit pedagogy, assessments, and rubrics are on the web, for example, the whole world might know how you teach, how you approach your curriculum, and your relationship with students. Removing the kimono can be a very humbling and threatening experience, even if this additional explicit scaffolding has a significant upside for students.

Then we hear Finland bragging that they achieve the highest PISA scores in the world without any technology, and one is suddenly cast in the role of questioning whether the anger of some of our teachers is justified. In response to the anger issue, I would supplement the view Terry presents. First, technology integration, as Terry points out above, can be inherently disruptive to educators and education. There are a cadre of people out there, led by Clayton Christensen, who champion disruptive innovation on the grounds that education today suffers from an incompatibility between current practice and the way kids learn. Their solution stops short of blowing up the existing infrastructure, but creates evolving pockets of disruptive innovation that demonstrate success, and then incorporates them into schools in ways that will effectively transform the traditional structure. What Christensen calls for, customized learning, student-centric classrooms, and increased use of appropriate technology, are sound principles of twenty-first century education. The challenge is getting there, and if we are going to retain the good teachers who have dedicated their lives to our kids, then I suspect a less disruptive and more organic shift will be necessary (putting tremendous pressure on good professional development resources). It is critical to remember that while this disruption is occurring, we are still educating children. I would hope that our students do not become the casualties of a necessary sea-change in the educational process. For many years, each time school systems implemented new programs, the kids caught in the transition were the losers while teachers and administrators adjusted and learned new approaches on an annual basis. Further disruption on a larger scale could result in more disconnect between students and their educational goals.

Second, since the advent of the personal computer, the laptop, and particularly with mobile devices, it has become clearer that the teaching and learning focus in the classroom is shifting. In that shift, teachers are still the experts and the necessary role models for our children, but the learning process becomes more dependent on active engagement by students (as a result of both culture and brain research). We have evolved beyond an educational system that was designed to turn out good American citizens who would find gainful employment, making a contribution to our world-class economy (the factory model). We have progressed from a series of self-contained disciplines and skills that had a finite core to an interdisciplinary world that has an unlimited scope of knowledge and leaves us with more questions than answers. Problem-solving is often beyond the reach of individuals, and must be attacked by groups of people globally with a variety of skills and expertise. So, the other source of teacher anger with technology is the age-old process of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Yes, there are technology tools that will enhance the learning experience in a teacher-centered classroom, but they  are limited to tools that support the curation and presentation of rich digital resources, basic research, and document production. Reaping the full benefit of edtech in a mobile environment requires students to take charge of their own learning, and use their mobile tools for good reason: to connect with others to solve problems, to polish and enhance collaborative research skills, to create their own content in peer groups, and to make things using tools for design. If the approach to teaching and learning changes to a more student centered enterprise, then technology integration becomes a smoother process because all of the issues that Terry mentioned above must be addressed prior to the incorporation of technology (the last step in curriculum design is matching the technology tools to the goals of the lesson). Otherwise, edtech becomes the stimulus for rethinking teaching and learning. That has been a widely used strategy for promoting innovation in our schools, but one unintended consequence is that edtech becomes the messenger that innovation is necessary, and is therefore the object of the ire of some teachers.

Adaptive Learning and Other Educational Challenges

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I subscribe to Dan Meyers’ blog because he thinks and writes with great clarity about the teaching of mathematics. I’m no mathematician, but good teaching techniques are cross-disciplinary, permitting me to apply many to the teaching of history. One of Dan’s recent posts has a title that would catch anybody’s attention: “Adaptive Learning Is An Infinite iPod That Only Plays Neil Diamond.” In the post, Dan laments his encounters with futurists, who are promoting an adaptive learning solution to solve a problem that is part of a teacher-centric classroom. For Meyers, who practices a student-centered approach, the adaptive learning solution, in its current incarnation, does not apply. Rather than elaborating, Dan sends the reader to a series of excellent Education Week blog posts by Justin Reich, where the topic is explored in more detail. I recommend that you read Justin’s work because he lends some additional perspective to the Meyers lamentations.

While we have watched technology tools blossom for consumption and content creation, enhancements to online assessment or any related automated learning program such as adaptive learning have fallen woefully short of what good teachers require. Reich elaborates on the reasons why, and offers a few suggestions for future software development. The operative questions are whether the lack of good adaptive assessment tools is a show-stopper for blended and online learning (clearly not), and if the real question is not so much about assessment, but who is at the center of the classroom. The answer to the latter question might shape the direction of the development of educational technology tools.

The point of adaptive learning is to focus individual student effort on types of questions that were difficult or impossible to answer while minimizing questions for which the student showed mastery. Computers can certainly “learn” or adapt to a student based on prior results, but Reich argues that computers are only effective with specific kinds of quantitative or objective questions. Meyers says, in a student-centered classroom, computer-based adaptive learning provides a shadow of what good peer and teacher interaction would provide to help clear up conceptual and procedural misunderstandings for students learning at different rates. Those different rates fall under the umbrella of personalized learning services, driven by the assumption that children’s brains understand things quickly or slowly for a variety of reasons, ranging from emotional and physical states to specific learning challenges.

Returning to the arguments of  Meyers and Reich, one can infer that a student-centered classroom permits the teacher and student peers to provide effective personalized learning as necessary without adaptive learning software. The software applications of the future might then be used to provide a more specific diagnosis subject to the constraints of the data collected. Without a student-centered classroom, we are compelled to design and build curricula and pedagogy that expects students to learn at the same pace. Our current philosophy of assessment is that students move forward together and are assessed on at critical junctures. Once we have the results of those assessments, we move into reactive mode for students who have fallen short of mastery. Some of our greatest teachers are those who come to the rescue of “fallen students” and effectively erase the gaps in student understanding. In that type of classroom where all students are expected to end up in the same place with respect to skills and content, good teachers must rescue students. However, there seems to be a flaw in this strategy. Instead of building on prior successes, we are repairing failure. This is not the best method of improving student performance unless one is working with an incredibly resilient child.

How about a more proactive approach to student learning? We already see signs of that in Dan Meyers’ classroom, and others. When students work with their peers under the right circumstances, they level the playing field by trying to achieve some form of common understanding. It can work with teacher-student interaction as well, but the process is not as natural and intuitive. Better for the teacher to intervene when the peer dynamic breaks down or gets stuck. How is a student-centered scenario more proactive? All of this interaction reveals problems with understanding and potentially corrective action prior to the major assessment, and therefore avoids the need for damage control after the assessment is graded. It also maximizes student learning prior to the assessment, which is what we seek in our students.

Is there a downside to this proactive and student-centered approach to learning? Well, students won’t move at the same pace (that will be a reflection of how their brains actually operate), and that has implications in our current factory model of testing and evaluation. Perhaps there is an alternative that will thrive in both the traditional culture and a more innovative environment. In a typical scenario, if a student scores 90% on a first test, we view that performance as good and move forward. If the course material is cumulative and there has been no intervention, however, then a 90% on the second test means the student understands 90% of the 90% they previously understood, or 81%. You can see where this exercise is going. Furthermore, checking the declining cumulative result of successive tests requires regular intervention with most students, and in a reactive mode since the intervention is triggered by the test result. This process does have an appropriate role in diagnostic testing such as tests that determine a student’s reading level. But in a summative setting, the teacher is always chasing the tails of the students and practicing damage control.

Try this on for size. Is it better to complete 100% of the learning expectations at a rapid pace and understand 70% or is it better to complete 70% of the learning expectations at a comfortable pace and understand 100% of those expectations? If the summative assessment covers all of the material equitably, then one would, in theory, score 70% either way. In the former case, the student lives with some misunderstanding throughout the course and brings that misunderstanding to each subsequent assessment. In the latter case, the student has experienced mastery for 70% of the material going into the final assessment, and has the confidence to apply that mastery to what will be new material for the last 30% of the learning requirement. I like those odds better.

Yes, we need enhanced assessments, and computers may be able to help. While we are waiting for them to be developed, we might rethink how we structure our classrooms and existing assessments so we can be more proactive addressing gaps in student understanding.

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