Developing a PBL Unit

Last week I was having a conversation with a teacher about planning for some Project-Based Learning (PBL) in her classroom. She said something to me that I think a lot of teachers might think when they hear the phrase “Project-Based Learning.” She shared that she wasn’t sure that she had the time to devote to project work in her classroom. And I think that’s what can be tough about moving towards project work. We hear stories about these amazing projects that spanned weeks or months, like the time some 6th graders at my previous school worked to bring ice cream to our school cafeteria (see a post about that here), or the long term project by a 3rd-grade class who noticed a big blank wall and felt like they could make something much more beautiful.

The reality is though, you don’t always have to have huge projects like this. Sometimes project-based learning may only take a day or two and be really focused on a specific skill. This post is going to dive into some ways you might think about the planning side of PBL. In my current school, our leadership team is working closely with a pilot team that will be launching a mini-PBL unit in their classroom in the coming weeks, and the process is related to what I’ll be sharing here.

So, let’s start with how you might kick off the planning process. The way I see it, there are a few different ways that you might begin on the path to PBL work. Here’s a list of a few:

  • Academic Standard or Unit of Study: You might be looking at a list of standards that are coming up, or a Unit that you have used in the past, and that may spark an idea for a project. In last week’s post (see it here), I shared a social studies project that started in just this way.
  • The End in Mind: As I’m writing this, President’s Day has just passed. What if we looked at our school calendar and said, “I want my students to be able to share something about…”? This could potentially work for any holiday (US or elsewhere), or for other things that come up on the calendar. You have a clear end in mind, and you backwards plan.
  • A Way of Thinking: Imagine that you want your students to learn more about something like mindfulness, or restorative practices. Or maybe you want something that ties more directly to a standard, so you want them to learn more about the scientific method or engineering process standards.
  • Something Awesome: Maybe there is something that you recognize your students being really excited about (this is how the mural above got started). It’s taking that excitement in the moment and running with it!
  • Student Ideas: You might recognize that your students are really interested in Minecraft, or a video game, or animals. Take that idea that they are interested in and help guide them!

Now, some of you might be saying something like, “But what about my standards!?!?” And I get it, ultimately, we are all beholden to our standards, but I guarantee you that with any of the ideas I listed above, we can find a few standards that we can tie in. If nothing else, you’ve got standards related to reading, writing, and research that can be connected to just about any project. That said, if you can integrate multiple subject areas, you have hit the pay dirt! I also often found that as we worked our way through a project, there would be things that came up that I needed to create a mini-lesson on. When I was teaching sixth grade, I had to create a mini-lesson on plagiarism after seeing kids cut a paste from some of their resources. In another project, we folded in a grammar boot camp to help with some of the grammar issues that were coming up. These were teaching moves that I made in the middle of a project as I recognized a need.

Once we have our starting point on the path to PBL selected, we next need to think about how we’re going to get to the endpoint. You might have students work towards a product – something that could be shared on a specific day, or at a specific event. Every student will create some type of product, but choices are made in how they get from the start to that product. Another option might be to start with a problem – maybe leading up to President’s Day you have a bunch of students asking why there isn’t school on that day. This could be our problem that we’re going to solve – we need to find out why President’s Day is a holiday, and then we could share our findings with our school community. Finally, you might decide to make the endpoint more open-ended. You might have your starting point, share with your students what it is that you want them to learn about or take away, and then allow them to pick a product that suits their needs.

I don’t necessarily believe that any one of these three methods is the best. I would say that it might be challenging for students to jump into an open-ended pathway if they have had limited project experience in their school careers. As with any creative task, our students will need some guardrails to help guide them. When those guardrails are too wide-open, some students struggle to even get started.

So, at this point, we have an initial idea, and hopefully a pathway we will be following. Now we need to select a few standards that may serve as the basis for your project, as well as some standards that may support the learning. In my past, when I was planning a PBL unit, I’d pull my upcoming standards and look for standards that are seeking a deeper level of understanding (words like apply, understand, or explain are good key terms to watch for). And again, it’s a great idea to try to find standards from multiple subject areas to be the key ideas. These standards can be the driving force of PBL. One thing to keep in mind though – if you try to pack too much into a single project, you begin to lose focus on the main point. While there may be several skills that you are able to touch on throughout the work, you should have one or two standards that are the primary focus of the project.

Once we have a couple of standards identified, we want to think about what we want our students to learn or be able to do because of this project. These are the takeaways we want to highlight. When I did project work with my students, I would share the takeaways with them at the beginning of a unit and would reiterate them throughout the unit. I always tried to make sure that this was in “kid-friendly” language that they could understand and describe to others. I would often also use these takeaways to create what I liked to call our guiding question. This question would boil all our projects down into one question. A couple of examples from past projects I carried out in my classroom include:

  • What are the planets and objects that make up our solar system?
  • What are some of the cultural achievements of Ancient Rome?

OK, so I know this is a lot, but here’s what we’ve got so far:

  • Starting point
  • Project pathway
  • Standards
  • Takeaways
  • Guiding question

One of the things I have noticed about PBL is that there are lots of different protocols out there. You can choose to pick one to guide your planning, you can decide to create your own hybrid of the ones that exist, or you could create something all your own. But to me, the items that are listed above are keys to the planning phase, no matter what you call them. Even with the work we’ve done so far, we aren’t ready to dive into the project yet. We must always plan for the end in mind. So next week, we’ll talk about the importance of assessment. When thinking about backward design, we need to plan our assessment before we begin teaching our unit. We’ll talk briefly about pre-assessment, formative assessments along the way, and some potential options for post-assessment.

So, what have I missed? Is there anything that you are still wondering about with the planning process? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Doing a project, or project-based learning

I’ve been reading a book called Project-Based Learning: Real Questions. Real Answers. How to Unpack PBL and Inquiry by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, and I find myself reflecting on my past as an educator. As a science teacher for most of my career, I had a lot of opportunities for project work to happen in my classroom. But here’s the thing, I’m not sure that I was always achieving the full potential impact of project work. And I think the difference lies in whether we are “Doing a project” or if we are engaged in “Project-based learning.” I’d love to dig into those ideas a little bit more.

Doing a project

When I taught sixth-grade science, a section of the standards we covered each year was related to space science. One standard was something about gaining an understanding of the planets and objects in our solar system. It seemed like a great opportunity for a project. So, I opened a word document to start writing some directions. I pulled together resources (checked out books from the library, found some websites to share, and collected some videos on our solar system). I decided that the best format would be a poster. When I finished my directions, it was about a page long. The only choice that a student got to make in the project was what planet/object they wanted to learn about.

While we were working on the project, I provided class in time to do research. I provided supplies for students to make their posters. I met with students regularly on their projects to make sure that they were on the right track (most of these meetings were about whether or not they were following the directions). At the end of the project, I collected the posters, and as I went through them, I noticed a few things.

Every one had the name of their planet/object centered at the top of the poster. Everyone had one of the same two dozen pictures that I had printed out for them to use. Everyone had the same types of facts (size, mass, distance from the sun, length of the day, length of a year, etc.).

Now, there is nothing wrong with this project. Students learned about their planet/object. Students created something that they were proud of. Students were excited to have them displayed around the classroom as well as in the hallway outside of our classroom.

But what they did, I don’t know that I can call it true project learning. I had the privilege of meeting Chris Lehmann when I was at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia. Something that I’ve heard him say is:

Think about it. Websites like Serious Eats or Bon Appétit post some amazing recipes. Many of those recipes have been developed by professional chefs working in professional kitchens, and then they are tested by others in their home kitchens so that the recipe can be adapted so that I, as a home cook, can make J. Kenji López-Alt’s All American Meatloaf recipe in my house and end up with a result that looks (and hopefully tastes) like the version that Kenji made himself (by the way, this is seriously one of my family’s favorite recipes that I make, and is worth every second of the time it takes to make).

So, what’s the point? What does recipe testing have to do with project work? Well, recipes are developed so that anyone who makes them can make a version that they can be proud of. But if you are great at following recipes, I’m not sure that you can call yourself a chef (yet). Similarly, doing a project is more likely about following directions, especially if a category of your rubric is based on following directions! Often, doing a project has more to do with following directions than learning.

Project-Based Learning

So, let’s think about how Project-Based Learning might be a little different than simply doing a project. Here’s an example from when I was teaching social studies.

One year I was part of a team of sixth-grade teachers. Within that team of teachers, my role was to teach all our students in science while the other teachers would teach our students other subjects. Then each one of us would teach social studies to our homeroom class. One of the years I was teaching social studies, my students got into doing “extra” research on the topics we were learning about. As we were approaching our unit on the Roman Empire, I wanted to lean into that interest that they had. Instead of teaching that unit in the typical format that was suggested by our curriculum guide or our scope and sequence, I decided to create a project. But this was when I was several years deeper into my teaching career. I had learned from some of the issues of “doing a project” that I had learned as described above.

For this project, instead of creating a word document that was full of directions, pulling together a bunch of resources, and then expecting a similar outcome, I decided to go very much minimal. I wanted to see what my kids would come up with. I decided that I was going to create the conditions for students to dig into the things they were most interested in about the Roman Empire. And my students did not disappoint! So, here’s what we did:

At the time, there was a single standard that said something along the lines of “understand the rise, fall, and cultural achievements of ancient civilizations in Europe and Mesoamerica.” Then it listed several examples including the Roman Empire.

On the day we started the project, I had no directions sheet. I had not pulled together any resources. I put the standard on the board, and as a class, we dissected what it meant. We talked about what it meant for an Empire to rise and fall. I had students share what they thought the phrase cultural achievements meant. I let them make conjectures based on current cultural achievements. Students brought up music, art, clothing, design, architecture, and so much more.

Next, we talked about resources we might be able to use to learn about some of these things. Students brought up our textbook, the library, digital encyclopedias, and the web, among other options.

The next day, I gave students time in class to learn. I had gone to the library and checked out everything I could on Ancient Rome. I checked out the iPad cart (does anybody else remember those) and put a handful of quality resources on my class website (this was before having an LMS like Canvas for a middle school class). But I also told them that if they had other ideas of places they might look for information, they certainly could use it. I told them that by the end of our third day, they needed to select a topic they wanted to learn more about and share with the class.

The next few days in class were a blur of research and work time. When students were struggling to find what they needed, I would sit down with them, but they also worked collaboratively at times. My role was that of a guide, not the all-knowing sage. They became aware of others learning about similar topics and they shared resources. On Monday of our second week of the project, we came back together for a brief share of what they found most interesting about our topic, and then we started talking about ways they could share what they knew. Some students wanted to make a poster, a few wanted to create a PowerPoint, one student who was studying architecture wanted to build a model, yet another student said she was going to design and sew a Roman outfit. We set a target due date of Friday for students to share what they had learned.

That week, our classroom converted to a working space every day in social studies. We had kids designing, building, sewing, and more! They spent time developing and then practicing their presentation. The learning was electric! A couple of times I needed to pull the class together to go over a few important details where I noticed some misconceptions. When Friday came, it was sharing day. The kids were so excited to share what they had learned. We invited our principal and assistant principal, our librarian, and anyone else who wanted to come for a visit that day. We had food, we had a fashion show of Roman clothing, we had a student who built a miniature working Roman aqueduct. This is a project that will stick with me forever!

Pulling it together

What I want to point out about the difference between the Space Science project on planets, and the Ancient Rome project was in how the learning happened. In the space science unit, learning happened prior to the project. We tacked a couple of days onto the end of the unit for students to put together a poster of things they had already learned. All the resources and materials were provided by me, and the results were identical. But in our Ancient Rome project, the work we did for the project was where our learning occurred.

One of the things that I figured out by the time I led my students through our Roman project is that some of the best learning experiences take place in integrated learning experiences that are fun and authentic! And even more important than that, I’d argue that the overall learning that happened for students during this project went far deeper than what the standard asked for.

Next week, I plan to look at how we might go about planning a great PBL experience for your class. I also hope to share some of the mistakes that I think I made in some of my earlier PBL experiences (hint: assessment! It can be hard in PBL settings!)

I’d love to know more about your thoughts. Have you ever noticed a difference between doing a project and engaging in project-based learning? Is there something that you’re still wondering about? Let me know! This is a topic I’m going to be digging into in the coming weeks, and your questions may help guide my direction.

Moving from why to how

In the last post, I shared the importance of meaning and purpose in learning. As Grant Lichtman has pointed out, “…there is substantial evidence that having purpose, more so than strong test scores, leads to outcomes of success and happiness that most of us want for our students and ourselves.”

I’d like to think that we all agree, in some form, on the importance of purpose in learning. And that is true whether we’re talking about our own learning or the learning of our students. For most educators, we got into this profession because we want to help our students to learn and grow. For most of us, helping our students to learn is a big part of our why. But I’d also say that embedded in that desire to help our students learn is the continuing desire for all of us to keep learning too!

I’ve referenced Simon Sinek before on the blog. His TED Talk about the Golden Circle helped me to shift my thinking, realizing that the real driver of transformational education is that we have to start with the why rather than focusing first on the what (you can see that TED Talk here). If you don’t have time to watch the TED Talk, the basic gist of the Golden Circle is that the most inspiring leaders, brands, and ideas don’t start with a question of what, instead they start at the core of understanding their why, then moving outward on the circle to the how and what.

Last week’s post really dug into my thinking about why learning should bring meaning and purpose for our students, but it didn’t get so much into how we might do that. As I was thinking about how to bring more learning and purpose into our schools, I remembered a book I read a few years ago by Katie Martin titled Learner-Centered Innovation. The basic premise of the book is that we live in a world that requires people to think creatively and work collaboratively. Our traditional learning experiences in schools are driven by a curriculum and by teacher decisions that do not allow our students to think creatively or work collaboratively.

I’m reminded of my experience as a sixth-grade science teacher. One of our units was on space science. If you’ve ever taught any form of science, you know that it is ripe with opportunities for students to ask questions and get creative. We could spend an entire class period talking about the “what-if” questions that my students had. Unfortunately, as a teacher, I didn’t always see this as a good thing. I mean, I had my scope and sequence that I needed to try to stick to if I wanted to “cover” all the material. I literally remember saying “We don’t have time for your questions.” Insert face-palm emoji here! Also, if any of my former students are reading this, I’m sorry I discounted your curiosity. It’s one of the things that I find myself reflecting on as I learn more.

In retrospect, that unit was an ideal opportunity to create a project-based learning experience. I could identify the standards, create learning targets for my students, and then help them develop their own project that would allow them to meet the learning targets while also allowing each student to scratch the itch of curiosity! They could have helped create a plan for how they would show what they know in relation to those standards!

Now, I admit that not every unit we teach will have this level of curiosity naturally embedded in space science. But I do have some ideas of little tweaks that we might be able to make to take something traditional and turn it into something more meaningful.

Imagine if you would a unit on literary devices. Maybe you have a standard that says that your students need to understand simile and metaphor, or maybe they should understand imagery and symbolism. Or you might have a series of standards related to the point of view in a story. In a traditional format of teaching, you might work on defining the terms, you might have students read a passage and identify an example of a specific literary device. Maybe the student would be asked to read a sentence and then answer a multiple-choice question identifying the literary device. Maybe then there would be a test or a quiz, and we can check off that standard and move on. (And just to be clear – I AM NOT saying that there is anything wrong with a unit design of this nature!)

Here’s what I’d challenge you to think about though. Our standards are meant to be a guide, not a checklist. And when we think about learning, does being able to regurgitate some information in a moment on a worksheet, or in a packet, or on a quiz/test mean that I have learned that information? I would argue that true learning doesn’t happen until we are asked to do something with the knowledge we have gained.

So how might we take that Literary Devices activity up a notch? Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of the steps we have taken thus far. Part of the learning process requires that we as teachers share information in some way, part of it requires students to practice a skill, but the true magic happens in the doing. You see, learning definitions, identifying examples in a passage, answering questions, are all relatively passive parts of the process. Thomas Jefferson said, “What we learn to do, we learn by doing.” What if after the introduction of skills, we asked students to create a piece of writing that includes the literary devices that are included in your standards? We could have them write a short story and label where they used simile and metaphor, identify the point of view, or highlight an example of imagery or symbolism. Now, we’re taking a Depth of Knowledge level one or two activity and turning it into a DOK level 3 or 4. It’s more challenging for students, but that challenge helps develop stronger synapses in the brain.

This is just one example of how we might be able to take a more typical learning experience and make it more transformative without having to completely rewrite the way we do things. Here are a few more things that you might consider that would help students better see meaning a purpose:

  • You could start a classroom blog – not for you to write, but for your students to write. They could share what they are learning about. They could share how it impacts them and their world. They could choose to include pictures or videos. As students share their learning, they will see that they have an audience that wants to know about what’s happening. If a whole blog post seems overwhelming, maybe you could start a classroom Twitter or Instagram page where students craft the message that will be shared, and then (pending your approval) they post the update. Many of us utilize classroom jobs – this could be one of the jobs in your classroom. Students could have a specific time each day or week to update the world on what’s happening.
  • Help your students find ways to use their learning to create action – at a previous school, a group of students noticed that many of their items from the lunch tray should be recyclable, but it all went in the trash. This happened to tie to a standard on sustainability. They worked with their classroom teacher, did some research, and eventually were able to get a representative from a local recycling company to visit their class. They were able to present to the representative, and our school was then provided with a recycling dumpster. The students then took on the challenge of teaching other students what should go in the recycling and what should go in the trash. They created PSA videos, put posters up around the school, and even created smaller fliers to go on the lunch table. The ownership of all parts of this project was taken on by the students in this classroom, and the learning was able to spread throughout the building. For something like this to happen in your classroom, you just have to pay attention to what your students seem interested in and are talking about. That teacher recognized early on that her class was full of “social-justice warriors” and she found ways to let them use that drive in their learning. You might notice other things about your class and find ways to integrate your standards into their interests and desires!

It’s important that we all remember, as Katie Martin says, that “Learning is a process, not an event.” The more chances for students to do something with their learning, the more likely it is that the learning sticks. When we help our students to explore what they are learning, we help inspire students to solve problems and innovate!

Meaningful and purposeful learning

I was recently reading a blog post from Grant Lichtman (you can find that post here). If you don’t recognize that name, he’s been working with school teams to help transform K-12 education. He’s the author of 4 books, lots of articles, and blog posts, and has supported thousands of schools to work on their own transformations.

If you’ve read my blog very much or worked with me, you probably know that the transformation of education is something that I also spend a lot of time thinking about. I’ve talked in the past about the design of the public school system – much of it was built to prepare students for a knowable future, often related to factory model working conditions. I’ve talked about whether or not the system we still have serves the need of our students for their future. Since the development of the factory model of education, work has changed. According to a Gallup poll from late in 2021, about 45% of Americans are able to work from home either part or all of the time. And while we can all agree that some of that change has been driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies are realizing that their employees are just as productive, if not more so, when working from home. Many plan to keep work-from-home options for their employees even once we are back to a more “normal” time.

Lichtman uses the term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) to describe the speed at which our world is changing. Many employers today are looking for people who are about to work collaboratively, engage in research-driven inquiry, and build skills to locate and solve the problems of the world around us.

But think about what most are concerned about for our students: grades, stronger curriculum, higher test scores, higher graduation rates. Just turn on your local or national news and wait for a segment about public education. Most likely you’ll hear people saying that schools do not have strong enough of an academic focus, or that teachers should focus more on their “curriculum” and less on developing well-rounded students.

The misalignment of what employers say they are seeking and what parents and/or politicians are saying students need is hard to miss.

So as educators, what are we to do?

I would argue, and many others seem to agree, that helping students find a purpose will help to take our students much further than just good grades and strong test scores. And as a powerful addition, people who have a sense of purpose in their lives “are physically and mentally healthier, live longer, are happier, have more and richer social connections, and are more well-liked and admired by their peers” (Lichtman).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we need to ignore academic success. Instead, I think we need to find a balance. If we have high school graduates who leave to go to college or into the workforce but have no understanding of their own purpose, they will flounder. They might end up in coursework or a career path that they later regret.

Over the course of the 2020-2021 school year, a team of teachers, with input from our stakeholders, developed a value proposition for the school site where I lead. A value proposition is a statement to our stakeholders that helps define what we see as the way we add value to our community. We know that ours is an aspirational statement, and most likely a long-term goal, but this is what it looks like:

As we continue to work towards becoming a school that meets this proposition, I feel confident to say that we will help our students to become more aware of their purpose, as well as their own ability to have an impact on our community and world. As Lichtman says, “The realities of VUCA that are driving the human condition require that education helps prepare our students with finding and understanding meaning and purpose.”

The role of educators is such an important one. I believe that thinking in transformational ways about how we support our students will help them to better understand their purpose. They’ll continue to learn to read and write, to solve math problems, to carry out experiments, to know and understand history, but they will also learn that those skills will help them to carry out their purpose. To find meaning in why they are here. To be able to change the world in a way that has positive impacts for us all.

I’d love to know your thoughts. Did your K-12 education help you find your purpose and meaning? If it didn’t, what did? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

Talent is jagged

I was recently scrolling Twitter (as I often do). I often think that Twitter is one of the best free and on-demand professional development resources out there. The number of new ideas I’ve gotten from it is too great to count, not to mention the friends and connections that I have made because of my activity in that space. I know not everyone loves social media, and I really do understand why, but I think it is one of the greatest ways to share the story of your classroom or school and connect with others with who you might never normally be able to connect.

While scrolling last week, I came across an amazing infographic on Universal Design for Learning:

This graphic on UDL comes from Katie Novak. I’ve mentioned her on the blog a couple of times before. You can see those posts here and here. What really jumped out at me about this infographic is the section about the variability of “Average” Student A and “Average” Student B. The graphic immediately made me think of the book The End of Average by Todd Rose.

In that book, Rose tells a story about the history of the Air Force. When designing the planes in the 1940s, a lot of pilots were having issues in flight. This was happening as the planes were transitioning from propeller-driven planes to jet propelled (that made them much faster!). Initially, designers struggled to figure out why those issues were coming about. The earliest opinions issued were that the issues came from “pilot error.” Pilots were convinced that the issue could not be them, so they blamed mechanical issues. But study after study showed no sign of mechanical issues.

Over time, the focus began to be on the design of the cockpit itself. After some research, it became clear that the cockpit was designed based on the average measurements of hundreds of pilots in 1926. The dimensions of the cockpit were standardized based on these measurements so that all planes had the same measurements within the cockpit. The Air Force was concerned that maybe the average size of pilots had changed a bit over the years.

Now, let’s pause for a moment there. If you have a vehicle, think about what it would mean to have a car that was designed for the average-sized person. Imagine not being able to make adjustments to the driver’s seat in your car, the height of the steering wheel, or even the mirrors!

So, going back to the story, beginning in 1950, a new study was started. Over 4,000 pilots were measured on a wide variety of variables, and then averages were found on each dimension. The initial belief was that this new study would lead to a better-fitting cockpit. But one member of the team had some doubts. Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels decided to compare the individual measurements of all the pilots in the study with the average for 10 of the physical dimensions. What he found surprised even him. Not one pilot fell within the normal range on all 10 dimensions. There was no such thing as “an average-sized pilot.” Instead, the Air Force recognized that with each person there came some variability.

After learning this, the Air Force went back to the drawing board and made the decision to create environments that fit the pilot, rather than expecting pilots to fit the environment. This meant that new planes had to have adjustable seats, foot pedals, helmet straps, and flight suits. When these changes in design went into place, performance among pilots improved significantly. And as a side bonus, the lessons learned in this research were able to help make automobiles adjustable too!

So when we think about UDL, we have to think about our students. Like the pilots who had different measurements, no two students will have all the same strengths and weaknesses. Take a moment to scroll back to the infographic at the top. Those zig-zag lines that represent student A and student B remind us that every child has variability (In his book The End of Average, Rose refers to this variability as a jagged profile). No two students are the same! Talent is always jagged. When we better utilize UDL strategies, we help adapt the learning environment to the needs of students, as opposed to expecting students to adapt to the learning environment.

I could go on to make suggestions for how you might implement more UDL practices into your classroom, but I really doubt I can do any better than what Katie Novak did in the infographic above. If you’re interested in trying out some of these tips, I’d suggest choosing one or two, and trying it out for a while. Once those tips become routine, then add in another. As you increase your utilization of UDL strategies, you will be better at adapting your environment to meet the individual needs of each student in your class.

If you want to dig into more of Katie’s work, check out her website here. On the site, you will find options for PD, Online Courses, other Resources, and Katie’s blog. While there are other resources out there for UDL, this is one that I know that I would trust!

If you decide to implement some of these strategies, I’d love to hear more about them! Be sure to come back and share on the blog, or let me know in some other way!

Are we a teaching organization, or a learning organization?

Recently I’ve been thinking about a statement I heard once – I honestly can’t remember who I heard it from first, but I think I recall versions of the quote from Dave Burgess, another version from Matt Miller, and yet another version from George Couros (all are some of my favorite authors in the educational space). The quote basically says that teachers who have a 25-year career need to avoid teaching 1 year 25 times.

Let’s unpack that a bit – the gist of what they are saying here is that as teachers, our students change from year to year. Their needs change from year to year. The world changes from year to year. A teacher who teaches 1 year 25 times is someone who has their “January” binder or folder that they pull out every year and it has all the activities for the month of January pre-created. In environments like this, the focus is on the teaching – often it’s about “what is easier for the adults in the building?” The problem is that it may not be what’s best for our students.

Instead, what these authors say we should strive for is to teach each year one time. We adapt our lessons and curriculum to meet the needs of our students, to meet the needs of our community, and to meet the needs of what’s happening in the world right now. And to me, that’s the beauty of the Professional Learning Community! Your PLC team is there to support one another in identifying needs, doing some research on how to meet those needs, and then testing it out.

As I think I have shared before, I’ve been reading the book Professional Learning at Work this school year. I finished it over winter break, and it has me thinking about what it takes to be a school that is focused on learning rather than just on teaching.

Let’s take a moment to define the differences – in a teaching organization, we might have our list of standards and skills or lessons from the textbook, and we say “I have to get through all of this!” It’s almost like we create a checklist for learning. Once I get through item number 1, I move on to number 2, and so on down the list. Can you see a problem with this? I don’t think students can be thought of like items we’re producing. A checklist will not meet the need of every learner in a classroom. Learning is not about developing a lesson design, implementing the steps, and ending at a finished product. I think we all know that students don’t work that way. Learning rarely happens as a straight line – instead, it’s often made up of a bunch of squiggly twists and turns.

On the other hand, a learning organization is all about looking at learning as a process of perpetual renewal – for us as teachers and faculty, for our students, for our community. We get there by focusing on the emotions that have brought us to the career path of teaching, and the emotions that keep us coming back each day (no matter how good or bad yesterday may have been). Ultimately a learning organization is a place where the community is passionate, driven, and in a continuous process of growth.

In a previous blog post, I wrote all about “My Why” – the things that motivate me to do what I do (You can see that post here: Starting with why). I encourage all of us to do a little self-assessment – where are you now? Do you trend towards the teaching mindset? Or do you trend towards the learning mindset? Are you comfortable with where you are? Is what you are doing helping your students to learn and grow?

If you feel completely comfortable with your answers, good for you (To be honest, I’m not sure I can say that I am 100% comfortable with my answers). But if your reflection leads you to feel like you have some growing to do, then go with that. Reassess what you can do to improve. My goal is to help lead a school that is a true learning organization. I see our process as one of continual growth and renewal, and I’m always thinking about how I can help in that process. We will never get to a point where everything is perfect! Even when we meet our initial goals, that creates a place where we can set a new goal. 

What are you working on? What growth do you seek? Share with us in the comments below!

Teaching or learning

When we think about an effective school environment, there are a lot of factors that go into it. Ultimately though, the key to an effective school environment is creating the conditions for students to learn and grow in a developmentally appropriate way. There are many things that must happen to create those conditions, but one of the pieces is having strong instructional leadership. While many might point to the school principal (and I see that as an important part of my role), there is more than one person who can own the instructional leadership. In some schools, there is an administrative team, there may be a coach, and there may even be teacher leaders that are a part of the instructional leadership team.

In my current school setting, much of the instructional leadership comes from our Professional Learning Community Leadership Team. This team is made up of representatives from every grade level, the teacher-librarian, the counselor, the resource teacher, the instructional coach, and the administrators. To help make sure we are all on the same page, here’s how we define the PLC: “A school’s entire staff engages in an ongoing, collaborative process of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for their students.”

But here’s another thought about the effective school environment – even with great instructional leadership, the success of any initiative in a school will also depend on the competence and commitment of the professionals in that school, specifically the teachers. The word professional is an important one to me. Educators – teachers, administrators, support staff members – are all professionals in what they do. The work we do for students can’t happen without the people who are devoted to it. Unfortunately, some do not see educators as professionals. Let me share a story of an experience where I was seen as something less than a professional:

In my junior year of college, I was living in a fraternity at Indiana University Bloomington. It was a couple weeks before the end of the first semester, and I was studying for an upcoming final. Junior year was packed with several classes in the School of Education, but one of the requirements I was completing that semester was a class called Music for Elementary Education. Throughout the semester, we’d been learning about instructional practices in music and ways to integrate music into the learning that happened in our classroom. For the final, there would be two parts, a written final based on concepts we learned, and a performance portion on everyone’s favorite elementary school instrument – the recorder. I was practicing one of the pieces that I’d have to perform for my final in my room at the fraternity house (Hot Cross Buns if I recall). I had the door closed but soundproofing in our fraternity was severely lacking. I’m sure that anyone on my floor could hear me playing the recorder. Suddenly, the door burst open and the guy who lived in the room next to me yelled “What in the world are you doing in here?!?! I’m trying to study for my bio-chem final.” This guy was a pre-med student, and he was wrapping up a stressful semester and was truly upset with me at the moment. I told him that I was studying too – “I have to play this for a final in my music class.” Let me tell you, it was all I heard about from any of the guys who lived on my floor for quite some time. While we all laughed about it at the time, they clearly saw what I was doing as anything but preparing for a professional career. Many of the guys who lived on the floor were studying business, or science, or several other “professional” careers. This is not the only time the career I was preparing for was not seen as a profession. I’ve had people ask if I got into teaching so I would have the summers off. I’ve had people give me a hard time about our fall, winter, or spring breaks. It’s frustrating to be working in a career that many people claim is important, but at the same time have people treat me as something other than a professional. With that in mind, we have to make sure that the things we do as professionals are modeling what we want our stakeholders to see us as.

In the more traditional factory model of education, I would say that much of the focus of what happens in a school was on the teaching. In this model of education, there is a curriculum that would tell you what to do, what day to do it, what questions to ask, what homework to assign. The goal for teachers would be to make it to the end of the textbook. Maybe students would get to do something fun in class if they finished the book early. A popular refrain for teachers in this model of education would be some variation of “I already taught that; they just didn’t learn it.”

I would argue that schools of the information age must move beyond this focus on teaching. Professional teachers must exemplify the skills we seek for our students: curiosity, tolerance, honesty, fairness, respect for diversity, and appreciation of cultural differences. To professionalize education, there must be a new relationship between students and teachers. Professional teaching requires so much more than just the presentation or coverage of material. It requires a focus on learning that is both measurable and measured. This is some of the key work of the professional learning community and brings us back to the quote that was at the beginning of this post.

You see, if we gather data from our students, and that data shows that our students have not learned material in a meaningful way, then we need to find a new way to present that material. We must focus instead on ways to develop a deep understanding of the content. As a professional learning community, we should be identifying areas of inquiry we want to pursue. This means we need to think critically about what we are noticing with the members of our PLC team. Next, we research our topic – this might include analyzing student work, adjusting plans, studying new ideas or strategies, adjusting plans, teaching, and monitoring achievement. This cycle of inquiry allows us to deepen our knowledge as professionals and is a sign of strong professional learning communities.

So, let’s take a moment to reflect. When you think about the work you are doing in your PLC, does it align with this process? Are you focused on learning? Or are you focused on teaching? To be sure, they are aligned with one another – learning can’t happen without good teaching. But if we only focus on the teaching, how can we know if learning is really occurring?

I challenge you in the coming weeks to use these reflection questions to guide the work you are doing in your PLC. If you are truly doing the work of professional teachers, you are spending much more of your time focused on whether students are learning. Then, you can reflect on what you should do as a response.

A couple great questions

I was recently sitting with a student who was working on a few math problems. As I sat down next to him I recognized that a couple of the problems he had completed were not correct. Instead of interrupting him, I watched as he worked on one more similar problem. The student probably had no idea that there was anything wrong in the problems he had completed as he was confidently continuing on. As I sat there, I was looking at the previous work to see if I could figure out what he had done wrong, but the aha moment came as he continued with the problem he was working on. I saw him skip a step. Immediately, I could see that was why he had missed the previous problems.

I asked the student to pause their work so that we could go back to the first problem. I asked him to explain to me how he knew that his first answer was correct. He started talking through the process. As he got to the critical step, he recognized his mistake all on his own. “Oh my gosh! I skipped a step!!!” He grabbed an eraser, went back to the problem, and restarted.

As I reflect on the moment, it would have been so easy to stop the student as soon as I noticed a mistake and gone through the process with him, but the reality is that by allowing him finding his own mistake, he created a new neural pathway. It’s the beginning of a learning journey, and by recognizing the mistake on his own, he learned it better than if I had just pointed out the error. We looked at the other problems on his page, he noticed the same mistake several times, and made the appropriate corrections.

A couple things stand out to me about this experience. First, if an adult hadn’t recognized the mistake in the moment, that child would have practiced the same process on all the practice problems incorrectly, and therefore build a working model in his brain that was incorrect. Second, I didn’t actually have to tell him he did anything wrong. I just asked him a simple question: “How do you know that?”

This experience reminded me of a quote from Loris Malaguzzi. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, he was an early childhood educator who founded the educational philosophy known as the Reggio Emilia Approach.

Malaguzzi, Loris. Your Image of The Child: Where Teaching Begins. June 1993,

What does this mean for our students? How often do we only see the product of a student’s work? Maybe in class we have them working independently on a white board, and then they hold up their answer. Some are correct, but occasionally you’ll have some that aren’t. Without watching the work being done, you may not immediately know how to support that student. This is why small group and individual conferring can be so valuable!

I know that working independently with all students is hard – there’s only so much time in a day. When we think about what kids need though, it’s that time with an adult watching them do the work, giving them feedback, and helping them to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Recently I was listening to an interview of Lana Steiner, a math educator who loves to ask her students two questions: “How do you know?” and “Tell me more.” These questions allow her to better understand how a student arrived at their current understanding, and when necessary, to build in ways to support the student.

When we truly take the time to listen to our students, we validate their image of personal self-worth, and we give them the time to explain their thinking and reasoning. I have long believed that the person who does the most talking in class is the person who is doing the most thinking.

I encourage you to do some self-assessment. Pay attention to what is happening in your class in the coming week. Try to track the amount of time that you spend talking – during mini-lessons or other times of instruction – compared to the amount of time your students are able to talk. If you are doing more of the talking, how could you create more spaces for your students to be the ones doing the talking? Could you implement some more small group work, or turn and talk? Could you ask more open-ended questions? Could you decrease the length of your own explanations? Or depending on what is happening in your classroom, maybe it would work to set up role plays for students, or add in some reader’s theater. Or maybe take on the mindset of Socrates – pretend you don’t know anything about a topic and ask lots of follow-up questions that will get them thinking. Or maybe you need to get comfortable with wait time.

What are your thoughts? What have you learned about students by watching them carry out their work? Or by allowing them to explain their thinking? I know that I have often been impressed to learn what my students know by listening more and talking less!

Where are they now?

I’m not sure how many of you know this about me, but when I was younger, I was actively involved in scouting. I started in a Cub Scout pack/den based in my elementary school. Eventually, I crossed over to a Boy Scout troop with many of the members of my pack. Scouting helped to introduce me to many activities that the typical suburban kid may not be able to experience: camping; backpacking; hiking; canoeing; and more. Every summer our troop would go to scout camp and spend a week together in the wilderness. While we had moments of free time, much of our time at camp was filled with opportunities to earn merit badges.

One of the requirements for advancement through the ranks of scouting is tied to merit badges. To earn the Eagle Scout rank, you’re required to complete 21 merit badges, 13 of which are required, plus another 8 of your choice. One of the merit badges I recall working on at scout camp was the Orienteering Merit Badge. The skill of orienteering is all about being able to find your way from point to point with the use of a map and compass.

The reason I’m thinking about orienteering is based on a couple of conversations I’ve listened to on recent podcasts. The gist of the podcasts was that far too often, when students are struggling academically, we start to talk about the skills they are lacking. We might be looking at our resources and notice that a child seems behind, or we might be looking at our standards and see a skill that the child cannot meet. We then start talking about what the child cannot do.

When you are on an orienteering course, all you have is a map, a compass, and a set of directions. Those items are meaningless if you do not know where you are on the map. In today’s world of GPS on our phone, many of us might say that they can just pull their phone out and figure out how to get where they needed to. The outdoor survivalist in me is bound to ask what you would do if you do not have a signal? Or what if the battery is dead? We must be able to identify where we are on the map to figure out where we are going.

This is true with our students too. We have our standards, they are what we are ultimately accountable to, that map out what our students should know. We can also look back at previous grade levels to see how those standards progress over the years. But to figure out what to do next with a student, how to support a student who is struggling, we must know where they are at the start. Once we know where they are in terms of skills the students do have, we’re better able to identify what comes next. For example, in math we start with basic skills like counting and number identification, work our way into addition and subtraction, and eventually will make it to the point of things like geometric theorems or factoring polynomials. There is a progression of skills that all build upon one another. When we know where a student is on that progression, we can identify skills that come next.

If you work in a district that utilizes NWEA like mine does, from your student profile report, you can drill down to specific skills that this assessment feels a student is ready to develop. Now, as with any standardized test, take this with a grain of salt. You may find that a student has some needs that fall outside of what is suggested. There is no better resource than your formative assessment and responsive teaching, however this is an excellent starting place.

So, what can we do with this knowledge? I would encourage you to start framing your conversations about what kids can’t do a little differently. Instead of pointing out what students cannot do, start to notice what they can do. Then think about what comes next in the progression. Whether we’re talking about math, reading, or writing, there are typically agreed upon progressions that will help guide the learning process.

How might this impact your next conversation about a student who is struggling? Can you think of some different things you might say? Different ways to approach the struggle? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Better is good

Better is good

As many of you know, I like to read widely as I feel that there are lessons to be learned about education from books that are not specifically education books. I have a whole shelf of books in my office that is devoted to leadership, economics, and behavioral sciences. Related to that, I also listen to a wide variety of podcasts because again, there are lessons about education from non-educational podcasts. One of the podcasts that I love is called Freakonomics. It came about after Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt wrote a book by the same name. The gist of Freakonomics is that there is a hidden side to everything and that when you view things from an economist’s standpoint, you may be able to better understand why things happen the way that they do.

In a recent episode (which you can find here), Dubner had the behavioral scientist Richard Thaler on the show. Thaler is the author of the book Nudge, and after listening to this interview, I added it to my Goodreads list! In the recently updated version of the book, there’s a three-word quote from Barack Obama. “Better is good,” he said.

Here in education, sometimes I feel like we have conversations around what’s happening, and we’re looking for the silver bullet. The thing that will suddenly make everything better. A couple of examples come to mind:

When we are talking about our school improvement plan, and we have set goals that feel too broad, we come to the realization that it’s not possible to meet all the steps that we want to take in the time frame that is available. We need to narrow our focus a little. But invariably, that means picking something that we all know is important and cutting it out of the plan, knowing that we can’t do all the things at one time. But how do you decide? Depending on who is involved in the conversation, there may be people with different “sacred cows” that they are not willing to let go of. So ultimately, nobody wants to be the one who says we must cut this one thing. But we end up having to make some difficult decisions because in the end it is not possible to do it all!

Another time that we want to have the perfect solution is when we’re dealing with student behaviors. There are times where we might bring together a team of people to come up with the best solutions. A student might be acting out, or putting hands on other students, and ultimately not appropriately participating in learning opportunities. It’s tempting to think about what we are going to do to be able to get that child to actively participate in the classroom. But the reality is that we cannot address that issue until we take time to address the underlying behavior of acting out. We must set a priority for a student, and attack the first issue with all our energy, then once that is under control, we can move on to the next biggest problem. Sometimes we’re tempted to build a behavior plan that tries to get at all the issues. In my experience, those big plans do not work because we are never able to devote enough time to any one thing, which means that nothing gets better. We must pick one thing to be the focus for right now. When it’s better, then we can pick the next focus.

Hopefully, these examples can serve as a reminder that there is no silver bullet (perfect solutions), but maybe there are lots of bronze BBs (better options).

Voltaire is credited with having said:

Interesting fact: This has been utilized by many. The Italian version that comes from a proverb says "the best is the enemy of the good." 

Others have spoken of the golden mean, which says that 20% of the time is needed to complete 80% of the work, while the last 20% of the task takes 80% of the effort. 

In King Lear, Shakespeare says "striving to be better, oft we mar what's well."

And Conficius is attributed with the statement "better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without."

This aphorism is one that’s often hard for educators. Think about it, most of us have known we wanted to be teachers ever since we were little. Many of us were probably that teacher’s pet, doing all the things that a teacher asked, and then some. We probably played school, and you better believe we had the PERFECT classroom! Not only did our students (maybe our stuffed animals at home, or our friends at daycare) behave perfectly, but our classroom was decorated to perfection!

But the truth is, perfection is an unattainable goal! Think about that for a second. One of the things I have learned is that every time I say to myself “It will be perfect after this one more thing,” then I find something else I could do that would make that version perfect. The finish line for perfect just keeps moving farther down the road!

So back to that quote “Better is good.” Sometimes we might be having a conversation about some issue that we can’t completely solve, but we have an idea that might make things better. What we must be willing to say to ourselves is “Well, better is good.” We can talk until we’re blue in the face to come up with the perfect solution, and maybe never actually get there. In that case, we should do what we can to make a small change here, or a small change there, because better is good.

Can you ever think of an experience you’ve had where you had to take incremental steps to make things better a little bit at a time? Share your comments below!