Doing the same…

Recently I’ve been really digging into Project-Based Learning. My last three posts have all revolved around this. Often when I talk with people about a shift to more learning that is project-based, inquiry-driven, choice-based, and experiential, I get pushback asking for the research that backs it up. The truth is, there is a lot of support for this type of learning. If you want to do a deep dive into that research, check out this great post from A.J. Juliani on The Research Behind PBL, Genius Hour, and Choice in the Classroom.

If you take the time to read through that post from Juliani, you’ll find research on engagement and achievement, success stories from fellow teachers, ways that PBL is connected to standards, and some related reading. I’m thinking about this question of research because two authors that I follow both recently shared posts that questioned why we continue to do some of the same things in education. We’re so driven to think about what the research says about new practices, that sometimes we don’t look at what the research shares about the stuff we’re already doing.

Before I get into that too far, here’s what I have learned. Research changes over time. Methods and strategies change over time. Things that were considered “Best Practice” in the past may not be true best practice anymore. And there are times we find that things that we thought were not a best practice have become one after further study. The other thing I’d say about best practice is that sometimes there are practices that we utilize that are pretty good, but when we learn that there are better practices, it might be time to make a shift. What is it that Maya Angelou says?

A recent post from Scott McLeod (here), and then a related post from AJ Juliani (here) both shared a link to this post from The Hechinger Report. As we spend time talking about transformative learning opportunities in our schools, I think the data that The Hechinger Report is sharing should drive us to think more deeply about why we do the things we currently do in education. Let me share some of the key points that stood out to me from this post.

As we all know, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated that every student in the 3rd through 8th grade need to take an annual test to see who was performing at grade level.

In the years after the law went into effect, the testing and data industries flourished, selling school districts interim assessments to track student progress throughout the year along with flashy data dashboards that translated student achievement into colored circles and red warning flags. Policymakers and advocates said that teachers should study this data to understand how to help students who weren’t doing well. 

Anyone who’s in education probably has spent significant amounts of time in the past 20-ish years analyzing student performance on tests. Here in Indiana that might include the IREAD-3 or ILEARN tests. It might also include time spent poring over data from NWEA, or other formative assessment data within your district. So, here’s the question. If these tests are supposed to help us identify the students who need the most support, and help teachers adjust to meet the needs of those students, why do we continue to see the same learning gaps from many of the same demographic groups?

According to Heather Hill, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “Studying student data seems to not at all improve student outcomes in most evaluations I’ve seen.” A review of research by Hill (found here) finds that in terms of student outcome, most of the 23 identified outcomes were unaffected, and of those that were affected, only 2 had positive impacts, and in one case the result was negative.

So, if the time analyzing student data (something that seems like it would be beneficial and impactful for students) isn’t having a positive outcome for students, we must ask the question, why?

According to these studies, teachers are using various assessments to identify content that they need to return to. Often, they then make plans to revisit those concepts using a combination of whole-group and small-group instruction. But we need to go a step further. We must take that data that’s been collected, along with what we know about kids, to deepen our understanding of how kids learn, identify the reasons behind misconceptions, and then adjust our instructional strategies.

If our strategy to support students on concepts that they are not currently grasping is to re-teach the topic the way we did the first time, hand the student a worksheet, or put the student on a technology-based program to practice, we’re not going to impact student learning. We can’t do the same thing again for a student who is struggling.

That is part of why I am on this path of pushing others to think about doing school differently. More inquiry, PBL, or design thinking will put our students in learning situations that are different. It forces students to move out of their comfort zone and to the growing edge. And that’s the reality – we all need to be a little bit outside of our comfort zone to grow. Trying new instructional strategies are going to force you out of your own comfort zone.

And I don’t want a takeaway from this post to be that we have been wasting our time with data-driven instruction, PLCs, RTI, etc. That work is valuable, but if that work doesn’t also change teacher instruction, the learning gaps are going to remain.

As McLeod closed his post, so will I: It is time we make schools different.

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.

Some thoughts on UDL

Some thoughts on UDL

Recently I was doing my morning workout in the basement. I know that many people prefer to listen to music when they are working out, but for me, I lean towards podcasts. I think that when I’m tuned in to the podcast mentally, the time seems to go faster, which makes the workout seem easier! On the morning I’m thinking of, the next podcast in the feed was The Innovator’s Mindset Podcast from George Couros. In this episode George was talking to Katie Novak. George and Katie are co-author’s of the book Innovate Inside the Box. I loved that book, so I knew I was going to enjoy the podcast. You can check out the podcast on YouTube here.

Recently, I’ve had several conversations with people about the changing world in education. I’ve seen tweets and heard podcast conversations that talk about how education cannot go back to what it was in a pre-Covid world. I’m pretty sure that I agree with that. But I’m also pretty sure that for a lot of people (myself included), we’re not quite sure what that means. In this episode of the podcast, George and Katie were talking about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). As I listened, I started thinking that maybe UDL could be the key to the type of changes we need to create the schools that students need.

For years on this blog, I’ve made reference to the Best Practice Model that was created by Hamilton Southeastern Schools. You can check it out below. Some of the things that stand out to me from the best practice model are the idea of student voice and choice, authentic learning, access and equity, and applying knowledge.

The reality is that in a traditional education system, what some might refer to it as the factory model, some students are excluded from learning (I’ve written more about the factory model here). If you are a teacher who does mostly whole group lecture style teaching, students who have auditory processing issues are not able to access your learning. I recall during my college career going into one of my first lecture style courses. On the first day, our professor told us that the seats we were sitting in were our assigned seats for the semester. I had chosen a seat about halfway back. This professor was a huge fan of lecture, but also wrote a lot on the chalkboard. At the time I didn’t have glasses, but after a few classes, I realized that I could hardly read what he was writing and I walked out of class each day with a headache. I was talking with my parents about it one day and my mom asked when was the last time I’d had my eyes checked. It had been a while! I scheduled an appointment and found out that I needed glasses. Once I got a pair of glasses the problem was solved!

Just like providing glasses to a student with vision problems helps them to access the learning, UDL provides better access to all students because it is more inclusive. Now some of you may be saying that you aren’t ready to do something new in your classroom. What Katie shared during the podcast is that UDL isn’t so much something that you do, but is more a set of principles or beliefs. There are 3 primary beliefs about UDL:

  • We have to embrace variability – In a previous post, I wrote about some of my take-aways from the book The End of Average by Todd Rose. In that book he talks about how there is no such thing as an average person, instead, each person is “jagged” meaning that each of us may have strengths or weaknesses that are physical, mental, emotional, etc. Our students come to us with jagged learning profiles. Just because a student is strong in math, doesn’t mean that they will be strong in all areas. Similarly, just because a student is weak in math doesn’t mean that they are weak in all areas. So in practice for us, that means that students may have different needs at different times. In my glasses experience above, if I had chosen a seat closer to the front, I may not have become aware of my vision issue until some later time. The tenets of UDL suggest that whenever possible, we let our learners choose/create their own environment. I’ll share more about these thoughts later.
  • Really firm goals with flexible means – When you take a look at your academic standards, you’ll find that for the most part, your standards are really open. This means that you have a lot freedom in how you go about meeting the goals for academic needs. With that in mind, we can think about how we might provide multiple pathways to meet the goal. All students will most likely have the same goal, but they may take a variety of paths to get there and show you what they know.
  • Value expert learning – One of the goals of UDL is to get our students as close to being an expert in their learning as possible. I know that for each of us, we get to be experts in the things that we are passionate about, the things that we feel are most important. Think about how you feel about the words professional development. In my experience, when it’s being done to us, we aren’t huge fans, but when we have choice and voice in our development, we probably learn a lot more. By providing students the flexibility that we talked about in the last bullet point, our students are able to meet goals that you set for them while becoming more of an expert in topics that are important to them.

Now, the reality is that this doesn’t just happen automatically. In the beginning we have to provide a lot of scaffolding and support. In your classroom, when you are starting in on some UDL practices, you might share the goal of your lesson, provide some choices, and then support them while they learn. So here’s an example that I might use if I were to go back to the days of being a 6th grade science teacher:

Goal: Design models to describe how Earth’s rotation, revolution, and tilt cause seasons (The Earth and Space Science Indiana Academic Standards actually includes much more, but this is enough for one goal).

Provide Choice: We could provide choices in how students go about learning or we could provide choice in how students show what they know. First, I’d share with students that they could learn about these topics from a variety of resources I provided them. One option might be the science textbook. I’d also pull a wide variety of books from the library that could serve as resources. Next, I’d have a curated list of websites that might help students. I’d also provide some videos from YouTube, or podcasts on those topics that would help students who are auditory or visual learners. Depending on the topic, there might be other options that could be provided for learning about the topic. As for students showing what they know, for this project I might suggest that students could create sketch that represented their learning, or they might choose to build a physical model. Another option is that students could create a video to share what they have learned. One time, I had a student who created an amazing picture book to teach about the water cycle, and I could see some creative student doing something similar on how the seasons work. Depending on the topic you are studying, there could be a multitude of ways for students to show what they know.

Set Them Free: Here’s the thing about work like this, once we set the students free, our role has just shifted from being the keeper of the knowledge to the facilitator who comes side by side. It’s challenging work, but the challenge comes from having to think on your feet in the moment instead of building really specific lessons and plans in advance. It means creating a system to make sure that you are checking in with your students (there’s always that one kid that manages to slip through the cracks and get to the end of the project/unit without doing any work if we don’t have a system). I’ve seen teachers have a clip chart that students have to update that shows what they are working on. I’ve seen teachers with a chart that they carry around while they wander the room, and make notes on students regularly. I used a spreadsheet to track my student’s progress with a row for each student, and a column for each day, then I’d make anecdotal notes each time I checked in with my students. You could choose whatever system works for you (and it might take some experimentation to find what will work best!).

In the beginning, you as teacher need to be the one to provide your students with options. Think of it as a menu – students can pick their learning style and their performance task. As students become more proficient, you may back off of the choices, saying something like “Here are some ways you might learn about the topic, but you can always suggest others” or you might say “what were some of the ways you learned when we were doing our project on the seasons?” When I did projects like this, I’d provide a menu of potential ways for students to show their learning, but also allow students to make suggestions. As you and your students become more comfortable with UDL, you’ll eventually get to the point of saying:

  • Here’s the goal…
  • How do you want to learn it?
  • How do you want to show what you know?
  • Let’s create a rubric together…

Later in my teaching career, I started doing things similar to this without even knowing that I was implementing UDL. And what I found is that the more choices I gave students, the less “work” I had to do. It’s not that I got to just sit back and put my feet up on my desk, but when we were engaged in UDL type projects, what I was doing was much more of a problem solve in the moment mindset as opposed to having to plan for the entirety of the unit. So near the end of the podcast something George said had me nodding along:

If you’d like to know more about UDL, there are some excellent resources to be found on the website for CAST. Check out their information on The UDL Guidelines here. I agree with the statement that we can’t go back to learning the way it was. Our students have changed, and we have changed. This is a chance to help create major shifts in the education world. Many of our students have been struggling in the factory model of education for quite some time. Shifting the way we teach, providing our learners more choice, and maybe even engaging in some of our own choice based learning will help make a difference for your students today and on into the future, and create the schools that we need.