The Project IS the Learning!


This post originally appeared on CompetencyWorks, a group designed to support the development of a community of people knowledgeable about competency education. View Original >


Typically, teachers launch projects after students have learned concepts and skills, or as a culminating activity in a lengthy unit of instruction. Also traditional projects generally follow a scripted, one size fits all design. What would happen if a project were launched the first day of a unit of instruction? What if unpacking that project resulted in students determining what is important to know and do in meeting the criteria for the product and presentation?

Welcome to project based learning that allows students to meet multiple competencies! As teachers struggle to work with the rigorous performance assessment demands of the Common Core State Standards, a well-designed project can be the vehicle for highly authentic, rigorous, and personalized learning experiences for students.

The Buck Institute for Education, one of the preeminent organizations with expertise in Project Based Learning, describes the eight Essential Elements of a PBL Project. Included in these elements is inquiry. We are all familiar with inquiry-based learning as an effective framework for the classroom, and similarly, the Project creates the inquiry to learn targeted competencies that integrate both content and 21st Century Skills. Instead of giving the project at the end of a curriculum unit, the Project is presented up front to students to create the “need to know,” the inquiry to engage in the project. In addition, this work is the frame around the learning while engaging the learner in the driving questions. This work is presented to a public, authentic audience. Students are given voice and choice in how they present their learning of competencies to allow for personalized and differentiated instruction. Students become the centers of learning, rather than the teacher. In turn, the teachers arm students with the skills and knowledge needed to meet competency through a variety of instructional activities.

The planning and preparation for a project that is designed to meet multiple competencies can provide teachers with the tool kit they need to retune their curriculum, assessment, and instruction paradigm to the new expectations of the Common Core State Standards.

The presentation and product of a project based learning opportunity allows students to demonstrate they have transferred the knowledge and skills of multiple competencies identified as essential in the project design.

The project IS the learning!

Integration Strategies for PBL


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


This series is about taking your PBL projects “up a notch.” I wrote a blog about how to get started, but after you get started and are familiar with the benefits of keeping it small and focused, what are some of your next steps? One area where I see teachers taking their PBL projects up a notch is through integration. However, integration is actually quite complicated and includes many levels of implementation. Here are some tips to consider for integrating content areas into your next PBL project.

Know Your Level of Integration
When you plan your integrated PBL project, consider the following definitions and levels of integration articulated in Integrated Curriculum, an ASCD book edited by Heidi Hayes Jacob. When you examine these definitions, you’ll realize there are many ways to integrate. Based on structures, you may be able to use only one of these approaches (because, for example, every classroom full of students is different and unique). Once you decide the level of integration, it will affect how many products students will create, and where and when content will be explored.

Crossdisciplinary: Viewing one discipline from the perspective of another; for example, the physics of music and the history of math (Meeth 1978)
Multidisciplinary: The juxtaposition of several disciplines focused on one problem with no direct attempt to integrate (Piaget 1972, Meeth 1978)
Pluridisciplinary: The juxtaposition of disciplines assumed to be more or less related; e.g., math and physics, French and Latin (Piaget 1972)
Transdisciplinary: Beyond the scope of the disciplines; that is, to start with a problem and bring to bear knowledge from the disciplines (Meeth 1978)

Know Content that Isn’t Your Own
Teachers of the Blood Project at High Tech High really articulate this well. As you start to integrate more content, it forces you to look for connections in other content areas, which means that you must be familiar with those areas. This is important not only as you build and create your integrated PBL project, but also in the actual “doing” of the project. When I did a PBL project with my science and math teacher (I was teaching English at the time), students would come to me with questions that involved content in areas beyond my expertise. In order to best serve my students, I had to learn some of the content. When I did, not only could I be a better resource, but also my students trusted me. And this helped them trust that all teachers involved were well-prepared and could help them with any question or need they had.

It’s Gotta Fit
This one is crucial. Oftentimes, we try to “fit a square peg in a round hole.” We try to force integration when the content areas don’t seem to match. I hear teachers say things such as, “Well, there could be math,” or “We could try to find history that makes sense.” This hesitancy is completely justified. It comes from the understanding that the connections are inauthentic or feel forced. When you meet with your team, look for connections that make sense and fit nicely. It may end up that one content area is targeting more standards than others, and that is fine. A good integrated PBL project doesn’t mean devoting an equal amount of time in each content area, but rather devoting time to connect content areas that align well.

Limit Products to Target ALL Content Standards
If you really want students to see the connections of the disciplines, then limit the amount of culminating products and performances that students are producing. While the multidisciplinary approach is a great way to implementation content integration, students may or may not see the nuances and connections across the content areas. This is because students are still creating products in “silos,” or limiting their perspective to their own content areas. Once they create products that synthesize content areas, then they will be forced to examine how those areas connect.

Meet Frequently As a Team
It is so important to meet as a team, not just through the planning phase of a PBL project, but also as the project unfolds in the classroom. When I was implementing integrated PBL projects, our team met after school formally at least once a week. That doesn’t include the frequent times I would literally run to another teacher’s classroom to solve a problem or ask a question. Just as we encourage our students to revise and reflect throughout a PBL project, we as teachers should do the same. There must be a committed space for this to happen. Use this formal meeting time to see if new lessons are needed, address more student collaboration time, or uncover other issues that will come up.

How do you approach integration with your PBL projects? What examples do you have? What does it look like? Let’s help each other build the best-integrated project — and the most manageable project — while we grow as teachers in our PBL expertise.

What’s It Like to Be a Molecule? Science Meets Embodied Learning


This post originally appeared on MindShift a site dedicated to replacing familiar classroom tools and changing the way we learn. MindShift explores the future of learning in all its dimensions – covering cultural and technology trends, groundbreaking research, education policy and more. View Original >


“Embodied learning” is a new initiative in the field of interactive and game-based learning, in which learning content is combined with physical movement. Among one of the leading organizations in bringing this movement to the classroom is SMALLab, based in Los Angeles. The company has created activities — check out their different learning scenarios – that use large projected environments as experimental playgrounds of movement connected to learning targets.

For example, in one activity, students are put into “acids” and “bases” teams to experiment with molecules in a “virtual flask.” Students can add different molecules to the flask to see how their choices affect the simulated environment by using a “glowball” that contains color LEDs. The experiment, as described in a research brief, should show that, “as particles in the flask collide with each another, they undergo one of four reactions based on the general properties of acid and base in aqueous solution.” Here, the movement is necessary to experiment with the creation of acids and bases.

In another example, students explore concepts in earth science, such as the geological layer cake, and use the glowball and other controllers to experiment with placing fossils in different layers of the earth in different environments, from swamps to mountains.

Schools can use the products in two ways, SMALLab and Flow, for a range of topics and grade levels, including sciences, English language arts, and the performing arts. With Flow, teachers can use an existing Interactive Whiteboard or any project surface along with Microsoft’s Kinect motion-capture camera. For schools that use SMALLab equipment, “there are 12 motion-capture cameras to track students’ movements as they learn in an immersive, interactive space. For example, in the Constant Velocity Scenario, physics students can hear the sounds of their actions getting faster, see graphs that change in real time, and feel how their bodies move through the space.” Its open-source software development kit allows schools to create new scenarios.

Why go through such lengths to teach this material? According to brain-based learning advocates, evidence supports the notion that the work in embodied learning can lead to increased student achievement. John Medina author of Brain Rules, claims that exercise boosts oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain, which helps students concentrate better in school.

In their own research conducted in K-12 schools and museums across the country, SMALLab found that “student learning gains were significantly higher after the SMALLab learning intervention when compared to regular classroom instruction.” In some instances, the company says it found that “there is a marked increase in the number of student-to-student and student-discussions during SMALLab.”

For SMALLab to work well, the company recommends that embodied learning activities are one component of the instruction — not the entire lesson. Order of activities is important as well, as students perform better when traditional instruction occurs before the embodied learning experiences.

But the company is cautious about the results. “At this juncture we cannot yet say which components lead to the increase in student learning,” the company says, and they call for further research to analyze the components of embodied learning experience.

The company’s products are being used in different schools throughout the country. Elizabeth Forward Middle School, outside Pittsburgh, Penn., is using a $20,000 grant to install SMALLab’s equipment and curriculum for its STEM program. The company’s products are also being used in schools in Singapore.

For schools interested in using embodied learning techniques, can the same results be achieved using low-tech tactics? If the goal is to make sense of and connect authentically with content, what tactics have teachers used that simulate the same concepts?

Teacher as Learning Designer


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


The term “teaching” holds cultural images and schema that many us quickly tap into. I encourage anyone to google “teaching” or “teacher” and see the majority of images that pop up. You will most like see an individual at the front of the room, pointing to something on a board while talking to students. We know it isn’t like that all the time, and we also know this doesn’t work for our students. Many teachers have been pushed into a role where they are not being utilized for their expertise and skills. Through highly standardized curricula and pacing guides, teachers are told exactly how to teach, rather than being empowered to differentiate instruction and create engaging learning environments to meet the needs of their students. How do we not only clarify what teachers can and should do in the classroom and re-frame this conversation on the role and expertise of a teacher?

We use many terms to describe the work of teachers. From curriculum designer to facilitator of classroom work, there are many roles that teachers take on in the class. I believe there is one term that encapsulates and re-frames the work teachers do in the classroom:

Learning Designer. You might notice the clear parallel to the role of game designer. Just as game designers have a unique skills set and aptitude for designing games, teachers have specific skills and knowledge for designing learning. This term also reframes the role and expertise of teachers.

Teachers must intentionally think about the “big picture.” The objectives of the instructional unit are set and teachers must guide students to those objectives with creative, research-based strategies. Good teachers constantly reflect on their practice and use formative assessment to inform instruction. Through this, they use their creative skills and their instructional tool belt to try and innovate in the classroom, all with the focus of engagement and student achievement. Teachers use their knowledge of best practices and of their students to create instructional environments and assessments that meet their needs. Great teachers are allowing for voice and choice in performance assessments and projects, as well as games and technology. Teachers view the classroom, whether virtual or physical, as a place for possibilities to engage all students.

If you are teacher and you are trying to explain what you do, say, “I am a learning designer!” Teachers need to be empowered with a variety of instructional designers to meet the needs of all students. They need to be honored for their expertise to create creative and engaging learning environments. We can re-frame the concept of “teaching” to truly encapsulate all that teachers can and should do!