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Three Days in the Valley

This past week, I spent three days in Napa California attending PBL World which was run by the Buck Institute for Education (  A colleague from my school and I were enrolled in PBL 101 an intensive course for those new to Project Based Learning. To say the experience was transformative, would be to sell it short. Simply put, everything I thought I knew about PBL was renovated.  I learned that what I thought I was practicing was not Project Based Learning as it should be done. I learned so much that I need to write about it in order to process it all. I plan on posting about each of the days individually over the next couple of weeks.  So without further ado, let me talk about day 1.

This was written on the plane ride back, so please forgive any glaring proofreading errors.

Day 1 Keynote

The first part of the keynote was by John Mergendoller of the Buck Institute and his focus was on Gold Standard PBL.

It was a very interesting time to attend PBL World.  The Buck Institute just published their newest book highlighting “Gold Standard” PBL.  (I was able to pick up a signed copy!)

When I first began my exploration into PBL, I relied strongly on the resources presented at  One of the most useful graphics was the one below highlighting the essentials of project based learning.

This was the guide for my project design for the last 2 years.  In fact, many of my projects touched on most of these elements.  The one area that I was definitely not hitting was the public audience aspect.  But, I was able to fool myself on the idea that if I was doing most of the other things, I was ok.  this week taught me not only that it was not ok, but that I was missing aspects in other areas as well.  Once you take one of these pieces out or weaken the other aspects the project becomes weaker.  It simply becomes just a project and not a learning experience. The project becomes more of a reflection piece rather than a learning experience.  If the majority of the learning is occurring before the project work, it is not a true project based learning experience.  

The image below represents the new gold standard model of PBL that John focused on in his presentation.

If you are looking to discover more about the comparison of the designs, this article is key.

Looking at the new design one major new piece was identified as essential.  That piece is authenticity.  The biggest takeaway for me is that if I am going to engage in Gold Standard PBL with my students, the products we create need to not simply be something for the teacher and the student.  They should be designed for some greater audience.  I will touch more on this later.

In the second part of the keynote, we heard from 2 students who had graduated from PBL high schools and their reflections on how empowering the experience was.

In the center of the model, you see the starting point for any project design.  That is the identification of the knowledge, understanding, and success skills that all students will leave the project with.  Teachers are familiar with the knowledge and understandings related to their content.  But, PBL also asks teachers to incorporate success skills into the project design.  Success skills may be more familiar to you under some of their other aliases such as soft skills or 21st Century skills.  These are skills such as (but definitely not limited to) communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity.  That these skills are taught and assessed is one fundamental difference between a PBL and traditional classroom.

The student voices we heard in the keynote focused on how these skills were essential to their personal success.  These success skills are not taught at a higher institutions so they must be taught at the elementary and secondary levels.  The students went on to highlight the other aspects of PBL that were key to their success not only in high school but post-high school.  These included student voice and choice to increase engagement, sustained inquiry to understand topics at more than a surface level which is easily forgotten like so many memorized facts, and presenting to an authentic audience.    These graduates spoke to the capacity crowd of almost 700 attendees with great confidence and polish.  They learned these skills not in a speech class, but in all of their classes.  Their teachers knew that speaking is a success skill for all. So, they gave presentations or exhibitions for all of their projects and this is built into each project rubric.  To become a powerful speaker, you need to speak!

PBL 101 Session

Our session was taught by Jesse Wade Robinson.  She is a teacher at High Tech High in San Diego.  Let me just say I wish she had been my science teacher in high school.  The other thing of note is that the workshop was lead by a teacher who is currently teaching in a PBL environment.  She is not out of the game.  She was presenting experiences from the very recent past.  Presenting success stories as well as warning of project pitfalls.  Too often, I have been at workshops where the instructor had become so renowned that he was no longer teaching in the classroom or never had.  So every piece of info Jesse present was freshly spun gold.

The first thing we did was an activity dealing with norm setting dealing with feedback.  The takeaway was to be proud of the work you do.  Don't apologize for its imperfections; take pride in your work and be proud of it.  This should be a norm for our classrooms regardless of the instructional design.  

At the heart of every project is a driving question.  What should that question look like?  In our next activity, we spent time differentiating between an open ended and a close ended question.  Now before actually starting the activity, Jesse did something interesting.  She asked one of the participants to read the instructions.  I quickly thought to myself, “When was the last time I had a student do this? Why am I not doing more of this?”  Just a little thought that I need to have students reading more instructions aloud.  It may seem like something for elementary or middle school levels, but shouldn't students be hearing more than just my voice giving them instruction?

A good driving question should be open ended, but the project process takes on a series of many smaller questions that students answer many of which are close ended.  No quality project should be centered around a close-ended question.  A close ended question allows students to stop learning as soon as the question is answered. An open ended question requires critical thinking, evidence, reasoning, student voice, and no floor or ceiling.  Open ended questions though are daunting to most students, they may never get answered, and they take time.  That is why a great project allows students to answer smaller questions as they work towards that bigger answer which is not definite.

Our next focus was the design of project based learning. The learning occurs in a PBL classroom occurs because of to the project.  That is to say the project should drive the learning.  Students must learn the material in order to complete the project.  The project is required to transform the knowledge.  The project allows for understanding to occur.  This goes back to the common adage in PBL that the project is not the dessert at the end of the unit but the main course.  The project is started day 1 of the unit and continues throughout.  A PBL unit is not front-loaded with content so that students can get to the fun of the project and complete it without too much assistance. The project work informs what is learned and when it needs to be taught.  

If there is a one word mantra I left PBL World with, it was AUTHENTIC.  Projects need to be authentic.  So, your students are going to make a board game at the end of the unit?  How is this authentic?  Who is this board game for?  Are board games really the primary mode of play anymore?  Was the creation of this board game essential to the understanding of the content or was it a dessert project done at the end of the unit?  Will this board game go on to be played once it has been finished or will it be left behind on a back table after it is graded and handed back (if it is ever handed back)?  Is it simply one of the many projects that will end up in the dumpster at the end of the school year?

This idea of the “dumpster project” is one that resonated with me.  A truly authentic project has a place in the world where it will go on to live.  That place is not the trash. I am guilty of assigning a majority of dumpster projects. At the end of every construction project I did, there seemed to be piles of trash that moments before were valued projects that earned students a grade.  It seemed like so many projects lost their place in the world once they were completed and given a grade.  An authentic project should be more valuable after it’s scored on the rubric  I need to stop making dumpster project!  They should be authentic.

Another key that we focused on near the end of day 1 was sustained inquiry.  The idea that students are digging deeper and deeper as they attempt to answer the driving question.  This means that projects won’t be quickly completed.  A simpler project should take a minimum of 10 contact hours to complete.  This should make it clear that project work is to be done during school hours.  Students are expected to learn in the classroom so PBL work should be done in the classroom.  Projects should not be designed as homework.  That doesn't mean that some work isn't done off campus.  But if it is,the setting is authentic, not on the kitchen table.

The following is a great slide comparing simple and more complex projects.

So, if a project is supposed to take so long.  What is going on during this time?  Another key element of a gold standard project is building in cycles of critique and revision. During the first day of PBL 101, we learned about one strategy to accomplish peer critique and revision.  It is called a charrette. The slide below outlines the process.

Once students have something to present out, for example a project idea, a charette can be done.  This is a one-on-one process.  Although students may be working in groups of 3, each student participates in her own charette with a student from a different group.  The charette provides a formal structure for feedback.  In the first 3 minutes, one student presents her ideas or work while the other listens.  In the next minute, the presenter asks a question to help frame the feedback she will receive.  For the next two minutes, the listener provides her feedback.  Before engaging in this or any process of feedback or critique, it is essential that the class has developed appropriate norms for feedback provided.  Simply put, all feedback must be helpful, specific, and kind. In the final 2 minutes of the charette, there is a back and forth between the listener and presenter to discuss the feedback and suggestions for revision.  Over the next sessions, we discussed other formats for critique and revision.  But, the idea is that in any quality project, there are multiple drafts as students continue to go deeper and deeper into the inquiry process.  

So, how will I be able to fit all of my content in if projects will be taking so long?  It would be impossible to do one project for each of my traditional units.  I was lucky enough to be able to attend PBL World with a teaching colleague. I cannot stress how important this was.  Rather than simply theorizing about what could be done, we planned what will be done.  In addition, when we get back to the classroom, we will both be on the same level of expertise with PBL.  We will have a common understanding of the key tenants and terminology.  When planning, we will have a similar toolkit to draw from.  It was great to see that within our PBL 101 section, there were groups of science educators from the same school.  They also worked together towards product creation.  It was tough to see some teachers have to work on their own in project generation. They will not have a shared experience to draw upon with anyone else in their building. They will be the lone person at their school who understands the tools.

The first thing we did as a team even before designing our project was finding connections between content units and design a project that spans multiple units of instruction.  What we came up with for our first project of the year is one which will cover objectives from 3 different units of instruction.  So, the project will be 6 weeks in length.  One project will cover 75% of the first term while covering 75% of the term earning objectives.  That was the only way to make it fit into our schedule.  By doing so, though, the project will have true indepth inquiry as students make the connections from content in one unit to another.  These unit topics will no longer live in isolation.  Students will need to find those connections through their project work.  Over time, we will build in quality peer critique experiences.

So, that was day 1.  

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