PBL Field Guide: Strive for Information Artists ~ Examine Essential Learnings

Can we help our learners choose and collaborate projects that they care about?  Can we join a team of learners to discover how the content of our discipline can be used in the process of finding, working on, and solving problems?  Can we use technology to move past rote learning to analyze, synthesize, create, and innovate?

Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age asks

What big ideas, what core concepts and processes, should students know after studying with you? [p. 43]

During our PLC-F meeting Thursday morning, LAL asked us to consider

Can we challenge ourselves to ask how our content serves the project rather than how the project serves our content?

Steven Walker of Tech High School during his 21st Century Thinking presentation on STEM teaching and learning indicated

We should use technology to help us perform routine procedures while we emphasize learning to analyze, interpret, and apply the results.

Our PLCs establish essential learning for our student-learners.  We research what is essential by reviewing local, state, and national standards.  We interview our colleagues who receive our learners in future courses as well as collaborate with our learners’ current teachers.  But, do we ask

Outside school, who cares about these topics? [p. 57]

In a discussion with Bo Adams, Paul Van Slyke, and David Stubbs concerning the design of collaborative spaces for learning, I responded to the suggestion that teachers initially say no to change and innovation with the idea

Sometimes we initially say “No, I don’t think that will work” when we really mean that “I don’t see how I can do that by myself.”

Look at The Blood Bank Project from High Tech High.

When we say, “I can’t do that” do we really mean, “I don’t know how to do that, and I don’t know who will help me?”  These teachers made the commitment to learn something new, to learn from each other.  Did you notice how these teachers are using technology?

Are we serious about being lifelong learners who serve and lead in a changing world?  Do we practice using technology and research to help us hone the essential skills: communicate and collaborate, problem-find and problem-solve, create and innovate, reflect and revise, serve and lead?

When it gets down to the brass tacks, is it really that critical to solve a quadratic function by hand?  How important is it to know the time period of the Era of Good Feelings?  How often, outside of school, will we need to know the formula for kinetic energy?

What are we willing to trade in our curriculum to make space for blended, complex, integrated learning experiences?

Connecting Ideas – Action, Traction, Reaction

In Synergy, a non-departmentalized, non-graded, transdisciplinary, community-issues-problem-solving course, we use blogging as a means to communicate and collaborate on ideas as well as to reflect and to revise thinking.

Currently we offer our learners an Action-Traction-Reaction prompt to spur their thinking, reflection, and writing.

One of our learners offers this reflection that connects his thinking about his team’s project with the ideas from Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize Wish:

Relating Jamie Oliver’s Prize Wish to my Project

Posted on November 17, 2011

Jamie Oliver, a celebrity chef, wished to educate every child about food as a use of his TED prize. I’ve known about his fight against obesity and eating right since learning about his TV show in 6th grade, so this wish makes sense to me. He’s creating a

Strong, sustainable movement

to educate every child about food.

The core of this action is to create a movement. This core action could be applied to my project, because in my project we are trying to get people to clean up after themselves, and stop cutting in line. Both of those problems are just bad examples that people have seen and copied. Creating a movement would create new standards in the community for cleanliness in the lunchroom, and could reverse the bad examples in place there.

For Jamie’s wish, he wants to create an online community and also a movement. He said

The grassroots movement must also challenge corporate America to support meaningful programs that will change the culture of junk food.

I didn’t know what a grassroots movement is, so I looked it up. I came up with this. “A grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a political movement) is one driven by the politics of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures.”

For Jamie’s project, he is relying on creating a following, that would create the foundation for his project and help spread the message. But he also would like to create traveling kitchens and a traveling food theater to make his project entertaining and interactive. From my perspective, the traction for this project is based on two components: people and interaction. This is a good formula for other projects who are looking to gain traction in a community. You draw the people in with interaction, and then rely on them to feel passionate and spread the word.

In the comment section of the article, many people were eager to partner with Jamie’s project to support and help organize his ideas. I think that the biggest way to attract reaction like this, is to be backed by TED! But the other large factor is that he’s addressing a large problem and is presenting a sound project plan. Creating this plan is an easy thing to do in Synergy to make sure our projects look attractive in the eyes of the administrators inside and outside of Westminster. If our projects only look half-baked, they won’t attract support.

“Grassroots.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

[Permission to post obtained from student and student’s parent.]

Do we write to read and learn what we are thinking?  Do we prototype, seek feedback, and revise?  How do we connect our thinking to the ideas of others?

Shouldn’t we practice?

[Cross-posted at It’s About Learning]

Social media and my family

I’ve had an interesting week with social media and my family.  My 7-year-old, AS, and I were talking on our drive home from school last Thursday.  She was reviewing her spelling list with me.  I asked her if she would like for us to write a story that uses all of her spelling words.  No kidding…Her response was “will we write it on my blog or on paper, Mommy?”

Will we write it on my blog or on paper, Mommy??????

So I asked what would be her preference, and she said “well, I’d like to write it on paper first, and then will you let me type it in my blog?”

We started AS’s blog last Christmas while at my mom’s house.  We went to the zoo in Hattiesburg, MS, and AS took photos with her digital camera.  Her photos are posted on her blog with a sentence about each animal.  There is an audio clip of her talking about being at the zoo.  This audio clip took about a dozen attempts before she said “this is Sunshine” instead of her name.  We had to practice, but the practice stuck.

Last May, AS produced a video interview introducing us to her friend Mittens.  (All by herself with no “teaching” from an adult.)  She asked me to publish it on the Internet.  You can tell she’s been watching iCarly.

She explained to me that she had to make the video 4 times because she kept saying her name rather than Sunshine.  I’ve posted two of the prototypes.

AS is growing up learning about managing her digital presence and publishing her work and learning to a public audience.  She has parents who use social media to work and learn.

In contrast, I discovered my 17-year-old niece’s twitter feed this past week.  I was not searching for it; it popped up in the “Who to follow” pane.  JL, my niece, is clearly very frustrated with her family – a completely typical, age-appropriate reaction.  She feels grown-up but has to abide by the rules of the family.   But does the world need to know this?  So I called and asked if she knew I was following her on Twitter.  I asked about some of her tweets.  She asked if she could call me back.  Smart.  She needed to review what she had written in public.

She did call back.  It was not a pleasant conversation.  I have never had a sharp word ever with this child.  I asked if she would say to me what she was saying on Twitter.  Her response was an angry “I was not talking to you, Aunt Jill!”  Using a very direct tone, I explained to this sweet uninformed child that in fact she was talking to me and anyone else that followed her.  And, if I chose to retweet what she posted, she was talking to each of my 300 followers.

JL’s parents use social media to an extent.  They have Facebook pages and connect with their family and friends to share photos, information, and stories.  Are they “friends” with their child?  Their initial reaction was to ban her from using Twitter.  Through a series of questions, I coached them to consider if that was the best solution.

Do we help our children navigate through difficult situations, or do we leave them to fend for themselves? Do we want them to learn experientially with and from their X-year-old friends?  Do we want our children to learn with and from their family and other significant adults?  How can we guide them to becoming literate, responsible citizens?  How are we doing educating ourselves?

We teach our children not to touch the stove, because it might burn them.  We don’t keep them out of the kitchen. And, if they touch the stove, we comfort them.  We help them fix it, learn from it, and feel better.

PBL Field Guide: Who forms your learning team?

The Professional Learning Communities reflection in Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age challenges the reader to model collaborative learning, learn and share, and develop learning teams. This is right in line with our Learning for Life vision statement, NET•S, and NET•T.

Three of the essential actions called for in our Learning for Life vision statement are

  • Problems that require critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration
    (Problem-based/Project-based learning)
  • Teachers in teams supporting learning and innovation
    (PLC/Critical Friends Circles)
  • Content and Relationships that connect us to the larger world and the world to us  (Global Citizenship)

Bo Adams (@boadams1, It’s About Learning) and I co-direct our Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).  Our school makes a commitment to adult learning and collaboration by affording teachers job-embedded time to work and learn together.  For a glimpse into our PLCs, see Pull Together, Part II from It’s About Learning and Learning as a Team – A Big PLC Brightspot from my blog.

From Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age:

Professional learning can certainly support your shift to project-based instruction, but the fundamental program changes you make will require frequent and intentional collaboration with your colleagues.  [p. 31] 

In Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital AgeCarmel Crane describes her process when getting ready to launch a project with her students.

Before [introducing] the project to students, I presented it to about 10 teachers.  I laid out all the planning details, and they gave me critical feedback.  It was a great opportunity to see things I may have overlooked.

Other teachers could see how we might work together on future projects to reach our shared goals.  [p. 31]

On Friday, the 4th Period Math-Science PLC took another step toward PBL and Lesson Study by participating in the Eggs Over Easy project that our Science 8 team is planning for the Monday-Tuesday prior to our Thanksgiving break.

In the 55-minute period, we assembled our carriers, did the drops, and debriefed the lesson.  There is more video coming about the debriefing session.  Our plan for Monday is to “do the math” and the reflection questions concerning potential and kinetic energy.  But, the lead teacher for Algebra I has already asked how we can support this lesson in our Algebra classes – another step in integrated studies.  Woohoo!

Again from Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age:

A project-based learning collaboration among students is a lot like a professional learning community among teachers.  For both, the learning is relevant and rigorous, and the “students” learn to learn together. [p. 32]

Bo and I co-facilitate Synergy 8, a non-departmentalized, non-graded, transdisciplinary, community-issues-problem-solving course for 8th graders.  A new school policy about student images on faculty blogs prevents me from showing you how closely the work of our Synergy team matches up with our PLC teacher teams.  [If you want to know more about #Synergy, then you can search that category/tag on either of our blogs.]

Paraphrasing Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement:  PBL delivered by a high-functioning PLC of teachers can be the “engine of improvement” that drives a school forward.

Once again from Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age:

Anne Davis, an advocate for blogging with elementary students, suggests using your personal blog as a tool for making connections with like-minded colleagues.  A team of two is better than no team at all, but image the compounding effect of a large team, an entire faculty, or an international community of colleagues. [p. 33] 

If you could assemble your “dream-team,” with whom would you collaborate for PBL? How and with whom do you learn, reflect, and share?  How do you create opportunities for your learners to build their “dream-team” to learn, reflect, and share?  How do we leverage technology to engage with our learning teams?

Gapminder: Teachnology for Integrated Studies

Have you explored Gapminder: for a fact-based world?  Check out GapMinder for Teachers.

Have you seen/heard Hans Rosling use multiple representations to visualize problems and trends?

Here’s a 4 minute start:  Hans Rosling’s 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes – The Joy of Stats – BBC Four


In Curriculum 21, Heidi Hayes Jacobs says:

Geography should be cut as a snapshot unit with an integrated approach continuously woven into the academic year. Rather than the token “let’s start off the school year with our classic unit on geography,” the curriculum should include an ongoing injection and use of geography and a full range of maps. When schools do not use maps of all kinds with regularity in a range of classes (English, science, art), our students do not get to apply geography in a meaningful way.  [p. 36]

If you are teaching about Asia, Africa, Indonesia, etc., can you integrate math into your lessons using this resource?  Likewise, if you are teaching math – from plotting points on the Cartesian plane to graph interpretation – can you use this resource to help your students have a global view of our world?

If you are teaching about the environment, can you use this resource?


And my favorite, Hans Rosling and the magic washing machine, for teaching women’s studies, the environment, and/or the industrial revolution:

Aren’t all of these talks connected?

What questions will our learners have?  Can we make graphing more engaging by using real data connected to the economy, health, education, etc.?  Can we teach writing, geography, history, science by interpreting and analyzing these graphs?

Who will join forces to form our learning team so that we confidently integrate and mashup content?


Jacobs, Heidi Hayes. Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2010. Print.

Population at 7 Billion – What PBL can we facilitate?

Are we teaching interesting and engaging ways to represent data?  Are we representing real data that is interesting and engaging with graphs?

Have you seen this?


When did the world’s population reach 1 billion? 2 billion? 3 billion?… (you see where I’m going, right?)

Can we graph this data to see if there is a pattern?  Will the pattern from the data be similar to the graph in the BBC video above?  Can we find a mathematical function that will mathematically model the data?  Can the mathematical model find or predict:

  • How many people had been alive on the day you were born?
  • How many people were alive on your birthday?
  • When will the earth’s population reach 8 billion?  9 billion?

Using the BBC’s News World article The world at seven billion, I entered my birthdate to find:

I also entered AS‘s birth date.

  • What could cause a decline in population?
  • Can we sustain a population of 11 billion?

What questions will our learners have?  Can we team with others to develop integrated studies lessons?  What intriguing driving questions can we craft to facilitate learning and questioning with our learners?

Thanks to a retweet from @gcouroswe can read Mrs. Daub’s Dudes and Dudettes to learn how Mrs. Daub, aka @4444Charlie, and her grade fours predicted when the population reached 7 billion.

Synergy: Selecting next projects

Our team has over 300 observation journal entries from which to brainstorm questions and projects. See Synergy: Complexity~Simplicity, Collaboration & Brainstorming for the beginning of this work.

After Monday’s work in class, our learners were prompted to use a quick-write to reflect on the process of narrowing the project ideas using the idea wall as shown in the Synergy: Complexity~Simplicity, Collaboration & Brainstorming blog post.

The prompt:  Do you think our Synergy team’s project possibilities are accurately and fairly represented? Why or why not?

“I think they are accurately represented because it’s easy to see and understand, as well as find one in a group of many that you are passionate about. I think we should have a survey. I think they are fair to everyone’s choices, and I like that everyone got three post-it notes.” ~ BM

“I think our Synergy team’s project possibilities are more accurately and fairly represented with the idea wall system, because we thought of what projects we were most passionate about, and then as a class they were organized into groups on the wall, according to their topic. With the other system they were categorized under tags that each of us individually had tagged, in our own language, and five out of 300+ of our tags were represented with that system. I think this left out a lot of other project possibilities that many people in our class feel passionate about.  In my opinion, both of these systems were flawed, but I am excited about many of the projects, and with both I was able to see one or two projects that our class had identified, that’d I’d love to start working on.” ~ OK

“I think that the project possibilities that are represented are fairly represented but we have more ideas that we can add to the wall. Also I think the tagging system was very complicated and hard to understand, but we did a good job of cleaning it up and getting everyone to use the same tagging language to tag their posts.” ~ MB

“I believe that our Synergy team’s project possibilities are mostly accurately and fairly represented, but I don’t think that’s true for everyone. Every team member has put there idea up on the idea wall, but everyone does not understand what each idea means.” ~ OV

“Everyone definitely had an equal say in what we have so far, so I think it is apparent that the data we have is fair. I think the idea wall represents our project possibilities accurately, but the Posterous tags do not. I think the idea wall works because it represents what stuck with people. It specifically represents PROJECT ideas, while the tags also represent random observations that projects cannot be done on.” ~ FS

“I don’t think that our Synergy team’s project possibilities are accurately and fairly represented through our Posterous Idea Wall. I don’t think they are accurately represented because we have over 300 posts and there are bound to be posts that are as equally important to us that we forgot about. Others aren’t represented well, because they are thrown into a miscellaneous category. When something is put in a category like this, people tend to skip over it and ignore it. For example when people are choosing project possibilities that interest them, they will probably skip over the “Other” categories and head straight to the ones that have titles. Although there are some down sides to our wall, like the ones I stated above, our Synergy class has made significant progress through this exercise.” ~ DJ

“Well, I did but now I have realized that they really aren’t. Before, I thought that they were because of the sticky notes and Posterous posts, but now I think that they are not. Today at the end of class, we tried to decide on a number of project ideas for the poll. I thought that we should vote because the final numbers were 8 and 12. Someone suggested that we use 10 because that is between 8 and 12 but some people weren’t satisfied.” ~ CC

Based on the feedback from our young learners, we have learned that we need to work with our team to create a better understanding of the “folksonomy” aspect of tagging our observation journal posts in Posterous.  From Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss:

“Folksonomy” refers to the social taxonomy or classification system that evolves as users collectively make sense of what they find on the Web.  Users associate “tags” or keywords to the content they bookmark, and they can see how others have treated the same material.

The easiest way to understand the power of bookmarks and tagging is by using it.  [p. 22]

We are working to develop a common language with our tags.  We are learning by doing as recommended by Boss and Krauss.

After more work and reorganizing the Post-it Notes from the idea wall, the team decided to use Poll Everywhere to formatively assess the team’s thinking and preferences.  We (Bo Adams and Jill Gough) created the topics for the poll based on the top 10 tags from our Posterous blog.  Our learners decided that these categories, shown below, were similar to the categories from the idea wall.

As you can see, we definitely need to work on developing a common language and understanding of tagging.  School, for example, is a pretty broad topic for project selection.  There were 82 posts tagged with school in our Posterous observation journal site.

Here are the results after the first poll.

Our learners discovered that their categories were too general.  If you wanted to work on the KP Challenge, did you select school or cafeteria? If you were interested in organic food or obesity, did you select environment, cafeteria, or health?  Fortunately, the Post-it Notes contained more details.  Our learners then asked to eliminate the general categories where they showed no interest and add more specific categories to eliminate some confusion.  For a quick glimpse into their discussion and work, we offer the following iMovie*.

Here are the results after the second poll.

Serving as their coaches, we now had to intervene.  PowerPuff does not meet the standard of project or problem for our course. We want our learners to work on projects or problems that effect more than half of one grade in our division.  Our learners were assured that we would help them work on this project outside of class if they are serious about pursuing this as a community issue.   One of our learners made a motion from the floor to poll again with the category PowerPuff removed.

Again, there was discussion coupled with questions.  Could the KP Challenge and Line Cutting choices be grouped together?

In groups, our learners’ next task was to use the technique of brainwriting to share, connect, and contribute to the team’s ideas of the selected topic.

Learners are now working on project concepting using a worksheet we adapted from BIE.

For the projects where there are less than 4 teammates, how will they cover the internal, team “leads” for each essential learning needed? Will these teams choose to push forward on the project they have selected, or will they choose to join forces with another team?

[Cross-posted at It’s About Learning]

[*NOTE: iMovie video effects have been added to the movies because of a new school policy about student images on faculty blogs.]