Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Experts and NewBIEs Blog Move to bie.org

We have launched a new website at bie.org and we will no longer be posting new blog posts to our Experts and NewBIEs blog on Blogger. We value our followers and hope that you will continue to read the posts on our new blog. If you would like to receive monthly email updates about new blog posts, please become a member of our new, redesigned website by selecting “Sign Up” at the top of the web page at bie.org. We will also continue to maintain our older blogs on Blogger, and plan to post links to new articles below:

Can You Just Tell Me What to Do?

From Open House to Exhibition Night

Grit Happens in PBL 

Four Reasons to Exhibit Student Work

The Best Unit I've Ever Taught 

Hangout Recap: Elementary Project Spotlight

Hangout Recap: Public Exhibitions of Student Work

Hangout Recap: Assessing 21st Century Competencies in PBL

Hangout Recap: Assessment in Project Based Learning

Hangout Recap: Managing Projects in Middle and High School

Project Management - The Devil is in the Differentiation!

Hangout Recap: Managing Projects in Elementary Schools

Hangout Recap: Using Technology to Help Manage a Project

29.5 Tips for Successfully Managing a Project

Hangout Recap: Managing Your Project

Make Room for Innovation and Creativity in PBL

How Can We Teach and Assess Creativity and Innovation in PBL?

Leading with the 4 C’s to Build the 5th C: Culture









Thursday, December 5, 2013

What Does It Mean to “Align” PBL with Common Core?



by Sara Hallermann, BIE Curriculum Development Manager, and John Larmer, Editor in Chief

(Note to math folks: In this post we discuss the Common Core ELA standards and how a high school social studies project aligns with them, but the 4 key considerations apply to math as well. Stay tuned for another post on CCSS Math and PBL.)



You see the phrase “CCSS Aligned” everywhere these days, from textbook publishers to district offices to teachers’ lesson plans. But when someone says their PBL unit is aligned to the Common Core, it has to mean more than a laundry list of standards the project “addresses.” It’s true that PBL serves as an excellent vehicle for helping students meet the standards for ELA and for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. But projects must be carefully designed and managed to help students grow as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers.

To ensure full alignment to Common Core, we see five key considerations for project designers:

1. Products
The major products and performances students complete in the project should engage them in a rigorous combination of reading, writing, listening, and speaking about the topic of investigation, as they develop their answer to the Driving Question. Teachers should also build the critical thinking skills contained in the Common Core standards.

Example: At City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco, The California Propositions Project challenged student teams to create 30-second video commercials to “change a voter’s mind” about a California proposition in an upcoming election. The students presented their commercials to a public audience and also wrote individual argumentative essays. To complete these products, the teacher required students to meet several Common Core standards, including:

·      Grade 11-12 Writing 1: “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”
·      Grade 11-12 Writing 8: “Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas…”
·      Grade 11-12 Reading Informational Text 6: “Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.”
·      Grade 11-12 Speaking and Listening 1: “Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions… building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.”
·      Grade 11-12 Speaking and Listening 2: “Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.”

2. Rubrics
Rubrics for a project’s major products should be based on Common Core standards, both in terms of the criteria and the wording. It’s Ok to add more criteria based on the particular goals and products in a project, but be sure the rubric is written to help you assess specific standards. Use the language from the standard in your rubric’s “Meets Standard” column, and repeat key terms and phrases in the column describing what it means to approach the “Meets Standard” level.

Example: In the California Propositions Project, the teacher used a rubric for argumentative writing to guide and assess students as they wrote their individual essays.  One row in the rubric focused on the criterion, “Strength of Argument” and the “Meets Standard” column included this line from CC Writing Standard 1b:
“The student develops claims and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each.”
To guide students in making effective oral presentations when they introduced their commercials to a public audience, the Presentation Rubric used language directly from CC Speaking and Listening Standard 6:
“The student adapts speech for the context and task, demonstrating command of formal English when appropriate.”


3. Scaffolding
The project should be structured to provide space for inquiry, yet include careful scaffolding of the identified Common Core standards.
           
Example: The California Propositions Project was carefully scaffolded to enable students to build understanding and skills through a combination of workshops and protocol-based lessons provided by the teacher, text resources, fieldwork, and interactions with experts. For example, early on in the project, the teacher facilitated the Structured Controversy Protocol to help students gain deep understanding of all positions related to controversial proposition issues (Speaking and Listening 1). Later in the project, the teacher had students use a “Follow the Argument Road” graphic organizer to help them determine whether the author’s evidence sufficiently supports claims in texts related to proposition issues (Reading: Informational Text 8). During Writer’s Workshop, students used an Argument Model Graphic Organizer to craft arguments to support their claims about their propositions using valid reasoning and relevant evidence (Writing 1).

4. Text Complexity
One of the key requirements of the Common Core is that all students read texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school. By the time they graduate, students must be able to, as Anchor Standard 10 states, “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.”

To meet this goal, projects should be designed to include a diverse list of reading materials at the right level of complexity to explore the topic of investigation and answer the Driving Question. Students should receive explicit instruction on how to read closely and unpack complex texts with increasing independence, handle frustration, and demonstrate perseverance. Throughout the inquiry process in a project, learning experiences should be designed to drive students back to the text and encourage them to formulate evidence-based reasoning.

Example: In the California Propositions Project, students developed understanding about their propositions through close reading of a diverse set of complex texts, including the voter information guide from the state government and articles written by various stakeholders. Students synthesized information gained through their reading, conducted market research by interviewing voters, analyzed campaign videos, and interviewed experts to create reasoned, evidence-based arguments for or against their proposition. 


5. Formative Assessment
During a multi-week project in which students need to understand a topic in depth and create high-quality products, working independently from the teacher some of the time, teachers need to make sure students are “getting it” as well as getting it done. Project plans should include formative assessment of the identified Common Core standards frequently and at key checkpoints during the project.

Example: In the California Propositions Project, the teacher facilitated peer critique processes and provided his own written feedback to assess progress toward the standards at key checkpoints during the project, such as:
      Summary of the proposition pro and con arguments (Writing 8 & 9)
      Draft of argumentative essay (Writing 1 & 5)
      Video script and storyboard (Speaking and Listening 4 & 5)
      Draft 30-second commercial rough cut feedback session (Speaking and Listening 4 & 5)

By paying attention to these five areas, project designers can be sure they are on the right track toward reaching Common Core goals.

John Larmer and Sara Hallermann discuss how projects should be designed to align with Common Core, from products to rubrics to reading materials to formative assessment. Hangout with BIE: Common Core and Project Based Learning - Part II can be viewed live on December 4, 2013, at 5:00 pm pst or 8:00 pm est, or archived thereafter.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Project Based Learning vs. Problem Based Learning vs. XBL

By John Larmer, BIE Editor in Chief

At the Buck Institute for Education, we’ve been keeping a list of the many types of “_____ - based learning” we have run across over the years.

  • Case-based learning
  • Challenge-based learning 
  • Community-based learning 
  • Design-based learning 
  • Game-based learning 
  • Inquiry-based learning 
  • Land-based learning 
  • Place-based learning 
  • Problem-based learning 
  • Service-based learning 
  • Studio-based learning 
  • Team-based learning 
  • Work-based learning 
and our new fave…
  • Zombie-based learning (look it up!) 

Let’s try to sort this out. 

The term “project learning” derives from the work of John Dewey and dates back to William Kilpatrick, who first used the term in 1918. At BIE, we see Project Based Learning as a broad category, which as long as there is an extended “project” at the heart of it, could take several forms or be a combination of:
  • Designing and/or creating a tangible product, performance or event
  • Solving a real-world problem (may be simulated or fully authentic)
  • Investigating a topic or issue to develop an answer to an open-ended question


So according to our “big tent” model of PBL, all of the newer “X-BLs” – problem-, challenge-, and design-based – are basically modern versions of the same concept. They feature, to varying degrees, all of BIE’s 8 Essential Elements of PBL, although each has its own distinct flavor. (And btw, each of these three, and Project Based Learning, fall under the general category of inquiry-based learning – which also includes research papers, scientific investigations, Socratic Seminars or other text-based discussions, etc.).


Other X-BLs are so named because they use a specific context for learning, such as a particular place or type of activity. They may contain “projects” within them, or have some of the 8 Essential Elements, but not necessarily. For example, within a community- or service-based learning experience, students may plan and conduct a project that improves their local community or helps the people in it, but they may also do other activities that are not part of a project. Conversely, students may learn content and skills via a game-based or work-based program that does not involve anything like what we would call a PBL-style project.

Project Based Learning vs. Problem Based Learning

Because they have the same acronym, we get a lot of questions about the similarities and differences between the two PBLs. We even had questions ourselves; some years ago we created units for high school economics and government that we called “problem based.” But we later changed the name to “Project Based Economics” and “Project Based Government” to eliminate confusion about which PBL it was.

We decided to call Problem Based Learning a subset of Project Based Learning; that is, one of the ways a teacher could frame a project is “to solve a problem.” But Problem-BL does have its own history and set of typically-followed procedures, which are more formally observed than in other types of projects. The use of case studies and simulations as “problems” dates back to medical schools in the 1960s, and Problem-BL is still more often seen in the post-secondary world than in K-12, where Project-BL is more common.

Problem Based Learning typically follows prescribed steps:
  1. presentation of an “ill-structured” (open-ended, “messy”) problem 
  2. problem definition or formulation (writing a “problem statement”) 
  3. generation of a “knowledge inventory” (creating a list of “what we know about the problem” and “what we need to know”) 
  4. generation of possible solutions 
  5. formulation of learning issues for self-directed and coached learning 
  6. sharing of findings and solutions 
If you’re a Project-BL teacher this probably looks pretty familiar, even though the process goes by different names. Other than the framing and the more formalized steps in Problem-BL, there’s really not much conceptual difference between the two PBLs – it’s more a question of style and scope:

 

A note on math and the two PBLs: Teachers at some schools in the K-12 world that use Project-BL as a primary instructional method, such as the New Technology Network and Envision Schools, have begun saying they use Problem-BL for math. Especially at the secondary level, teaching math primarily through multi-disciplinary projects has proved challenging. (Not that occasional multi-disciplinary projects including math are a bad idea!) By using Problem-BL, these teachers feel they can design single-subject math projects – aka “problems” – that effectively teach more math content by being more limited in scope than many typical Project-BL units are. Tackling a “problem” may, for example, not involve as much independent student inquiry, nor the creation of a complex product for presentation to a public audience.

So how does this Tale of Two PBLs end?

One could argue that completing any type of project involves solving a problem. If students are investigating an issue, like, say, immigration policy, the problem is deciding where they stand on it and how to communicate their views to a particular audience in a video. Or if students are building a new play structure for a playground, the problem is how to build it properly, given the wants and needs of users and various constraints. Or even if they're writing stories for a book to be published about the Driving Question, “How do we grow up?” the problem is how to express a unique, rich answer to the Question.

The semantics aren’t worth worrying about, for very long anyway. The two PBLs are really two sides of the same coin. What type of PBL you decide to call your, er… extended learning experience just depends on how you frame it. The bottom line is the same: both PBLs can powerfully engage and effectively teach your students!

This is part one of a two-part post. Next: PBL vs. Projects (dessert, side dish, Senior, capstone, applied learning/demonstration of learning, etc.)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Role of PBL in Making the Shift to Common Core

by Sara Hallermann, BIE Curriculum Development Manager, & John Larmer, BIE Editor in Chief

“CCSS is the what and carefully designed projects are the how.” 

The Common Core has embedded within it some Big Ideas that shift the role of teachers to curriculum designers and managers of an inquiry process. How can PBL help with this shift?


Big Idea: I am a designer. 

Common Core calls upon teachers to shift away from writing daily lesson plans towards carefully mapping out long-range units. Daily lesson planning is important, but it must occur within the context of a larger plan. 

PBL Connection: To meet the demands of the Common Core, teachers need a framework for designing units. In PBL, the project IS the unit. It requires careful planning from start to finish, as BIE emphasizes in its project planning framework.

Big Idea: I facilitate inquiry. 

Research and sustained inquiry are emphasized throughout the standards, but most prominently in the writing strand because written analysis and presentation of findings are critical in both college and careers. To meet the demands of the Common Core, students need to be able to build knowledge and expertise through careful reading of increasingly complex texts about the same topic of investigation.

PBL Connection: To meet BIE’s 8 Essential Elements, inquiry must be academically rigorous and position students to pose questions, gather and interpret data, ask further questions, and develop and evaluate solutions or build evidence for answers. Well-designed projects teach students how to be deep, analytical thinkers and require perseverance through the inquiry process.

Big Idea: I set students up to dig deep, search for meaning, and craft reasoned arguments.

Common Core requires teachers to shift from promoting a “searching for the right answer mentality” to explicitly teaching students how to dive into texts and search for meaning. Students need ongoing access to inquiry experiences that build their understanding of the world through text and explicitly teach students how to support arguments with evidence.

PBL Connection: Projects can be framed around compelling problems, issues, or challenges that require critical thinking and prompt students to craft reasoned arguments in response to the driving question. Through balanced assessment in PBL, teachers can assess the critical thinking process as well as products and enable students to self-assess their critical thinking skills.

Big idea: I create conditions in which students can learn how to persevere. 

Perseverance is an underlying theme in the Common Core Standards. To meet the standards, students need to put forth sustained effort through in-depth investigation of issues, building understanding of varying perspectives, reading complex tests, listening carefully, and sharing their reasoning.

PBL Connection: In PBL, students are asked to demonstrate perseverance by analyzing and solving problems and thinking critically in an in-depth and sustained way. Revision and reflection, one of BIE’s 8 Essential Elements, requires PBL teachers to provide students with regular, structured opportunities to give and receive feedback about the quality of their work-in-progress, demonstrate perseverance, and polish their products until they successfully meet the established criteria for success.

Big Idea: I integrate content and create relevance. 

Common Core requires teachers to move away from teaching skills in isolation towards the integration of reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language into long-term unit plans. Students should be able to see the relationship between standards and transfer concepts and skills in the classroom to the world outside the classroom walls. Rather than learning in a decontextualized way, Common Core demands that students have ongoing experiences to learn about the world through reading and understand the relevance of what is taught.

PBL Connection: In PBL, key culminating products are complex in nature and enable students to demonstrate understanding of a blend of concepts and skills. Well-crafted Driving Questions are both understandable and inspiring to students and provide a meaningful, authentic context for learning. Projects motivate students to learn because they genuinely find the project’s topic, Driving Question, and tasks to be relevant and meaningful. Entry events powerfully engage students both emotionally and intellectually and make them feel invested in the project. This provokes students to dive into inquiry and gives them a reason to read, write, listen, and speak about the topic of investigation.

Big Idea: I facilitate meaningful conversations. 

Common Core requires a shift from teachers doing much of the talking to creating conditions in which students can engage in meaningful conversations in which they learn how to use evidence for claims, listen carefully, draw meaning, and evaluate others’ reasoning.

PBL Connection: Collaboration is a requirement in PBL. Students work in collaborative teams that employ the skills of all group members and often interface with people beyond the classroom.

Stay tuned for part two of the PBL and Common Core blog series. Part two will address key considerations related to products, rubrics, scaffolding, text complexity, and formative assessment to fully align PBL units to Common Core.



We will discuss the shifts in teaching required by the Common Core Standards and how they connect to PBL. For example, CCSS asks teachers to move from daily lesson planning to long-range unit planning - much like in PBL, where the project IS the unit - and to move from teacher talk to students engaging in conversations based on evidence for claims - as student teams do when developing their answer to a project's Driving Question. Hangout with BIE: Common Core and Project Based Learning can be viewed live on November 6, 2013, at 5:00 pm pst or 8:00 pm est, or archived there after.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Work is the Story: Telling the Story Behind A Great Project

by Robert Todd Felton

I recently attended the Fall open house of my son’s public middle school. Although the year was still relatively fresh, the students had done very impressive work. Beautiful artwork adorned the front lobby and samples of compelling student writing on everything from poetry to lab reports were on display. It was an impressive collection...and a little frustrating.


Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of displaying and celebrating high quality student work. I think we don’t do enough to recognize that our students are capable of the type of care and craftsmanship we expect from adults. Student work, no matter the discipline, can be every bit as polished and impactful as that we see in galleries, businesses, and the media.

What’s different for me is that when I go into an art gallery or read a published report, I am often only interested in the final product, not the struggle itself. When I look at student work, I am eager to enjoy both the outcome and the process. For students, the learning that happens during the project is every bit worth celebrating as the product itself.

I know no more compelling example of this than the story Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning tells about of how Austin learned to draw a butterfly.


What is important here is not just the progress Austin makes as he works; we all know that our work gets better when we revise. It is that Austin’s struggles can be used to show other students (and adults) that any difficult and complex task can be achieved if we tackle it in steps and have a team to help us. We are all capable of drawing a beautiful butterfly if we start with the basics and add a little detail each time. That’s the story that often gets lost when we display student work.

Think about the truly spectacular pieces of student work you’ve seen (if you want inspiration, try Expeditionary Learning’s Center for Student Work or High Tech High’s project archive). Think about the stories behind the projects. How did the students get there? What were the steps?

What have your students done? Share with us both the final products and the steps they took to get there. It helps us all get closer to drawing that butterfly.



Join Todd Felton as he shares stories about students striving for excellence during projects. Hangout with BIE: Student Stories: High Quality Work and How They Got There can be viewed live on October 30, 2013, at 5:00 pm pst or 8:00 pm est, or archived there after.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Content - the once and future king

by David Ross, BIE Senior Director of Programs

I spent the past week in Seoul, South Korea, watching a colleague as he delivered a Project Based Learning (PBL) workshop at the Korea International School (KIS).


The plan was for me to attend meetings, cultivate new partnerships, and watch our Director of National Faculty, Rody Boonchouy, facilitate the workshop. I hoped to gain insight into what PBL could look like in Asia. What I ended up seeing was two very different visions of education.

South Korea, like many other high-achieving Asian countries, is noted for an educational culture focused on testing. There are many reasons for this culture, some stretching back more than a thousand years. Saturday, Oct. 5, provided a snapshot of what a highly developed testing culture looks like.

Saturday was Scholastic Aptitude Test day. The nation comes to a halt while its children take a test that determines their future.

A city of 24 million becomes remarkably quiet. Cars are routed away from the testing sites. Loud music is deeply discouraged. Airlines and airports reschedule flights. Adults working at the test sites are directed away from hallways where the exam is in progress. Nothing must break the sacred silence that surrounds the test.

There is legal power behind these traditions – South Korean police are likely to issue a citation if you make too much noise.

This is a vision of education when testing culture is taken to its extreme.

A very different vision emerged during a lunch I shared with the team from the International School of Beijing (ISB), one of the finest independent schools in Asia. The nature of their vision clashed loudly with the silent hallways around us.

The staff of ISB is intently focused on PBL. This is not a rare sentiment in the thriving private school world of Asia. Just that morning I had engaged the leadership of the Singapore American School (SAS) in a long conversation about its expansive implementation of PBL. These two conversations occurred at KIS, where BIE was delivering a PBL workshop to yet another full room of enthusiastic practitioners.

Why would three of the most highly respected private schools in the hyper-competitive market of Asia be so interested in PBL?

One of the Beijing teachers may have unwittingly provided the answer. He told me that the ISB staff had been encouraged to believe that content no longer mattered.

What? Content no longer mattered? That didn’t make sense. Content is one of the essential elements of good PBL. Of course content matters. Content especially matters in Asia, where most parents see an acceptance letter from Harvard as the ultimate achievement in K-12 education.

Or maybe it didn’t matter in this alternative vision.

The average SAT score in these three schools floats well above 2,000. The students are, generally, from the upper social class. Beyond that, nearly every student attends an after-hours cram school (called hagwans in Korea), where they spend 3-4 hours memorizing content and repeating mathematical drills.

These kids go to two schools. Their day school is free to focus on developing communicative, collaborative, creative and critical thinking skills while the students engage in personally meaningful inquiries. Their night school is bound by the sausage making of learning facts and manipulating figures.

These alternative visions provoke differing emotions.

I fear the U.S., despite the performance assessments promised by the Common Core, will enshrine standardized testing and one day we too will have a national SAT day that requires us to wear soft-soled shoes and turn down the volume on our TVs.

But I wonder about this other vision. Losing the focus on content worries me. After all, students need to think critically about something. They need to collaborate on something. They need to communicate about something. That something should be significant content.

Do we need two schools, or just one good one, doing good PBL?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Quality Projects: Put Relationships Before the Rigor

by Tim Kubik, BIE National Faculty

After working with the staff of ACE and Health Leadership Schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the past five years, I think it’s time we stopped assuming that rigor is something that happens mainly as the result of a teacher’s competency. Instead, we should start thinking about quality work as something that results from the design of a project that allows students to work effectively with their own assets, with their peers, and with adults, including the teacher but especially those with expertise far beyond that one person.


Working with One’s Self: Assets-Based/Positive Youth Development 

In its first year, Administration and Staff at ACE Leadership decided to adopt the Positive Youth Development framework. Students were asked to self-assess their internal assets, and then staff supported these with external assets, rather than punishing students for their deficits. This led teachers to powerful realizations about their students as individuals, rather than as a class roster or as aggregate sets of data. When confronted with a challenging project like building a rammed-earth foundation, students saw the project as an opportunity to learn some things they had been wondering about, or upon which they needed to improve. They would then start to make choices about which of these opportunities they were really ready to seize, and would focus on those with the aim of dealing with others later.

 As time went on, most of the students approached their projects from the assets they were confident they could bring to the project, because they wanted to see the project succeed. Yolanda might look at the rammed earth project as an excellent opportunity to use her speaking voice to explain this environmentally sustainable practice to those who didn’t understand it, but also a safe space to learn about research with a good research partner. Allie, on the other hand, may count on her research skills while taking some risks to grow her public speaking. When students are focused on understanding themselves as learners, this is how they approach projects. By the third year, ACE was done with “Carnegie unit” classes, and offering ONLY projects, and it became the advisor’s responsibility to support a student in thinking about what they could learn from a project, rather than the teacher’s task to think about what they had to teach every student.

I would argue this is how MOST students in most schools approach our projects, but that they’re afraid that we as teachers will fall back on trying to teach them everything they need to know because we want to be rigorous. This commitment to rigorous coverage means we’ll bore Allie to tears during the research part of the project, and do the same to Yolanda when coaching public speaking. IF, however we bore Allie in the research phase before getting to public speaking, Allie will check out, and fail to work to her potential. Some teachers might call her lazy, but a good teacher will realize the flaw was in the project design: its rigor only worked for some, not all of the students.

Working with Peers: Effective Teaming 

As soon as you admit that different students might try to learn different things in a particular project, you’ve unlocked the secret to effective teaming in Project Based Learning. In an earlier BIE blog, Building a Culture of Hiring, I discussed this issue as it first surfaced at ACE Leadership, but it merits more consideration in the context of producing quality work. Most PBL teachers put a ‘leader” in charge of a project, and that notion of leadership is almost always informed by a sense that the “leaders” can control the team when the teacher isn’t there. This isn’t leadership, it’s mere management, and it’s one reason this kind of team ends up with the leader doing all the work. The team will not be inspired by serving under a deputy teacher, and the deputy teacher is, more than likely, one of those students who always “grabs” on to what the teacher tells him or her to do. That’s why they got the job, after all, and that’s why they’ll probably try to do the whole job alone.

But when students are self-aware and given the freedom to shop around for those who can complement their skills, they begin to form teams that will actually collaborate to complete a quality product for the project. Allie might learn about public speaking from Yolanda, but the team will trust Yolanda to make the final decisions on how their presentation should be designed because they acknowledge that asset in Yolanda. Pair Allie and Yolanda with Joey, the kid who can’t keep his hands still because he just wants to be tearing stuff apart and rebuilding it again, and you have a team that can tackle a complex design challenge like a rammed-earth foundation, perhaps even without an appointed “leader.” Assuming personality conflicts can be managed by the teacher using one of several different minimally invasive classroom management strategies, the peers on the team will learn from one another, complement one another, and drive the quality of work to new heights because of the effectiveness of the team. This is no accident, however. It is the result of a teacher who worked, hard, to design a learning experience that had something for all the learners, rather than everything for every learner.

Working with Others: Subject Matter Experts 

As students get comfortable with the notion that different members contribute different things to the team, they’re ready to unlock the power of subject matter experts (SMEs) as true partners rather than outside judges. Far too many projects wait until the final, summative performance or demonstration to bring SMEs into the mix, hoping that the students will rise to the occasion to impress these credible outsiders. This often means that students will be awed, or terrified by these outsiders if they’ve never met them before. Outside SMEs are another complementary factor in producing quality work, but only when they’re part of the team along the way. At both ACE Leadership and Health Leadership High Schools, it’s not unusual to see the CEO of a leading New Mexico architecture firm, a public health worker in from the neighborhood clinic, or a veteran site manager with 50 years’ experience coordinating hammer swingers and concrete pourers. Each of these will be working alongside students and teachers in the design, assessment, and management phases of a project. When Tech Leadership opens in 2014, it will almost certainly be crawling with SMEs from the nearby Sandia Labs.

In many real-world projects, a teacher may simply lack the subject matter expertise to help students do the kind of work that professionals in these fields would respect. That’s why I think it’s indicative that all the learning outcomes used at ACE Leadership require “Quality” work as the baseline for meeting standards. When those standards are not met, it’s back to the drawing board for more practice until they are. But there’s a higher bar, too: “Value Added” is the term for the work that commands respect from industry professionals and builds a reputation for ACE Leadership students and the school. That’s not just a fun buzz-phrase to throw around. As student Josh Lujan said in his last year at ACE: “Getting Value Add is not just about building my reputation. Doing the little extra to earn Value Add gave me more practice and helped me make sure I understood.” Indeed, many of the students graduating from ACE are able to leverage that reputation into internships and jobs far beyond what they might have received with a mere high school diploma, and we have every reason to believe the same will be true for graduates from Health and Tech Leadership in a few years.

Looking at these three relationships and their role in PBL, it should be clear that students at these prototype schools of the future are working harder than their teachers, and that’s saying a lot because I know how hard the teachers at these schools work! The remarkable thing is that most of the students at these schools were written off as slackers, or under-performers at their previous schools. They changed, and began to do quality work, not because their teachers held them to rigorous expectations day in and day out until they learned to deliver what was expected. They changed because their teachers designed learning experiences for them that the students could actually see as learning opportunities, rather than mere “assignments.” If we had this kind of “design rigor” in more schools around the country, I’m quite certain we could stop talking about rigor in our schools, and start celebrating more results. I know this, because celebrating results is something ACE has been doing since it opened its doors, and the doors opening at Health and Tech Leadership are themselves celebrations of those results. When industries come to you asking to help them build a school, I think it’s safe to say you’re getting results worth celebrating.


Join Dr. Tim Kubik as he shares his experience in working with ACE Leadership and Health Leadership High Schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which organizes authentic learning experiences around work in the construction and health industries. Hangout with BIE: Quality Projects: Put Relationships Before the Rigor can be viewed live on October 16, 2013, at 5:00 pm pst or 8:00 pm est, or archived there after.