Going Off the Grid…but First…

Before I go off the grid for ten days to go kayaking in the Sea of Cortez, I am asking a favor. If you believe that students deserve challenging educational opportunities, and if you believe that the most important question an educator can ask is ‘How Is This Child Intelligent?’ (instead of ‘How smart is this kid?’), then please share these five links with everyone who feels the same way, or who should feel this way.

Part one: Why Project-Based Learning (PBL), plus a project to measure water use in their schools and communities;

Part two:  A project to study air quality that elementary students can do at their school;

Part three:  Projects that get students out in their communities show the general public the good stuff that schools are doing;

Part four: PBL means students are creating knowledge, not merely regurgitating; here are two great examples;

Part five:  This covers the important issue of evaluating project-based learning, plus two more examples of successful PBL.

Basically, these posts are about the significant benefits of PBL.  First of all, students become producers of knowledge, not mere consumers of information that others decree they must know.  They own what they learn, and they reap the satisfaction of possessing expertise. Moreover, they develop (or sharpen) skills the adult workplace values: the ability to work with others, data-gathering and assimilation, serious inquiry, public speaking, language and math, and more.

Here’s another way to think about this:  Countless generations of parents have asked  their children, “What did you learn in school today?”  This line of seemingly harmless inquiry actually reinforces spitting back stuff, which conditions youngsters to fall in line.

A better approach, which good PBL fosters, is to ask a child Did you ask good questions today? or What good questions did you ask today?

That approach supports, encourages, and rewards inquiry and curiosity, traits that most successful adults exhibit.


2 thoughts on “Going Off the Grid…but First…


    Dear John,

    Great work! You and I have communicated over the years, and I write simply to encourage you in this current task.

    Your series on Project-based learning is a terrific contribution to the “reform” conversation – to the extent that such conversation exists in the real world of public education. Well over three decades of jousting at this particular windmill have left me, not a sceptic so much as a virtually exhausted and totally frustrated advocate. At my advanced years, it seems I am left to rely upon prayers. You have mine.

    You understand the absolute imperative of educating in ways which lead to the development of actual lifelong learners, skilled in communicating, collaborating, listening, innovating and creating. These capabilities are essential in a knowledge-based, highly competitive global world. If, for example, we ever want to see STEM learning being truly effectuated in the real world of work, it will happen when individuals have these tools.

    John, I am going to append below a memorandum two colleagues and I sent John Engler. John had just assumed leadership at the Business Roundtable, and I knew his determination to raise the sights and performance of public education. I hoped to recruit the BRT to a lead role in promoting project-based education. I know the following is far too long, but at least it emphases the value of, as you put it, “building a self” Nothing is more important. Follows is the memo Morty Bahr, Ed McElroy and I sent to John Engler and the BRT in January of 2011. (With occasional areas I have emphasized by using underlines and/or bold type.) Incidentally, we subsequently sent similar messages to Craig Barrett at Intel and Randi Weingarten at AFT..

    Memorandum to John Engler, Chairman, Business Roundtable:
    “’The empires of the Future’, Winston Churchill once said, ‘are the empires of the mind.’ Those words have never held more weight. Our greatest technological advances come not through physical might, tools, or cash, but through intellect and imagination.[1]

    In the Education Section of the Business Round Table’s recently published ‘Roadmap for Success’, they point out, “Without accelerated reform to boost U.S. student achievement and increase college completion rates for students and workers of all ages, particularly in STEM, American students and workers will fall further behind, and future U.S. economic competitiveness will be placed at risk.“ The Roadmap goes on to provide a plan for addressing the problems with America’s K-12 Education system. It is an excellent plan as far as it goes, but it omits an important element of the problem. It focuses on student performance in the traditional academic content areas but does not mention the essential high-performance skills.

    Typically, when industry leaders are asked, “What are the most important things you look for in potential new employees?” the answers are things like:

    High Performance Skills






    Problem Solving



    Critical Thinking





    Cross-cultural skills


    Negotiating differences

    Peaceful coexistence


    It was surprising to realize that the industry leaders had not asked for anything being ‘taught’ in our K-12 public schools. The list above is composed of characteristics typically referred to as high-performance and entrepreneurial skills.

    If industry leaders ask for an education program that will produce people with high-performance skills, but the education system rewards programs that produce high test scores, then the majority of effort will be on test scores; not what industry asked for – but what the education establishment paid for. And the result will be students who test well at recalling facts, but have had no opportunity to learn or use the high-performance skills essential for success in a global competition and rebuilding the Middle Class.

    There has been a prevailing attitude that the high-performance skills are innate, students are either born with them or they’re not, and therefore there is no need to teach them. Part of this mindset comes from the fact that in a traditional classroom, you can’t ‘teach’ collaboration, teamwork, etc. The high-performance skills must be learned by doing. Teaching students about teamwork and collaboration without putting them in a group where they experience them is like learning to cook only out of a cookbook – without actually cooking. Multi-disciplinary project-based learning in small groups creates an environment where students learn and practice using these critical skills every day.

    But the problem is more severe than simply not teaching the high-performance skills. There is a direct conflict between the traditional teaching and assessing model and ensuring that graduates acquire the skills industry is hoping to find in the graduates. Consider what K-12 education is using to assess and reward educational programs. In most cases it is some form of testing that measures recall of factual information. The BRT Roadmap for Growth provides a comprehensive explanation of the nature and importance of the education issues that are negatively impacting America’s economy and culture. However, the report appears to support these testing-of-recall types of assessments and therefore inadvertently supports a model that will inevitably result in a teaching environment that teaches to the test. The teaching to the test model of teaching and assessment is the antithesis of what industry leaders say they want the schools to produce. And ironically, the resulting disengagement between students and teachers leads to an unacceptable level of student dropouts, teacher burnout and a vast number of graduates and dropouts unprepared to earn a living.

    It’s not that students don’t need a better understanding of STEM and other content areas. It’s not that we don’t need to assess students’ progress and mastery. We need both of these things. But we also need to transform the way students learn them so that it is not in conflict with acquiring the high-performance skills. In order to get these things, America’s public schools need to totally transform the way students learn the information and how their learning is assessed.

    The world we live in does not exist in discipline silos. The world is a remarkably complex set of interdependent, multidisciplinary systems. Separating the systems into topical subject areas is artificial and boring to students. Requiring them to memorize and regurgitate seemingly unrelated facts is deadly. Another culture describes a different view on testing. “An Educator from India somewhat skeptically asked a visiting American educator, “In America, you test your students a lot, don’t you?” She replied that indeed, the United States has a national policy that requires testing of all students in certain grades. The Indian educator said, “Here, when we want an elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant.”[2]

    Students need to learn to learn, not just learn the information. They also need to use information, not just recall it. In the traditional teacher-centered environment, students are discouraged from helping each other – in many cases it is considered cheating. During assessments, students are not asked to construct creative solutions. They are asked to recall and describe previously gathered and remembered information – without using any reference materials. In any business workplace, any employees behaving that way in solving problems would be told to change their ways, be more collaborative and to verify their information and assumptions. Schools are discouraging the very behaviors industry leaders list as important.In a small-group multidisciplinary project-based setting, the students learn a broad range of information from across disciplines and immediately apply that information to solve problems. So what happens in a few years when the student’s interest or opportunities change? Here’s the best part. They didn’t just learn and use the information, they learned HOW to learn and use the information. So the next time an opportunity appears, they are completely prepared to attack the problem, no matter what the knowledge domain.

    In the traditional K-12 assessment model, there is a penalty for wrong answers. In describing his process for inventing, Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Ken Olsen, founder and CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation wanted his engineers to fail periodically. He described it as, “failing forward”. If they never failed, then they were not pushing the limits as much as they should be.

    There is a valid reason why the discipline or content area “skills” do not appear on the industry leaders’ initial list of important knowledge. While everyone agrees that a comprehensive base of fundamental knowledge is essential for some specific jobs, they also realize that such knowledge is growing at an exponential rate and information that students may learn as freshmen may no longer be valid or current when they graduate. So what you really want from an education system is one that produces confident, empowered learners with the ability to analyze problems and find the current, relevant, valid information needed to solve them. These learners should have a solid base of content knowledge across all disciplines and an appreciation that STEM knowledge is an integral part of the solution to almost every problem they will face. And more importantly, that STEM topics are no more or less difficult to learn and use than any other content.

    There is strong research supporting the value and effectiveness of project-based learning. A review of innovative classroom practices led by Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University and commissioned by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, found that:

    1. “Students learn more deeply when they can apply classroom-gathered knowledge to real-world problems, and when they take part in projects that require sustained engagement and collaboration.

    2. Active-learning practices have a more significant impact on student performance than any other variable, including student background and achievement.

    3. Students are most successful when they are taught how to learn as well as what to learn.”[3]

    With Respect,

    Mort Bahr Ed McElroy William Brock

    Footnote#1: The U. S. must become a nation of 110,000 schools that provide a learning environment that encourages and empowers students to become confident, life-long learners with all of the high-performance skills listed above along with knowledge in STEM, Language Arts, and the other content areas. In Tracy California there is a scalable, affordable, proven example of just such a program. Called the Discovery and Innovation (D&I) model at the Tracy Learning Center, it is a totally transformed model that was designed and constructed using a selected set of organizational and student-centered, research-based best practices; and implemented within the existing district budget. It uses a multidisciplinary project-based, small-group learning environment that empowers the teachers to customize the education for every student. It has been in operation for over eight years, with almost 10,000,000 hours of student and teacher classroom experience, with zero dropouts and no teacher defections. And even though there is no teaching to the test, the students surpass the rest of the schools in the district on high-stakes tests. But more importantly, the students all have a remarkable self-awareness and self-confidence about their individual and group potential.

    Footnote#2: The Discovery and Innovation (D&I) model produces graduates and teachers who are not afraid to ‘fail’ and who are innovative and creative. The learning environment rewards, not penalizes, the students for ‘wrong’ answers. The traditional assessment system asks questions for which there are clearly right and wrong answers, and the resulting assessment is flawed. In the Discovery and Innovation model, the students are continually assessed without being constantly tested. English educator, Joseph Payne, dating back to 1856, was against continual testing and compared it to “continually pulling up the plants to see the conditions of the roots, the consequence of which was that all good natural growth was stopped”.

    [1] Fortune Magazine, “Smartest People in Tech”, July 2010

    [2] Education Nation; Milton Chen; p. 26

    [3] Education Nation; Milton Chen; p. 37


  2. John, thought you and your readers might be interested in this column from April, 1990


    Toward a Vision of Students as ‘Citizens’
    By Joe Nathan
    April 25, 1990

    Whenever the conversation turns to “restructuring” schools, I think of my former student David, an angry, violent teenager from a troubled inner-city family. Our public schools are encountering more and more young people like him. And unless plans for change include a new and more positive view of them–a concept of these youngsters as involved citizens–reforms will have much less impact.

    For quite a while, it was not easy to like David. He had transferred to the school where I taught after being expelled from a large, traditional high school.

    David’s final problems at his former school began when a teacher told him to remove the hat he was wearing in the hall. Smiling, David replied that his girlfriend had given him the hat for his birthday and that he was “just trying to get to class on time, like you always tell me.” The teacher reminded David of the rule against hats and insisted he remove it. When David ignored the teacher, the latter walked to his side and said, “Take that hat off or I’ll knock it off.” David smiled. The teacher pushed off the hat, and David slammed him to the floor.

    David was suspended, found guilty of assault, sentenced to several hundred hours of community service, and told to find another school in the district.

    He picked ours–a K-12 alternative school where the faculty didn’t care if he wore a hat. We were more concerned about the fact that he was 15 and could barely read or write. David learned that it did not matter how many classes he took: He wouldn’t graduate until he could demonstrate specified skills and knowledge.

    Graduation requirements also included service to the school and community. David enrolled in a course where students learned about consumer rights and responsibilities, and worked on problems referred to them by adults. Over several years, they tackled approximately 500 cases and successfully resolved over 80 percent of them.

    Education, we felt, should not be aimed merely at preparing young people to find jobs. Dissatisfied with the commonly accepted metaphor of students as “workers,” we based our efforts on a vision of them as ”citizens” who should be able to serve their community actively and responsibly. If current calls for reform are to succeed, they must build in the premise that, while part of good citizenship is holding a job, learning the skills one needs to produce a more just world and believing that one can make a difference are equally important elements.

    The course David took was inspired by experience with and research about the value of combining classroom work and community service. Learning by doing, of course, is not a new idea. John Dewey, for example, urged such an approach. In this generation, the Georgia educator Eliot Wigginton has shown how it can be done in his Foxfire program and in his extraordinary book, Sometimes a Shining Moment.

    This progressive tradition begins with certain assumptions: Young people learn more when they are actively involved; they can influence the lives of other people positively; they should be viewed as resources for, rather than simply recipients of service. We also believed that youngsters would learn to be good citizens the same way they learned to add numbers or shoot a basketball–by practicing.

    Community service did not mean merely collecting cans for a food shelf at Christmas, or assisting at a day-care center. We tried to link schoolwork and service so that youngsters saw connections between academics and the world beyond school.

    Activities such as the following were typical:

    Elementary students designed and built a playground for the school. Among their committees was one that made 26 phone calls before locating a company that would donate sand. Former students still remember the day, more than 15 years ago, when 6 trucks arrived with sand.
    Science students studied principles of ecology and tried to reduce smelly emissions from factories near the school. In what became a three-year project, they conducted research, testified at a state legislative hearing, and dealt with reporters and pollution-control officials. Ultimately, they were successful.
    English students analyzed ways television commercials tried to sell products, and then wrote a students’ guide to advertising.
    Youngsters in peer-counseling classes helped address the needs of several potentially suicidal students and dramatically reduced fighting by showing their classmates better ways to resolve disagreements.
    Other schools have created similar courses–where service is a part of the academic curriculum, not just an after-school or student-council project.

    When teachers who offer such courses get together, however, as they did recently at the Wingspread Conference Center, they realize that, in most cases, they were not taught this approach in college. Many learned to design these courses on their own or from other gifted teachers.

    Most colleges make opportunities for service available to their students. But how many colleges actually model this way of learning? How many offer courses in which students not only–for example–read American history but also conduct research and publish books or magazines, as the Foxfire students do? How many prepare or encourage prospective teachers to combine academics and service?

    In a recent research summary on the impact of youth-service programs, the investigators Dan Conrad and Diane Hedin found that more than 70 percent of students in such courses preferred them to traditional classes. Participating students also had stronger problem-solving skills than a control group.

    The most effective programs share five characteristics:

    Projects address a real need.
    Students’ work is integrated into a course, so that they also improve academic skills; their project helps strengthen reading, writing, research, and other elements of the discipline in which they are working.
    They have an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned; they learn to analyze problems, consider possible solutions, try one of them, evaluate the results, and then try again.
    Educators have a collaborative relationship with students. This doesn’t mean students run the class; teachers have a clear idea of the course’s goals and most of the strategies to be used. But they encourage students to produce solutions to problems.
    The project has a tangible product–for example, a booklet, videotape, or filmstrip–that students can look at, take away, and come back to years later as a reminder of what they accomplished.
    With the Congress discussing proposals for national service programs and President Bush including young people in his “thousand points of light,” youth-service efforts are in the news these days. And many observers are concerned about the attitudes of American young people. A survey conducted last year by the civil-liberties organization People for the American Way asked 1,000 teenagers to rank important life goals. Seventy-one percent named a satisfying career and 68 percent a good family life as very important goals. But only 24 percent rated community service so highly.

    Well-designed programs can transform these attitudes. David was not a good citizen when he entered our school. But he was an active member of our consumer-action course, and he had many ideas about how to solve problems–some sneaky, some illegal, some both creative and legitimate. Gradually, he learned how to use small-claims courts and other legal strategies. His reading, writing, and math improved significantly.

    Six months after David entered the school, a local newspaper did a story about the class. David was one of the students selected by his peers to be interviewed and photographed.

    Weeks later, David came to me. “I often thought that I might have my name in the newspaper,” he said.

    “I even thought I might have my picture in the paper. But I never thought it would be for something good.”

    Joe Nathan, a former public-school teacher and administrator, is senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He coordinated the National Governors’ Association project, Time for Results.


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