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.


Project-Based Learning, the final chapter

At its most basic, education is about ownership.  Students are not just studying History or algebra.  They are engaged in ‘building a self,’ which is the only company they will have for the rest of their lives. 

The ‘self’ that each individual student is building (with our help) must include more than test-taking, listening to lectures, and spitting back what the teachers and the textbooks have put forth.

Done well, project-based learning is a wonderful way to ‘build a self.’   It gives students more control over what they are learning, engages them in the process of creating knowledge, teaches teamwork, leadership, and other interpersonal skills, and reinforces the basic underpinning of a quality education: reading, writing, speaking, and working with numbers.

I’ve been writing about this for the past four weeks, and now I want to try to answer  questions about evaluating projects: How are projects graded?  Because it’s a group effort, does everyone get the same grade? What if a couple of students aren’t pulling their weight?  What if the project fails?

But before I go there, one more point: Projects can be entirely classroom-based, or they can take students out into the world.  Two quick stories.

1.  After deciding they would survey the community about its pressing needs, fourth graders in Yellow Springs, Ohio, built a portable kiosk, which they set up in a central park downtown.  From that booth, they proceeded to interview Yellow Springs residents.  They began with questions designed to put the adults at ease, like “How long have you lived here?” and “What’s the best thing about our town?”  Then they cut to the chase, asking the adults what they considered to be the town’s most pressing problem.

When ‘affordable housing’ ranked at or near the top, these fourth graders began studying the issue: how many square feet should a home be, how should it be laid out, how much would it cost to build just one home?  Would there be economies-of-scale?

Next, these fourth graders proceeded to design some possible homes….after which they built a large scale model of one design, which they planned to take to a City Council meeting.  I saw the nearly-finished model and heard some students practicing their presentations–which they later made to the City Council.

Talk about empowering education.  Wouldn’t you want that for your children or grandchildren?  I sure would.

My second example comes from my own teaching.  As a rookie English teacher in a rigidly tracked high school, I was assigned the lowest track students, basically the kids that weren’t the school’s priority.  I was assigned to team-teach with a History teacher.  Accustomed to years of insignificance, our 11th graders were completely indifferent to literature or History, to anything remotely ‘academic.’  She and I flailed daily.  Flailed and failed.  What we were doing wasn’t working….

In desperation, we decided to challenge them to write an original play. They could tell whatever story they wanted and they could create the plot and characters, while we would teach them about the arc of a story, the need for structure and complexity, the importance of language, and so on.

They took the bit in their teeth. The plot they concocted involved some ‘greasers’ from the wrong side of the tracks–kids like them–being accused of shop-lifting cartons of cigarettes from the local store.   They knew–but could not prove–that the real thieves were two students from the top academic track and the good part of town. In fact, the thieves were the school’s head cheerleader and the captain of the football team!

I can still remember the enthusiasm in that double-period class, as the students argued back and forth about plot twists and language.  And because it was a play, they had to visualize the action and make it credible.

In their play’s denouement, two of the ‘greasers’ caught the thieves red-handed, then alerted the stationery store owner. Justice was served!

Before long, they told us that they wanted to build the two sets, a run-down clubhouse, and the stationery store.  However, that required the permission of the school principal, so my colleague and I told our students that they had to invite the principal to class and convince him, with a thoughtful presentation.   Now we were also teaching public speaking, and rhetorical techniques of argumentation.

Of course he agreed, and our class moved to the auditorium.  The kids built sets, blocked out the action, and then began acting out the parts.  Lots of fits and starts, and lots of helpful criticism from what was now a real team of learners.  They owned what they were doing, and they were also learning all the stuff–speaking, writing, thinking, arguing–that had rolled off their backs till then.

Our 11th graders put on their play for the rest of the school, and suddenly our heretofore undistinguished and largely invisible students were heroes (well, maybe not to the kids in the top academic tracks).

Somewhere I still have a letter from Joey Levy’s mother, telling me that, until he was assigned to our class, her son was very close to dropping out.  Before that class, he hated going to school, and now he can’t wait to get there.  Now, she wrote, Joey wants to go to college.

Finally, how is project-based learning evaluated?  Here are two quite different reports from two classroom teachers. What these approaches to evaluation have in common are high expectations, high standards, and transparency.

One teacher I know well and about five of his students created a remarkable project last year: They took an old pickup truck with an internal combustion engine and set about trying to convert it to electric!  I asked him how he evaluated the project.

He wrote: The first test of the project is pretty obvious: You turn the ignition key and nothing happens. What steps do you take to figure out where the problem is?

Ideally there’s no grade, as with the truck project, which was and is motivated by pure enthusiasm.  However, some sort of assessment is helpful. In the case of the truck, everyone ought to have an understanding of how it works, what’s connected to what, et cetera.

Of course, the teacher can cook up a quiz to test for this sort of knowledge. A much better way of measuring learning, however, is an assessment that requires transfer of knowledge from our small pickup to other vehicles: What size battery pack would you need for a 20-ton semi, and what would its range be?

The most valuable assessment, and my preference, is to give students some materials (wire, magnets, nails, bearings, springs, et cetera) and ask them how they would make a rudimentary electric generator?  Would it generate AC or DC current?  Then let them try.

Groups can be a challenge if some kids aren’t pulling their weight.  I assign the laggards specific responsibilities and make it clear that I will be grading them.

(In case you’re curious, the project was a success.)

Esther Wojcicki, the English teacher in Palo Alto I wrote about here, explained how the publications her students produce are evaluated:

The students collaboratively set up the rubrics at the beginning of the year. They may modify them during the year based on the group input. Everyone has a say, including me of course.

Students recognize that they are building on a long tradition of student publications, and so they try to honor the hard work of previous students by keeping up the standards–or even improving on them. 

I evaluate group projects in the following ways:

1. We evaluate the overall quality of the product each production.   I evaluate it and the kids also evaluate it. Evaluation is done orally and in writing.  We strive for honesty, transparency, and respect.

2. The kids evaluate each other’s performance on each edition—their writing, collaboration, design, and participation 

3. The activities are awarded points, not as a threat, but as a way to show the kids the importance of each part.  They can change the points awarded by revising or being more collaborative. 

4. Every student can earn an A, if they have a good attitude and revise and improve their work.  We focus on being members of the community and striving for excellence. 

I hope that you are convinced that project-based teaching and learning ought to be an essential part of all school curriculum, part of every student’s experience in school. 

Please share these five reports with teachers, administrators, and policy makers.  School should be challenging and interesting, not tedious or ‘rigorous.’


Project-Based Learning, part four

I am convinced that the very best schools ask the right question, “How Is Each Child Intelligent?”  Moreover, the educators in these schools follow through by allowing students more control over what they are learning. 

Very often, this means project-based learning, where teams of students work together to create–not spit back–knowledge. You can find the first three parts of this series here, here, and here.

In these schools, it is the students–not the teachers–who are the workers, and the work they are doing is meaningful. What they actually do–their ‘product’–depends upon their ages and stages, but the concept doesn’t change. 

And what about the teachers?  In these schools, they are conductors, directors, supervisors, guides or docents. This observation flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that teachers are workers whose job is to produce capable students. That antiquated thinking is further bastardized when ‘capable’ is defined by test scores, until we end up believing, “The work of teachers is to raise student test scores.”   No, no, and no!

Here are two examples of outstanding project-based teaching and learning that I came to know first-hand when I was reporting: A 12th grade science class in a public high school in Philadelphia, and a journalism class at Palo Alto (CA) High School.

The Philadelphia 12th graders were serious workers. Their 2-part assignment was equally serious: to design age-appropriate toys for babies and infants that would not only amuse them but also stimulate their brain development. Stage two of the task: create an advertising campaign to sell the toy they designed.

That’s a serious project with a real product. Science teacher Tim Best designed it in broad strokes, with some clear goals, including learning a great deal about brain development. By 12th grade, students at this school were accustomed to working together on projects and holding each other accountable, although Mr. Best also monitored their progress.  Tim Best and other teachers at Science Leadership Academy told me that projects were designed to teach both content and process.

Like any worthwhile project, there is no one ‘correct’ answer.   However, projects can have wrong answers.  In designing toys based on neuroscience, those students might get the science wrong, or they might design something that an infant or toddler could not manipulate or might swallow. Answers to Question Two might be impractical or inappropriate, such as an advertising campaign for the toy that featured sexy naked people draped over sports cars.  For sure, the class discussion of that campaign would be a major teachable moment.

Process matters a great deal. Students get to try out their ideas with each other (and their teacher) during the project. Falling short–failing–is a huge part of the learning process.

Tim explained, “Although I learned by memorizing science words, I don’t ask my students to memorize science words. I’d rather have them experience the science and learn science by doing science, and, therefore, they’re learning science process in addition to science content. And the process of science, you could argue, is almost more important for the general person who is not going to be a scientist.” 

He added sagely, “‘Reading Chapter Two and answering the questions at the end of the chapter is not teaching either science or process.”

I think the journalism students at Palo Alto High School must be among the luckiest kids in the world. Their teacher, Esther Wojcicki, and her talented colleagues give them the opportunity to produce meaningful journalism in a number of formats: a newspaper, radio programs, a daily television program and five magazines.

This is real-world work: The print publications are advertiser-supported, and none can come out until the students have the signed advertising contracts in hand. “This is not selling Girl Scout cookies,” she told me. “This is how the real world works.”

With opportunity comes responsibility. At Palo Alto High, the journalism students hold each other accountable, the faculty is paying attention, and–most powerful of all–their work is public. Among Esther’s former students is actor-painter-writer James Franco. Recalling her class, he wrote, “(T)he important pedagogical aspect of working on the paper, that I understood subconsciously then, and that I understand explicitly as a teacher now, is that my work was being seen by a public, and that that changed the work. I wasn’t writing for a school grade as much as I was writing for independent readers.”

What’s essential in all project-based learning is the absence of a ‘right’ answer or ‘right’ product. Project-based learning truly is a journey, one which may also teach the instructor a good deal. Projects that have a predetermined ‘right’ answer are merely recipes, not a journey of discovery.   In ‘faux projects,’ the work quickly loses meaning, and most students do not retain what they were supposed to learn. They may absorb material and regurgitate it successfully on tests, but that’s not genuine learning. Good journalism is by definition an inquiry, because journalists are supposed to ask questions whose answers they don’t necessarily know. 

Those students in Philadelphia and Palo Alto are engaged in what’s called ‘blended learning,’ a mix of technology and human teaching. The machines and the teachers are interdependent, truly blended. Think of a chocolate milkshake, as opposed to putting oil and water in the same container.

Project-based learning is sometimes called “Learning by doing,” but that is an incomplete thought, a phrase lacking an essential object. Doing WHAT is critical. In the schools I described, kids don’t get free rein to do whatever they feel like doing. Adults design (or help design) the projects, and they monitor progress. Teachers help students formulate questions and give guidance when they go off track or get discouraged.

By the way, “Time on task” is another incomplete phrase that some educators throw around. What’s the task? Is it meaningful or trivial? Are students memorizing the periodic table and the major rivers of the United States, or are they measuring air or water quality in their neighborhoods and sharing the data with students in other places in order to make sense of it?  Many educators make the mistake of focusing on the amount of time students are spending on the assignment (believing that more is better, of course) but fail to think critically about the tasks they are assigning.

The adults in charge of the classrooms I admire were not obsessed about control. Sadly, too many schools focus on regurgitation of information, a process that is encouraged and rewarded by the focus on scores on standardized tests. 

Next time in this space I will conclude this series by trying to answer a question some readers have raised: How on earth does a teacher grade project-based learning anyway?

Feel free to post your thoughts (and your suggestions about grading!) on the blog itself, below….


Project-Based Learning, part three

Recently in this space I have been praising project-based learning, because it enables students to become producers of knowledge, not merely consumers (and sometimes regurgitators).  As noted earlier, the best projects are ones where the teacher or teachers do not know ‘The correct answer’ because they also are engaged in the journey of discovery. 

In the end, students own the work they have done; school is no longer just about tests, test scores, and the question teachers dread, “Will this be on the test?”

The first two projects I wrote about involved water and air; this one gets students out in their communities, which means it will also introduce adults who don’t have school-age children to the wonders of what is possible in public education.  

Done well, this work enables young people to develop at least six skills that will serve them well throughout their adult lives.

          1) working together with peers;

         2) communicating across generations;

          3) specific production skills;

         4) making value-based judgments;

         5) making difficult editorial choices, and;

         6) meeting ‘real world’ professional high standards.

I’ve given this venture a name: “The Poetry Project.”  Each team of 3 or 4 students will need a video camera (the one on a smartphone will be fine), a tripod or some other firm support for the camera, paper and scotch tape, an editing app, and some willing adults.

How it works:  A team of students, probably middle schoolers, picks a poem that they can relate to.  This is important because they may have to ‘sell’ it to the adults who are going to be asked to perform/recite the poem on camera.  The adults may have to be taught to read with energy and conviction, and having enthusiastic students (now the producers) will help.

Students first print the entire poem in a large font size.  Then separate by obvious verses/couplets for individual readers.  When ready to record, tape the selected verse/couplet to the bottom lip of the camera lens. This way the participants don’t have to memorize anything.  They will be looking at the camera and their lines at the same time. Although many participants may memorize the words, they will be more relaxed knowing that the ‘crutch’ is there if they need it.

Which adults are going to participate?  I recommend the sole criterion is that they do not have kids in school (which is about 75% of adults in most communities, by the way).  

For the sake of clarity, I’m imagining the kids have chosen Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.  

Mrs. Andrews in Apartment 9B:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?

When filming, frame all participants from the shoulders up. Ideally, all readers should be sitting or standing in front of a non-distracting, solid color backdrop.  Consistency matters, so frame every adult in the same way. They should look into the camera when reciting their lines. 

Mr. Young of Mr. Young’s Cleaners:

To die, to sleep,

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to …

Tell them to continue looking into the camera until you say ‘Cut.’  Make sure the audio quality is clear and coherent. As we say in the business, “TV is really just radio with pictures,” which means that quality sound is essential. Once completely and fully satisfied with the audio, check it again! 

Kimberly Wong in Apartment 17C:

… ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream …

Because producers need options, each adult should be asked to read his/her lines several times. 

 Augie Ramos at the local Deli:

… ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause – there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

And because most adults are not accustomed to performing, student producers have to gain their confidence, perhaps by giving their own reading and talking about what it means to them.

Angela Packer, a trainer at the Y:  

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office …

It gets interesting when adults give a lousy reading and have to be coaxed into a second, third or fourth effort.  That’s when these 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds–who are directing people old enough to be their parents or grandparents–have to learn how to criticize constructively. 

Jacob Epstein of Epstein Jewelers:

… and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin?

 Because bad readings are guaranteed, it’s crucial that the team role-play this situation in advance, in front of classmates, so they can develop strategies for success.

Building Manager Joe Carris: 

Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

One rule that cannot be broken: The readings have to be excellent. No cutting corners and no compromising on quality just to squeeze in an adult whose reading wasn’t good enough but who is friends with the principal or somebody important.  Only quality matters!

Clothing store owner Alice Gotteswold:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought … 

Producers have to make all sorts of decisions, always keeping in mind that the goal is the best possible production, in this case the most emotionally accurate reading of Hamlet’s soliloquy.

Richie O’Connor, Building doorman:

… and enterprises of great pith and moment,

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action. 

The fun–and greater rewards–begin when the production is posted on the school’s YouTube channel and perhaps broadcast on local news.  That’s when all of these adults start talking about the film, sharing the link, and pulling out their smartphones and showing it to friends and customers.  They’ll be saying, “Did you know what they’re doing in school these days? Sure makes me wish I could go to school all over again.”

For students, school has become more valuable and interesting. With luck, their enthusiasm will rub off and carry over into other aspects of their school experience.  They will become better and more discerning consumers of education precisely because they are now producers.  And, in my humble opinion, this is one way to ensure that our children become confident, productive and creative adults. 

Next time, a classroom-based project for high school students.


I made a huge mistake last year when I waited until the beginning of April to introduce my campaign to match lost gloves and deliver them to the gloveless.  What I am now calling “No Glove Left Behind” is now running at full speed when it’s most needed, during the harsh months of winter.  I’m writing to enlist your help.

Whenever I walk the streets of New York City I see lost and abandoned gloves, at least one every time I walk our dog, and sometimes more. Below are images of five gloves that I have “rescued” in the past three days. 

Let me ask you: How many times have you, during a walk around your city, come across a single glove or mitten, lying on the sidewalk….and kept on walking?  That is what I used to do, until last March, when I enlisted my wife and a couple of neighbors to search for matches.  

Last year we donated several dozen matching pairs to a nearby place of worship. However, in our apartment right now we have about 75 unmatched gloves, waiting for YOU to find and send us the match!

As you can see below, sometimes the lost gloves almost match, but we strive for perfection.


No Glove Left Behind has just three rules, but they are important:

1) Please carefully clean the glove before sending it to “No Glove Left Behind,” 1148 Fifth Avenue, Apartment 9D, New York, NY 10128.   

2) Check the INSIDE of the glove very, very carefully.  Last year one generous person did not and inadvertently sent a glove that a mouse was using as its winter home.  The mouse and babies died in transit, ending their lives, ruining the glove, and upsetting us, the doorman, and the postman! 

3) Please do NOT send money to help support our effort. While NGLB is not yet a 501(C)3 non-profit organization, the income from my trust fund is more than adequate to support it.   As only my close friends have been aware until now, I am the sole surviving nephew of Edward R. Murrow and thus a major beneficiary of the legendary newsman’s Trust.  When I realized that I wanted to be a journalist, I changed the spelling of my last name because I wanted to be judged on who I was and what I did, and not on a family connection. 

Thank you, and bless you…..

Project-Based Learning, part two

Last week in this space I recommended studying one of life’s essentials, the water we drink.  I also endorsed project-based learning because it demands that students become producers of knowledge, not mere regurgitators of canned information.  

A number of readers asked for more, and so here’s a second recommendation: let’s study the air that we breath every minute of every hour of every day.  This particular project is also a good example of how technology can support genuine learning.

For this project, an elementary school needs a portable air quality indicator, one of which costs about $250.  Suppose that three or four times each school day students carry their monitor outside, turn it on, and record the measurements–which would be automatically entered into an accessible data base. Back in class, they could compare the daily and hourly readings for their playground and look for changes.  They would need to know how to interpret readings, which would require some basic science research and direct instruction from their teacher.  Perhaps they would ask local scientists to come in and talk and also Skype with experts from all over the globe. 

They’d be studying the science of air quality and learning about the specifics of air pollution, the causes and consequences of asthma, et cetera, et cetera.  Perhaps they’ll become curious about the incidence of asthma and other lung-related conditions in their town or state and begin trying to plot and graph air quality against lung-related conditions.  

Everything they learn will also produce more questions, more avenues to explore, and, for teachers, nothing is more satisfying.

As for students, this is genuine knowledge that they are going to ‘own,’ and nothing in school is more satisfying than that.

Because students will be aware that they are producing useful knowledge, teachers won’t be confronted by those awful complaint/questions, “How is this relevant?” or “Why should I care?

Now suppose that every elementary school in the area has its own portable air quality indicator!  That means that hundreds of students will be engaged in this project, comparing readings.  Perhaps elementary students in other towns or states (or countries!) would also be participating, and that would allow even broader comparisons.

On one level, this project would break new ground, because as CityLab noted,  “Measuring air quality has been the purview of state environmental regulators, who rely on monitors approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that cost tens of thousands of dollars. That data is used to send out bad-air alerts (the green, orange, and red warning days) and for regulatory purposes.”

Because educators are notorious for being reactive, not aggressive, it’s also important to note that lots of ordinary citizens have become engaged in the study of the air we breath.  That is, this project isn’t radical, and it won’t cost educators their jobs, if they make connections with interested groups. For example,  The Central California Environmental Justice Network has several projects monitoring air quality.  By putting monitors in backyards and around schools (in the San Joaquin Valley), the group is hoping to see what the area’s biomass plants and the dozens of trucks that rumble through are pumping into the lungs of disadvantaged residents.”

It’s also happening in Grand Junction, Colorado, where a group that calls itself “Citizens for Clean Air”has ordered 25 air monitoring devices.

“We wanted to know where pollution was coming from, what was the cause and what were the levels,” said Win.  The monitors will measure things like exhaust emissions and dirt, heavier and larger particulates.  “They shoot the laser beam through the air that’s flowing from the outside, and it counts the particles as they go through,” said Gerald Nelson with Citizens for Clean Air. They’ve placed the monitors around the Grand Valley in order to get a comprehensive count of particulates. Some are in higher elevations or lower spots, and they stretch from Mack to Whitewater, Grand Junction and Palisade.”

Let’s go back to the kids for a minute.  As they began to understand–and perhaps be outraged by–anomalies, they might feel compelled to write letters or articles for local publications.  Perhaps some would create video reports that could be posted on YouTube…and maybe even picked up by local television news.  

This “curriculum” is about more than air.  It’s also about democracy, independence, collaboration, and knowledge creation.  Projects like these teach more than science, effective writing, and public speaking.  Students will learn that information is power, that collaboration produces strength, and that social policies have consequences. Students will learn that they themselves are not merely numbers or test scores but sentient, thinking individuals with potential.  That they matter.

Technology, used imaginatively, makes it possible for students to develop the habit of  asking questions and searching for answers.  

And technology means our schools and educators can ask of each child, ‘How is he or she intelligent?’–and then create learning opportunities that allow every child to soar.  Technology allows students to have more control over their own learning, without downgrading or minimizing the role of the skilled teacher.

Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7.  You and I were sent to schools because that’s where the knowledge was stored–but that was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.

When schools do these things, young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’re working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. They will be working with numbers and writing persuasive reports. No doubt some will be speaking publicly about their findings. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from the ‘regurgitation education’ that is the hallmark of most education today.

And finally, this is a zero-sum game: The hours students spend on projects like these are hours they cannot spend staring at their phones, consuming technology. 

Project-Based Learning, part one

In hopes that your children or grandchildren will be doing school projects later this year, for the next few weeks I will devote this space to project-based learning and some ideas for projects.  

Project-based learning has significant benefits.  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) a skill the adult workplace values: the ability to work with others. 

The best projects meet these five criteria: 

     1) The topic is of interest to whoever’s adopting it;

     2) The issue is significant, not trivial

     3) The project follows ‘The Goldilocks Rule.’  Neither huge and grandiose (“Solving the Middle East crisis”) nor tiny and trivial (“Comparing the rate of growth of avocado pits under different conditions“).  Instead, it’s “Just Right” so that students can get their hands and brains around it.

     4) It has local significance, which makes it easier to research and raises the likelihood of its having an impact; and

     5) It does not have a predetermined ‘correct’ answer but must be a genuine search for knowledge.

My first suggestion for a project that meets these criteria: WATER, which we take for granted but also which we cannot live without.

You may have read that President Trump is weakening the federal regulations regarding water quality, regulations that President Obama pushed through.  Apparently this change will result in more development of wetlands and more use of water by agricultural industries (which already use about 70% of our fresh water).

That news report got me thinking about water.  What follows will, I hope, be of some interest for students who decide to explore this topic.

Growing up, I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, about sailors stranded at sea and out of fresh drinking water. Its most famous verse goes this way:

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

What about us? Will parts of the United States run out of water?  Where water becomes a scarce resource, will ‘water wars’ break out?  

While the earth’s surface is about 70% water, only about 2.5% of that is fresh water; the rest is ocean, saltwater.  And most of that 2.5% is now in the form of ice, glaciers and sheets of ice around the North and South Poles. As that ice melts into the ocean, it becomes saline and therefore undrinkable, although the melting does contribute to rising sea levels.  And the melting may also be having other consequences. 

And while the actual amount of fresh water remains fairly constant because of the cycle of consumption, evaporation, and rainfall, the world’s population has exploded, meaning that competition for water is a fact of life

Not only that, the average person today uses more water than they did 50 or 100 years ago, not just to wash and clean but also to grow the food we eat today.  Want an example? Well, that hamburger you may have had for lunch took 630 gallons of water to produce, because raising cows is water-intensive.

As I mentioned, agriculture consumes about 70% of the world’s fresh water.   Producing the beans for just one cup of coffee requires 35 gallons of water.  Growing cotton is also a thirsty enterprise. It takes 2,640 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans and 660 gallons to produce a T-shirt. Avocados, almonds – even bottles of water themselves, are all highly water-intensive enterprises.  So we could save water by changing our diets, and perhaps by buying fewer clothes, or wearing clothing that requires less water to produce (whatever that may be, I don’t know).

According to the United Nations, “By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.” It seems very possible–and frightening–that we will have ‘Water Wars’ in different places around the world.  

What can be done to remedy this situation?  I can think of three options but there may be others: 

1) Use less water.  

2) Recycle/repurpose water so we can use it more than once.  

3) Turn saltwater into fresh, a process called desalinization.

The issue is almost paradoxical.  Climate Change is melting the ice cap, which is causing the earth’s oceans to rise. That is, we have more saltwater, even as we are likely to experience shortages of fresh water.

It would be important to make this project local, which students can do by focusing on their own school and school district.  How much water does their school consume in a typical day? And exactly how? Cooking, washing, watering plants, flushing toilets?  What other ways?

Can you compare “water use per student” over the years? Are today’s students using more water, and, if so, why?  (As mentioned above, across the world people are consuming more water than they did years ago.)

How much does water cost the school district, and how much has the water bill gone up over the years?

Students could go beyond their own school or school district and focus instead on their local government agencies and their water use.  Or they could seek to learn about water use by local business and industry. Any of these inquiries could produce useful knowledge.

Finding out about local water use opens the door to larger (national and world) questions about water use, water recycling, and efforts to turn saltwater into drinkable fresh water. 

Can we change?  Well, knowledge is power, for openers. And the more we know, the more we can influence the future.

Who knows–maybe students who take on this issue will become hydrologists!  

(In the next few weeks I will be suggesting projects involving garbage, infant brain development, and air quality. I hope you will share this post with teachers and others interested in quality education. Themerrowreport.com also provides a link if you wish to subscribe.)


George Washington woke up on December 14, 1799, with a very sore throat.  When it worsened, the doctors were summoned.  Naturally, Washington, who had left office just two years earlier, received the very best care from the most knowledgeable and competent doctors, those at the top of the medical profession.**

Their expert diagnosis: Washington’s four ‘humors’ or bodily fluids, were out of balance.  This analysis was based on a 1500-year-old Greek theory and accepted as scientific fact: The human body is regulated by four fluids: blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile.    “The group of fourth- and third-century BC physicians known as the Hippocratics who formulated (and more importantly wrote about) their theories, were the first organized group to consider that illness had natural—not supernatural—causes.”

Illness, they believed, resulted when the four humors were out of balance, as they must have been in Washington’s case.

The doctors set about rebalancing Washington’s system. To do this, they followed a scientifically approved medical procedure:  They drained 80 ounces of his blood, close to 40 percent of his body’s total!  

Whether they did this by opening one or more of his veins or by attaching leeches to his body is unclear.  Both procedures were normal.

Unfortunately, the treatment did not work; in fact, it might have killed him, or at least hastened his demise, because our first President died later that same day.

Did bloodletting kill George Washington?  “Many doctors, in fact, believed that bloodletting or the removal of a portion of an ill person’s blood could improve their condition. In accordance with this, in addition to the application of the usual crude purgatives and emetics, over half of Washington’s blood was drained in just a few hours. It is widely held today that the Father of our country died from the aggressive bloodletting, which resulted in severely low blood pressure and shock.”

As horrifying as those images are and as barbaric as those practices now seem, bloodletting by opening veins or attaching leeches had been ‘best practices’ in medicine for 1500 years.

Until one day they weren’t.

For me, Washington’s story mirrors what’s been going on in public education.  In my analogy, Washington represents public education,  and his doctors are the men and women in charge, people who are convinced that education is out of balance (i.e., sick) and that standardization is the cure.

One hundred years ago, standardization in education actually made sense.   After all, shouldn’t ‘third grade math’ be pretty much the same in California, Kansas, and Massachusetts?  Setting standards with across-the-board rules and measurements made it possible (at least theoretically) to make legitimate comparisons of students from different schools and different states.  And standardized, machine-scored exams like the SAT (developed in 1926) provided supposedly ‘objective’ results that could be trusted because they weren’t subject to the whims and biases of the adults correcting the exams.

Before long, the flaws in this thinking became apparent.  Supposedly ‘objective’ tests were culturally biased (in favor of the privileged).  Machine-scored tests couldn’t measure depth of understanding or test for knowledge of complex ideas.  And so on.

But, like the practitioners of medieval medicine, our education experts entertained no doubts about their approach.  Instead, they clung to power.  In fact, they doubled down, eventually making test-based accountability the quasi-religion of ‘school reform.’

Over the years, much has been sacrificed in the name of higher scores on machine-scored, multiple-choice tests: 1) We lost a balanced curriculum that includes the arts, science, history, and physical education.  2) Recess and free play disappeared from many elementary schools, replaced by practice-testing.  3) Classroom dialogue disappeared, replaced by (so-called) “personalized learning” on iPads and other tablets.  4) Hundreds of thousands of good teachers abandoned the field, frustrated by a system that wanted to turn them into baby-sitters and test-monitors.  And on and on.

Just as doctors withdrew Washington’s blood, our public schools are being bled dry, by for-profit charter schools, on-line virtual schools, some (supposedly) non-profit charter schools, massive investments in educational technology, and an expanded bureaucracy of people hired to watch over teachers to make sure they hew to the standardized curriculum.

In Washington’s case, we know that his doctors–at minimum–hastened his death. They may have killed him.  Will today’s ‘education doctors’ kill public education?  That’s an open question.

In Washington’s case, doctors may have opened his veins or used leeches.  Today, it’s all leeches.

You can probably name them yourselves, the leaders and followers who are bleeding public education dry.

How long will the leeches remain in control?  Medicine’s history is not encouraging, unfortunately.  “The notion that 4 bodily fluids—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—caused illness persisted for more than 2000 years in the West until the rise of controlled empirical science in the mid-19th century.” 

By my reckoning, education’s medievalists (AKA the leeches) have been running public education since at least the 1980’s, and I think 40 years is more than enough.   They’ve done too much damage already.

It’s long past time to end standardized bubble testing, to insist on multiple measures of student accomplishment and a varied curriculum, and to demand recess, project-based learning, and more.  All charter schools must be financially transparent and bound by the same rules that apply to traditional public schools.  Teachers must be paid more and given time to create curriculum and watch each other teach.

(I could go on with this list but ask you instead to read “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)


**I learned about George Washington’s plight from Mo Rocca’s absolutely delightful book, Mobituaries, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

“Insect-Based Teacher Training, Part 2”

Last week in this space I took a poke or two at what I called “Insect-Based Teacher Training,” specifically the practice of wiring teachers so that remote observers can hear and see what they do in their classrooms.  What they call “Bug in the Ear training” enables experts to interrupt teachers and tell them what they are doing wrong. In theory, that allows teachers to improve on the spot.  You may remember that the expert I observed in action wasn’t particularly effective.

(Full disclosure: In last week’s essay I took a small liberty with the two veteran teachers whose opinions I cited: neither of them actually referenced ‘ants in underpants’ or ‘ticks on dicks.’   I owe my readers an apology because the teachers did not say that.  I made that up, just for the fun of it. 

Why would I do that?  Well, after so many years of reporting for public broadcasting, where the emphasis is on truth, making stuff up gives me a huge adrenalin rush.

However, everything else in that essay  is 100% accurate.  You can take that to the bank.)

But I digress. What I want you to know is the morning after “Insect-Based Teacher Training” was published, I received a call from the School Superintendent whose district I had visited.   He was upset about my portrayal of the process, saying that the observer had a bad day.  Moreover, he said, I had failed to grasp the subtle, significant ways that technology improves education.  Would I come back and learn more, he asked?

I rushed out the door, and a few hours later the Superintendent and I were in the school’s monitoring room, staring at the 30+ video screens that showed all the school’s classrooms.

I wanted to hear his defense of the “Bug in the Ear” approach.  Would he have wanted to have a bug in his ear when he was teaching, I wanted to know?

“I actually never taught,” came his response. “I came up the ranks through coaching.”

Then he chuckled.  “That’s an old joke, superintendents starting out as coaches.  I was never a coach either.”

What was his background, I wanted to know?

“I studied organizational behavior in college, and then, for my MBA, I focused on management.”

He continued:  “But that’s not why I asked you to come back,” he said. “I want you to see another way that monitoring and advanced technology improve teaching and learning.”

Go on, I said.

“From  this control board, I can zoom in on any classroom.  I can pump up the volume to allow me to hear much of what was going on.”

What exactly are you looking for, I asked?

“Look, every student deserves to be taught the same material in the same way.  That’s what equality and equity mean, as far as I am concerned.  We have a state curriculum, and this is a great way to monitor whether my teachers are where they are supposed to be.”

Tell me more, I said.

“OK, look at those three screens in upper right.  Those are all 8th grade math classes.  Now, today is Tuesday, and, according to the state syllabus, Tuesday’s assignment is learning to graph integers on vertical and horizontal lines.  That means that all the students in all three classrooms should be doing worksheets right now. Otherwise they’re not getting an equal education.

In two of the rooms we could see students working at their desks, but not in the third classroom.  The superintendent zoomed in and turned up the sound.  We could hear laughter but couldn’t discern what was being said.

“That’s unacceptable.  I need to be able to hear clearly.  I have to get my tech guys on this right away,” he muttered.

Why do you need to hear, I asked?

“I’m enrolled in an on-line PhD program,” he explained. “This is research for my dissertation, which is on the benefits that technology brings to education.”

But will you talk to that teacher, I asked?

“You bet your boots I will. I may even play the tapes for him so he can see his failures in living color.”

Do your teachers know that you can watch them at any time, I asked?

“We’ve never discussed it, but it shouldn’t bother them if they’re doing their jobs. It’s no big deal, unless, of course, they have something to hide,” he said.

I said that it seemed like the world of “Big Brother,” always watching.

He actually erupted when I said that.  “That’s a pet peeve of mine, people criticizing Big Brother.  I think the idea of Big Brother is a positive one.  I mean, what kid wouldn’t want to have his Big Brother watching his back, protecting him?  I sure would! But, no, everyone hates Big Brother….except me.”

He went on.  “You know whose fault it is? It’s that writer, Orwell.  Remember how in Animal Farm he makes Big Brother the bad guy?  Well, everyone reads Animal Farm in school, and that’s what makes them biased against Big Brother.”

I wanted to ask him about the pigs, but instead I bit my lip and went home.




The latest development in the never-ending struggle to improve teaching involves “A bug in the ear” AND “A fly on the wall.”  This insect-based approach has a highly-trained but distant observers watching (on closed circuit video) teachers at work and giving them instructions and suggestions in real time, so the teachers can modify methods and instantly improve their instruction. 

According to Education Week, what’s called ‘Bug in the Ear Coaching”  is being used in about a dozen states. The premise is simple: A teacher wears an earpiece during a lesson, which is being live-streamed for an instructional coach who is somewhere else. Throughout the lesson, the coach delivers in-the-moment feedback to the teacher, who can add something or switch gears based on what she’s hearing in her ear.”

I reached out to some of the sources I developed in my 41 years of reporting for a closer look. One enthusiastic superintendent, who requested anonymity, said that the system would pay for itself in higher scores on standardized tests. “While the initial investment of $500,000 per school for cameras and directional microphones for every classroom, a dedicated room of monitors, the cost of a half-time tech person, and the salaries of the instructional experts who monitor the teachers, looks like a lot, once those standardized test scores go up, it’s smooth sailing.”

Are there other costs, I wanted to know?

“Our experts wanted all the teachers to wear identical loose-fitting shirts and blouses to minimize sound interference.  I had a great deal worked out with the company that makes the uniforms they wear at the federal penitentiary in the next county.”  He chuckled, “But without stripes, of course.” However, he explained, the teachers union shot the idea down. 

He (and some educators cited in Ed Week) say that most teachers like the immediacy of the system, saying that instant feedback is really the only kind that sticks.  “It was really nice to feel supported and get direct feedback in the moment,” a special education teacher in Washington State told Ed Week.

However, when I reached out to some veteran teachers I respect, I found no support for the approach.  (Stop reading here if vulgar language offends you.)

One woman, call her Mrs. Jones, scoffed, “I would sooner have ants in my underpants then have some so-called expert muttering in my ear. If you want to help me get better at teaching, come to my classroom.”

“Likewise,” her male colleague, call him Mr. Smith, agreed. “A bug in my ear? No way!  I would rather have a tick on my dick!”

Wanting to know more, I arranged to spend a day with an expert who monitors teachers to help them improve. We met in the small windowless room where he spends his weekdays. Mitchell Rheese is in his late 30’s, a former Teach For America member with an MBA who also spent four years with McKinsey. He allowed me to make audio recordings but no video or photographs. Below are transcripts of three interactions, slightly edited for clarity. (I have changed the names of the teachers to guard their privacy.)

1: First period Social Studies, Mrs. Burris:

The entire class, including the teacher, sat silently for about 90 seconds, while Mr. Rheese grew visibly agitated. Finally he spoke quietly but forcefully, “Mrs Burris, you appear to be wasting valuable instructional time. This is not good!  May I remind you that the state exams are fast approaching!”

She answered quietly, “Sir, we are observing a moment of silence. One of my students lost his twin sister last night. A drive-by shooting. She was sitting on the stoop talking with friends, and now she’s dead.  Everyone is hurting, and I decided that peace and quiet would be the most supportive gesture we could make. In a minute, we will all hug each other, and then try to move on. I hope you understand.”

“Of course I do, and my thoughts and prayers are with your student. But district guidelines specify that moments of silence should not exceed 45 seconds. And hugging is specifically prohibited.  May I make a suggestion?”

“Of course.”

“Don’t get into fruitless discussions of gun control and gun violence, because that’s not part of the unit you are supposed to be covering: How a Bill Becomes a Law.” 

2: Third period American history, Mr. Cody

Mr. Rheese watched intently, again growing visibly agitated. Not by silence, but by the noise level.  We could hear loud laughter and shouts of encouragement from students. Mr. Cody appeared to be smiling broadly, and at one point got up to clap a student on the shoulder. Finally Mr. Rheese spoke to Mr. Cody.

“Mr. Cody, have you lost control of the classroom? Should I call the principal’s office?”

“It’s all good here, sir.  We’re studying the Gettysburg Address, and my assignment was for them to deliver a modern version.  Perhaps in a song, maybe a sonnet, maybe rap. And that last one, the rap version, was just off the charts terrific.  I am so pleased.”

“I don’t see why you are pleased. I am not. How does rap help prepare your students for the exam?  Do they know when Lincoln delivered the speech? Do they know how many words it was, or how long it took for him to deliver it? That’s what’s going to be on the test.”

“Let me ask them.  Hey, kids, how many words are there in the Gettysburg Address?

At this point we could hear a chorus of ‘Who cares!’ and ‘Why does that matter?’

“Tell them, Mr. Cody, that the Gettysburg Address contains 272 words and it took two minutes to deliver.  That’s all they need to know for the state exam. And I will see you on my next visit to the school.”

That hadn’t gone well, and so I asked Mr. Rheese whether ‘Bug in the Ear Coaching’ might be a better fit for math instruction.  He said we would monitor a 9th grade Algebra class.  “This should be straight-forward,” he told me, as he consulted the state syllabus. “The goal  for today is to learn the formula for the area of a polygon, a 4-sided figure with irregular length sides.  The students are supposed to solve 12 problems during the class period and another 18 for homework tonight. Repetition, repetition, repetition, that is the key to learning!”

With that he turned to the monitor showing Mrs. Ravitch’s Algebra class.  He expected to see kids in rows at their desks, but what we saw were small groups of students, three or four, huddled around desks, whispering and sketching.  

“Mrs Ravitch, what on earth is going on? Your students are supposed to be learning how to find the area of a polygon. Why are they gossiping? Why aren’t they doing the problems?

“They aren’t gossiping, sir. They are trying to figure out the formula.”

“You are supposed to TELL them the formula so they can solve 12 problems before the bell rings!”

“Yes, I know what the state recommends, but, if I give the formula to them, they will forget it once the test is over. If they figure it out themselves, they’ll own it, because the key to genuine learning is students’ wanting, needing, to know.  Once their curiosity is engaged, there’s no stopping them.  Can I tell you how I am getting them involved?”

Mr. Rheese did not respond, and so she continued.

“First, I drew a polygon on the board and told them it was a big tract of valuable land.  They owned half, and I owned half, but we wanted to make sure we divided it equally before we sold it. So we had to figure out exactly how much land we had.  They jumped at the challenge, and I will bet that at least one of the small groups will get it right. Once they do, then we will do some problems.”

“Mrs. Ravitch, I hope you know that you are not going to fulfill the state requirements today, and that’s not good for your career.”  

“Maybe so, but I will bet you that every one of them will always remember the formula.”

“I am not a gambler, Mrs. Ravitch, and I don’t think you should be gambling with your students’ futures.”  He paused.  “And your own.”

At that point Mr. Rheese terminated our interview and my access to “Bug in the Ear Coaching.”  

As for me, perhaps if I did more reporting and dug deeper, I would change my mind about “Bug in the Ear Coaching”, but right now I feel exactly the way Mr. Smith does.