Sunday, March 29, 2015

10 PBL/ Creative Learning Ideas for April

Looking for some ideas to jump start project based, inquiry, or creative learning in April? Look no further than the calendar. Each month is dedicated to a seemingly infinite number of serious and silly causes. April is no different. Using both the comical and the sincere nature of April's calendar, I crafted a few driving questions and challenge statements. Feel free to take an idea and make it your own. Add more in the comments section!

April is...

Inventor's Month
  • Design and invent the school of your dreams
  • How can schools prepare students to be innovators and inventors?
  • Remix a popular product to make it easier for children to use
  • What major themes hold true through the lives of history's most amazing inventors?

Garden Month
  • Design and build a sustainable school (or classroom) garden?
  • What are the promises and pitfalls or urban (or community) gardens?
  • How can the class support local farming and agriculture?

Decorating Month
  • Should babies grow up in gender neutral rooms?
  • Re-imagine the school cafeteria to be a positive space at school
  • Should companies (or schools) pay more attention to the design of their buildings?
  • Create a local guide to the area's most interestingly decorated building

Autism Awareness Month
  • Create an informational campaign educating the public on commonly held misconceptions regarding Autism
  • How has scientific understanding of Autism changed over time?
  • Educate your community about local and national resources regarding Autism

Financial Literacy Month
  • What does is mean to be financially literate for a young person?
  • Whose job is it to make sure people are financially prepared?
  • How can we use our knowledge of math to benefit us financially?
  • What are the biggest financial myths affecting people today?

Specific Days in April

April 5: One Day Without Shoes Day
  • Are TOMS shoes helping or hurting the economies it aims to serve?
  • What is the history of the shoe?
  • How does footwear reflect culture?

April 11: Cheese Fondue Day
  • How does cheese get to the fondue restaurant?
  • How is cheese made today?
  • Create a popup fondue restaurant
  • Why do some foods melt better than others?

April 19: Bicycle Day
  • What makes a 'good' bicycle?
  • How can we make our town more bicycle friendly?
  • Plan a 'bike to school' day

April 24: Teach Your Children to Save Day
  • What are factors preventing an average family from saving money?
  • Are there more important things to save other than money?
  • When has saving money led to catastrophic events?
  • Investigate what resource is most precious to your community and design a plan to save it

April 27: Tell a Story Day
  • Tell your story
  • How has storytelling changed and stayed the same over time?
  • Whose voices are not heard enough in media today?
  • Create a plan to improve literacy in your community
  • Organize a 'story day' at your school

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Off The Beaten Path

This past weekend, my wife and I were supposed to check out Joshua Tree National Park. Visiting Joshua Tree is on my California bucket list, and I was excited to finally take a weekend to explore the park's wonder and beauty. Per the usual, it was a relatively spontaneous trip, and I could not find a camping reservation within Joshua Tree. I did some crack research and found a campsite relatively near the park. We were set.

Or so I thought.

Driving to our campsite, we realized that it was far, like very far, from Joshua Tree. Mileage can be deceiving near the wilderness. Furthermore, we realized that the campsite added an extra hour and half drive for the couple joining us. I could go into all the reasons, and excuses, for my mistake, but what's the point? I screwed up. I screwed up bad.

I pulled to the side of the road, and my wife and I went into action. We pulled out our smartphones, did some frantic research, and made some calls. We found a tiny little campsite and hoped there would be room. We would probably have to scratch the Joshua Tree plan, but at least it would be a weekend away.

Flash forward to the all worked out. The new campsite was peaceful and undisturbed. There was a tiny lake and a number of fun hikes nearby. We retraced a No Reservations episode and wandered to the Salton Sea. In short, the weekend was a blast. It was nothing we had planned or expected, but everything we had hoped for.

The trip was random and serendipitous. It was a beautiful accident, a spontaneous discovery. My travel life is littered with stories like my recent camping trip. Some of my most fortunate moments are a direct result of a blubbering mistake. Seemingly random detours hold so much potential.

Now to make my segue (I just learned it was spelled that way). Students deserve to bask in the beauty of serendipity every once in awhile. In fact, students should regularly get the chance to make accidental discoveries, or be lured into the addicting realm of random exploration. Taking a break from scheduled routine is refreshing; diverging from the detailed plan is often reinvigorating. Time away from the beaten path gives children (and their teachers) a chance to play, to imagine, to explore, to relax. A journey into the unexpected gives students a new lens to think, to create, and to dream.

What does this look like in the classroom?

I remember when I was in sixth grade, we begged our teacher to let us have class outside on beautiful spring days. When our teacher relented, everything changed. The structure wasn't that different (we still read from the book and took notes), but it seemed different. We got to walk around, sit on the grass, and break the routine. Our attitudes shifted because we took a random trip outside.

Here are some suggestions to inspire serendipity and venture off the beaten path:

  • Go outside
  • Go off on a tangent
  • Give students a free period
  • Pull up the front page of CNN or Fox News
  • Learn something outside the curriculum
  • Ask the students what they want to learn (and do it)
  • Follow a fun hashtag
  • Change the class routine once a week
  • Have students start class by telling jokes to each other
  • Let students explain a new app they are using
  • Try 20% time or genius hour
  • Invite a guest speaker or friend
  • Have a class show and tell
  • Explain something you are passionate about
  • Have a mystery Skype
  • Play a board game

I understand young people need structure. It is essential for developing habits and effective patterns of behavior. I am not advocating for each and everyday to be a free for all. I do, however, think that much is gained by purposely deviating from the norm. There are many places to be discovered and sometimes you need to be lost to find them. There is something brilliant about serendipity. There is something magical traveling off the beaten path. I'm sure our students feel the same way. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

5 Tips to Get Started With PBL

Why not just jump in? If you want some more information about project based learning check out some of my other posts.

1. Start Slow/Make a Slight Change

Rome wasn't built in a day, or so they say. No one would expect you to run a marathon when you first step on a treadmill. All cliches aside, you have to start somewhere. There is no shame in jumping into the shallow end with floaties around your arms and a lifeguard on duty.  Eventually, the love of swimming will push you to practice medley skills in the deep end. There is no possible way to become a PBL expert overnight, so start slow, and make slight changes.

Check out this Doing Projects vs Project-Based Learning chart and reflect on a project you've done year after year. Pick one or two ideas from the Project-Based Learning column and insert a new principle into your standard project.

Here's an example - The yearly book report diorama project is coming up in a month. Perhaps you can give students time, in class, to brainstorm ideas and work with creative mediums. After they finish, you hold a "diorama remixed parent night".

2. Create a Driving Question or Challenge Statement

A driving question or challenge statement helps frame a project to include more student choice and divergent thinking. A well conceived driving question or challenge statement is relevant, provocative, and requires 21st century skills. It is the force compelling students to engage in the project. PBL expert Andrew Miller writes, "A DQ helps initiate and focus the inquiry."

Many teachers find formulating driving questions to be very difficult. It need not be if you accept the notion that small changes can lead to big results. Use a Tubric or planning guide to formulate a driving question with a traditional project you have used. Take the book report diorama project. Here are some simple driving questions/challenge statements to open up the project.

Can we re-imagine the diorama to include current technologies?
How would a diorama made of sustainable and recyclable materials differ from a traditional diorama?
Can we design, create, and build the diorama of the future?
Propose an alternate project to the traditional diorama.

3. Plan

Start with the end in mind. What are some of the products students will create? What is the essential content students need to master while completing the project. Working backward helps you schedule check-ins, mini lessons, and formative assessment points. Planning will also help you collect materials and resources to aid the inquiry, research, and building process. It may be helpful to circle a date on the calendar and pencil in planned check points leading to the due date. You will see that the plan may shift throughout the project, but having a base will give you confidence.

Even though the front end work can be intimidating, it pays off. With all the planning out of the way, you are free to facilitate and guide students. It may also help to look at other projects to see time frames and organization. The Buck Institute provides a very handy project search. Why reinvent the wheel? See how other projects are planned and modify them to fit your own needs.

* A moment of self-indulgence - CrowdSchool, the edtech startup I cofounded, provides a nice template to plan, create, and share PBL. Sign up for private beta here :)

4. Learn

When I first heard about PBL it was a foreign concept. Like very foreign. I had zero exposure to the methodology as a student, and the pedagogical foundations were never mentioned in my teacher prep program. My PBL education primarily consists of online relationships, social media, trial and error, and books/articles. If you are on Twitter, there are two hashtags invaluable to learning about PBL- #pbl and #pblchat. I continue to learn so much about PBL from the amazing educators who post ideas, examples, and projects to these two hashtags. Following and communicating with educators who regularly post to the hashtags is a great way to increase knowledge of PBL. I also suggest regularly checking out thought leaders like Edutopia and Buck Institute.

5. Celebrate your Mistakes

Be kind to yourself. It's not going to be perfect the first time. When something doesn't go the way you hope - breath, smile, and make a note of it. Mistakes provide a wonderful opportunity to learn, improve, and iterate. Plus, you model the resilience and innovation you demand of your students.

Bonus Tip:

Have fun!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Free Pictures for Your Class or Personal Use

I am quite positive I am not alone in my struggle to find high quality, free images. Many sites advertise free images, but without fail they are not free. There is either some sort of catch, or a charge appears on the screen preceding a download. It is especially hard to teach students about copyright and appropriate selection when there is not a reliable place to send them on their search.

Over the last few months,  Pixabay has solved my problem. I am obsessed. Pixabay is a great place to find reliable images, attribution free. Each image can be altered, and if necessary, used for commercial purposes. Pixabay is fantastic for my personal writing. Pixabay is also great for students to use on projects or videos.

Pixabay is easy and it works. No strings attached. Don't take my word for it. Try Pixabay.

The following is taken from

Over 340,000 free photos, vectors and art illustrations

Finding free images of high quality is a tedious task - due to copyright issues, attribution requirements, or simply the lack of quality. This inspired us to create Pixabay - a repository for stunning public domain pictures. Your source for free vectors, free drawings and free photos. You can use any Pixabay image without attribution in digital and printed form, even for commercial applications.

Here are a few other places for Free Stock Images

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

We Don’t Need Education Reform

I promise you this post is way more than its click-baiting, attention seeking title. I’m genuinely serious. We do not need education reform. This is why.

Ask a regular citizen, student, or parent about education in the United States and you’ll hear a litany of grievances. People point to multiple areas of dissatisfaction, but I commonly hear the following concerns: inequality, teacher support, teacher retention, access, the achievement gap, motivation and engagement, resources, standards, and curriculum. I could go further, but I’ll stop for the sake of brevity. Furthermore, politicians, public leaders, and so-called advocates see juicy headlines about American students falling behind and public schools failing students

Therefore it is easy to see why education reform (ed reform) is a handy cause célèbre. It seems everyone has an idea to reshape or reform the current system of education. That’s the problem. We need to question almost all parts of our current system, not gradually aim to reshape its disparate and dysfunctional pieces. Ed reform solutions and suggestions simply refine the current paradigms of education. Reform, often introduced by people never to step foot in a classroom, takes the current pieces of education, mixes them up, offers slight improvements, and then spits back out a minimally better looking form of the original. There is not true change, just an incremental tweak to the current form of school. The basis of the education system stays the same even as some new programs are introduced or attempted. Ed reform places a nice, shinny coat of paint to cover up the dings in a wall. What is really needed is a brand new wall. 

To get a better idea of how shinny new wrapping paper masquerades for reform let’s take a closer look at two reforms:

Increased accountability and standardized testing — A new way to measure the current paradigm and form of school. How much information can students retain and then spit back? Data will supposedly help teachers disseminate knowledge to students in need. 

1 to 1 devices and increased technology — Unless a new pedagogy of personalization and creativity is embraced, most education technology makes current forms of education more efficient. A shinny new screen masks the truth that very little changes. Adaptive reading sounds pretty similar to the SRA programs I wallowed through as a kid. Cute multiplication flashcard games are essentially sparkling flashcards. Self-grading worksheets are still worksheets.

We do not need more of the same. We cannot offer new window dressing to a system of schooling designed for a bygone era. The current form of education was envisioned to prepare students to be obedient, compliant workers. This 19th century model of schooling aimed to take kids from farmhouses to factory. Students needed to be submissive receptacles of information. Why not stop offering new forms (reform) of this systemic paradigm? 

We don’t need new forms of the current models and paradigms of education. We need a radically new approach. We need an approach that fits the world we live in. We need an approach that prepares students for an uncertain future. We need an approach that empowers young people to take ownership of their learning. We need an approach that honors students and teachers as creators and change makers. We need an approach that recognizes how people learn best.

So we don’t need reform, we need to reimagine. We don’t need new flavors of nachos, we need a visionary main course. When we look at the skills and knowledge students need, we will see an emphasis on creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking. We will not see a need for new forms of memorization and regurgitation.

Reimagining school may lead to some radical stuff. We may see schools fashioned to be design studios with collaborative work areas instead of desks. We may build maker spaces where students combine humanities with engineering. We may see a push for fostering students’ passions, emphasizing student choice and democratic learning. Teachers may act more like coaches, facilitators, and guides. Grades might be jettisoned for formative content check-ins, skill conferences, and portfolios. Pedagogies influenced by instructionism and “drill and kill” may make way for personalized learning, project based learning, challenge based learning, genius hours, design thinking, and inquiry based instruction.

Schools and classrooms of the future should not be a recycled or enhanced version of yesteryear. We don’t need ed reform, we need education to be reimagined.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Project Based Learning, Some Research (Part 3)

Skills are getting a ton of facetime in the education world. With the advent of Common Core and a greater emphasis on 21st Century Skills, there seems to be a push for learning that goes beyond facts and dates. I think this is a good thing. After all, we teach kids, not just content. 

What do I mean by skills? There's a blog post and a half in that question. But to summarize, I will quote David Perkins (2014) from his book Futurewise,"One name for it is twenty-first century skills, another is key competencies, and there are others. The general notion is that in our complicated world, for the kinds of lives today's learners are likely to live, it's important to develop skills and attitudes that address some very broad challenges, like self-understanding, empathy, ethics, and collaboration- and, of course, good thinking" (p. 199).  

What are some other skills we might develop in our students? Resilience, creativity, communication, perspective taking, research, healthy risk-taking, service, and entrepreneurship quickly come to mind. Arguably, the most important skill is learning to learn. This idea of metacognition is essential to building lifelong, capable learners. It is also a skill that constantly is refined. I am still learning to learn. 

Why not join the bandwagon? For my latest post in my Project Based Learning Research series I focus on skills. 

If you want to recommend any research for me to cover in the future, add a note or send me a Tweet. You can also add a submission to the PBL publication on here.

Title:Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?
Authors: Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver (2004)

Methodology: The article is basically a literature review. Hmelo-Silver (2004) looks at research associated with five purported goals of PBL:
  1. construct an extensive and flexible knowledge base
  2. develop effective problem-solving skills
  3. develop self-directed, lifelong learning skills
  4. become effective collaborators 
  5. become intrinsically motivated to learn.
Key Findings: Hmelo-Silever (2004) concludes,“There is some strong evidence about the nature of knowledge construction and the development of problem-solving skills in certain settings, but there are some cautionary notes to consider. The claims of PBL advocates are not all supported by an extensive research base, and much of the research has been restricted to higher education, predominantly in medical schools”(p. 260).

My Takeaways: The article speaks to many of the difficulties in quantifying the amorphous idea of 'PBL'. There is support that PBL develops problem-solving skills and lifelong learning skills. Students with PBL experience are more likely to transfer hypothesis-related thinking to other situations. Students with PBL experience enjoy the learning and report high levels of confidence. Still, students may be uncertain at first, and novices may lack metacognitive skills necessary for self-directed learning. While it is clear students work collaboratively in PBL, more research needs to be conducted to the effectiveness of this collaboration. 

Authors: David Mioduser and Nadav Betzer (2007)

Methodology: Five different instruments served the data collection and analysis process.  The methodology was thus mixed, there are qualitative, quantitative, and longitudinal measures in the study. The main goal of the study was to investigate the technological knowledge construction process by high achieving high school students. The pedagogical means for this investigation was project-based learning. 

Key Findings: The researchers conclude, “Besides the gain in formal knowledge, we found that PBL contributed to the experimental group students’ meaningful learning in additional aspects as well. The students considerably expanded and enlarged their technological knowledge base; they improved their technological skills and acquired teamwork abilities; the technological design process was learnt and developed to significantly high levels;” (Mioduser and Betzer, 2007, p. 74).

My Takeaways: Tons of juicy tidbits here. Let's start with the population sample. The researchers looked to increase interest in technological learning among high achieving students. Interestingly, the article states that many high achieving students shy away from technological learning even as the world is becoming more technological. PBL not only increased formal knowledge, especially for girls, but students in PBL settings learned different ways of accessing information and greater design skills. Most salient to the research question, PBL displayed an affective influence. Students in PBL classes reported more positive attitudes to technological learning after the introduction of the pedagogy. Here's my question, would similar effects been seen in "low-performing" students?

Author: Julie E. Mills and David F. Treagust (2003)

Methodology: Research Review/ Case Studies. The authors look at the small body of PBL research in engineering education.

Key Findings: The authors conclude, Students who participate in project-based learning are generally motivated by it and demonstrate better teamwork and communication skills. They have a better understanding of the application of their knowledge in practice and the complexities of other issues involved in professional practice. However, they may have a less rigorous understanding of engineering fundamentals” (Mills and Treagust, 2003, p. 12).

My Takeaways: The chief concern of the authors is that traditional methods of instruction do not provide engineering students with the skills needed for today's workforce. Students are expected to have strong communication and teamwork skills. Students need to understand how to apply knowledge rather than simply acquire it. 

The authors acknowledge a common criticism of PBL; students certainly gain much from a PBL pedagogy, but they may miss out on foundational and essential knowledge. To alleviate this concern, the authors suggest mixing instruction methods with consistent use of active learning. Using familiar teaching methods like "chalk and talk" approaches to engineering education are not effective to building skills necessary. The authors also believe innovative teaching pedagogies, like PBL, may push out traditional norms in engineering and help solve critical issues like the number of females in STEM.   


Author: Stephanie Bell (2010)

Title: “Problem-Based Learning: The Foundation for 21st Century Skills

Author: John Barell (2010)

Title: Designing New Learning Environments to Support 21st Century Skills

Author: Bob Pearlman (2010)

Saturday, March 7, 2015

What Schools Can Learn From Kickstarter’s Vision


What if each school asked itself, “What can we do for our creators (students)?”

I’ll jump right in. I am currently at the Launch Festival in San Francisco soaking up a ton of information and advice to continue and build CrowdSchool. It has been a great learning experience. This morning, event founder Jason Calacanis chatted with Kickstarter CEO Yancy Strickler. The two guys discussed where Kickstarter came from and the vision the company has for the future.

The conversation was an eye opener because Strickler identified the importance of Kickstarter with the shift to a creative economy. It is clear Kickstarter sees the importance of people expressing and supporting creativity. This shift from consumption to creation needs to spread to schools. Here are four quick thoughts from the chat that schools can think deeply about.


Are we teaching collaboration and creativity in schools? Do we need to teach collaboration and creativity? Can we? Are 21st century skills enough to help students be creators and innovators?


How can we give students more autonomy, voice, and choice in their own learning? How can we help students identify passions and give them the resources to learn and grow? How can we put the learner in control?


Can we develop intrinsic motivation within students? How can we motivate students to intrinsically learn for learning’s sake? How can we help students see that there are more important things than grades (profits)?


This was the most inspiring point I heard. What if schools started with a focus on creation? What if each school asked itself, “What can we do for our creators (students)?” What if each school was assessed not on test scores, but on how well it answered a similar question?