10 Expectations that Students have of Schools

I like this short video 10 Expectations. It is what students should expect of schools and PBL meets these expectations very nicely.

When Students Take Over

My students made a video to document how they took over the Water Project last year.

Visionary Vagueness

Structures to "protect" us.

Structures to “protect” us.

Schools are overwhelmed with structures. Almost all of them are limiting. Don’t go off script. You have to implement this curriculum or policy. All students must… Bell schedule, hallway passes, class periods, subjects, graduation requirements, AYP, school improvement plans, … 

Most schools have layer upon layer of structures related to classroom management, behavior, standards, curriculum, assessment, and more. Almost everything structurally about school is designed to control either teacher, student or both.

My friend Kiffany Lychock uses the term “visionary vagueness.” This is the idea that there needs to be space in institutions for great change to happen. Leadership at all levels needs to give people the freedom to experiment with ideas, new and old. So how to “structure” visionary vagueness?

PBL is one of the few structures that allows for creativity, teacher judgment, and freedom for both teacher and student. It respects teachers as professional designers of student centered learning and students as agents of their own learning. Some people think student centered learning is a “free for all” but that is not the case. At the other extreme some people may think that all structure is limiting. PBL destroys both of these misnomers. It provides structure and freedom at the same time.

PBL is a structure that gives freedom for people to be innovative and student centered. PBL lets people think structurally about innovation and changing schools.

If you are interested in learning more about the PBL process, please drop me a note on my contact page about my PBL workshops.

Comparison Kills


Comparison slide

This past week we went to WMCAT, a local arts center and students worked on final art pieces to related to gender equality and women’s rights. One of the options that students could do was fiber art and sewing. I was very impressed with one of the boys who broke the gender stereotype and was excellent at sewing. I checked in on a new fiber art group the next day and asked “who is the best sewer?”

Appropriately, the girl identified by her classmates as the best responded with the above quote, adapted from Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is the killer of joy.”

It was a new quote for me and definitely got me thinking about how often we do this in schools…

Which is worse?

Which is worse?

  • Reading below grade level or living below the poverty level?
  • Achievement gaps or gaps in healthcare?
  • Failing M-Step (substitute your state test here) or failing to get enough food to eat?
  • Institutions without structured curriculum or institutional racism re-enforcing structural poverty?
  • Children who don’t know their math facts or homeless children who don’t know where they are sleeping tonight?
  • Kids who break the dress code or kids who are broken from domestic abuse?
  • Students who aren’t engaged in class or students whose families are stuck in the lowest class.
  • Kids who aren’t exposed to “rigorous” learning or kids who are exposed to drugs and crime in their neighborhood.
  • Students who don’t memorize the right answers or students whose civil rights are violated.
Photo by Urbanfeel https://www.flickr.com/photos/30003006@N00/3538568443

Photo by Urbanfeel https://www.flickr.com/photos/30003006@N00/3538568443

Should we start firing social workers to hold them accountable because of all of the domestic problems in this country?

Should we cut national funding to cities who have segregated neighborhoods with high poverty, drugs and crime?

Should we privatize police forces in areas with high crime rates to save money and give communities “choices?”

The United States is a world leader in child poverty. Maybe instead of all of the time, energy, and money spent by politicians on testing to blame schools and teachers they should try to spend some money actually helping the families of our poorest children.

But that would require a change in mindset to admit that our system isn’t perfect and is designed for those at the top to remain there. It would require admitting that people don’t choose to be poor. It would require empathy and compassion.

Maybe education alone can’t solve all of our problems.

How do we move to student centered learning?

Yong Zhao wrote an incredible, research based piece arguing the way that schools should be. It is a lengthy piece but you should read it in its entirety right now! No really, go do it.

Now that you have finished I want to respond to his recommendations at the end with some questions. I want to make it clear that my questions do not come from a perspective of disagreement, but rather that I find his writing to be a strong theoretical argument that I agree with. My questions come as a practicing teacher wondering how to implement his recommendations and from the challenges that I see in my classroom. Although I am a skeptical person, these questions are in the spirit of how to make this shift happen on the ground level.

My main question is how do we structure this kind of learning environment? I am going to explore this from two perspectives. First from an elementary point of view and next from middle and high school.

If we start students out in a school that is entirely student driven than I think it could work naturally. Students would never be “poisoned” by motivation killing things like forced AR reading logs, boring worksheets, and other adult proscribed manipulation. I do believe that humans are naturally curious and enjoy learning things that they choose to learn.

I truly can see this approach working and I believe that it has been done in systems such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools.

Developmentally students change in middle and high school and I have harder questions about Yao’s approach there. First of all, if students were in this kind of environment their whole lives and never experienced “traditional,” controlled schooling than maybe it would keep working for all students. I never seen this in action, so I don’t know. Part of being a teenager is finding one’s identity and I wonder if “fighting” against schooling would happen for some children no matter what the environment?

In my PBL school we have lots of voice and choice (but not the level of freedom that Zhao recommends of no classes or curriculum. We still teach to the standards). I see some students thrive when given the chance to explore their passions in class. I see other students whose default choice is to hang out and not do much when given the opportunity. They would rather play games, watch videos, or text/talk to their friends.

How do we handle this in Zhao’s recommendations? Do we allow students to “detox” from being forced to learn for a period of time? (this question deserves its own post). Is this a result of years of boredom in schooling that had no purpose to them personally? How do we shift students from a traditional, adult controlled model to a student centered one? How do we deal with students with little motivation? How do we deal with students who have personal and family issues that are much more important and often overwhelming to them than anything at school?

I would love to see a follow up to this theory piece dealing with how we should structure, if at all, student centered learning and how to successfully shift classrooms to it.


When should you repeat projects?



When planning a PBL scope and sequence for the year should you repeat projects from previous years or start from scratch? I think there are definitely times when you should repeat projects.

The most important reason to repeat a project is when you find a great community partner that you want to build relationships with that person or organization. You can organically grow that project year after year. As you and your community partner better understand each other the opportunities for students to go deeper and do more focused work improves. So I definitely would repeat projects that have strong community partners centered around meaningful work.

Another reason to recycle a project is that although your students change yearly your core content does not. It makes sense to reframe and refocus certain projects, but it does not make sense to start over from scratch every year. One way to do this is to adjust the project. We like to mix up entry events, DQ’s, and final products sometimes. Other times we keep them the same. A local, national, or world event can create a different way to frame a project so that it stays relevant, while keeping most of the workshops and assessments the same.

The projects that we switch up the most are the ones that seem to fall flat. My most difficult topic is the Spanish American War. It seems small, insignificant, and irrelevant to today. In three years we have tried three different approaches: the first time we had students make Common Craft style videos. The second year we had students debate Manifest Destiny vs. Imperialism as America’s motivation in different countries around the world.

This past year we ended up combining the Spanish American War with 9/11 monument project. What didn’t change in all three of these projects is that we had students consider how early American expansion was a continuation of Manifest Destiny. We contrasted the language of Manifest Destiny with our imperialistic actions. We then continued to look at American foreign policy through the rest of the twentieth century through this lens.

Each year I feel like it got better, but to be honest I think I will be re-doing it again next year. So I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to approach project planning. Sometimes you repeat and sometimes you start over. But even when you start over you can still use many of the same resources and workshops by just reframing the entry event, purpose, and audience.

Note: This was inspired by excellent thoughts from this John Spencer post.


Skills Based Curriculum

If we are ever going to shift away from an adult based, content heavy curriculum then what should we expect students to learn in schools? I am talking about a system where students are free to study according to their passions and interests. A system of projects designed by students and teachers together. A system that has no bells, no “classes.” The type of school where students drive all aspects of the learning.

I am going to argue that there is a core set of skills that all children should learn. I am also going to argue that this list is enough for all children to be successful. Implicit in this list is that all children are going to learn “how to learn” anything they choose to independently. By independently I do not mean in isolation, but without adult direction. That is each student should know how to research and connect with others who are experts to learn anything that they choose to.

It is a short list and probably each item deserves a separate post to describe what it is and isn’t. Here is my list of the skills that every student should learn:

Reading Students will learn to read all kinds of texts and genres as they are naturally exposed to them through classmates, parents, teachers, and exploring their passions through projects.

Writing Students will learn to write all kinds of texts and genres as they are naturally required to through their projects.

Speaking Students will learn to share their learning publicly developing important communication skills.

Computing Students will learn basic math computations as required by their exploration in projects. “Advanced” math will be learned in context when needed. All students will need an understanding of algebraic thinking and more emphasis should be spent on statistics.

Collaborating Students will learn the social skills of working together with others and how to take on different roles in different situations.

Problem Solving Students will learn to ask questions with depth. Emphasis will be on analyzing and evaluating results, rather than on the solutions.

Critical Thinking Students will learn to look at problems and situations from multiple viewpoints. Students will learn to identify and evaluate bias.

Empathy Students will learn to look at problems from multiple viewpoints and understand and relate to competing views.

This list represents everything that I think students should know how to do. It is absent of any specific “content” but applies to any subject that adults can make up. It is heavy on the 4C’s but intentionally omits creativity because I don’t believe that we need to teach or assess it. Adults just need to allow space and creativity will happen. It is innate in all humans.

What do you think? Anything missing? Unclear? Could this ever be the real national standards in the US or anywhere? Why not?

Respectfully Pointing Out Privilege

I was in a professional development once and the presenter was identifying students in a video that they were about to show. They identified one student as an African-American boy, another as a girl, and a third student as the other boy. The audience was divided into three groups and each group was assigned the task of evaluating a different student for their presentation style.

An African-American woman then asked, “What is the race of the other boy?” The presenter recognized their mistake (of using race to identify one student), how it sounded, and apologized immediately. It turned out that the presenter could not identify the race of the other student (he was Asian). We had a laugh as a group about trying to identify the other boy’s race.

What struck me about this interaction was two things. First, how often privilege is invisible and we don’t even realize it. It is so easy to speak without realizing how it sounds to others and the assumptions that we are making. Second, the way this lady pointed it out in a non-threatening way. She made her point without accusing, getting angry, or causing any kind of disruption. She also did not assume that the presenter was racist.

Sometimes I see situations like this (especially on social media) escalate to where both sides end up angry with each other and offended. I find this intimidating and makes me not want to talk about race issues with people like this. I hope we can find ways to address issues of race and privilege in civil ways that lead to tolerance, respect, and understanding.

Culture Trumps All

I am a big proponent of PBL as a framework for student centered learning. But more and more I believe that culture is the most important part of a successful school or class. PBL can lead to creating that culture (but it is not an automatic thing!) but the culture is a separate thing.

In working with a new school I was able to challenge them with the opportunity that they had to create a culture from scratch. No student would be coming with any realistic pre-conceived notions about what the school will be like. They will be coming excited and curious to find out. The first days of school are critical for establishing the culture of the school every year. But it is more than how the year is launched, because culture is the norms that are actually lived through out the whole year.

I have had years that did not go well. Culture was the main reason why. The good news is that culture can always be re-created in a new year or shifted in the middle of the year. We are well over the half way mark of this school year, but it is still not too late to shift culture in your class.

Are you happy with your culture? What should you change? What should you keep?