Author Archives: Michael Kaechele

Entry Events are Easy as ABC

Bill Nye has a hot take on global warming. (YouTube screen grab via Last Week Tonight)

Most students do not come to our classes in love with the content. Maybe one geeky kid does, but most kids need a hook. Therefore we need to generate some excitement by launching PBL projects with an entry event. Remember Bill Nye’s formula for an engaging show for kids: ABC, action before content. We can’t expect students to be immediately ready to immerse themselves in new ideas.

Before students’ minds go deep, their bodies must actively engage with content.

The purpose of the entry event is to generate a buzz around the topic, build curiosity, and give students some initial background knowledge. The best entry events have both a cognitive and an empathetic hook to them. We want to catch students by both the heart and the mind.

An effective entry event naturally leads to student questions about the topic. It could be as simple as a short YouTube video or be as complex as a multiple-day simulation. Experiments, guest speakers, and field work are other popular types of entry events. Excellent entry events often have an element of mystery or surprise to them.

Question: When do most schools take field trips? 

Answer: At the end of a project or year, often as a reward or celebration. 

In PBL, we flip the script and plan field work at the beginning of the project using them as entry events. My colleague, Jim Bentley uses the term field work instead of field trips because the former implies vocation, while the latter implies recreation. Our students won’t be passive spectators, but actively engaged in early research.

Before starting a project on the Industrial Revolution, our students toured local factories to learn how modern manufacturing functions. To launch an integrated project on nuclear power, we visited the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University to discover how atoms are smashed into tiny isotopes that only exist in space. The university professor used magnetic marbles to teach students about isotopes.

In Necedah, Wisconsin, Melissa Riggs and Tracy Saylor’s 1st and 2nd graders investigated the DQ: How does a plant go from seed to table? Their class toured a local cranberry marsh to learn about the life cycle of plants. Students were engaged because they eat Craisins all of the time as snacks, but got to see the entire process from growing to harvesting to packaging and shipping. It demystified that food does not come from the store.

Another common entry event is to invite a guest speakers that can provide insight into different perspectives. The MyParty Election Project brought in local campaign managers from both the Democratic and Republican Party to share with students. One student asked the Republican representative, “What do you do to appeal to young people?” The campaign manager asked him if he really wanted to know the truth. After confirming that the student truly did, the campaign manager told the class, “Nothing, because young people don’t vote.” That interaction fired up the students to make their voices heard! 

I had members of the Lost Boys of Sudan come share about what it is like to be child refugees as a result of genocide. In a Great Depression project, a formerly homeless family told their story of job loss and medical bills to help students dig deeper into the causes of poverty. For women’s rights, a female pastor shared her heartbreaking story of years of spousal abuse, and how she escaped. Investment brokers explained to students how to properly invest in a financial planning project.

Think about careers or organizations related to the topic of your project and invite them to share authentic perspectives with your class.

When the distance is too far, guest schedules are too busy, or there is no budget for field work, videoconferencing is an excellent alternative. With today’s free technology, students can connect with experts anywhere in the world to learn with them and communicate their own discoveries. Another option is to record student questions that an expert can videotape their response. This is a great solution when time zones are an issue or if you have multiple classes and don’t want to overwhelm a guest by asking them to spend a whole day at your school.

When students are hooked from the start, they will ask important questions related to the topic in the Need to Know process. These will motivate kids to continue inquiry throughout the project. The questions become the foundation for the learning throughout the rest of the project. So remember your ABC as you plan your next project!

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

PBL isn’t Innovative

Almost all of the stock photos for innovation are lightbulbs…hmmm??

Innovative: a product or idea featuring new methods; advanced and original. (Google Dictionary).

Shocking Pedagogy

As I lead Project Based Learning workshops around the country, I have noticed a shift in how it is received by teachers. Years ago when I first started leading PBL professional development, it felt like a huge transformation. The first day of the workshop was dedicated to listening to people’s misconceptions and “selling” PBL to convince skeptics that it was worth trying. On the second day of the workshop, I would reassure overwhelmed teachers that they could, in fact, successfully implement PBL. Tears of frustration were not uncommon. Many participants felt that they were being asked to make seismic shifts of their teaching practices. By the end of day three, teachers were both convinced and equipped to step out into the wild frontier of Project Based Learning.

At one workshop, I remember a history teacher planned a project based on interviewing veterans, a common project idea done by many teachers across the country. Another teacher challenged him and said it wasn’t PBL because the idea wasn’t original. This teacher thought that every project had to be unique and never attempted before. He was caught in the fallacy of PBL as innovation. I assured both of the teachers that is was ok to adapt existing projects to their content and classroom.

Shift to Affirmation

More recently, the workshop participants react differently. The first day of the workshop still begins with many misconceptions about what PBL is and isn’t. But the reactions are different. I rarely have to convince people that PBL is based on solid educational practices anymore. People no longer are in tears, feeling stressed about changing. Instead of being shocked about proposed shifts to their practice, teachers are affirmed.

Once teachers are shown what PBL is, no longer do the majority of them feel that it is something totally new and innovative. When they look at the elements of PBL, educators realize that they are already using many of the strategies. They already have students looking at big questions and discussing them. Many teachers have already experimented with dessert projects. Teachers know about formative assessments, reflection, and scaffolding content for different learners.

So in fact, PBL isn’t and never has been innovative. This is coming from someone who gained their PBL chops in a school that literally had innovation in its name. There was a time when PBL felt innovative to teachers trapped in traditional teaching of sit, git, and forget. But that was all relative to their circumstance of content above all (pressure of standardization and testing). Now the education pendulum is swinging back to a more holistic approach.

The goal of PBL teaching and learning is not to be the most innovative kind of instruction, but to make content meaningful to kids.

The PBL framework has roots in John Dewey, Constructivism, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia models to name a few. PBL introduces students to intriguing questions, and the teacher coaches them through an inquiry process. The coaching and mentoring harken back to Ancient Greece and Jesus. The only innovation that modern educators have done with PBL is to systemize and refine how to do it well.

Path Forward

PBL, when properly understood, is a mindset of student-centered learning based on best teaching and learning theory. Historically, PBL is not new or innovative in the least. More importantly, today PBL no longer feels innovative to most teachers because positive shifts have been made to decentralize learning in many schools and classrooms.

So why even bother with a PBL workshop if it is not innovative, only affirming? Because many teachers still lack the tools to do it effectively. The PBL model adds a systemic structure for student-centered learning. It ensures intentional implementation of the strategies that we know all students need. Even for the seasoned teacher, a workshop adds more tools in the form of protocols to ensure social, emotional, and academic success for all students.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at or @mikekaechele onTwitter.