Author Archives: Michael Kaechele

PBL isn’t Chaos

Illustrated by James Fester

Control Continuum

Who controls most classrooms? Whose voice dominates? Who decides what is learned, how it is learned, and with whom? Who determines the assessments and what they look like?

When first learning about Project Based Learning, many teachers skeptically ask me “How do I keep kids on task?” or “How do I ensure that students learn all of my content standards?” Often what they are actually questioning is “Does PBL lead to classroom chaos?”

Anarchy

Behind these questions is a fear of losing control. Educators worry that if they allow student voice and choice, their well managed class will turn into a free for all. They don’t say it out loud, but these teachers fear Anarchy as seen on the left hand extreme of the Control Continuum with students having one hundred percent control and the teacher exerting none.

They imagine students doing whatever they feel like with the teacher asserting zero input. When educators think about inquiry based or student driven work, they wonder, “What is the teacher is doing? Just sitting back reading a book or playing a game on their phone?” They picture the teacher as a clueless babysitter ignoring a mob of spoiled rotten children. They imagine poor substitute teachers that they have observed and think “No way!”

But this is a straw man argument and one of the biggest myths about PBL. No one is advocating for Anarchy in the classroom!

Tyranny

To demonstrate how ridiculous this fear is, I want to consider the opposite extreme: Tyranny. On the right side of the Control Continuum, the teacher has one hundred percent control and the students have zero.

At this logical extreme, the teacher commands every student action. The teacher is a military dictator controlling every thought through power and fear. Students are marionettes, powerless to think or react without permission. Relationships, feelings, and emotions are irrelevant as the supreme leader dictates content into the brains of his subjects. They will obey, and they will learn at his command.

Absurdity

Just as the metaphor of teacher as all powerful dictator is absurd, so is the teacher as powerless babysitter. Student centered inquiry is NOT a free for all. It is NOT students doing whatever they feel like, whenever they feel like doing it. These analogies are a thought exercise to show that both extremes of the Control Continuum are equally absurd. No one is advocating for the style of teaching at either end. Both are straw man arguments that if they did exist somewhere would warrant firing the teacher.

But educators rarely question the right side of the continuum. What if the teacher has too much control? Does the climate of many classrooms stifle creativity and actual learning? There is not the same fear associated with the right end of the Control Continuum as with the left. A strong classroom leader (but not to the dictator extreme) was the model that many teachers experienced when they were in school and is their comfort zone.

Implicit Bias

A further danger of the fear of student voice and choice is that some teachers don’t believe that “their students” can handle self directed learning. Sometimes this is because of the age of the children or maybe their socio-economic background. This is dangerous thinking. We know that students will rise to meet expectations and vise versa (The Power of Expectations). We also know that implicit bias can prevent our students of color from being pushed as much as they should be. ALL STUDENTS can self direct their learning with proper scaffolding and support. Never sell your students short of what they can become or do!

PBL as Framework

PBL is actually the opposite of Anarchy. It is a framework, a structure, a design process for student centered learning for both the teacher and the kids. PBL has protocols to guide students through content standards while giving them voice in what and how they learn.

We will explore the what the middle of the Control Continuum looks like in a future post and reflect on where the ideal spot is for both teachers and students. But for now, can we all agree that the fear of PBL leading to chaos is a misguided myth? Don’t go to the straw man extreme of Anarchy as an excuse not to try PBL. Give it a shot and you will learn to love the process and students will excel beyond your wildest imagination!


6 Tips for Powerfully Integrated Projects

One of the weaknesses of our modern education system is that content has become so siloed that students rarely see the connections between subjects or connections with their world. Integrated projects can break down these walls when students investigate authentic problems that cross subject lines.

I have team-taught social studies with English and math with science. I have also designed numerous projects that integrated multiple content areas. Integrated projects can be challenging to plan and manage, even for experienced PBL teachers. Here are 6 tips that I have learned to make integrated projects powerful learning experiences for all students.

6 Tips For Powerfully Integrated Projects 

1. Get everyone on board

I tend to get really excited when brainstorming integrated projects. A few years ago, some colleagues and I came up with a Shark Tank-style project solving issues that are remnants of the modern Industrialization. We were mostly humanity teachers but thought that it would make a great school-wide project.

In our eagerness sharing with the rest of the staff, we overwhelmed them and teachers felt forced into something that they weren’t comfortable with. People deserve the opportunity to process what they are being asked to be a part of.

What I learned is that it is as important to get group buy-in, as it is to plan something great. For future ideas, I created a Google Doc pitch of the concept. Then I shared it with commenting rights to everyone involved a week before we were scheduled to discuss it. This gave everyone an opportunity for their voice to be heard both in support and with concerns. It also gave time for people to process the proposal without feeling overwhelmed by my zeal.

The result was a huge success as people who were hesitant before, now were committed to join.

Check out numbers 2-6 at TeachThought where this was originally posted.

When They Want Schools to be like Businesses…

Cheesy Stock Business Photo

I hate when business people want to apply, without context, their ideas to schools. But this modern take on management is very compatible with PBL classrooms.

Author Kim Scott has been co-founder and CEO of multiple tech and consulting companies and a high level manager at both Google and Apple. She has been advisory consultant to leaders at Dropbox and Twitter. She has managed companies working in Kosovo, Moscow, and Israel. In other words, she has led at some of the best and most innovative companies in the world.

I have adapted a management quote from her book, Radical Candor, Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity to our school setting:

“When I was at business school staff meeting, I was taught that my job as a manager teacher was to ‘maximize shareholder value‘ ‘raise test scores.’ In life, I learned that too much emphasis on shareholder value test scores actually destroys value learning, as well as morale. Instead, I learned to focus first on staying centered myself, so that I could build real relationships with each of the people who worked for me my students. Only when I was centered and my relationships were strong could I fulfill my responsibilities as a manager teacher to guide my team class to achieve the best results. Shareholder value High test scores are the result. It’s not at the core, though. ” 

A couple of thoughts, in the business world, data and metrics about making money really is the point. None of the companies that she started, or places that she worked for were non-profit charities. Their purpose was to make cash, yet she says focusing on profits over people is actually counterproductive to that goal.

Now all of these companies use data and make decisions based upon it. But her core values are building personal relationships with her team and giving honest feedback to them. Qualitative data based on observations and relationships is more important than raw, quantitative data. Both businesses and schools involve shaping imperfect humans. Scott understands that relationships are the key to motivation and growth.

The second thing is self care, which many teachers struggle with due to the many demands placed on them. We can not be who we need to be for others if we are personally drowning due to stress, poor health, etc. Take time for yourself to go on a hike or other exercise, make a delicious, home cooked meal, or read a book. Add it to your calendar if you must. It’s vital to your success!

So if business folks want to evaluate schools, then they had better come from a human centered approach instead of a results driven one. Since even in their world, it is more effective.

Life Long Mentors

I once wrote a post about the first time a student followed me on Twitter (I had to go looking way back for that post). I ended up with my own personal policy of not following students on social media until after they graduate. I didn’t block them in any way from following me, but I did not reciprocate.

To be honest, I regret this self imposed policy now. Also I definitely didn’t hold myself to it the past few years.  I have since connected with many students and it is fun to watch them live their lives. Many have finished college, are getting married, having children, and starting their careers.

It is very popular to say how important it is for teachers to build relationships with their students. We all love the old quote, “Students won’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” But I do believe that cliche is true and have personally seen the difference caring makes in the classroom. But…..

How much do we really care if we treat each year of students as a “new batch” and forget about the old ones?

If we really care about our students than it should be for more than one year. Now I realize that there are physical limitations to the amount of caring we can do after students leave our classes. I have had thousands of students over the years and would be lying if I said that I can remember them all, especially their names 🙂

But social media is a great tool to keep up with as many students as possible. It is impossible to have the same close relationship with every student, but we can connect with many and our influence can be multiplied.

One of the groups of students that I am most strongly connected to is my first class at the wall-to-wall PBL school that I taught at. It was a new school and an exciting experience for both myself and the students. I looped with the kids so I got to teach them for two years in a row and for some of them I taught again as seniors. The length of time together and the powerful culture of our school resulted in deep bonds.

The other way that I have bonded with students is through meaningful projects. Our best projects got students excited about the world and making a difference. Students learned about who they were as a person and what mattered to them. Some of them discovered new career interests and skillsets that they didn’t even realize that they had! It was my privilege to encourage them in their unique paths as they explored their passions.

When I say that I care for students, I don’t want it to be for one year. Social media gives me the ability to be a lifelong mentor and friend to them. So for all of the negativity that can be found in these online spaces, don’t forget that they are also powerful tools to keep up with our students.

How can you structure your school and leverage social media for long term relationships with your students?

 

“It’s the Most PAINFUL, Time of the Year”

Instead of the holiday season being “the most wonderful time of the year” as the song goes, for many students it is an incredibly painful time. I am not talking about the girl who is crushed because her boyfriend broke up with her, but students who are deeply hurting.

Many students, especially those from low socio-economic backgrounds, are dealing with real trauma daily. This can be escalated by the holidays. In our culture, when all of the messages around them are about joy, presents, and spending quality time with your family, it only amplifies the pain some of our students feel about their home life.

Some students may be dealing with the trauma of the loss of a parent or grand parent. If the death happened around the holidays, then they may be remembering the feelings of loss and depressed. There also may have been a significant income loss in the family household leading to frequent moving or homelessness.

I had a student whose birthday was coming up.  When I asked if he was doing anything for special for it, he said, “No, I never get anything for my birthday.” I took him out for lunch at Wendy’s and it really made an impact on him. Unfortunately, “normal” for him was that no one cared.

Many of our students are not looking forward to presents, but embarrassed that they lack basic necessities. They are not looking forward to holiday feasts, but will be missing the daily breakfast and lunch that the school provides. Maybe utility bills are not being paid and the heat is turned off. For them, holiday vacation means hunger, cold, and loneliness.

For other students, family gatherings means more stress in their homes. They may be forced to go to a non-custodial parent’s house and deal with step parents and siblings who they have strained relationships with. There may be stressful situations including drugs and alcohol abuse, or even worse child neglect or abuse. They are dreading what they will be forced to endure over the break.

For teachers, this means don’t be surprised if you see some acting out behaviors from students the next few weeks. Don’t assume that kids are hyper because they are looking forward to the holidays. It may be the exact opposite. They may be acting out because school is the only safe place in their lives and they are stressed about their home life.

The holiday time is an important time to be patient, loving, and kind to students. If you sense that they seem “off,” pull them aside and have a conversation with them about things at home. Ask them if they are looking forward to the holidays. Seek genuine answers and be a supportive listener. Students need extra care and understanding from us as it may be the only positive part of their holidays.