Author Archives: Michael Kaechele

The Case of the Missing Plant


“Our experiment didn’t work” was the first reaction of Max’s group of 1st and 2nd grade students. Every group in the class had been given four bean seeds to plant in four different ways:

  • One planted and placed in a dark cupboard
  • One in a wet paper towel with no soil
  • One in dry dirt with no water
  • “Control” group with light, soil, and water

Everyone else’s control group grew a normal, healthy plant, but Max’s group had no plant sprouting at all. How could the seed with perfect conditions have not grown?

Field Work

The students were completing an investigation of “what do things need to grow?” as part of a larger PBL project in Necedah, Wisconsin. Teachers Melissa Riggs and Tracy Saylor wanted their young learners to understand the science of food production and looked to their community as starting point.

It was important to tie science and social studies standards to relevant background knowledge that students already had.

Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries in the United States growing 62% of the crop in 2017. So they took their students to a local cranberry marsh to launch a project with the Driving Question: How does a plant go from seed to table?

The field work was authentic to students because Tracy had worked there prior to becoming a teacher and ⅓ of the students had parents or other family members that worked in the cranberry industry. Students observed the entire process from growing to harvesting to packaging and shipping. Students eat Craisins all of the time as snacks, and made proud connections that the source was their community. It demystified that food does not come from the store. The students learned the importance of their local economy in the larger food supply for the country.

The day before the field work the students explored the social studies standard of how harvesting crops looked over one hundred years ago compared to today. They made a T-chart to compare the differences. Melissa and Tracy introduced important vocabulary for the project so students would be prepared to discuss what they would see at the cranberry marsh.

Seed Project

After the field work, the students started the seed experiment in groups. Every Monday for the next few weeks they would check for growth, measure, and document in tables. They were working science standards of experimenting and data collection.

One of the biggest surprises to students was what happened in the dark cupboard. Some students guessed that nothing would grow, but in fact plants grew faster and taller than the control group. But the plants were white and didn’t have leaves or look very healthy. Some students did notice that there was a crack in the cupboard that allowed a small amount of light and the plants were leaning towards it.

For the literacy part of the project students had to choose one fruit or vegetable to research and explain how it grows, how it is harvested, and how it is used. Each student then presented a poster of their chosen plant to the class. They were assessed on non-fiction writing, specifically how to diagram and layout information. It was the students’ first time presenting so the teachers did not want them to be too nervous with an outside audience.

Melissa and Tracy, along with the librarian, found websites and books and then taught students how to pull relevant information from the texts. Most students chose a plant they were familiar with from their garden or the farmer’s market. Students were familiar with “harvesting” from their home gardens but were amazed at the machinery of mass harvesting on commercial farms that they watched on Youtube.

Teacher Reflection

Upon reflecting on the project, Melissa and Tracy were impressed with the engagement level of students throughout the project. Even though it was their first time researching, students were engrossed in inquiry throughout. They continuously wanted to know more about their chosen plant and were proud to share their learning with teachers and classmates. All of the students could explain the details about their research and grew in confidence!

Tracy commented that Max, a low level reader, “needed lots of support, but let me tell you he could tell you about a plum.” Students of all reading abilities were successful in research and in communicating their learning verbally.

PBL gives all students access to content regardless of their reading level.

Melissa and Tracy reflected on their planning as teachers. They admitted that at the beginning they did not have the entire project planned out. They knew the main benchmarks and standards, but allowed room for the project to pivot based on student voice and choice as collected by observation and conservations throughout. They were a little nervous at first, but were happy to have taken the leap to student-centered learning and are already planning future projects. Of course, they can wait to connect students to the community again.

Mystery Solved!

But what about the mystery of the missing plant? Well, students decided to take their plants out of their containers to examine the roots. They were fascinated to see the work that was happening underground. Some students noted that the white color of the plants grown in the dark matched the color of the roots.

When Max’s group emptied out the control group cup they found no seed. They had accidentally planted two seeds in the dark cup in the cupboard. Mystery solved in the name of science!

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

Scaffolding Thinking in PBL

Most teachers are skilled at using scaffolds to help special education, English learners, or any student who needs extra support in breaking down and understanding concepts in core content areas.

One of the most common misconceptions about PBL is that because students have “choice” that they are allowed to do whatever they want, and teachers don’t do much to help them.

Not true! In high-quality PBL, Teachers still work alongside students to scaffold content. The difference is that it is usually happening in small group workshops.

In Project Based Learning, teachers also need to scaffold student thinking. The British Journal of Educational Technology recently published a study of high school students in a medical Problem Based Curriculum (paywall). It found six ways to move students from novice to expert thinking. Here’s how to scaffold thinking in the Project Based Learning framework.

1. Prompt students to include context

Context starts on day 1 of a project when we ask students “what do you know?” We launch with an entry event to not only get kids “hooked” into the project, but to activate prior knowledge. Constructivism tells us that students can only build on their previous knowledge base. Students often forget what they know or don’t realize that it applies in a new situation. Consistent use of protocols such as

  • Knows and Need to Knows lists
  • Notice and Wonder
  • Predict, Observe, Explain
  • I used to think…, but now I know…
  • Others might say…

build a culture where students start from a place of inquiry building on what they already know.

2. Ask open-ended questions

Traditional schooling has often focused on closed-ended questions with one right answer on multiple choice tests. PBL starts with a Driving Question that is open with many paths for students to consider. But we also want to teach students to ask their own open-ended questions.

The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is an excellent protocol to teach students the difference between open and closed questions by sorting them. This leads to students generating more open-ended ones. Once students have learned the difference, it is easy for the teacher to have the class reword closed ended questions so that they are open.

3. Help students transfer knowledge and experience

One of the biases of Western education is the spliting of knowledge into content buckets or classes. Students often struggle to apply learning to new situations because they think it only applies to a certain class. Often core content is so separated from the real world that students don’t see the application of school to their lives.

In PBL students explore authentic questions in their community. Students learn how content applies to their lives in a meaningful way. Walls between content are broken down by integrated projects. Students have ample opportunity to apply various disciplines toward their project solution.

4. Leave room for student ownership

One of my favorite parts of PBL is student voice and choice. Students get excited when they participate in their learning in meaningful ways. Schools overemphasize compliance leading to complacency. If we want deeper thinking, students need permission to take the project where they think that it needs to go.

A practical way to do this is to let students plan parts of a project. When you design a PBL project, plan specific places where students will have choices whether it be groupings, content topics, or final products. As students become proficient, consider having students co-design the entire project with you. I have seen kindergarten classes who can do this with teacher support!

5. Invite and manage risk

My colleague Nate Langel applies the “You failed and it was awesome!” mantra to his science classroom. Students design their own experiments around the content topic and test their ideas. When things turn out “wrong” he gives high fives, celebrating that students learned something that doesn’t work and encouraging them to question why to redesign for another experiment.

Another way to invite risk is to model vulnerability. Be transparent with students about things that you are currently learning and how it feels. If you are trying PBL for the first time, tell your students that you trying a new way of learning because you think that it is better for them. Admit that you are nervous and acknowledge that you expect bumps along the way, but that will not be how you measure success.

6. Encourage reflection

We know that metacognition is vital for deeper learning. Hands-on learning doesn’t mean that students’ minds turn off like a factory worker on an assembly line. We need students to be hands-on and minds-on. John Dewey told us “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

End every lesson with a chance for students to reflect on the day. It doesn’t need to be a huge time suck. It could be 2 minutes for a journal entry, turn and talk, or exit ticket.

Students should be reflecting on content and the SEL skills that they are developing.

Mix it up so students don’t get bored. Reflection creates velcro moments where the learning sticks in long term memory.

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