Tag Archives: pedagogy

Get Off the Path!

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths.”

Neil Gaiman in The Ocean at the End of the Lane


What are your paths? Let me name a few that I see in education:

  • Curriculum
  • Testing and test prep
  • Standards
  • Textbooks
  • Lesson plans
  • Daily objectives
  • Common assessments
  • District pacing guides
  • Siloed subjects
  • Grade level expectations

Not saying that these are all horrible things that should totally be eliminated (although I could make a strong argument for many of them), but I think they fit Gaiman’s analogy in that adults are so locked into them. Not only are we “content to walk the same way”, but we freak out a bit inside if we are not on pace and on track. We are ready to scold kids to “get back on the path!” as soon as they venture sideways.

How much time and energy do we spend making sure that we meet all of the adult expectations of our classroom vs. meeting the needs of the children in front of us?

Now I realize that these two things are not mutually exclusive. All of the things in the list were designed with the intention of assuring high quality education for all students. But learning must be fluid and personalized for the students in front of us. There is no one golden path that leads all children to learning nirvana. Adult expectations vs. children’s needs: What is our highest priority?


Covid-19 blew up the path. Remote learning forced everyone to adapt virtually every aspect of their class. It was not done in a thoughtful approach, but out of traumatic necessity. This summer gives space to reflect. We know that online learning worked great for some kids, was pointless hoop jumping for others, and for some of our most needy students was a total failure. But if we are honest, are those results much different than in a typical classroom?

Why do children leave the path? Because they see something interesting.

Isn’t that what learning is? Pursuing knowledge because we are fascinated by it. Sometimes the path is boring. Oftentimes the students have no idea where the path is going (no, writing the objective on the board doesn’t address this). Usually there are other routes to get to the same place other than the sanctioned path.

The Neil Gaiman quote reminded me of the long essay by Carol Black, A Thousand Rivers (a water theme connection?). Black argues for a return to holistic learning based on the community model of indigenous peoples. “Any Cree parent knows that you can tell when a child is ready for something because he will begin to ask questions about it. You can’t control the timing of this, and there is no reason to.”

All humans are natural learners, but schools are often so artificial.


Personally, I don’t believe that any child is lazy or lacks passion. They are just interested in different things than what is typically emphasized in schools. Kids are not interested in being “talked at.” So many times, I have seen the shift from apathy to enthusiasm, when students start talking about what they are doing outside of school. It may be sports, theatre, a club, or a hobby. They are motivated and work very hard at things that they care about. It is our job to connect their passions to learning vital skills needed in society. The first step in doing so, is to take a step back from mandated curriculum and make learning more open-ended and organic.

The opportunity before us is to reconsider schooling. The pressure of the tests was temporarily (but hopefully longer) removed. While I am a firm believer that schools alone can not fix all of societies ills, we need to do better to support all learners. For the disengaged children, what better place to start than with projects centered around them?

We need what Laureen Adams calls a “radical pedagogy of love.” This doesn’t mean that we are Kumbaya around the campfire all of the time. It does mean that we attend to the Social and Emotional well being of all of our students. I think we forget how radical love is.

Love is telling the whole truth about history including marginalized groups and oppressed peoples. Love is admitting when we are wrong as individuals or as a society. Love is making sure all kids have strong thinking skills, high reading levels, and computational fluency. Love is not soft. Love is demanding effort and excellence because we have caring relationships with kids. Love is showing students all that they can be.

Remote learning was an opportunity for children to explore their passions this spring. How can we continue to build our classes around child-centered practices? What about the kids who never engaged online? How can we create learning experiences that invite them into learning?

It’s time to let students lead us off of the path…

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