Tag Archives: voice and choice

Remote Autonomy in PBL

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This is the fifth of a series of posts about what Project Based Learning infused with Social and Emotional Learning looks like when teaching remotely. Is it the ideal situation? Probably not, but it is the reality that many of us are dealing with. I will share my ideas and what others are doing to hopefully inspire you to action.


Traditional education is centered on compliance and control, but teacher dominance is difficult during remote learning. Some teachers are still fighting to control students virtually. We see this play out in ridiculous requirements of teachers demanding that students follow dress codes, leave their cameras on at all times, and prohibit students from eating or drinking in their own homes! The thing is, teachers cannot control kids’ home environment and can’t punish kids in the typical ways of loss of recess, timeouts, or detentions. When the family pet interrupts the web meeting, and every student literally goes “squirrel” it can be hard to keep lessons on track.

One of the hallmarks of PBL and the thing that originally attracted me to the model is student voice and choice. It’s powerful when students take over the classroom, forging the learning path, instead of the teacher. Kids are plenty curious if we only give them some space to explore topics that they care about. This isn’t limited to some narrow passion of theirs either. When given some choice in relevant content, students discover many aspects of the subject matter are engaging to them.

Student voice and choice gives students multiple paths to engage themselves into content.

Voice and Choice

In his popular book, Drive, Daniel Pink shares that the three primary motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Schools emphasize mastery with hours of rote memorization of facts and practicing mathematical algorithms, but tend to neglect purpose and autonomy. Many teachers are afraid to give any freedom to students thinking that their classroom will turn into the chaos on the left side of the image at the top of this post. I would argue that the first thing to focus on is purpose.

The reason that students are always asking “Why do we have to do this?” is because they perceive that school has no relevance to their lives: no purpose. That is why PBL starts with an entry event that connects content to student lives in authentic ways. This initial hook, coupled with an audience for their final product, gives meaning to both the project and the content to be explored. Now students are ready to step into some autonomy.

After the entry event, if the rest of the project is actually just a traditional unit designed, organized, and managed entirely by the teacher, students will resist fully committing to it. But given autonomy by questioning what they will study, who they will work with, and how they will demonstrate their learning, students will engage more deeply.

Many teachers use choice boards to give students some freedom to plan their learning. It’s a nice first step, but until you empower student voice, you won’t see the true power of PBL. To be clear, students already have a voice, but schools often try to quell it instead of encouraging and amplifying it. There are plenty of topics that both connect to curriculum and are compelling to students: climate change, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, Fake News, immigration, minimum wage, LBGTQ+ rights, to name a few. When students engross themselves in relevant topics that they can then take a stand on, they develop the Transformative SEL skill of leadership in both the school and their communities.


Staring at a screen all day is not engaging. Not even a little bit. Even playing video games or watching Netflix gets old after awhile. So in remote learning, we need to find ways to get students immersed in offline pursuits. Students can look at the history and context of any current event and consider multiple viewpoints of it. Another option is an independent project with students pursuing a personal passion. Entrepreneurship is another great project theme to help student grow SEL skills of problem-solving and collaboration.

Once you have a topic or theme (ideally with student input), plan structures to scaffold students inquiry both online and off. For live sessions, use protocols and routines, to make students’ time in breakout rooms productive. Thinking Routines don’t limit autonomy, but rather provide an organizing framework to help students be successful.

PBL provides the balance between student autonomy and scaffolding to structure inquiry.

Don’t limit the project to live, online time together. Students can engage safely in their communities through experiments, observations of natural phenomena, data collections, and surveys. Their final products can involve physical objects such as prototypes, artwork, video productions, or photo journals. Encourage students to get outside to explore nature and their neighborhoods, discovering everyday things that they may have taken for granted.

Let’s look at one specific example that could be scaled up or down from elementary to high school. Right now I have a student making maple syrup with her family. They spend hours tapping trees, collecting the sap, and then boiling it for days to make the delicious final product. Think of all of the educational connections in this activity. There is science behind the seasons and why the sap runs right now. Engineering is required to design and build the proper equipment to process the sap. Students could explore concepts such as boiling points, states of matter, and chemical changes taking place. Students could calculate how long to boil it and the proportions of how much sap is required to make a pint of syrup. There is the history behind this process and human/environmental impact of humans collecting and producing a specific food. Students might wonder why maple trees only grow in certain parts of the world. Students could study the economics of running a business and how to write a business plan to sell maple syrup. Profits from sales could be donated to a social cause that students care about.

This one simple activity is a pathway down numerous learning paths that cross content levels and age levels. What topics would be relevant to your students and community that empower student autonomy?

Questions? Interested in a PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele on Twitter.

What can all teachers learn from PBL with our youngest learners?

I just finished reading Implementing Project Based Learning in Early Childhood by my amazing PBLWorks colleagues Sara Lev, Amanda Clark , and Erin Starkey. First of all, this book is a must read for any elementary teacher, especially PK-2. The book is organized around common concerns (misconception actually) about PBL that the authors have heard from other elementary teachers. Not surprisingly, they are the same concerns about PBL that I hear from secondary teachers 🙂

What I like the most is that the entire book tells the story of a project in Sara’s transitional kindergarten class. “Seeing” how she plans, implements, and adjusts the project for her students based on their abilities and interests clearly models what PBL can be. Sara is a master of planning like the Professor, but pivoting like Tokyo.

As a secondary teacher, I think sometimes high school teachers focus too much on content. Elementary teachers tend to focus more on holistic teaching of the whole child. A couple of common early elementary practices stood out to me as missing from many middle and high school classrooms. Here’s 5 things all PBL teachers should use:

1. Anchor Charts

I never hear high school teachers use this term. Rarely middle school teachers (usually those certified K-8) use anchor charts. Why don’t secondary teachers document student discussions and thinking with anchor charts for all to see? Instead whole group “discussions” tend to be teacher dominated by lectures and slides.

So I did a little research and found this post that describes how to use anchor charts at the secondary level. I think that they make a ton of sense at all levels and are especially helpful for English Learners. Another alternative that I could see is having student groups develop their own anchor charts to organize and demonstrate their learning. They would make an excellent formative assessment to quickly see if students understand a concept or process.

2. Observations

One of the most powerful tools that teachers have is their ability to observe students and analyze their needs. Of course in the teacher-dominated classroom this rarely happens because all we would see is bored kids taking notes. But in PBL, conferencing with students, listening to conversations, and watching groups attack problems are high value formative assessments to not only gauge learning, but pivot toward student interests, ideas, and needs.

Listening is the most underrated formative assessment.

3. Illustrations

We know that visuals are an important way for humans to process informations. Many classrooms use different types of illustrations, but I don’t think there can ever be too many. Drawings, art, diagrams, charts, graphs, timelines, multi-media, infographs, concept maps are great ways to engage in content in any subject area. Students should be analyzing and creating visual content in every class.

Illustrations should be a part of both formative and summative assessments. I would have my students draw answers to essay questions and have them verbally explain them to me. This honored the content knowledge of my students who may not have been the strongest writers, but understood the social studies content. Illustrations can be especially helpful for special education students and English learners.

4. Choice Time

We know that play is a great way to learn. Kindergarten rooms are full of objects for kids to interactive with in a tactile way. Secondary rooms are often sterile with only desks and chairs. Ask most secondary kids their favorite class and it probably has some “junk” in it: Art, shop, plants and animals in biology, woodworking, computers, lab equipment, drama props, etc.

Sometimes teachers let students do something “fun” like games if they complete their work early, but the authors advocate for unstructured choice time being an integral part of the learning. Many teachers are terrified of the word “unstructured” but the difference is that kindergarten rooms are full of engaging items to play with.

What if middle and high school rooms had interesting items for play?

It is important to note that Sara sets out specific items depending on what they are doing in class. For example she puts out a bin full of instruments when they were studying music and blocks, rulers, and measuring tapes when they were designing their outdoor classroom. What the casual observer might not realize is that Sara uses this choice time to listen to her students practice the vocabulary that they are learning and having casual conversations about the project. Then she pivots the project based on these formative assessments of their conversations.

The popular genius hour is a version of choice time, but I think that it should be more hands on and tactile like in a STEM lab. At the secondary level this might look like a set of primary source pictures or old objects in history or students designing their own experiments in science. ELA probably does the best job of this with choice reading. Math may be the most difficult, but one option is letting students free design with a tool like Desmos. The main thing missing at the secondary level is the space and materials to allow students to play.

5. Space

Intentionally leave space for student voice and choice in projects. I love how Sara didn’t even plan all of her standards ahead of time, but found standards to add to her project based on the choices that students made in the middle of it. Other times she made something that she had planned feel like it spontaneously came from her students. None of this is possible if our planning calendar is packed full, using every minute of the day. Instead leave space to pivot to student needs and passions. Anticipate areas for student choice and intentionally plan out time for it.

“We don’t give voice…It is our job to create learning environments where children are encouraged and supported to make their voices heard.”

Lev, Clark, & Starkey

Implementing Project Based Learning in Early Childhood is a great read full of practical PBL advice for teachers of all levels. Go get yourself a copy, you won’t regret it! Wondering how to teach ECPBL remotely? Check out this Facebook group where Sara is sharing what she is doing this year.

Let’s Connect

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL workshops or consulting on remote learning?  Connect with me at  michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele.