Back to School with Making in the Classroom – Should I start now or wait?

You may have heard that it’s best to “ease” into hands-on project-based learning at the start of the school year. Maybe you feel your students aren’t ready, need some skills development, or just need to have a few weeks of settling down before getting started with more independent work.

Good teachers know that students learn a lot more when they get their hands on real materials, and get to do their own projects and experiments. But sometimes we get frustrated thinking about the students who won’t cooperate, don’t clean up, waste materials, or misbehave during our hands-on learning time. In my work as a science teacher and coach, I’ve seen teachers who decide to delay lab activities until behavior is rock-solid. Instead of starting off with a bang, they tiptoe toward inquiry learning.

from Teacher Magazine: Teaching Secrets: How to Maximize Hands-On Learning.

The author, Anthony Cody is an award-winning science teacher, and this article has some great ideas, tips and practical suggestions for all grades and subject areas. He goes on:

My experience is in science, but many teachers of social studies, English, math, and other subjects also have great success with hands-on, minds-on activities. I’d bet some of my colleagues in these other content areas also feel the urge to keep kids in lockdown mode until full teacher authority has been established.

I think this is a big mistake.

Here are his reasons:

  • You need to lead with your best foot.
  • When you introduce cool activities the first few weeks, you are setting the stage for an exciting year.

Be sure to read his full explanation and tips for getting the school year started off right with hands-on. Teaching Secrets: How to Maximize Hands-On Learning.

I’m also sure that many teachers feel that they have students who aren’t “ready” for a more independent approach to learning. However, how will they get ready if they don’t practice it? Many teachers tell me that students have to be “unschooled” out of practices like constantly expecting to be told what to do. So why not start to build those habits and expectations on day one?

That doesn’t mean that you have to start with a monumental project. Start with something small. Give the students time to explore, invent, and tinker sooner rather than wait. If it’s chaos, you can add some constraints, but don’t give up! Give them time to learn the tools you want them to get good at with smaller, more contained projects that will build their confidence and skills.

Empowering students to believe in themselves as capable of making things that matter, both in the physical and digital world, is a crucial part of learning.

So whatever you call it, making, project-based learning, hands-on, or inquiry learning – the time to start is always NOW!

What if… those helpful instructions aren’t so helpful

My last post linked to a video showing Dr. Paulo Blikstein of Stanford University showcasing the research going on in his department regarding how making becomes learning.

The next question is what to do when faced with early research? Do we just wait until the research is done? Or maybe even validated with other studies?

I don’t believe this.

I want to know, “What if these early findings are true? Would it change my practice? What would it look like in my classroom or school?”

Let’s just take one of the research questions being asked – Do detailed instructions help or hinder student understanding? What is the difference between a learner who is given step-by-step instructions vs. being given time to explore a new technology? It is often assumed that the way to learn something new is to follow explicit directions for a couple of tries, and then eventually do it on your own.

The early research is showing, however, that students who are given explicit instructions do NOT move to not needing those instructions. They stay “stuck” in a habit of depending on  instructions.

Uh oh. As someone who works with teachers learning new technology, what should I do? Should I hide my handouts? Make them less explicit? I don’t know, but I’m sure thinking about it.

Maybe you are thinking about this with your students. Why not do a little experiment? If you give students detailed instructions “just to get them started” on early project work – why not see what happens if you skip the tutorials and hide the handouts? After some early confusion (where you will have to refrain from jumping in with the rescue) you may see new patterns emerging.

I know I’m not waiting around for the perfect research to happen. I want to find out the “what if…” sooner rather than later.

Powering Authentic Learning. The connection between PBL, design, technology, and empowerment

I keynoted the TiE 2013 conference in Western Massachusetts last week and presented on the topic of Powering Authentic Learning. I’ll post the slides in a bit, but it’s difficult to capture the whole presentation from just the slides.

What I tried to do is make the case for:

  1. Projects not just for younger students, but all ages.
  2. Projects as a way to allow multiple problem-solving and mastery styles.
  3. Playing the “Whole Game” (from Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education by David Perkins)
  4. Why technology has changed the design process, with an overview of the move from sequential design to spiral design methods.
  5. How computers support spiral design and also different problem solving styles and mastery styles.
  6. How spiral design can be adapted to the classroom and why it is so appropriate for children.
  7. Why all of this is important in the real world and jobs of today.
  8. How students can play a role in all of this, not just as objects to be changed, or workers, but as participants and co-creators of knowledge.
  9. How doing so actually supports teachers as they change to a more student-centered, project-based classroom structure.

I think I tried to put too much into the hour, but I’m so excited by all of these ideas and how computers can be used to really engage and inspire young people to do work that is powerful and meaningful.


Arts and Education: Experiential Learning

I had the opportunity last week to participate in a symposium on Arts & Education last week in Harrisburg, PA. I spoke on a panel about Experiential Learning. My main contribution was to connect the arts and sciences through a hand-on approach.

So my point of view is not focused on technology, but uses technology as a lens to change the culture of a school – to encourage collaboration between teachers and students where the learning is being co-created – to give students opportunities to do meaningful and important work, and what schools can do to encourage those kinds of learning environments.

A prevalent view of education is that young people are empty vessels and schools simply open up their heads and pour in knowledge. Unfortunately this is a vision of education that is not serving us well in the 21st century. For a few students, this clearly works, but for many, this is a futile effort — made worse by an increasing focus on testing a few subjects at the expense of high-interest subjects like art and music.

Project-based and experiential learning has been around for a long time. You might say that the classroom is the new-fangled technology here. You certainly don’t see lion cubs sitting in desks in rows. For thousands of years people learned skills through apprenticeship and showing that they could do simple tasks, and gradually more complex ones until they became the masters.

Projects are not simply longer versions of traditional school-work, nor are they crafts. The presence of glue and scissors does not create a project. Nor is a project simply following a recipe.

It’s interesting that the word “project” is used both for the process and the finished product. And it’s important that it remain true to both. The process – the planning, production, construction, sharing is crucial. A project needs to be personally meaningful to the student – more than just for a grade. Having an audience that extends beyond your classmates and teacher is great for this. A project should not have a right answer (or one answer).

One question from the audience asked how arts could be incorporated into projects. My response was that students will naturally incorporate their own aesthetic into projects they care about. Respecting that is crucial.

Arts teachers know this, but it’s hard to articulate. Our culture places arts on a lower level than “academic” work. Like art, projects require judgment to assess, which means that the teacher has to be trusted to make those judgements.

Our experience with Generation YES  is that when kids are challenged and guided with expertise, they rise to the challenge and exceed expectations. In our schools we ask students to shoulder the burden of changing education with technology. It’s not a surprise to me when these students step up and regard this responsibility with great seriousness. PBL needs to be a school-wide culture shift – don’t forget that students are the key stakeholders. You can’t change culture by just telling teachers to change.

One problem with PBL is it can get very burdensome to the teacher. Share the burden. Allow students to help with the logistics, planning, even assessment. Don’t let yourself be the bottleneck that leads to being overwhelmed and then to failure. Good intentions go out the window when you have 300 projects to grade and you are the only one looking at them.

Students should be asked to be allies, advocates and leaders in our collective effort to make civilization better. They want to help. They need our guidance and wisdom, and we need their enthusiasm, passion and buy in. We make each other better.


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Global educators – new accredited professional development opportunity

TIGed logo

Join the fine folks at TakingITGlobal for some exciting professional development on global education and project-based learning. Starting this month, TIGed is offering two accredited e-courses in technology-enabled global education for teachers around the world!

TakingITGlobal is a youth community site with over 140,000 members worldwide. The site tools allow members to create or join global projects, with community and sharing features. To support teachers, they offer TIGed, a community with resources and shared space to plan or learn more about how to support global education.

Starting September 14, 2011: TIGed is offering two e-courses: “Introduction to Global Education” and “Introduction to Global Project-Based Learning.” The first course familiarizes participants with the driving pedagogies behind global education and guides them in exploring practical strategies for globalizing their curricula. The second course builds on the first by exploring how global education can best merge with project-based learning strategies, including how to use online tools to effectively collaborate with international partners. You can learn more about what is covered in each course by visiting the TakingITGlobal Professional Development homepage.

The first e-course starts September 14th, so don’t delay! Register today to secure your spot by visiting the TIGed Professional Development site.

Sounds fun! Don’t miss out –


Tinkering and STEM – good for girls, good for all

I’m excited to be an invited panelist at the National Council of Women in IT (NCWIT) Summit on Women and IT: practices and ideas to revolutionize computing next week in New York City. The topic is Tinkering: How Might ‘Making Stuff’ Influence Girls’ Interest in STEM and Computing?… and I’m the “K-12” voice on the panel.

We were each asked to do an introductory 5 minutes to establish our point of view about these issues. I started with a slide deck I use about tinkering and technology literacy and managed to cut it down to about 20 minutes when I thought – why not share this version on Slideshare! So here it is.

School only honors one type of design and problem-solving methodology, the traditional analytical step-by-step model. It ignores other problem-solving styles that are more non-linear, more collaborative, more artistic, etc. These styles are seen as “messy” or “soft” with the implication that they are not reliable. However, who do we lose when we ignore, or worse, denigrate alternative styles of problem-solving. I think one answer may be “girls” but honestly, it’s broader than that. We lose all kinds of people who are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. And these are exactly the people I want solving the problems we face in the 21st century.

Teaching a tinkering model of problem-solving is good for girls because it’s good for everyone.


Project-based learning explained – video

Another video from the nice folks at Common Craft:
Project Based Learning Explained

Other project based learning resources:

Like this video? There are lots more online explaining everything from Twitter to RSS at Common Craft.

Bonus idea: Why this is a great model for students to make their own videos


New podcast from Radio TICAL – bringing student voice into ed tech

Involving students as partners and co-learners in the educational process, rather than as consumers—or worse, as “objects”—is not a new concept but it is certainly gaining currency in the 21st century. With information exploding, teachers can no longer hope to know everything about their subject. With changes in student lifestyles, fewer and fewer of them are content to be passive participants in the classroom.

GenYES is remarkable in how it brings student voice into the learning conversation. In this episode, Sylvia Martinez, President of GenYES, describes the project’s original program for bringing students and teachers together to co-plan technology-infused lessons as well as a newer program, TechYES, which offers a unique project-based learning approach to certifying middle school students as technologically literate.

via Radio TICAL.

Yup, that’s me, in a podcast recorded with Michael Simkins of  the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership (TICAL). It’s the “go to” place for California school administrators who want to understand how to integrate technology in their schools. TICAL offers resources and networking opportunities both online and in person.

Direct podcast link (MP3)


Project-ing Tech Literacy

More reaction to the new whitepaper Assessing Technology Literacy: The Case for an Authentic, Project-Based Learning Approach (Read more or download PDF)

From Education Week:

“A new whitepaper addressing recent calls for technology literacy education argues any such education should involve project-based learning, while a separate new report indicates the need for such education may soon increase. The whitepaper from Jonathan D. Becker, a grant evaluator for the U.S. Department of Education, and Cherise A. Hodge and Mary W. Sepelyak, doctoral candidates at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University, insists that, despite contention over what exactly constitutes technology literacy, there is consensus in the 49 states with technology literacy goals that the construct is multidimensional, and that one of those dimensions is acting or doing. In other words, students don’t just observe technology. They interact with it, meaning any instruction involving technology literacy should include students using technology in an active or interactive way.”

via Project-ing Tech Literacy – Digital Education – Education Week.

Although they got Dr. Becker’s job wrong (he’s actually an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University,) it’s a nice analysis of the whitepaper! Hope you read it and share with principals, tech coordinators, and others wondering what to do about student technology literacy.

Assessing Technology Literacy: The Case for an Authentic, Project-Based Learning Approach (PDF)