The Innovation to Drive Innovation: Scaling Inquiry

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After watching her deeply engaged students and teachers gather in celebration after an inspiring project showcase last fall, a proud elementary school Principal—the new head of a school that had underperformed for years—exclaimed to me: “Every teacher needs to learn how to do this!” In another school, a 6th grade science teacher related how multiples of students voluntarily confided that this kind of learning had changed their lives. “These are middle schoolers telling me they now love school,” the teacher said, raising her eyebrows and smiling.

By this, the Principal and the teacher both meant project based learning, a term that stands on its own but draws its success from a deep subset of practices including inquiry, personalization, design thinking, social-emotional growth, and 21st Century skills instruction. When combined into a seamless learning experience and done well, students discover the fruits of a creative journey that leads to innovation and deeper learning. A kind of magic occurs.

Unfortunately, we haven’t yet bottled the magic. PBL is experiencing a steep rise but the bulk of educators let anecdotes like the above slide over the psyche. “Well, that’s nice,” they’re thinking, “but I don’t teach special kids, it won’t work at my school, and I have too much testing to consider.”

But they’re wrong. This kind of magic can be replicated. In fact, it’s no longer a choice: The ‘new normal’ sweeping across the globe will force education to take PBL to scale. Beyond the decline of tolerance—already testing educators through instances of bullying and racial animosity—a deeply troubling shift is visible that challenges conventional educators by striking at the very heart of learning: Facts have lost force, fake news rises, and reason seems obsolete.

Recall of content and teacher-directed outcomes won’t suffice. Neither will the usual bromides of teaching ‘21st Century skills’ and ‘critical thinking’ make the necessary difference. Leadership experts distinguish technical solutions versus adaptive thinking. Technical solutions to our dilemma abound, such as doubling down on critical thinking or media literacy, or introducing ‘civic online reasoning’ as a subject. But adaptive thinking starts with admitting system failure. That means agreeing that the present curriculum lacks the power to contend with the fresh circumstances of global world 2.0.

Instead, the times mandate a mission-critical, put-a-man-on-the-moon type breakthrough plan that intentionally aims at creating a mass-market generation of capable problem solvers, deeper learners, and innovators by establishing a new mental model of a 21st Century teacher that revolves around project based and inquiry-based expertise. How can this happen? Let’s commit to innovative thinking:

The Mind Shift: Agree that 21st Century Teaching is One Thing. Several years ago, in the preface to my PBL Design and Coaching Guide, I termed project based learning a ‘bridge just far enough’, meaning PBL would serve to take us into the next evolutionary stage of education. We’re getting closer to that reality, but project based learning, problem based learning, place-based learning, inquiry, personalization, competency-based instruction, design thinking, 21st century skills, blended learning, maker education, and others have begun to compete. This fragmentation is self-defeating. Each is just a slightly different means to the same end, which is to challenge students to become creative, purposeful problem solvers within a more personalized system. Our first goal should be to envision every 21st century teacher as conversant in all the above aspects of learning.

The Challenge: Define the Skill Set.  Student-centered, personalized, inquiry-based learning requires a teacher-centered skill set that goes far beyond normal lesson planning, strategies, and conventional descriptions of a teacher’s role, but where has the skill set necessary to fuel the process of inquiry and problem solving been identified? It’s imperative to define the core skills necessary skills for the job, including culture-building, establishing close relationships and safe spaces; redefining rigor by blending mastery, inquiry, standards, and high performance; being a coach and mentor; knowing PBL best practices and methods; identifying, honoring, and supporting individual personal strengths; knowing how to give feedback on skills affected by individual talent and personality, such as communication and collaboration; showing intellectual depth by filtering and adapting core content to the needs of the students; admiring, appreciating, and focusing on authentic learning that connects the classroom to the world; and possessing a forward-leaning, optimistic outlook that inspires creativity. In other words: Stop relying on vague references to the ‘guide on the side’ and start identifying and training for key competencies.

The Innovation: Go from Work to Web, and Web to Work. Now to the heart of the solution: How do we train enough teachers? Getting rid of one-off workshops, embracing professional collaboration; and making professional learning an ongoing endeavor for teachers is overdue and welcome, but in truth merely a portal for what’s coming: Personalized, digital, professional learning. Increasingly, this trend is visible, as more teachers participate through media in the emerging global conversation around inquiry.

But taking inquiry to scale is more complex than sharing lesson plans or instructional strategies. And to get to sufficient numbers, we’ll need to overcome three challenges:

  • Teachers must be encouraged, expected, and incentivized to let go of an industrial self-image as recipients of learning and reinvent themselves as self-motivated co-learners—just like the students.
  • Blogs, tweets, MOOC’s, webinars, and simple downloads will not suffice for inquiry-based teaching, which relies on close human interaction. The online experience must be redefined as a rich, collaborative experience so that teachers routinely use digital tools to improve their skill set and bring to the task the deeper engagement and reflection necessary to master the inquiry process. All this must be backed by a deep cadre of trained coaches.
  • Every teacher must feel comfortable oscillating between discrete interactions in the classroom and social learning platforms that disseminate world class best practices, allow for network interactions, offer just in time feedback, and seamlessly integrate online and in class learning—a kind of work to web, and web to work, personalized solution for every teacher.

Navigating Chaos: The New 21st Century Skill

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The problem with the 21st century is that it won’t stand still. Just when the goal came into focus—get students ready to be ‘globally competitive’ and prepare them for ‘tomorrow’s world’ by teaching problem solving, collaboration, communication, and design skills—the planet decides to accelerate into its next phase.

A confluence of events is laying this bare. Tectonic shifts in every country. Media and technology spreading great truths, no truths, and ‘in-between’ truths. Policies, pronouncements, acts of violence, fake news, shining examples of care, and a daily stream of circus-like news events flowing like a fire hose into everyone’s device. Adding to the mix is constant revelation: What lay invisible or static for centuries—whether gender fluidity or male dominance or the size of the universe or humanity’s hidden impulses—has entered the public sphere for discussion and examination.

Mapped out mathematically, the pattern would be clear: Chaos. Chaos, in its ancient Greek form, meant a ‘gap’ or void. That is what we have. The rules have changed, but new rules have not been invented.

And, chaos has yielded a predictable outcome: The human psyche has been rattled. In the absence of established norms, respectful discourse and consensus problem solving are fading to black, replaced by argument and extreme views. Instinctual, hard-wired emotions rise up. The optimistic desire to create a harmonious global society founded on inclusion, diversity, tolerance, and a unified approach to an endangered planet becomes a competitor to the darker urge to protect home, hearth, and loved ones from unsettling life change, threat, and ‘otherness’. So let there be no mistake: At its deepest level, we’re now embarked on a fundamental human conversation about love and fear.

Also, as educators, let there be no mistake: This conversation will be front and center for the next two decades or so. Business as usual, particularly the education business in its industrial form, is done. Events mandate that education speed up its transformation from a system of compliance to a problem solving enterprise. And, with the unsettling bone deep, teachers will need to do a deep dive and give students a lot more practice in preparation for global world 2.0. Our young people have been presented with a new set of operational truths, and we must respond by teaching them a new skill: Navigating chaos. To do that—and hold up our part of the conversation—some shifts in our own thinking is in order, such as these:

Turn Project Based Learning into a governing philosophy. Education worldwide is properly tracked to teach students to think independently by engaging them more often in project based learning and inquiry. So, our instincts are sound. But PBL is much more than a project design process, to be used when a teacher decides to stop ‘regular’ instruction’ and ‘do’ a project. The philosophy of PBL, with its focus on the process of discovery and teacher as guide, is a suitable umbrella that embraces personalization, design thinking, maker spaces, visible thinking, growth mindset, 21st century skills mastery, technology, student-led instruction, and blended learning. A highly-qualified PBL teacher is a highly qualified 21st century teacher. It’s time to establish PBL as our mental model of teaching and learning.

Merge student voice with social emotional strengths. Beyond PBL, two trends are visible in education: Student voice and social-emotional learning. Underlying these trends is a powerful impulse to prepare young people to self-direct their learning. But no one does this without personal preparation. Young people are being asked to devise a new set of global rules while flying an airplane that needs immediate attention and doesn’t necessarily have capable adult pilots. Keeping us aloft will require knowledge, wisdom, and personal courage. That tells us we better focus on character as much as calculus.

Shift from critical thinking to non-binary thinking. Young people must be ready to navigate a standards-less world in which nothing seems certain. They will not be able to rely on authority for answers, nor will they easily find a consensus on the best choices for going forward, nor will strict logic apply. More than ever, they will need to use non-binary thinking to navigate the both/and world of chaos—and it will not be sufficient to rely on vague, undefined terms such as critical thinking. Instead, challenge students to solve and resolve ambiguous problems. Have them design and test solutions. Use the deeper learning model to put significant issues on their plate—and give them time to delve into the problem. Teach them to navigate the multi-polar chaos and choose their sources wisely. And note to self: This requires teachers who know and value the right sources. If you can’t discern fake news from sincere attempts at reporting and analysis, you should not teach.

Tap the group/global mind to solve and create. The deeper meaning behind PBL is that it allows students to engage in social learning, in which discourse, sharing, and deep collaboration tap the power of a group to test curiosity, resolve, moral judgment, and quality of thinking. A necessary first step is to stop thinking in terms of cooperative learning or group work. Our goal is not to teach students to ‘get along’; it is to set up the conditions and expectations for deep collaboration and innovation. Think in terms of teams. Teach protocols and visible thinking routines. Don’t reward students who just show up and don’t disrupt. Put them on a rubric that tests their willingness and ability to engage their peers in meaningful intellectual work.

Exchange standards for meaningful learning. Stop believing that better standards, or doing away with standards, or testing standards, or any system that revolves around constant chatter about standards, will save the day. We must find a way to avoid inviting coverage from teachers and a checked-off laundry list mentality from students. Time for subject matter experts to let go of teaching and testing every detail. Time for politicians to take on a learner’s perspective. Time to start teaching people instead of information. Time to minimize the curriculum and go interdisciplinary. Time to insist on helping students learn to engage in complex problem solving by moving daily work in the direction of inquiry, questioning, challenge, and defense. Time to reframe standards as a set of guidelines for personal rigor, accountability, and intellectual grasp. The mantra: Chaos is not compatible with fixed, written standards that define what one ‘ought’ to know. We should aim at something more fluid and personal.

Stand for love…oppose with love. Morality is on the table now. The drama of competing world views will not play out without conflict, sometimes intense. All of us, young and old, will be tested as to our regard for humanity’s diverse viewpoints. Yet, we will need to find our moral center and stand for our version of truth. There is only ONE version that all can agree to: Unconditional acceptance of each other. Those who cannot accept that must be opposed firmly, but with respect. This is the most difficult lesson at a time of chaos: No one can see clearly, so everyone has a viewpoint. Each must be respected, but each of us must imprint the chaos with a sincere and truthful view. It’s a test, folks.

Offer hope. How did the Greeks see it? Well, out of Chaos eventually evolved Gaia, a sense of each and wholeness. So we must offer a way forward and light at the end of the tunnel. Mathematically, chaotic patters resolve themselves into stable patterns that represent a new, evolved, and more orderly environment. I believe we should be helping young people see beyond the moment and understand that powerful new world can emerge out of present circumstances. It’s darkest before dawn, as they say.

An Educational Letter to the American Public

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I’ve worked at over 350 schools—public, private, and charter—and with more than 6000 teachers in the past fifteen years. Perhaps it’s quaint in a post-truth world, but I have ‘experience’ and a certain number of ‘facts to share.

First, congratulations to President Trump and presumptive Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, for putting education front and center in the minds of the American public. I mean this sincerely. No one, including most teachers, has ever really cared who occupied the post of Secretary of Education. The term ‘education’ has never, to my memory, been mentioned in an inaugural speech. I supported President Obama, but he never showed interest in education as a national priority and left the Department of Education to muddle about, as it has for many years. So the conversation may have come by the back door, but it’s now in living rooms. That’s a good thing.

But the hard work starts: Preparing the American public for this discussion. If we’re going to step it up in the U.S., and not get dusted by the remainder of the world by mid-century, we must do better than claim that “all our beautiful children are deprived of knowledge,” in the words that came from the podium on January 20th, 2017. That’s not true. In fact, there are five harder truths that Americans need to assimilate, respect, and build upon in the coming conversation:

We can’t measure ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools. Putting easy labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ on a school is nonsense, and defaulting to test scores as the measure of success is intellectual laziness. I’ve worked in top ranked schools and still meet many teachers who rely on formulaic, lecture-based teaching that bores kids out of their mind; I’ve worked in ‘bad’ schools in which I encounter a cadre of competent, caring teachers inspired by the professional challenge of doing good work under less than ideal circumstances. Both work under the brutal domination of test mania, despite the fact that low test scores most often reflect demographics and language issues, while very high test scores indicate  compliance and recall as core values practiced by both teachers and students. The hard truth is that without moving to metrics that measure deeper problem solving ability, applied skills, and social-emotional strengths—all keys to success in life now—we can’t quantify a quality education in the 21st Century.

Public schools are not failing. Of course, every survey shows that the vast majority of Americans like their neighborhood schools. The reason: Most schools do a pretty good job. Is there mediocrity in the system? Yes, too much of it, but that is a result of a two-fold legacy: (1) A land grant history that set a low bar for teaching qualifications and salaries and has not been significantly raised; and (2) an industrial system that spawned a top down, command and control approach to running schools, giving natural rise to overly bureaucratic rules and union resistance. In the system we designed—and live with—stagnation is inevitable, particularly when supported by parents who lag far behind teachers in their understanding of solid education. The hard truth and good news is that this system has begun to transform itself, and needs support rather than silly laments about ‘government’ schools. I visit school after school and district after district, in which momentum for change is visible and vibrating. We have thousands of public school teachers in this country who are collaborating with colleagues to shift their teaching practices and redesign their local school. Rather than disparage them, we should be immensely proud as Americans that the engine of innovation is at work. Transforming a public system at scale in our country is not easy work.

Private schools are not better; they’re different. I’ve been in wonderful private schools, staffed with terrific teachers. With a generally compliant and well prepared student body, and with less testing and standards restrictions, private schools can offer a magical education. But one thing usually stands out: Because most parents pay for a private education that oils the path to a good college, private schools can be slow to innovate. It’s a limitation inherent in a system that puts far too much emphasis—still—on the ‘right’ college degree. The hard truth here: We’re stuck on college as the end-all, be-all solution to success. Our goal as a country should be to redefine success beyond a college degree, expand opportunities for meaningful technical work, teach more job skills and less calculus, and get on with the task of getting our kids prepared for their world, not ours.

A charter school is a charter school. The conversation around charter schools is so confused that I wonder if America is capable of disentangling facts from fiction. A charter school is a method of organizing and financing public education; the designation says nothing about teaching methods or quality. And Betsy DeVos is right: The outcomes matter most. So where are the fault lines? On the left, critics conflate every charter school with privatized education; it’s not ‘progressive’ to fund charter schools, which threaten our public school system. Union leadership contributes to this fiction. So let’s start with responding intelligently. Some charter schools are driven by profit and greed, organized by founders who have no connection to public purpose. These privatization efforts should be disbanded and not given public support. But I haven’t been in any of those schools myself; I’ve only worked with the many charters whose founders, leaders, and teachers want to improve public education and contribute to new models of learning. Good for them. They deserve support from left and right because of this hard truth: They have driven most of the innovations in education over the last five years by developing and perfecting a redesigned system of learning. These prototypes are now being adopted and built out by traditional public schools by committed and innovative public school teachers—exactly as charter visionaries anticipated. At some point, we will have a newly-invented public system—and charters will deserve a large share of the credit.

Fear is the barrier. As Americans, we pride ourselves on innovation, ‘can-do’, and a forward-leaning version of ourselves. That attitude shows up in business, non-profits, and community progress.But when it comes to education, we’re terrified of the future, not brave. Still using the same general educational curriculum, with subjects offered in the same order, as in 1923? Check. Still following 50-minute bell periods, although every bit of research says no one learns deeply in that regimen? Check. Still sitting in rows, just like employees work in isolation in business (Not)? Check. Still teaching advanced math that 96% of us never use because it’s hard and good for our character (why not require Greek instead)? Check. And so on. What’s the barrier? What stops us? The very hard truth is that we’re paralyzed by fear of trying something new with our children. We are not yet brave enough to release them from the safe confines of industrial education and work as co-creators to help them find their way in a world that they will design, regardless of us.

SEL and PBL: Let’s Have One Conversation

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It’s always been of interest to me that an IQ test for students in 1910 contained questions such as this: What is the relationship between a dog and rabbit?

Even more interesting is the correct answer at the time: Dogs chase rabbits.

In 2016, such an answer would qualify the test taker for one of those scientific labels slapped on the supposedly deficient humans of the early 20th century, such as idiot and moron. Today, any 6th grader knows the right answer: Dogs and rabbits are both mammals.

That’s one example of how our notion of ‘smartness’ depends on social expectations and the surrounding culture. It’s also a marker of how the scientific model has penetrated our thinking about learning over the last 100 years and led to a deeply-embedded cognitive version of schooling that relies on categorization and logic. It’s a cognitive bias that shows up everywhere in the academic curriculum.

The problem is this, however: Our old notion of intelligence is no longer useful. Managers in private sector industries contend with this daily, as they try to tap the personal strengths of employees to improve communication and collaboration skills, deepen engagement in the company mission, and develop self-motivated leaders. They have increasingly turned to research into positive psychology and strengths-based thinking to give employees more autonomy, meaningful work, and opportunities for personal as well as professional growth—the kind of ‘thrive and drive’ mentality described by Daniel Pink in his books Drive and a Whole New Mind.

The challenge for managers is that no Driver’s Manual exists for teaching this emerging form of intelligence. Training works, up to a point, but intangibles of personality can’t be easily condensed into a set of bullet points or addressed through one day workshops.

The same dilemma applies to teachers who practice project based learning (PBL), which mirrors industry preparation by focusing on skills, process, and performance rather than testing and recall. To succeed, PBL must also tap into personality, hidden strengths, and emotional intelligence—the kinds of attributes and assets that lead to peak performance. This is a core challenge for a PBL teacher. In fact, I would argue that this is education’s foremost challenge at the moment: How to bring forth, make visible, and support social-emotional strengths critical to success in life and work in today’s world.

It’s clear that teaching a strengths-based version of SEL into schools won’t succeed by putting more posters on the walls of classrooms. Nor can schools issue a textbook on the subject. We need a more powerful method—and I suggest that the path forward is to integrate the process of PBL with the practice, mastery, and reflection on SEL strengths.

There is good news here: PBL is becoming wildly popular. When done well, PBL offers students well-structured opportunities to learn problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking skills that result in deeper learning, greater satisfaction, and better preparation for the world at large.

That’s a great start, but the next step is to power up PBL by paying attention to a second trend, also visible, but less developed: The rapid rise of social emotional learning (SEL) as a key driver of student success. I use the term ‘less developed’ because much of the conversation around SEL still suffers from a cognitive bias hangover and the notion that emotions are a negative factor in learning. Obviously, it’s important to support students’ emotional well-being, but it’s critical now to transition to a strengths-based approach and focus on key intelligent behaviors such as curiosity, empathy, resiliency, social awareness, and self-management.

That’s a bit of a journey, but I’d suggest that PBL teachers can help shift the mindset by taking three steps:

  1. Focus on core factors.

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve seen how well executed PBL can provide a joyful learning experience for students. When projects offer the right mix of challenge, engagement, and personalized support, blended with a motivating, meaningful learning experience that reaches deep into the soul, joy is the outcome. You can see it bubble up in the animated faces, big smiles, body language, and open-hearted response of students at the end of a good project. In other words, we’ve reached the whole child.

This outcome can be explained by a little observed fact: PBL relies on the same conditions necessary for anyone to develop a ‘drive and thrive’ outlook: Experiencing mastery; finding meaning and fulfillment; and having a constructive relationship to a caring adult mentor. These are the exact three factors critical to effective PBL, which cannot succeed without a strong teacher-student relationship, a challenging, meaningful problem to be solved, and broad-based assessments that emphasize mastery and growth over time.

 2. Redefine rigor

PBL draws its power from the mantra that drove education reform in the last decade: rigor, relevance, and relationship. PBL offers more relevant education by infusing learning with greater authenticity and meaning. Plus, attention to student-centered teaching methods reflects the desire to develop productive, positive teacher-student relationships.

But something’s missing—and the gap tells us why performance lags in many projects: The concept of rigor remains static. Rigor is still associated exclusively with curriculum, information mastery and testing. Whether it’s the quantity of problems assigned for homework, the amount of reading required for the next day, or the ‘hardness’ of the test, rigor is defined in industrial terms. In the human performance field, rigor is a measure of personal performance, not a standard to quantify how much information has been learned. A PBL teacher can make this crucial shift by envisioning a mastery goal for students: To become a rigorous person.

  1. Make Challenge the Heart of PBL

Right now, not all PBL is equal. Too often, the goal is to cover standards under the guise of ‘student-centered instruction.’ Ultimately, however, I foresee that PBL will continue to evolve and become a consensus teaching philosophy designed to challenge students to go beyond standards and become designers, inventors, and deeper thinkers.

Attaining this goal begins with high quality project design that challenges students, stimulates deep inquiry, and requires them to demonstrate their mastery of skills and applied knowledge. Particularly, taking time to draft a deeper-learning Driving Question is the key to establishing the challenge.  ‘How can I prevent global warning?’ is quite different from ‘How can I take specific actions within my community that contribute to lessening the effects of climate change?’ The latter question inspires deeper thinking and engagement, and thus the level of mastery at the end.

Most important, however, a meaningful challenge inherently invites students to bring internal assets and strengths to the project—to bring their best. When students engage the world through authentic learning, have the opportunity learn and contribute, and can display their knowledge, they go through a growth process that makes visible the strengths that students will need for a successful future.

Why Empathy Holds the Key to Transforming 21St Century Learning

Like other aspects of modern life, education can make the head hurt. So many outcomes, so much important work to do, so many solutions and strategies, so many variations on teaching, so many different kinds of students with so many different needs, so many unknowns in preparing for 21st Century life and the endless list of jobs that haven’t been invented.

What if we discovered one unifying factor that brought all of this confusion under one roof and gave us a coherent sense of how to stimulate the intellect, teach children to engage in collaborative problem solving and creative challenge, and foster social-emotional balance and stability—one factor that, if we got right, would change the equation for learning in the same way that confirming the existence of a fundamental particle informs a grand theory of the universe?

That factor exists: It’s called empathy.

To make that argument requires a deep dive into the profound nature of empathy. Right now, empathy roughly equates to “I like you and am willing to tolerate you regardless of differences because I am a good person.” But the textbook definition hints at something more profound: It’s ‘the feeling of being able to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.’  That all-encompassing definition means empathy results from a complex of other meaningful emotions and attitudes that fuel human personality, such as openness, curiosity, self-restraint, vulnerability, sensitivity, awareness, respect, appreciation, and even love. Add this list to the fact that empathy can’t manifest unless we have had own experiences and emotions to contrast, compare, and connect with others—and we can see that empathy is more than a simple connector; it’s the subterranean, fundamental glue that holds humanity together.

Thus, it shouldn’t surprise us that such a potent emotion resonates across mind and body, influencing behavior and brain function. That is exactly the case. Empathy has the potential to open up students to deeper learning, drive clarity of thinking, and inspire engagement with the world—in other words, provide the emotional sustenance for outstanding human performance.

I see this regularly in my work with project based learning teachers who create classrooms that hum with good vibes and focused work. But to understand the full potential of empathy, let’s connect some dots. Those dots may appear unrelated at the moment, but they constitute a scatter plot with a trend line, predicting that empathy will eventually not be an add-on or ‘soft’ skill or one component of a middle school advisory program, and in the process confirm that a school system focused on cognition and testing alone cannot bring forth the greater purpose, focus, collaboration, and creativity necessary for 21st century students.

I see seven ‘dots’, if you will, that begin to paint this emerging picture of schooling in the future:

Empathy underlies collaboration. As social-emotional learning becomes more necessary to help students navigate life and work, empathy is getting more popular by the day, for good reason: Empathy lies at the heart of 21st century skillfulness in teamwork, collaboration, and communication in a diverse world. Speaking or listening to someone without radiating empathy narrows the channel of communication or blocks connection altogether. Particularly in the new reality of a global world, without empathy you’re not ready to engage the 21st century, either in the workplace or across cultures. It has to be taught, practiced, and coached.

Empathy is healthy. In the last twenty years, discussions about emotions have taken a radical turn. For years, negative emotions dominated theory and research. Today we know that positive emotions enhance well-being, health, relationships, and personal strengths. At the top of this pyramid are the emotions associated with empathy: curiosity, openness, appreciation, and gratitude (all of which lie in the quadrant of love). Empathy simply powers up the mind, body, and spirit.

Empathy promotes whole-child learning. A critical dot, overlooked in our brain-centric world, is that empathy activates the heart. As I’ve written many times, the heart has a role in learning equal to the brain. In fact, science does not support the mistaken notion that the brain does all the work. Research on heart rate variability and emotions shows that the heart engages the brain in constant conversation, using the language of emotions to direct the ‘state’ of the brain. To perform its role, the heart contains upwards of 40,000 neurons identical to nerve cells in the brain; eighty percent of nerve traffic travels upward from heart to brain, making it clear that is a full partner in the process of learning. While we don’t fully understand the implications of this partnership, two findings have been confirmed: Anxiety and negative feelings alter the coding of the messages sent by the heart to the brain, resulting in stress or fight or flight responses; positive emotions such as deep empathy are coded differently and activate the frontal lobes.

Empathy ‘opens’ us up. The frontal lobes, at least as much as we know now, are the seat of planning, execution, problem solving, and creativity—and when the frontal lobes of the brain are working well, so are we. In that well-documented ‘flow state,’ humans function at their peak, moving into a whole-body feeling of openness, relaxed focus, and creative possibility. If we know empathy activates the frontal lobes, why can’t we imagine intentional lessons about empathy and openness designed to put students in an optimal state for learning?

Empathy powers up inquiry and project based learning. Instruction is clearly headed in the direction of student-centered approaches such as inquiry and PBL. These approaches succeed in an atmosphere of care and positive relationships, both between student and teacher, and student and student. Classrooms that lack this foundation cannot succeed at project based work or open-ended questioning that relies on students’ ability to care about their learning. Setting up a culture of care is very much an exercise in making empathy central to daily work.

Empathy triggers creativity. Beyond rounding out the skills of collaboration and communication, empathy, design, and collaboration are interconnected pieces of the creative puzzle. Empathy is now identified as the first step in the design process, whether crafting new software for a user or creating form-factors that inherently please the consumer. Right now, empathy is described as ‘step.’ But that easy designation belies a very deep process in which a designer must, for lack of a better term, ‘sink into the mind of another and take on their persona’. That is a deep descriptor of an ultimate form of empathy—and it may be a necessary component of an educational system increasingly tilted toward design and inquiry.

Empathy unites. The list could have started here, but on a planet that is now close to completing the globalizing process, empathy assumes a special role as the key emotion critical for seven-plus billion people to live in harmony and cooperative relationship. For our Stone-Age brethren, fear and separation were appropriate mechanisms for survival. But that has been flipped by sheer numbers, technology, resource scarcity, and environmental impact. Empathy is required curriculum, and without it, eventually our current focus on high test scores and fulfilling college requirements will be rendered meaningless by untoward events.

The takeaway? Ready or not, education is entering an age in which social learning is the new norm. Pure academics are giving way to increased opportunities for students to work together; teachers increasingly take on the role of co-learner and facilitator; listening, learning, and teaming are the new core skills. At the heart of this new skillfulness for everyone is the ability to forge deep connections lead to creative problem solving and positive pursuits. Taken all together, this makes empathy critical to schools. In fact, very soon we will need to invent a  new taxonomy of learning that makes empathy the base of the learning pyramid.

Five Priorities for Transformative Schools

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Imagine this scenario. All 50 states approve the Common Core State Standards and, in an unprecedented burst of transnational cooperation, 50 other countries adopt the same standards. Miraculously, the world now operates according to a single set of learning outcomes. The media reports an astounding development: A resolution co-sponsored by the U.S., China, and Finland has been introduced to amend the UN Charter by including the (newly named) Common Core International Standards as the learning goals for the 21st Century. Yay! The CCIS have triumphed.

But…wait a minute. What now?

I think that’s a pretty fair question to ask. But you wouldn’t know that by the obsessive conversation about standards that now preoccupies the nation. Lots of heat and little light, especially where it counts. The general line of thinking appears to be: If we can just write the right standards, using the right language, things will settle down in education. Every student will learn exactly what they need to know. The code has been broken, finally.

Here’s a hint, folks: Standards aren’t it. They won’t save education, or even serve as a good guide into the remaining 85% of the 21st century. Instead of trying to codify information from past centuries, we better be looking at how students will handle the incoming flow of traffic. Or how to stimulate creative design thinking. Or how to make them smart enough—meaning curious, resilient, persistent, empathetic, and open enough–to live and perform in today’s world.

Do students need to know stuff? Of course. But, frankly, if they aren’t taught about climate change in Wyoming or evolution in Indiana or South Carolina, the world will not fall apart (there’s something called the Internet). Also, I think we should focus on the obvious: Middle school and high school aren’t teaching grad school level rocket science. All versions of the standards do a fine job of describing middle of the road information that students need to get as a base of knowledge. And, with about 100 years of teaching the same subjects, teachers pretty much know what people under the age of 18 need to know. Just put some guidelines and expectations in place, and get on with it.

Once that happens, the real conversation about redesigning education—the dialogue that will determine (and I mean this literally) whether our civilization stands or falls—can begin. That conversation should be furious, hot and heavy, and full of as much creative fire as we can muster.

You may recall the old bumper sticker: If you don’t like education, try ignorance. In my view, the current debate over standards is a sign of ignorance, not enlightenment. It consumes us, but offers empty calories, not sustenance for a deeper and longer journey. The real agenda items? I see at least five:

  • Reconciling information and discovery. Standards focus on the input side of education. What do we deliver today? But the real action today is on output. What do students do with all this stuff coming at them, both in formal learning in the classroom and the unstoppable, 24/7 digital flow? How do we help them make sense of their world, decide, problem solve, and think for themselves? Pure discovery doesn’t work – we know that. But we should be focused, laser-like, on redefining knowledge itself. It’s no longer a packet of facts and concepts; it’s some new blend of knowing and doing that takes account of the transformation in global society. The easy work is to rewrite information standards time and again; the harder work is to define the standards for good thinking and the psychological /brain/ relationship factors that yield optimal performance. That’s the future.
  • Attending to intelligence. Our beliefs about intelligence are ridiculously out of date. The growth mindset results show that intelligence is malleable; neuroplasticity reveals that the brain changes minute by minute and is shaped by environment; the evidence from positive psychology informs us that emotions and relationships matter—directly and powerfully—to performance. Yet we cling to IQ, cognitive bias, and the 19th century model of the brain as full of wires and little boxes. Moving to a more holistic, whole child version of intelligence is not just a child-friendly act; it’s a matter of preparing youth for a world that values collaboration, initiative, perseverance, flexibility, empathy, and creativity. That’s a heart-brain endeavor, not just executive functioning.
  • Developing a personalized teaching force. Personalized, relationship-driven education is here to stay because it’s now a personalized world, with constant choice and a zillion paths to buying, living, and working. Education, with flipped classrooms, hybrids, online resources, mobile devices increasing exponentially, must respond by tailoring learning to the individual. Will there be a core of information that everyone learns? I would imagine there will be, but lockstep is over. As time moves on, the consensus over what a truly educated person should know and learn in school will be a front page debate, as well as when they should learn it. The inevitable byproduct of the debate is the need for teachers who can effectively coach students. Relationship skills (think: listening) will be critical. So will the ability to act as a co-learner and establish close-knit intellectual partnerships. Getting teachers out from behind the podium is a start, but the real work begins by conceiving teachers as a new breed, one utterly different from the 1500’s model of the privileged scholar that still drives our thinking.
  • Reimagining ‘schools.’ Standards’ and ‘classrooms’ generally occur in the same sentence; the next sentence often includes the term ‘curriculum.’ All connote the mental model of school, with its orderly environment, rows of desks, 50-minute periods, subjects, bells, pacing guides, seat time credits, graduation requirements, and learning objectives. It’s industrial, and it’s old. Arguments over tenure, certification, teacher evaluation, and so forth spring from our clinging to this model like a life raft. In fact, the debates become a side show, like the arguments over standards, preventing us from putting our energy where it counts: With revisioning the system itself. As soon as that becomes the chief topic of conversation worldwide, there will be a surge of creativity, even joy, as learning gets aligned with the global age.
  • Becoming curious again. The disturbing truth is that too much emphasis on standards invites mediocrity, not excellence. In the industrial paradigm, more retention is better; in the new world, curiosity is better. Yes, in the hands of a good teacher, standards come alive. But standards mostly have become a laundry list, to be checked off via a high stakes test. There are too many, with too much focus on discrete pieces of information with little value except to experts. The result: Untold damage has been done in the last ten years by the relentless focus on dispensing information to students like pills. That approach ignores the deep, magical relationship between purpose, curiosity, and intelligence—the mix that creates ‘openness’ to learning and makes engagement natural. More of the same won’t do anything but dumb us down.

7 Essential Skills for PBL Teachers

Master teachers are usually measured by their ability to deliver high quality instruction and manage classrooms so that every child learns. These basics apply to project based learning (PBL) as well, but I have found that successful PBL teachers must possess a more diverse—and demanding—set of skills to make project based work effective.

I call these skills the seven essentials for PBL teachers. The skills can be parsed separately, as I’m going to do, but they only work synergistically. Designing and executing engaging projects that move students to a new level of learning and self-awareness—which should be the goal of every project—derives from seeing PBL as a set of moving parts that mesh to create a powerful experience for students. Partly, PBL is an instructional process powered by teacher knowledge; partly, it’s a facilitated process that draws heavily on people management skills; and partly, it’s an intuitive process that relies on open communication between students and teachers.

Some of the essential PBL skills can be taught or learned, and some, frankly, are more personality driven. But every PBL teacher should think about becoming skillful in these seven areas:

  1. Know world-class PBL methodology. Project based learning and ‘projects’ are two different worlds. Over the last decade, PBL teachers in many countries have developed high quality methods that work. The methods begin with organizing a project around a central, vital, and engaging question, moving students through a deliberate process that requires them to think, inquire, share, reflect, and perfect their products and reasoning, and concluding with a meaningful demonstration of their learning that surfaces content acquisition, conceptual understanding, and application of 21st century skills. Getting results from PBL is not serendipitous; it comes from using thoughtful, replicable methods.
  2. Create a culture of care. You might prefer to call this a ‘student-centered’ culture, but I believe that the underlying dynamic that drives better performance in PBL is a personalized classroom culture in which every student feels known, respected, and communicated with. This isn’t just a nice thing to do; it’s the known result of years of youth development research that demonstrates that a culture of care allows you, as the teacher, to assume a mentor role. The mentor role allows you to both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ students through the ups and downs of the PBL process. If you’re not in that role, you will find it difficult to move from a classroom manager to a project manager, a crucial shift for successful PBL.
  3. Shift from teacher to coach. In a traditional classroom, human variation is muted by rows, a standardized lesson, and the teacher’s ability to keep an eye on every student. In PBL, personalities bloom, tendencies—good or disruptive—emerge, and students often confuse the freedom to inquire with the license to mess around. The messiness can be cured only by coaching individual students to perform better—by speaking to their strengths, helping them see their challenges, and returning at all times to the standards and norms for top performance. In a traditional classroom, the end product is paramount. In PBL, the process of learning assumes equal weight as an outcome. Success on the journey often entails what I term the art of ‘ruthless compassion.’ Give every student maximum support; require every student to perform at their best.
  4. Use the tools of people management. Like the methods for world class PBL, a set of tools has been developed, largely in industries outside of education, that help people stay on task, achieve goals, and work harmoniously. In PBL, nearly everything you do has people management ramifications. This begins with norms and performance expectations, agreements on behavior, and clear directions. But other elements contribute just as much: (1) A clearly stated Driving Question that captures imagination and starts the project in the right direction; (2) a consistent explanation of the why behind the project; (3) an air of experiment, problem solving, and discovery; and (4) a promise that, at the end of the project, the results will matter to someone besides the teacher or the test designers.
  5. Make teamwork productive. PBL is a group based form of learning. But an essential step is to move from the language of groups to the more powerful vocabulary of teamwork and to teach team members to think deeply together. To achieve high quality work in PBL, there can be no, “Well, she’s sick today and she has all the stuff and we don’t know what to do.” Or, “I did all the work and I got a ‘C’ because my group slacked off?” In teams, everyone is committed to each other’s success and everyone assumes accountability. PBL teachers have developed tools to spur this process, including work ethic and collaboration rubrics, contracts, and bonus point systems to reward initiative and empathetic behavior. If you’re not using these tools, you’re not taking advantage of methods that work. And, most important, if your teams don’t work, neither will your projects.
  6. Know how to teach and assess 21st century skills. PBL is the best method we have for teaching students how to solve complex problems. But to get to a meaningful solution, students need to master the skills of collaboration and self-management. And, to show us how they arrived at a conclusion or created a product, they need to communicate effectively. That’s a short version of why PBL is central to teaching 21st century skills. But PBL teachers face a challenge: Nothing has been standardized in regard to teaching or assessing these skills. Solid performance rubrics have been developed, but are rarely used school wide. I urge PBL teachers at every school to band together and agree on rubrics and methods for assessing 21st century skills (this is a prime topic for PLC work), as well as sharing ideas on how to teach these skills.
  7. Value reflection and revision. Finally, educators can learn from the slow food movement. High quality PBL requires a different time frame and expectation, primarily because problem solving is not a linear, 50-minute period experience. This means not just being flexible (one of the prime qualities of the successful PBL teacher), but also making reflection and revision, in pursuit of excellence, central to the process of learning. This takes several forms. First, during a project, encourage drafts and prototypes, then structure time for peer debriefs, jig saws, or other disciplined ways for students to share and exchange ideas. At the end of a project, reflect and debrief thoroughly. Make excellence a standard for your projects.

Do You have the Personality to be an Inquiry-Based Teacher?

So far, the challenges of transforming education into a system capable of inspiring students to become skillful, creative, knowledgeable problem solvers fall into familiar territory: What types of curriculum, standards, skills, strategies, and adaptations to classroom teaching methods will be necessary to pull even with the 21st century?

But it’s likely these will prove to be secondary questions. As education crosses the divide between a transmission model and an inquiry model, a more pressing issue will be apparent: How do we identify, attract, nurture, and train teachers who have an ‘inquiry-friendly’ personality?

The issue already is in view. When a teacher comes out from behind the lectern, leaves the front of the room, kneels beside a student to coach them through a problem, offers feedback designed to promote confidence and perseverance, and becomes a true partner in the learning process, the relationship between teacher and student automatically shifts. It’s no longer about telling; it’s about listening, observing, and creating the channel of trust that opens up a personal connection between two individuals.

These are trainable skills. The basics of good coaching can be learned, especially if it’s aimed at helping a student master a math problem, write a better essay, or give a more polished presentation. In fact, if that’s all the inquiry-based system of the future was expected to do, a natural evolution of teacher skill sets would easily take place, reinforced by a new course requirement in every credential program: How to be a guide on the side.

By itself, this would be a valuable step. But scientific advances tell us that training teachers in techniques alone won’t be sufficient. Instead, they reveal that the personality traits of the teacher will matter more than the coaching methods or the curriculum.

Primarily, the interconnected nature of cognition is now visible. Whether titled interpersonal neurobiology or social neuroscience, leading edge science in the areas of positive emotions and neuroplasticity confirms that the emotional messages exchanged between people affect the physiological processes and biological structures of the brain and body. The embodied rapport between individuals causes shifts in neural networks, frontal lobe functioning, stress levels, even genetic expression. The recent emphasis on inducing a growth mindset in students, including a measurable shift in IQ, is a first step in understanding how the relationship between teacher and student is fundamental to performance.

This research is critical to understanding how inquiry-based teachers will need to engage students. In the coming system, attitude trumps rote learning. Whether students engage, persevere, and open their mind to novel solutions depends on their resiliency, grit, curiosity, creativity, and empathy. Psychologists refer to these as ‘personal assets’, but they’re far more mysterious than a bank account, and they don’t originate in a textbook, so how do we teach them?

A first clue has been around for over twenty years. Although overlooked as an inconvenient truth by industrial education, compelling evidence from the fields of adolescent development and resiliency studies show that caring relationships are the key factor in helping young people flourish—a term that encompasses the core attitudes necessary for successful inquiry and deeper learning. Now science has provided the missing link and observable evidence: Emotional interactions between teacher and student drive physiological changes, and thus performance.

This tells us that a teacher’s personality counts, but one additional new fact changes the game even further. Under the deficit model (one of the hidden assumptions of today’s system), the usual approach to emotions is to emphasize the limitations: How judgments and penalties diminish learning. But increasingly, social neuroscience is disruptive to this view. It appears that the connective powers of a relationship only manifest in the presence of sincere care. Love is expressed and conveyed emotionally and physiologically, with unconditional acceptance bestowing the greatest benefits.

The takeaway is humbling, but inescapable: If an inquiry-based system is to succeed, we’ll need really good human beings in the classroom who know their field, but who also radiate the kind of positive, non-judgmental love that helps students open their minds and hearts. That’s a tall order for most of us, and where it originates, we don’t know. But the foundation of sincere care will be essential, and it will manifest through the deep personality attributes of the teacher in a variety of ways in the classroom. Every teacher, for example, might reflect on the following:

Are you optimistic? Viewing the world as damaged or the future as bleak shuts down the brain by transmitting fear. Maintaining an optimistic attitude is an expression of love, inspiring curiosity and hope, and fostering emotional and physical health. Optimism is essential to teaching: Without hope, the reason to learn disappears.

Are you open? The world is being refreshed and powered by divergent thinking. Outcomes are unclear, even dangerous. But faith in the flexible thinking of the human mind can support young people as they sort out their new world and have the freedom to discover solutions not yet visible. An open attitude activates the frontal lobes, the place of flow and creativity.

Are you appreciative? Deep appreciation gives permission for failure, rather than penalizing for the ‘wrong’ answer. It honors the stops and starts of human development. It conveys the ultimate message of a communal world: We are in this together.

Are you flexible? In inquiry, the journey matters as much as the destination. Constant reflection is a necessity to improving thinking and doing. Metacognition encourages wisdom, the ultimate goal of any worthy education system. Flexibility tells the brain and heart to keep working, keep going—you’re getting there.

Are you purposeful? Purpose binds teacher and student into the high-minded pursuit of solutions that matter. It is the reason that ‘authentic’ education works and inauthentic education struggles. It tightens the connection between the learner and the teacher in ways that spur the natural creative impulse to change and improve the world.

Ten steps to establishing a PBL-friendly culture

To experts in the field of human performance, there is no mystery as to why PBL succeeds—or doesn’t. Three decades of research has established the factors that maximize individual effort and the desire to achieve:

  • Caring relationships. Whether growing up in a household, studying in school, or working in a job, people perform better when they feel cared for and attended to. A caring relationship begins with recognizing and respecting the autonomy of the individual.
  • The desire for meaning and purpose. Human beings work harder when they have a goal and purpose. The goal must be relevant to the person’s needs and desires.
  • The power of mastery. Achievement is a natural state of being. People enjoy doing tasks well, and feel intrinsic rewards that sustain more effort.

Carefully-designed projects tap into these intangibles. That is the core strength of PBL; it can inspire drive, passion, and purpose in students.

  • Trust. Trust encourages peak cognition and intelligent behavior. Successful PBL depends very much on your belief that young people desire to learn and will perform well when respected by an adult and guided appropriately.
  • Use the language of peak performance. IQ is malleable and performance is driven by self-fulfilling belief systems. Students who move from a ‘fixed mindset’ to a ‘growth mindset’ will believe in themselves, and in their creative potential. Your language will shape their beliefs.
  • Treat ‘soft’ skills as ‘hard’ skills. Writing an essay or solving a math problem is traditionally regarded as a ‘hard’ skill, while communicating with someone who disagrees with you is a ‘soft’ skill. The reverse is actually true: Communication and collaboration are the most difficult of human skills—and need to be taught and practiced relentlessly.
  • Expect mastery. Setting high expectations for academic performance is usual in good teaching. But setting high expectations for performance is crucial in PBL. Expect students to communicate and collaborate according to the standards of high performing industries.
  • Train the imagination. Teaching innovation, problem solving, and creativity to the global generation is now a primary goal. Creativity will soon be valued as a basic skill and has been identified as the number one leadership competency of the future. Use creativity exercises, encourage brainstorming and—most important—design projects that challenge the imagination.
  • Encourage peak performance. Currently, we have no measure for peak performance in schools. But you can design rubrics with a ‘breakthrough’ category—a blank column that invites students to deliver a product that cannot be anticipated or easily defined in words. The breakthrough column goes beyond the A, rewarding innovation, creativity, and unusual performance—a kind of ‘wow’ column.
  • Pass along the 10,000 hour rule. Mastering a skill at a high level takes 10,000 hours of practice. Your students aren’t likely to put that many hours into Algebra 1. But let them know that practice works—and the more they practice, the better they will be. Most important, let them know that achievement comes from hard work, not a special gene for brilliance.
  • Teach to the iceberg. Remember that the deeper self—the domain of creativity and motivation—is not immediately accessible or public. Think in terms of an iceberg. Below the tip of the iceberg is 90% of the human being. If we want skillful, motivated creators, we need to pay attention to empathy, bias, and all the normal variations in a young person’s emotional makeup. Take time and care to surface the deeper aspects of learning.
  • Be aware of your ‘emotional content.’ PBL involves ‘up close and personal’ teaching. As you work side by side with students, they will closely observe your own attitude toward skills, lifelong learning, and emotional balance. Be aware. Be positive.
  • Do the small things. Small acts of kindness and respect can leverage larger shifts in your classroom culture. Stand at the door and greet students at the beginning of the period. Wish them well as they exit. Reward them with unexpected five-minute breaks when they perform well. Celebrate on occasion.

And let’s add an eleventh step for good measure:

  • No ‘teacher’ talk. Sarcasm and put-downs by teachers are all too common in classrooms. Be firm when necessary—but don’t question character or use a tone of voice that a respected friend would find offensive. This violates the first rule of performance: care.

Fixing the Flaws in Project Based Learning: From learning to inquiry

Image of a students for project based learning

Worldwide, 2014 will be a crucial year for education. Every system, in every country, is in the process of figuring out how to reboot education to teach skills, application, and attitude in addition to recall and understanding. Helping students be 21st century ready—to be able to grapple with increased problem solving and inquiry, be better critical and creative thinkers, show greater independence and engagement, and exhibit skills as presenters and collaborators—is the challenge of the moment.

This means that PBL, or project based learning, will be more popular than ever in the next few years. PBL has shown itself to be a proven means for setting up the kind of problem-solving challenges that engage students in deeper learning and critical inquiry. It requires students to research, collaborate, decide evidence, accept feedback, design solutions, and present findings in a public space—all factors that create the conditions under which high performance and mastery are most likely to emerge. The rise of PBL, in fact, is a success story for education.

However, it’s also time to reboot PBL. PBL continues to be misinterpreted as a single teaching strategy rather than as a set of design principles that allow us to introduce the philosophy of inquiry into education in an intelligent and grounded way. It’s plagued by misunderstandings about when it should be used, and when not, and to what extent it can fulfill the mandate of a standards-based system. Too often, it ends with enthusiastic students delivering mediocre work—and teachers aren’t sure what went wrong or right.

If PBL is to become a powerful, accepted model of instruction in the future, I suggest a vocabulary change may be in order. Increasingly, I prefer the term project based inquiry. It’s time to not only address the flaws in PBL, but to reinvent it in a way that leads to deeper learning, creative inquiry, and a better fit with a collaborative world in which doing and knowing are one thing. Here are thoughts about five areas in which PBL needs to move forward:

1. Put PBL on a continuum of inquiry.

Infusing inquiry into the curriculum is the goal, so that instruction starts with questions rather than broadcasting content. But PBL is only one way to do that. Good teachers use many methods to help students observe, pose questions, engage in experimentation and error, and learn to analyze and reason. So it’s not necessary to use PBL 24/7 across all subjects. Instead:

  • First, think skills. A coherent approach to inquiry begins with knowing that skills, not content, underlie the inquiry process. To link PBL with other parts of the school, have all teachers to sign onto the two chief skills required in PBL, teamwork and presentation. Use school-wide rubrics to assess the skills. Think of projects as the time when students really practice those skills at a high level for public consumption.
  • Think strategically. Plan for PBL over the course of the year, but don’t expect every teacher to do a project. For instance, step back and analyze an entire 9th grade class. How many projects will they experience in the course of the year? Who will conduct the projects? If students participate in 3 – 4 good projects every year, they will get what they need.
  • Use PBL for entrepreneurial inquiry. When teachers want students to go deep into an important topic, grapple with a community issue, or experience the persistence and intellectual rigor necessary to dig in to something meaningful, that’s the perfect time for PBL. Otherwise, normal inquiry gets the job done.
  • Differentiate subjects. Not all subjects fit PBL in the same way. Courses such as AP Calculus and Physics may use a shorter, more contained problem-based approach, or a more activity-based approach. Humanities projects may take on community issues. Both approaches are valid and use similar design principles, but have different objectives.

2 Blend surface knowledge and deeper learning.

It is impossible at this historical juncture to figure out how much students need to put into hard-wired long term memory versus how much information they simply download, pass through, and apply. Google is ruining the curriculum, no doubt about it. On the other hand, you have to know in order to think. But in the zeal to expand the constructivist side of PBL, we’re losing the knowing—the kind of facts, terms, and vocabulary of the discipline that allow a student to express knowledge coherently. This is not a matter of test preparation as much as a design issue to make sure students have a sufficient knowledge base. Some solutions:

  • Reflect. Your personality and attitude, particularly listening skills and openness, will directly affect the quality of the project. System wide, remember that PBL is personality driven. If certain teachers don’t embrace PBL, but do a good job of stimulating inquiry, let them be. Everyone will be happier.
  • Build student capacity. Prior to projects, take time for students to reflect on their skills and attitudes, practice team building, setting norms, and examining responsibilities and aspirations. For PBL to succeed, the entire pace of instruction must be slowed.
  • Know the neuroscience. Every study shows the same results: Your attitude, beliefs, and hidden expectations are communicated to students—and change their brain. Take care with messaging.

3. Make collaboration as powerful in school as it is in life.

Group work and cooperative learning are giving PBL a hangover. It is time to make a fundamental shift in the direction of teamwork. In a relationship-driven world, the era of the individual scholar is coming to an end. PBL is a perfect method for helping reveal how peers will work together in the future to create and analyze content. Teachers can speed this process by:

  • Make collaboration the foundational skill. Instead of seeing 21st century skills as a laundry list, prioritize by making teamwork the basis for academic work, particularly in projects. Move from the loose language of ‘groups’ to the more accountable language of teams and cohorts.
  • Make teams purposeful. Bring teams together for the purpose of creating better products, not just discussing and brainstorming.
  • Require teams to participate deeply in the design process. Have them regularly and frequently exchange design ideas, test prototypes, follow protocols, use the vocabulary of the discipline, and exhibit mature responses to feedback from peers.
  • Make peer review the norm. Don’t look at any student work until it has gone through a peer review process that pushes students to present their best work for your evaluation and feedback.

4. Understand that PBL cannot be done alone.

PBL is a complex form of teaching, with many moving parts and a creative element. Teachers will benefit enormously, and grow their expertise much faster, if they can discuss and refine their projects together. The opposite is true, also; if schools continue to limit collaborative time to ‘Monday morning between 8 am and 9 am’ or something similar, PBL will fail. Inquiry simply demands more depth and conversation than the traditional system allows. Many changes are required here, but the step with the greatest leverage? Try this:

  • Institutionalize Critical Friends Protocols. A 25 minute protocol, in which teachers present ideas to peers and receive feedback about a project in a respectful, professional environment, is a game changer. It sets a higher bar for discourse, encourages teachers to think more deeply, and takes education away from its familiar staples of ‘neat’ ideas and endless inputs. The protocols work well in department meetings, staff meetings, or at PD days.