15 Common PBL Mistakes | mistake 6: treat all kids the same

2 12 2014

I have the best job in the world. On a regular basis, I’m given the extraordinary fortune to talk with teachers who are embarking on a PBL journey with their students. To dig into the smaller, everyday details of how to make this type of learning environment work. To answer the tough questions about sustainability, rigor, behavior management and then take the questioner further…that’s like chocolate to me! I can’t get enough.

Over the years of starting my own PBL school and learning in a baptismal fire, I’ve been able to find a way to talk with new or reluctant teachers about their concerns. Additionally, there are things that excited, energetic teachers might want to consider as they take their first steps into the PBL fire as well.

In the next month or so, I’ll be publishing a regular series to include 15 common mistakes that educators make and some solutions they might consider. Here’s the next one in the series:

Fair: a place where you ride rides

quote from Vicki Schweinler, graphic by Brian Housand

Mistake #6:
Continue to treat all kids as if they’re the same and need to be treated the same.

Problem: Currently, we feel that in order to be “fair,” all students need to be treated the same, when in actuality, there are very few students who have the same ability, experiences, or skills as others in the class. Everyone is traveling their own journey many of us know nothing about and children and teens are no different.

Solution: To be truly fair, or equitable, with students, we must look at them as individuals. Each will move faster or slower, according to her abilities and interests. We might consider grouping students based not on their “date of manufacture,” but instead upon something much more appropriate. Some students might make a mistake and need one type of consequence while another student is better served through other consequences. On a broader, school-wide system, this might lead to a slippery slope to favoritism within a time-based, “everyone’s the same” school. But in a school that focuses on services and support for individual students as humans, this is a readily understood concept. But how to go about re-visioning our own environments is a challenge for local communities to solve. Many schools will choose to implement the flexibility on a classroom-level scale first before re-visioning their entire building or district. Regardless, personalized learning must trump the one-size-fits-all curriculum of today. 

Want to learn more about Project/Problem Based Learning?

In 2006 with 12 years of traditional classroom experience and 2 days of formal PBL training in her pocket, Ginger Lewman started a middle school, grades 5-8, that was a 1:1 laptop and Project Based Learning environment. Five years later, the middle school had doubled in population twice and had expanded to include PBL in grades K-8. They were also in the process of opening a PBL high school the next fall. Ginger now works with school leaders in helping them learn how to support the PBL shift, and inspires their teachers to take the leap. Meanwhile, she also continues to co-teach with K-12 teachers in the training process, keeping her own teaching chops sharp and ready.  


Building Self-Directed Learners

9 09 2014

Self-directed learners all have a running inner dialog about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, what they’re going to do, and, when they get stuck, they ask themselves a series of questions to help them get unstuck.

This is what most of us just call “thinking” but it seems that too many children and teens don’t have that inner dialog — yet. They seem to move about their day, waiting to be told what to do, when to do, and how to do. And when they step out of that structure and routine their families and school has provided for them, many make poor decisions. Not all do, of course. But the ones who find themselves making mistakes, big and small, seem to lack that inner dialog.

So how do we help kids become self directed learners? It’s an every day, every interaction process that begins with curbing the urge to always tell kids their next steps and begin asking questions that role-model what they should be asking themselves.

There’s a dual purpose of persistently asking questions instead of just telling kids Self Directed Learners, Questions, PBLwhat to do:

  1. Students need to know they can find information and solve problems if only they had the right questions.
  2. We’re role modeling what their inner dialog and questions might be.

Use the following questions regularly when role modeling self-direction and then remind the students, in a moment of reflection, they might consider using the same techniques before calling out for help.

  • What is my overall goal? What am I trying to achieve?
  • What have I tried that hasn’t worked? What has worked?
  • What haven’t I tried?
  • Is this something that’s essential to my goals? Is what I’m doing necessary? Valuable?
  • What are other ways I can look at this? Can I break it into parts? Do I need to step back and look at the big picture?
  • Are there online resources out there that can help?
  • If I am stuck, how can I back out of this and approach it from a new direction? Who or what do I need to get to help me with that?
  • Is there someone nearby who has this topic as a strength and can help me? Is there someone I can bring in via phone or video conference?

Of course there are many other questions that could be added/substituted in any given situation, but this will give you a good start. What would you add?

Creating Teachable Moments in a PBL Classroom

29 07 2014

Many of you know I’m a former Social Studies teacher so I like to tell stories. Well, today’s post is full of stories about how to get kids to ask for the lessons they usually despise.

Story 1:
Once, during a summer camp I was hosting, I had a group of kids rush into a room and take all the donuts before even 3/4 of the group had a chance to even know there were donuts. I saw it was happening and, contrary to all my teacher-training about fair play, I let them do it.

English: Various donuts from the Dunkin' Donut...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Once the donuts were eaten and we were back in our workspace (another room), I asked if everyone liked the donuts … and I was shocked when I “found out” that not all kids got donuts. What?!

I quickly feigned gentle empathy for those who’d grabbed more than their share, saying, “I’m so sorry that no one told you to consider other people in a group.” I was sure to never point to anyone during the quick lesson…the kids already knew who’d had 4-5 donuts. I was careful to take on an honest, understanding, and confidant-type of demeanor, asking kids to not let themselves be “that guy.”

“It’s ok; mistakes happen. We just won’t be ‘that guy’ again, right?”

It was a gentle teachable moment where we began to move away from the school-flavored imposed stick-and-carrot external motivators to more of an intrinsic motivation to do the right thing. Kids were asked to consider the needs and desires of everyone before helping ourselves to our own selfish needs first. After that 3-5 minute intentional interaction, the group had plenty of all snacks throughout the rest of the week, with extras left over for the adults too!

You see, I knew that if I’d hollered at them to SHARE (which I’m assuming they’d heard at high volume many times before–after all, they were middle schoolers) my words would have forced their compliance, but would have had no overall change to want to always do the right thing. By letting the kids make the mistake and then intentionally asking them consider how it affected others, all the while staying gentle and supportive of the community and future behavior, we were able to actually affect true behavioral change.

So how do we intentionally create or at least capitalize on other situations that relate to behavior?
What about teachable moments that relate to academic learning? Because that’s a huge part of creating a truly democratic form of schooling.


Story 2:
I like to let kids work hard creating something where they have broken copyright like they were stealing the Hope Diamond! They are working hard, doing their research, trying their best, but no where do I talk to them about copyright. Some might know better. Some might not. It’s ok. It’s a mistake.Creative Commons

Once they’re finished with the work, there are huge congratulations all around. The kids have worked their butts off and we’re all proud.

Then I ask them about their bibliographies.

<<pin drop>>

<<crickets chirping>>

I feign an Oscar-worthy combo of fear and nervousness. Where did they get that awesome picture? That map? That information? We MUST have the bibliographies or we’re gonna get in huge trouble (because we’ve published the work). It’s something like a $10,000 fine for each violation, I lie to them.

They start to panic.

I tell them we have to delete the work and start all over again.

Some start to truly freak out.

In a soothing voice, I immediately calm them and say that we’ll leave it this time, but only if they promise to learn about copyright, copyleft, creative commons, and fair use for next time.

They all eagerly agree.


I win.

You think they would have been as eager to learn all about that stuff before the teachable moment? Of course not.

Yes, we can create opportunities for teachable moments everywhere. I want kids to ask me for the information and lessons they usually dodge. How do I create an opportunity for them to need to know about fractions? About how to use proper grammar?

Because when they ask for those lessons, you win. And so do they.

#Podstock14 Presentation: 10 Questions, No Answers

24 07 2014

This is a rapid-fire presentation where each of the following questions was posed and the participants had 5 minutes to talk at their tables, sharing not only realities, but potential steps for how to get to where we want to go.

I fully believe that if we can’t envision where we want to go, we’ll never be able to blaze a trail there. 

If you decide to use this video in your back-to-school or leadership discussions, that’s awesome! Go right on ahead and do it. And if you want to drop me a note to let me know you used it, that would be even better!

%d bloggers like this: