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Hacking Project Based Learning

Future Ready Schools Logo 2017


Hacking Project Based Learning

Ross Cooper
, Supervisor of Instructional Practice K–12, Salisbury Township School District (PA)
Erin Murphy, Middle School Assistant Principal, East Penn School District (PA)
Tom Murray, Director of Innovation, Future Ready Schools®, Alliance for Excellent Education

On June 15, Future Ready Schools® (FRS) held a webinar that is part of its Leadership Hub, a one-stop-shop of professional learning opportunities for school leaders.

This webinar focused on demystifying project based learning. Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy will introduce ten hacks that construct a simple path educators and students can easily follow to achieve success. Speakers elaborated on these frequently asked questions:

  • How can a learning space that promotes risk-taking and lends itself to inquiry be developed?
  • What needs to be done to create a vision for a project?
  • How can student learning be assessed and guided?
  • How can students share their work outside their classroom’s walls?

Panelists shared strategies and resources for implementing and leading project based learning, and they addressed questions submitted by viewers from across the nation.

Please direct questions concerning the webinar to If you are unable to watch the webinar live, please still register as an archived version will be sent shortly after the event. The webinar will available in Hub for future reference.

Future Ready Schools® is a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, DC–based national policy, practice, and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship.

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Tom Murray:
Hello everybody. I’m Tom Murray, the Director of Innovation for Future Ready Schools, a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, located in Washington DC. Future Ready Schools is a collaboration between the Alliance and a vast coalition of over 60 national and regional organizations. The goal of Future Ready Schools is to maximize digital learning opportunities and to help school districts move quickly towards personalized student centered learning. The effort provides districts with the resources and support to ensure that local technology and digital learning plans will also align with highly trained teachers, maximizing professional learning experiences for all students and teachers, and also particularly those from underserved communities. The hash tag for today’s webinar is Future Ready.

Thank you for making an investment and joining us today. I’m going to be your host on this webinar on Hacking Project Based Learning. With me today is Ross Cooper, the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury school district. And Erin Murphy, a middle school assistant principal in the East Penn School district, both here in Pennsylvania. Ross and Erin are also the authors of the best-selling book Hacking Project Based Learning. What an honor it is to have you with you both today and thanks for joining us. Erin I’m going to go over to you first. Can you introduce yourself?

Erin Murphy:
Sure. So as Tom, as you mentioned I currently serve as an assistant principal at a middle school in the east Penn School district. My time in the classroom I spent in Kindergarten, 2nd, 3rd and 5th grade. I also have my certificate as a literacy coach and literacy and reading specialist, so I’m very involved in the ELA department here at our school.

Tom Murray:
Great. Ross, how about you?

Ross Cooper:
So, right now as you said I’m the curriculum supervisor in the Salisbury Township school district, which is in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This is my second year in the school district. Before that I was an elementary assistant principal for a year. Before that I have the honor and Erin had the honor of working with me in the same elementary school of course in East Penn school district where I was a- that was Willow Lane Elementary School. I was fourth grade teacher for six years in East Penn. Before that I taught third grade for half a year. So the majority are actually pretty much all of my teaching experience is at the elementary level.

Tom Murray:
Awesome. Well, what a pleasure it is to have both of you here today. I’ve read through your book twice now and the ideas and the way you talk about hacking, again, I’ll shout out to the whole hacking series. I know a lot of the authors of Hacking and it’s a great, great series for our viewers to really go through some topics and to dive in. I love the way it’s really laid out there. So, Ross, I’m going to ask you first. Let’s start a big picture idea here. We’ve got almost 500 viewers today. How do we define project based learning? I think we look at all the different buzzword, bingo pieces that are out there and it’s really important that we discuss from the get-go. What are we actually talking about?

Let’s define from the project based learning and I’m going to also ask you to contrast a little bit. How is project based learning different than just the traditional projects that we all grew up doing?

Ross Cooper:
All right. So to best answer that question, let’s take a look at a graphic that actually was originally created by Erin. So let’s bring that up. So, what we have found, what Erin and I have found in doing project based learning professional development rather than starting from the ground up and saying this is what PL looks like, a lot of educators already doing these traditional projects which you see at the top. So if you take educators where they are, which is projects and say, “Okay, you have this traditional project, how do you transform it into PBL?” One, you’re being respectful of where educators are by not asking them to throw out the baby with the bath water, and two, it’s something with is familiar because they’re starting with something they already have.

So in a sense, as you can see the difference between projects and project based learning is it’s more the traditional learning that we’ve all done and then that project happens at the end. That’s almost like the cherry on top. It’s like congratulations. You’ve made your way through the unit. We’ve already graded you. We’ve already assessed you. And now as a result to that, because you got through this you’re going to do some type of project with the knowledge that you have already learned.

Whereas with PBL the big difference is students learn through the project. So the entire unit in and of itself as you can see is the project. And as you can see- _____ unit that conferencing or that confirm is absolutely huge. That’s really the formative assessment process which really is one of the aspects that really makes PBL so powerful is because you’re constantly taking a temperature read of where your students are and then adjusting your instruction accordingly.

So, that’s really one of the main differences. But in a sense it’s really an inquiry based unit. So you’ve heard of backwards design, understanding by design, it’s an inquiry based unit in which the students uncover the understanding with which we want them to walk away rather than us just covering them and trying to get through a pacing average trying to get the work curriculum. And the students uncover these understanding through their project they develop a deeper understanding of what they need to learn.

Erin Murphy:
And I think that ultimately we’re all shifting to this student centered approached education. So as you mentioned, Tom, there are a ton of buzz words that people are throwing around and we talk about project based learning, but then we also talk about problem based learning or place based learning. And you know, we have all these different words that we throw around. And ultimately we’re shifting from the student centered, this teacher centered philosophy of ed to a student centered philosophy of ed. And we believe that PBL is one of the conduits you can use to get to this student centered approach.

Tom Murray:
One of the things that’s really interesting that I like to share, I often refer to the Gallop Student Engagement Survey from 2015 that’s well published. It’s free online and people can check out. When you take a look at the engagement rates of students as reported, so you get student feedback to us as educators nationwide. What’s fascinating is it shows that the longer that we have students in our school system, the less engaged they become which to me tells us you’ve got to disrupt the historical trend of the teacher centric environments, students sitting in desks and rows, teachers that divvy the delivery content model to get students that hands on, authentic experience that they need for their life ahead. And truly it’s a project based world. I mean, not to be cliché this year, but it really, really is and for their world moving forward.

So Erin, I’m going to go back to you here. What keeps people then from jumping in? What’s that fear factor?

Erin Murphy:
Sure. And I think what you were sharing there, Tom, is that people, first of all, we taught the way I think many of us teach the way we were taught. So when we look at like you said historically we’ve sort of had this model of education that kind of okay and everybody was getting by and people were graduating and we had jobs. It seemed to be working.

As we continue to research the brain and learning, we know we’re not doing as well as we could be doing. But then there’s this question of, “Well, how do I do it?” Ross and I have actually coined this term PBL paralysis, which is when people approach this idea of project-based learning and freeze in their tracks.

There’s lots of reasons this could happen. Sometimes people feel like the kids that they have in front of them would not be able to do PBL. Sometimes that’s because they feel like they are too low. Or they are too high or they are too loud. Or any kind of label that you could throw at these kids. That’s sometimes the reason that they feel like they can’t get into PBL.

Sometimes we hear that it’s because of the tests. If I’m doing PBL that I couldn’t possibly be preparing kids to take our state standardized test. Sometimes it’s grades. If I spend this much time working on project-based learning then there’s no way I’m going to have enough grades to put in my grade book.

Or it could be I feel like as the professional I have information I need to share with them. Some people feel that direct instruction doesn’t have a place in PBL. People just feel like they personally have not had the professional development that they need to implement PBL in their classroom.

Those are the reasons I think that people hesitate to jump in and then they are faced with this PBL paralysis where they are kind of frozen. That seems really hard and scary so instead I’m just going to do what I’ve always done.

There are some ways that we can battle that, battle that PBL paralysis and we are actually going to talk about them I’m sure a little bit more throughout. But I think that that answers your question of that’s what I think keeps people from jumping in.

Tom Murray:
I had the opportunity to hear both of you at a recent keynote that you did at a conference and I love the way that you really dispelled a lot of the myths that you just shared. By sharing the meth and then diving into what actually can happen.

Being a long-time educator myself, I understand that fear factor comes typically from… educators want to do a good job. Teachers want to do a good job in the classroom and they are comfortable with what they are comfortable with. Sometimes stepping out of that comfort zone, it causes that anxiety of I still want to do a really good job. Am I going to be able to do it if I do it differently?

I appreciate the way you all, through your work and then through also being able to hear you speak really try to dispel a lot of that and meet educators where they are. I thought it was great. Ross, anything you want to jump in that? Any other fear factors or pieces that you’ve seen in terms that you are getting into PBL? Anything you want to add to that there?

Ross Cooper:
Yeah. I think a lot of times, just like with any other initiative, if we are somebody who’s trying to facilitate this and trying to get teachers to move forward, teachers generally… you can use all the books in the world, and books are great, and all the resources in the world but a lot of times videos help as well.

That’s what I found through facilitating a lot of professional development. People really want to see what it looks like in action. If it’s not in videos, it’s maybe through site visits or teachers getting into each other’s classrooms.

That really has helped in my profession in regards to teachers overcoming those hurdles and wrapping their heads around okay, what does this exactly look like? Then getting this idea of okay now how… giving the teachers time to plan. Okay, I’ve seen it, now how can I transfer it into my class? That’s something that I’ve seen that works.

Also, even in our book, like we provide this framework. Yes, there is these different aspects. You always say okay, maybe there’s 8 or 9 or 10 different aspects to PBL. It’s great but sometimes they were a little bit disjointed and disconnected. But I think sometimes we need this kind of framework that takes us from beginning to end as much as possible and that’s something that we really try to provide. The path is never smooth.

Right, the path is never smooth. There’s always unforeseen hurdles that we have to deal with. But as much is possible we try to provide this framework to get teachers… if they feel comfortable with what they are doing, to get them to dive in. Then you reflect, you iterate and you go from there.

Tom Murray:
That’s certainly well said. One of the things I took away from your book is you hit on this notion, and Ross, what you were just saying is the whole, like what does this actually look like? I think that is such a valid question. I think we really need to ask those kind of questions.

I think we often start so many times in education with the what instead of the why and how do we move from the why to practical. What does it look like in implementation? I think sometimes, as admin and all admin ourselves, and sometimes easily tell teachers we can’t do it the traditional way anymore.

We can’t do it the way we’ve always done it. We don’t really do a good job of showing them what it should look like and so that puts them in an interesting spot. I couldn’t agree with you more there. I think that’s great.

One of the pieces as we start to dive into what it does look like that I really like that you hit in your book there was this notion of this big idea and how a big idea can really drive these different pieces. How do you decide what to focus on in a PBL experience? What happens if you don’t have some sort of a big idea?

Ross Cooper:
I think, and this is definitely a mistake that I’ve made as a teacher, is that there’s a big difference between engagement for us as a teacher and relevance for students. The whole idea of engagement versus relevance is huge not just in PBL, but in education in general.

One of the examples that I give is I am a big food buff. I absolutely love food so of course as a fourth-grade teacher I had my students write restaurant reviews. I want them to be excited about restaurant reviews. But did I ever ask my students if they liked food? If they were big food buffs?

No. I wanted them to get excited about my interests rather than me asking them what their interests are. Me asking them what their interests are, that’s relevance. As opposed to me trying to engage them where I’m at.

I think a lot of times the whole idea of giving our students a voice and ask them what they want to tackle is absolutely huge. Because as much as we have the standards, and I think sometimes we use the standards almost as an excuse to not move forward, we have these standards but there’s countless ways we can meet those standards and countless ways our students can meet those standards.

That really is where the art of teaching comes in. If we have the standards and we know what’s relevant to our students by giving them a voice, there are definitely ways to meld the two and I think that’s a great start.

Tom Murray:
Erin, anything you want to add to that?

Erin Murphy:
Well I think that when I was in the classroom I spent a lot of time trying to dream up this big idea. Then I think that when the big idea didn’t come that that became another freezing point. I think that a good focus is making sure that you don’t feel like it has to be huge. Sometimes it’s going to be something that’s just really little.

I talked to a teacher today who was a kindergarten teacher and she was like, “People I’m working with are building gardens and designing buildings with retractable roofs. I’m with my kindergartners and I kind of feel like what are my kindergartners going to do?”

She came up with this idea where her kids basically were folding paper and experimenting with different angles until they created something that could fly. It was simple. Her kids were using paper, and they were her five-year-old’s, and it’s something that really works for them. I think that that’s important too, is to think about finding something that works for you and not worrying about whether it’s something the news media is going to want to come cover.

Ross Cooper:
I think sometimes we have this idea, and this is definitely an obstacle, that PBL has to be this big authentic thing. We’re going to solve these real-world problems, right? That really, I think, is a barrier to those teachers implementing PBL because it can be intimidating.

What you were talking about Erin is basically inquiry. It doesn’t have to be… it may be this mini-unit that’s done within the span of maybe a week or so. But it’s really just inquiry and students uncover these understandings. I think that’s really what it’s all about.

It doesn’t have to be this grand idea where students are going to save the world. Yes, that would be great and yes it would be great if they could solve the world’s problems, but if we do that 24/7 in our classrooms we are going to be burnt out and our students are going to be burnt out. Really at the heart of it is that inquiry that Erin is talking about.

Tom Murray:
Great. I do want to remind our viewers that the hashtag for today’s webinar is #FutureReady. As always, feel free to ask your questions. We’ve seen some come in recently on Twitter and we’ll be monitoring that as well. Erin, I want to jump back over to you. Let’s talk, you mentioned earlier about direct instruction and where that might fit in project-based learning. Can you talk about that little bit?

Erin Murphy:
Sure. I think, again, that’s one of those freezing points. That’s where teachers feel like I have a lot to say, I have a lot to share and I don’t think that kids are going to come and actually want to learn about a Punnett square or naturally learn how genetics works. How does that work?

I think that it’s important to put out there that in a PBL classroom that does not necessarily mean that direct instruction does not exist. It does exist. It’s just you sort of shift when and where that direct instruction takes place.

First of all, when you are talking about direct instruction during PBL, you want to make sure that it’s happening just in time. One of the reasons the gaming industry is so successful is because they offer the gamer information that they need just when they need it. Think about sitting down to play a game and having to read through a chapter’s worth of directions and new information and then you get to play a game and then you get to do the project.

Instead, we want to break up that information. You start playing first. Experiment a little bit with the new concepts, with the topic, and then you get information as you go. I really think that that is what sort of drive students along.

When we talk about direct instruction during a PBL unit, we call it a mini-lesson on purpose because it’s sort of a very small chunk of time. Give students some new information. Let them play and experiment again. Then they get a little bit more information, new information and then they play and experiment again. That’s how the direct instruction works so that is fits in to where the students need it in order for them to continue to move forward in the process.

Ross Cooper:
I think that Erin hit on a huge point, when that direct instruction takes place is really critical. For instance, if I’m in a science teacher’s classroom and they are going to do an experiment but they need to learn information as a result of that experiment and I do that direct instruction first. I say as a result of the experiment you are going to learn X, Y and Z.

Then what’s the point of the experiment if you are only going to find out what you already know? Like you are going to find out information that you already know what it’s going to be. You know what that result is going to be.

Whereas if you put that… all you are doing is really changing the order and putting that experiment first, then getting together afterwards and saying okay, what did we learn? Then filtering in that direct instruction. Maybe sometimes as a result of an experiment students will uncover that information. Or maybe they won’t because experiment went wrong. Either way it’s a teachable moment.

Really a lot of times it’s just a matter of taking that direct instruction and moving it as far back as possible and using it kind of almost like a support at the end to say okay, as a result of what you did let’s just hammer home those key points. Rather than hammering it home first and sucking the inquiry out of the learning process.

Erin Murphy:
During an end of year meeting I had with one of my teachers this year the teachers said, “I have these activities and experiences that my students really love and with the new curriculum redesign I feel like these activities and experiences that have been successful, we are not going to have this opportunity to do them again because now it’s going to be more inquiry-based.”

What we came to and when I helped them understand during that meeting was that you don’t need to throw away your… it’s just let’s do the activity first and then filter in your direct instruction afterwards. That pleads to the point that Ross brought up earlier, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Your experiment is probably great. Let’s just do it at a different time. That’s the shift.

Ross Cooper:
The same exact lesson or activity done in two different classrooms can look entirely different. Like if you are doing like an egg drop, that’s a traditional science project. Or the pinball machines that I did in my classroom. Two teachers in rooms right next to each other, same exact project can look entirely different depending on their approaches to it.

Tom Murray:
Yeah, and what’s interesting is we’ve standardized so much in education across the board nationally, locally and those kinds of things we start to hear that my teaching partner and I could have very different experiences on the same idea. That can be a bit scary for teachers. Almost that fear of the unknown which on one hand we can certainly understand. Again, people want to do a really good job by default.

But Jonathan in New York just asked a good question and it really goes back to some of what we were saying earlier and maybe this will help. But what are some resources or sources out there that teachers can go to to really see examples of project-based learning or to see some of the resources for it? What are some go to resources that they can really see it in action, those types of things? Where would you point them?

Erin Murphy:
One of the go to resources or like the one stop shop almost is the Buck Institute. The Buck Institute website offers a ton of resources, some project examples, rubrics and things to get you started. If you are looking for ways to assess student learning, that’s definitely a good resource.

Edutopia has a project-based learning page and that’s also an excellent resource. Ross and I also really like the Getting Smart blog. They write a lot about project-based learning. They also have a project-based learning topic page. Ross, am I missing some of our other favorites?

Ross Cooper:
No, I think those are the big three. But I think it’s also important to realize that the people that are creating these projects have never met you and they’ve never met your students.

Erin Murphy:

Ross Cooper:
It’s great to have this cool idea but it doesn’t end there and we want them to think critically about these cool ideas. To make sure it’s meeting their standards, make sure it’s meeting the needs of our students. Making sure that it’s inquiry-based and that we are developing our own capacity to do PBL.

Because if we are just copying and pasting something that we’ve found on the Internet and putting it in the hands of our students then we might as well be using a paint by numbers program or a textbook. I think we just have to make sure that in the process of doing this we are meeting the needs of our students and building our own capacity.

Tom Murray:
Yeah, such a great point there, Ross on that. So much of the work that we do with Future Ready and working with thousands of leaders across the country, even asking about their own learning experiences or their own professional learning experiences and boiling it down to what works and backing up my research. It’s what’s personal. What’s authentic? What’s that learning that takes place there?

I think that’s such a great point there that we always have to tailor it to the kid sitting in front of us. I think the greatest teachers always do that and they understand their kids every year are not standard. Those kids every year are unique and individuals and we certainly plan and work through that to them.

One of the questions that comes up, and I love the way you addressed it throughout the book, but I really want to hear from you and have our audience hear from you as well, is the notion of assessment. We think about traditional assessments. We think about even common assessments across the board or standardized testing.

I’m going to ask a follow-up question related to that that came in as well and this notion of standardized testing and how do we handle something like that in a project-based learning environment.

But anyway, this notion of assessment. If I’m a teacher and I’m used to my summative assessment at the end or my unit test or whatever the case may be, maybe this is what comes with the curriculum materials. Again, I’m overgeneralizing there but from general assessments, what does assessment look like in project-based learning?

Ross Cooper:
I think one of the things that we have to make sure that we are clear on, just in general when we are working with teachers or administrators is the difference between assessment and grading, right? It’s possible to continually formatively assess a PBL experience or any type of learning experience but not necessarily throw a great at it.

What Erin and I believe is that because project-based learning in particular is so dripping with inquiry and creativity, what the research tells us is that if we throw a grade at PBL or at creativity, we are going to squash creativity. That’s essentially what’s going to happen.

What we want to do is really put the emphasis on the formative assessment process by constantly checking in with our students, maybe through those mini-lessons, through referring, through conferencing, what have you, and then adjusting our instruction accordingly.

That being said, a more formal tool that Erin and I created to do that is the progress assessment tool. That’s highlighted in our book. A lot of times when we hear projects we say okay, we need a rubric to go with it. The rubric can be downright scary. To be honest, I don’t even think I ever did them really that well when I was in the classroom.

Erin and I said okay, how can we build the rubric from the ground up so it’s not intimidating? What we created was the progress assessment tool and the key word there is progress. We put emphasis on the progress or the feedback, continuous feedback throughout the project, that moves students forward.

Basically, it’s a three-column tool. In the left-hand column, you have your learning targets. In the middle column you say how did these learning targets apply? What do they look like within the context of the project? In the right-hand column, it’s feedback, or more specific feedback in regards to each one of those learning targets.

That feedback can be left by the teacher, not at the end of the project but throughout the project so students can adjust. It can be left by peers, or ideally, a student should be giving it to his or herself so they have that with-it ness to drive their own learning progress.

Really, what we don’t want to do is we don’t want to necessarily grade the project itself. We want to provide feedback throughout the project and assess it.

That being said, if we do have to have a certain type of grade we would recommend some type of assessment that kind of stands outside of the project itself. Maybe that’s your more traditional open-ended assessment. Maybe it’s a video that students create. Maybe it’s some type of mini-website that they create.

But we don’t generally recommend grading the project itself because you are going to squash creativity. We want to see growth. The research tells us that grades are not the answer.

Erin Murphy:
I think the other powerful piece of the progress assessment tool is that it’s built around your learning objectives. Again, this process is more clearly articulated in the book.

But essentially you start with your state standards, your state standards of things that kids are going to be tested on. We write them in student friendly language. We put them on the progress assessment tool and then throughout the project you are conferencing with kids to make sure that they are making growth on those standards, on those objectives.

That’s the way, whether you need to prove to yourself or prove to administrator that I am making sure that students know and understand things that are going to be on the state assessment. If that is something that you need to do, this tool helps you do it.

It also helps gain buy-in from parents. Like when you maybe aren’t posting as many grades and parents want to know, “Well what’s my kid doing?” You say, “Come on in, take a look. Take a look at this progress assessment tool.” Today this the conversation I had with your kid related to this learning objective and this is what they showed me.

You would have those notes, sort of like your anecdotal notes on that progress assessment tool. It’s the evidence for you, for your students, for your parents, for your administrators, for other teachers that your students are learning and this is what they are learning and this is how they are learning it.

Tom Murray:
Yeah. I want to keep going down this assessment path here. Kathleen from South Carolina asked a little bit earlier, one, it’s a question that Erin, you alluded to a little bit earlier when you were talking about some of the PBL paralysis and myths that may be out there.

She asked the question I’m sure many people have asked you previously and it’s that notion of the standardized test. Here’s my state test at the end of the year. I teach in a course or something that’s a grade level that’s tested and that natural fear of if I spend all this time doing all these things, I see the value in it but what about that test?

How do you handle that? What do you respond to that? I’m sure as two administrators in school districts currently, you probably get that question. What do you say to that?

Erin Murphy:
Well some of it is what we just explained. This idea that as long as you have very clear learning objectives for your project you are going to be teaching your kids what they need to learn. It feels like it’s taking more time. But in reality that’s not necessarily the case.

When I think about if each lesson in your book or in your curriculum takes two days and then you spend a day kicking off the unit, then you spend a day reviewing and then you spend a day testing, then you spend a day going over the test and then you spend countless minutes each period going over homework, that’s all time that you can use to be doing project-based learning.

Yes, it’s going to look different. Yes, it’s going to feel different. But it’s something you kind of just have to test out and then you are going to prove to yourself that you are getting… I had a math teacher this year who was experimenting with project-based learning and the mindset or the idea was that in the end she was able to go faster.

At first it feels a little bit slower because you are building the momentum, building the culture in your classroom to support project-based learning. But that eventually once you have those pieces in place you are moving faster because you are not spending all this extra time re-teaching things to the whole class when you really only need to be re-teaching them to a small group of students and now you’ve created this structure in your classroom to make that happen.

Ross Cooper:
Erin, you bring up a good point that it’s actually easier. It’s a step backwards it first, just like anything else. But if you are going home every night or going to school every day saying what am I going to teach for this? What am I going to teach for that? You’re essentially doing it wrong.

Unit plans or inquiry-based unit plans or PBL plans, it’s a much easier process once you’re able to grasp it. There’s more planning up front, but then it’s really just about meeting the individual needs of your students.

In regards to hitting the standards, a lot of them tie into literacy. Right, a lot of those standardized tests are literacy based. You can tie literacy into pretty much any project that you are doing. Whether it’s nonfiction reading comprehension, whether it’s writing, whether it’s spelling, whether it’s grammar. Any type of project that you do, you can infuse it with a whole bunch of literacy to make sure that students are being prepared for the test.

Tom Murray:
Yeah. What I’m hearing is that still focusing very hard on those learning targets from the get go. It’s not a free-for-all project. It’s very focused, very planned and purposeful in that regard. I’m guessing with the number of viewers that we have today, people are probably all over the map with this type of learning and these types of learning experiences. Or project-based learning itself. What type of advice do you have?

You probably have those people that are hey, we are looking to just put our toe in the water and just maybe get started. You probably have those people that could have also been on the webinar today that have been doing PBL and it’s a passion area for them. What advice do you have for people, regardless of where they are on the continuum, so to say? Erin, let’s start with you first. What advice do you have four people watching today?

Erin Murphy:
Sure. I think the first thing is don’t be afraid. You really need to find, you need to find the entry point that works for you. Ross and I approach project-based learning looking at three different tracks. The first track being the set project track.

Sometimes there’s this mindset or fear that if every kid in my class is doing the same project then it is not project-based learning. Throughout our book we talk about a project that Ross did with his students, the pinball wizard project where every student designed a pinball machine. Every kid in his class designed a pinball machine. But the difference was that each kid took a different path to get there. Their journey was different. Again, same project, but allowing the flexibility in your classroom for that journey to look different.

The next path is the problem path and that is where students approach a problem and try to solve the problem. That one can have like two different lanes. In that sometimes everyone in the class is trying to solve the same problem. Or sometimes you identify a topic and then students find their own problem related to that topic.

One example might be that, when I was in my classroom I had students try to solve this trash problem in our school. We talked about the fact that there seemed to be trash that was just piling up out of the trash cans and we looked at it we were like, “Oh gosh, things in that trashcan could really be getting recycled but we don’t have a recycling program.” So as a class we worked to solve that particular problem while we were learning about ecology in our class.

Another way you could approach that is by saying okay students, we are going to study ecology. Here’s a little bit of background information about ecology and then students create their own questions related to that. Then they explore and work on throughout the unit.

The last is sort of the open-ended path. This is where like genius hour or 20% time come into play where students are just exploring something that is of interest to them and then they are being supported in doing that throughout the class.

But the real, the bottom line is that we need to make sure that everybody is finding their own entry point. Tom, you used that term toe in the water, and that is how we like to think about it. If the swimming pool is our student centered school, learner centered experiences, that’s our pool. Some people feel way more comfortable just going in one at a time.

Some people can jump in the deep end and they are ready to go. Some people are still on the lounge chair putting their suntan lotion on. That’s okay too. But we all want to be like making our step towards that pool, getting into that pool. So find the thing that works for you.

That might mean that you are not going to do all PBL at one time. It might just mean that you are going to try like redesigning your classroom so that it meets your learners’ needs. It may mean that you are going to just try flipping when that experiment happens in your classroom. Maybe it’s first instead of coming last.

So find the thing that kind of works for you. If you need to start with an idea or a project from the Buck Institute or one of those resources, do that. Start there. Let that be your first experience. But then build from that, reflect on it. Think about how I could have connected my kids to this more. But again, don’t be afraid to just try something. No one is going to be waiting to tell you you did it wrong.

Tom Murray:
Ross, what about you, what advice do you have for the viewers?

Ross Cooper:
I think first, Erin touched upon a great point. This whole idea that the big secret is that a lot of teachers are already doing project-based learning, or parts of project-based learning and they just don’t know it.

Whether it’s like giving effective feedback, redesigning a classroom, using some type of rubric, having the students solve problems. That might not be a full-blown PBL unit but teachers are definitely on their way there. In working with teachers, I think we found that they are pretty surprised when they are saying, “Wait a minute. I’m already doing PBL.” Or I’m already doing parts of PBL.

I think first for educators who are intimidated by it, as Erin said, there’s all these multiple entry points that we could choose based on our needs and based on what’s comfortable for us and our students. It’s like we want to differentiate learning for our students, let’s differentiate professional development for us in regards to the begin.

All of this, it’s not black-and-white. It’s not either you are doing PBL or you are not doing PBL. I guarantee you the majority of teachers are already doing parts of PBL in their classroom. It’s just a matter of continuing to move in that direction.

One of the things that works for Erin and I too was when we started out with PBL in our particular district, in the East Bend School District, as part of the initiative it was we don’t want to overwhelm you but this year the goal is, we’re going to support you, but the goal is that we just want you to take one unit this year with which you are comfortable and redesign it to make it a PBL experience.

That’s something else to keep in mind. This whole idea, as Erin alluded to, you don’t have to redesign everything. But just choose one. Choose one unit that really lends itself to PBL, and if you elementary school teacher, probably something that’s like science. Science really helps.

But any subject, whether it’s language arts, math, science or social studies could be PBL. Just start with that one unit. Collaborate with your colleagues, collaborate with colleagues in and out of your district and then just iterate and go from there the platforms you’ve done.

Tom Murray:
I believe you guys have a hashtag you constantly use to share things on different ideas with PBL. What is that hashtag? #HackingPBL, correct?

Ross Cooper:
#HackingPBL, yes.

Erin Murphy:

Tom Murray:
I’m sure they can find some great resources there. It is always awesome to be able to talk to authors who have poured their hearts into work like this, done the studies and taken a look and then also addressed some of the myths. I can’t thank you enough. I certainly recommend the book, Hacking Project based Learning. It is absolutely dynamic. Love the way you’ve all written that. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today and being able to share that around the nation today as well.

I do want to remind our viewers that information on the Future Ready effort can be found at We encourage and challenge districts superintendents to join over 3,100 district superintendents that have signed the Future Ready District pledge.

We also encourage our school leaders watching today to join us at one of this year’s eight Future Ready Institutes. Which as always, are totally free for leaders. This year we have a district leadership strand, a principal strand, an IT strand, a librarian strand, an instructional coaches strand. We have Albany, Future Ready Albany in New York coming up in July and Future Ready Palm Springs in California coming up in August.

I also want to encourage our viewers to get involved, as I mentioned, with one of these strands. We can check out those new strands also on Facebook now. Any of those strands. We encourage you to check those out as well.

I do want to think both Ross and Erin as well as you, our viewers, for investing the time today. Don’t forget to connect with us here at Future Ready on Twitter at @FutureReady and on Facebook at

If you missed any of today’s conversations it’s going to be archived at All4Ed, the number 4, All4Ed/webinars soon after this webinar. On that page, you can also see the list of upcoming webinars. Specifically, I hope that you join us for our next Future Ready webinar, which is going to be on communications planning for innovation in education: a new guide and district profiles on June 29 at 2 PM.

You can also find all the Alliance’s Google Hangouts on air on that channel as well. For those of you taking part in our Action Academy Badging Platform, the password for today’s webinar is Hack. Thank you again for joining us here at future ready. Have a fabulous day. We’ll see you next time.

Erin Murphy:
Thank you.

Ross Cooper:
Thank you.

[End of Audio]

Categories: Future Ready

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