Project-based learning at scale

BettendorfMS01

Most schools that dive deep into project-based learning tend to be smaller charter or magnet schools that have the ability to hire new educators and create new schedules and instructional paradigms from scratch. Bettendorf Middle School, in contrast, has been around a while and often resembles other large middle schools across the nation. With over 1,100 students and about 70 instructional staff, a move to a project-based learning paradigm meant shifting legacy structures and mindsets rather than creating from a blank slate. Nonetheless, the school took up the challenge…

Exposed to some faculty from High Tech High a few years back, the school decided to go all in. Most of the staff now have visited the original High Tech High campus in California and the decision was made several years ago to incorporate project-based learning into every Bettendorf Middle School course at least twice a year. Projects at the school range from two to twelve weeks. Teachers put together proposals and then have to pitch their projects to a panel of teacher peers AND students. Together they all use Bettendorf’s project tuning protocol to make the projects meaningful, relevant, and of high quality. All projects incorporate essential curriculum standards to ensure that students are addressing critical learning outcomes. Students hold community exhibitions twice per year to show their learning.

Projects are numerous and varied. For instance, an English teacher had her students investigate the question, What is essential?, which ultimately led to the creation of three separate 9’ x 15’ tiny houses. Students designed, built, and decorated the homes themselves and incorporated essential ELA standards into their work as they wrote and reflected about their attempts to do various tasks within the homes. In another class, students worked with a local senior citizens home to interview residents, write biographies, and create an abstract piece of art that reflected each interviewee’s life. As you can imagine, the unveiling and gifting of these student-created products to the residents was incredibly moving and emotional.

Another project involved creating a community garden. Students worked with a local landscape company to create ten garden plots, write by-laws, create logos, engage in marketing, and build support structures such as a shed. Every garden plot was quickly rented out by the community. Students in another course investigated the question, What is true survival? Although that question initially revolved around outdoor survival techniques, by project’s end student investigations and writing had turned toward such diverse topics as mountaineering, homelessness, food insecurity, and divorce.

Most of this instructional planning, assessment, and standards coverage work is addressed within traditional professional learning communities (PLCs), with some additional assistance from the school’s three instructional coaches. The emphasis is on robust, hands-on and minds-on work and on developing powerful essential questions to frame students’ learning.

Bettendorf Middle School is moving forward in exciting new directions, including a recent global project involving the essential question, Is revolution justified?, that involved 1,000 participating students from nine different schools around the world.

What could you do at YOUR traditional school?

Image credit: Bettendorf Middle School


Seed-to-table at Gilmore City-Bradgate

Child gardening at Gilmore City-Bradgate Elementary School 01

[Want to be the Seed-to-Table Manager here? Read the job description and then email the superintendent.]

Shovels busy at work, three young children dig and cut through the earth, turning over the rich black soil underneath. They have a long planting row to create, but the sun is out and the weather is perfect.

Their female classmate, in her blue-striped jumper and pink flip flops, carefully pats dirt around a seedling. It’s one of many in her grade’s row. Another student will be by shortly to make sure that it’s watered.

Walking tenderly to avoid the young shoots, a boy carries a few small boxes with new plants to be added to the garden. Apparently he’s a bit chillier than his t-shirt-clad peers since he’s wearing long sleeves and a down vest.

Inspired by their teachers’ visit to the Muse School in Los Angeles, elementary students in the Gilmore City-Bradgate School District in Northwest Iowa are diving deep into the seed-to-table movement. The early childhood and daycare kids are in charge of the onions, radishes, spinach, lettuce, peas, and potatoes. Kindergarten has pole beans, bush beans, tomatoes, and peppers. First and second grade has zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, and beets. Third and fourth grade has kohlrabi, eggplant, and some more beans. The fifth and sixth graders do the heavy lifting with corn, cantaloupes, and watermelons.

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There’s a small shed for tools and equipment. Over on the side is the herb garden, where the students are growing chives, oregano, dill, basil, and cilantro. Old pallets are being re-used to make compost bins. The tree stumps constitute an ‘outdoor classroom’ where students and teachers can sit, talk, and learn together.

The produce will be used both in the school district’s food service program and to help the food insecure in the local community. Families and staff will receive vegetables and herbs as well. And there are plans to get involved in the local farmer’s market…

Achieving science, numeracy, literacy, and other instructional outcomes while being connected to both nature and the community? Awesome.

What could your school do to reconnect students to the natural rhythms of the earth and the people around them?

Gilmore City-Bradgate CSD garden diagram


Thanks for a great run, Iowa

Some of you know that I’m headed back to higher education (after a 4-year hiatus to keep a promise to my daughter that she could finish high school here in Ames, Iowa). I will be an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Colorado-Denver starting in August. We will miss Iowa tremendously but we’re also excited to explore some gorgeous mountains!

I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve done the past 9 years in this state with the very substantial help and partnership of some wonderful colleagues. Here’s a partial list:

  • rejuvenated a struggling educational leadership program at Iowa State University, including doubling our program’s enrollment, faculty, and tuition revenue;
  • graduated 13 Ph.D. students as their primary advisor;
  • brought in over $350,000 in external grants and contracts;
  • published 18 peer-reviewed articles, 1 book, 6 book chapters, 32 invited publications, 8 research briefs and white papers, and 63 other publications;
  • was a visiting faculty fellow in New Zealand;
  • worked with over 130 different Iowa schools, associations, and other organizations;
  • immersed several hundred Iowa principals and superintendents in 6 to 12 days of technology leadership development;
  • sparked the nation’s largest statewide, grass roots 1:1 computing initiative (220+ districts and counting);
  • launched the annual Iowa 1:1 Institute, which rivals in size the other major education conferences in Iowa;
  • initiated EdCampIowa, which I believe is still the nation’s largest single-day EdCamp event;
  • launched the new technology innovation team for Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency;
  • created the trudacot technology integration discussion protocol, which is now spreading across the globe;
  • delivered hundreds of keynote, peer-reviewed academic, and other presentations and workshops, including 2 endowed lectures;
  • created 3 new Did You Know? (Shift Happens) videos and numerous other digital and online resources;
  • supported thousands of Iowa teachers and administrators as they move toward deeper thinking, student agency, authentic work, and technology infusion;
  • was a visible and vocal advocate for Iowa students and public schools;
  • served in dozens of advisory board, task force, editorial board, and other state and national leadership and service roles;
  • named one of three finalists to be the Director of the Iowa Department of Education;
  • received the ITEC Technology Leadership Award, the School Administrators of Iowa Friend of the Association Award, the Phi Delta Kappa Emerging Leader Award, the National School Boards Association 20 to Watch Award, the Center for Digital Education Education Innovator Award, and the ISTE Award for Outstanding Leadership.

That seems like a pretty good run to me… Thanks to everyone who’s been a part of this fun and hopefully-impactful work. Looking forward to my next adventures!


New literacies, anyone?

Iowa Core

The Iowa Department of Education is soliciting feedback on the state’s literacy standards. Here’s the comment I left:

The Iowa Literacy Standards represent traditional, foundational conceptions of literacy. They do NOT reflect the 21st century literacy standards articulated by NCTE, however. Nor do they reflect digital and online multimedia literacies related to interactive media (see, e.g., the interactive storytelling and virtual reality narratives created by The New York Times), transmedia, augmented or virtual reality, and other evolving mechanisms for presenting information and conveying narratives. In short, the Iowa Literacy Standards do a decent job of articulating old literacies but not what the scholars call ‘new literacies.’ As such, we continue to prepare students for yesterday, not today and tomorrow…

And, no, the separate and thus non-integrated 21st century skills section of the Iowa Core is not enough.


Don’t underestimate Kelly Tenkely

Anastasis 02

It would be very easy to underestimate Kelly Tenkely. She’s young, she’s hip, she’s got a style sense that I’ll never have even if I live four lifetimes. It would be very easy to say, “Who is this woman?” and dismiss her out of hand.

But before you do, read her blog post on what’s sacred in education. And remember that most of the structures that you have in place in your school are a result of institutional inertia and deliberate choices, not legal requirements. And then read it again.

What could you do differently? Are you even trying?

Image credit: Anastasis Academy


3 killers of student creativity and ownership

Three killers of student creativity and ownership:

    1. The teacher and textbook are always right.
    2. There is a correct answer and it’s your job to find, regurgitate, and/or comply with it.
    3. If you question either #1 or #2, you get in trouble.

(these apply to behavior too, not just learning)


Redesigning technology-infused lessons and units at ASB Unplugged

I facilitated three workshops at ASB Unplugged in Mumbai, India this year for international school educators. All three sessions went extremely well and the folks at the American School of Bombay were impeccable hosts, as always.

In my sessions we discussed deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work, and rich technology infusion. We utilized the trudacot discussion protocol to redesign lessons, units, and other learning activities. We had some amazing conversations and came up with all kinds of ways to #makeitbetter. Padlet screenshots are below. Right-click on the image to see a larger version or click on the date to see the actual Padlet. Let me know as you have questions. I love working with administrators and teachers on this kind of redesign work!

February 24

ASB Unplugged Feb 24

February 26

ASB Unplugged Feb 26

February 27

ASB Unplugged Feb 27


3 minutes: Redesigning lessons with trudacot [VIDEO]

I’m finally posting the video from my Redesigning lessons with trudacot presentation at ISTE last year. 3 minutes. Happy viewing!

Want to learn more about the trudacot discussion protocol?


The Des Moines Register’s editorial on student retention is lazy and irresponsible

Dr. John Hattie, Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, spent 15 years synthesizing the vast body of peer-reviewed, meta-analytical research pertaining to student achievement. In his highly-acclaimed book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, he highlighted 138 different factors that can influence student learning success. Grade-level retention was one of only five factors that negatively impacts student achievement. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: grade-level retention is one of the few school factors that actually decreases student academic success.

Hattie went on to state:

It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative. (p. 99)

and

The only question of interest relating to retention is why it persists in the face of this damning evidence. (p. 98)

Back in January 2014, I noted that

Study after study, researcher after researcher, finds the same few things about retention:

  • No long-term achievement gains. Being retained does not increase academic achievement in the long run. Let’s say that again: being retained does NOT increase academic achievement in the long run. Sometimes we see short-term score bumps but they always wash out by the upper grades. This is true even in Florida, whose educational ‘miracle’ Iowa is apparently desperate to emulate despite having better overall academic achievement, high school graduation rates, etc. A quick comparison of NAEP proficiency rates shows that Florida may have found ways to artificially inflate its 4th grade reading scores – results always look better when low-achievers have been removed from the grade cohort and/or students have had an extra year of schooling – but by 8th grade its students revert back to the lower half of the national rankings. [Quick aside: if Iowans want to reclaim our place at the top of the state education rankings, shouldn’t we be adopting practices of the states that do better, not worse, than us?] This means that – despite intuition and anecdotes to the contrary – there are no long-term achievement differences between students who are retained and those who are ‘socially promoted.’ One more time in case it’s not clear: “there are more positive effects in the long term for promoted students than for retained students – even when matched for achievement at the time of decision to retain or promote” (Hattie, p. 97).
  • Significantly higher dropout rates. Students who are retained don’t do any better academically in the long run but they do have a significantly higher risk of dropping out. For example, one study showed that 65% to 90% of overage children in grade 9 do not persist to graduation. Retention has found to be a stronger predictor of student dropout than socioeconomic status or parental education. That extra year is a killer – literally – when it comes to retained students’ secondary school completion rates. Florida’s graduation rate is 43rd in the country, while Iowa’s is 5th. Again, why are we emulating downward?
  • Lower life success. Retention has been shown to negatively impact long-term life success factors such as postsecondary education attendance, pay per hour, and employment competence ratings. Retained students also are more likely to display aggression during adolescence.
  • No increase in motivation. Retention – or the threat of retention – is not a motivating force for students. Students don’t try harder and aren’t motivated to do better after they’re retained. Instead, retention greatly diminishes student self-concept and impairs self-efficacy. Just to make clear how wrong DE’s statement is, research shows that students would rather wet themselves in class in front of their peers than be retained.
  • Discriminatory impacts. Students of color are four times as likely to be retained as their White counterparts, even when they exhibit the same academic achievement. Students in poverty also are more likely to be retained than their more affluent peers. The burdens that come with being retained are borne primarily by those students whom already are traditionally-disadvantaged by existing schooling practices.

So there we have it: incredible damage to students’ self-concept, substantial increases in students’ dropout rates, and significant reductions in students’ future life success – with bonus discriminatory impacts! – all for the mere potential of a statistically-manipulable, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t test score bump for interstate bragging rights. And, if that weren’t enough, we also get to pay more and get a worse outcome! It would be difficult to envision an educational practice that has less going for it than retention. And yet it is now enshrined into Iowa law, to be made operational (and, apparently, rationalized) by our Department of Education. [One final aside: DE also tries to justify retention because “we really want to get parents to take their child’s literacy development very, very seriously.” Most parents care very much about their children’s literacy development, of course. Parents of struggling readers need help and support, not blame or stigmatization or penalization of their children.

Similarly, I said back in April 2012:

Please realize that it doesn’t matter how many safeguards are put into place before retention occurs. The issue is the retention itself, not the procedures that lead up to it.

The proposed interventions in early grades for struggling readers are desirable and necessary. But, plain and simple, retention hurts kids. It has no proven long-term benefit and many long-term harmful consequences. If you want to ensure that students don’t leave elementary school illiterate, hire a personal tutor for academically-struggling 4th graders. It would be cheaper than paying for their repeated 3rd grade year.

In that January 2014 blog post I said that

Retention is not a policy unknown. Even the laziest of reporters or legislators can do a quick Google Scholar search and see that decades of peer-reviewed studies are clear that retention hurts kids and will hurt Iowa.

As evidenced by today’s editorial favoring student retention, apparently even that quick Google Scholar search was too much for the editors at The Des Moines Register. Citing a poll of Iowa citizens (that they commissioned) and a quote from Governor Branstad – both of which are disproven by actual data – appears to be all of the effort that they were willing to make as they lazily and irresponsibly ignored the vast weight of research and data on this issueStudents rate grade-level retention as a life stressor on par with losing a parent and going blind. Retention flies in the face of both overwhelming research and day-to-day evidence that children learn at different rates. But clearly none of this matters to the Register editors. Unless we want to be like Mississippi, the children of Iowa deserve better from our state’s flagship paper. 

Mackenzie Ryan retention 'loophole' tweet

Image credit: Mackenzie Ryan, Des Moines Register education reporter

P.S. Whatever mechanisms exist in Iowa law for third grade students to avoid being retained are the result of knowledgeable parents, educators, and policymakers advocating against proven-to-be-harmful policy. They’re not ‘loopholes.’ They represent sound educational practice backed by data.

[And, yes, the Iowa Reading Research Center should have written this instead of me.]


The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores

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The latest results are available from the annual Gallup poll of middle and high school students. Over 920,000 students participated last fall. Here are a couple of key charts that I made from the data:

 2015 Gallup Student Poll 1

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 2015 Gallup Student Poll 2

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The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. The disenfranchisement of our youth continues to happen in the very institutions that are allegedly preparing them to be ‘life long learners.’

See also


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