I’ve written about Iowa BIG before. What I love about the school is that you can’t tell the 4.0 student from the student who was struggling academically back at his ‘mothership’ high school because at Iowa BIG they’re both doing amazing work. Joziah Grimm shares his story below. Happy viewing!
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
The Van Meter Schools have long been an incubator for innovation. Van Meter was one of our earliest districts to implement a 1-to-1 student computing initiative and also was one of the first districts in Iowa to be named an Apple Distinguished School.
More recently, Van Meter has been diving deeply into project-based learning, standards-based grading, competency-based education, and flexible, modular schedules in which students can exercise some choice and determine how much time they need to spend on their various learning endeavors. Van Meter’s work in the area of student competencies is especially impressive. Eventually, the district hopes to identify a comprehensive, interdisciplinary set of standards that all high school students need – plus an additional 6 to 10 competencies or dispositions – and these will become the district’s graduation requirements. Students will be able to take multiple pathways to get there, including projects, traditional coursework, online classes, and anything else that feeds into the district’s profile of a graduate. The hope is that most students will be able to complete these by junior year and then will be able to spend their senior year taking college classes, getting professional certifications, diving deeper into areas of interest and passion, and engaging in internships and service learning projects.
Teachers are in on the action too and rarely participate in whole-school learning contexts. Instead, classroom educators take a competency-based approach to their own professional learning and, through identification of the skills that they have and need, are able to personalize their professional growth. A badging system to track teachers’ professional learning is in the works.
What I like about Van Meter is that, in the words of Superintendent Deron Durflinger, they “often have a willingness to take risks and try things that other districts wait for. If folks out there are doing cool stuff, we’re not going to hold back on trying it out.” This orientation toward risk-taking allows Van Meter to live at the cutting edge of leading educational innovation movements and to iterate quickly toward new opportunities. Initiatives that many other districts consider to be organizational stretches are thought of by Van Meter as just part of how it does business.
Van Meter also has framed its work appropriately. Instead of each initiative being a stand-alone, disconnected program within a traditional school setup, everything that Van Meter does is woven together and oriented toward the ultimate goal of personalizing student learning. For instance, when asked what they are most excited about, administrators will say that at the top of their list are the types of questions that teachers are asking about how to better help individual students and their educators’ willingness to reexamine and alter current practices as needed.
The district is in the process of building a new school that will create different and varied kinds of learning spaces for students. I am sure that this new building will be amazing. But the district’s long-term impacts on students will be a result of its ongoing willingness to reorient its instructional practices and its organizational support systems that facilitate more robust forms of learning and teaching.
Is your district leading for innovation?
Do you know about Iowa BIG? Co-located with a corporate startup accelerator at a former brownfield site of Iowa Steel, Iowa BIG is a project-based learning option for Cedar Rapids area high school students. Students spend half of their day at their traditional, ‘mother ship’ high school and the other half at Iowa BIG. Local businesses, nonprofits, and city agencies pitch proposed projects to the students, hoping that talented youth will take up their challenges. Students pick from the project pool and then work with school and community mentors to accomplish the work, achieving curricular standards and other learning outcomes – like 21st century skills and Iowa’s Universal Constructs – along the way.
The work done by Iowa BIG students is quite impressive. Example student projects include transforming the Bever Park Zoo into an interactive and educational urban farm, co-researching the evolution of grapes with the University of Northern Iowa, creating a one-handed keyboard for amputees, and redesigning a local elementary into a STEAM magnet school. Other examples include development of a waterborne drone that measures plastic waste in oceans, designing arthritis-friendly utensils, creating a documentary of Linn County’s first medical examiner, designing and testing an aquaponics system in North Africa, developing a recycling bin that tweets to the Internet what gets recycled, and initiating a young women’s entrepreneurship community and conference.
Iowa BIG is up to nearly 100 high school students this year and its approach is expanding to other schools in the Cedar Rapids area. Recent data confirm what we would imagine: students are much more engaged in their learning and seem to be doing better academically than comparable peers. When students are voluntarily working on their projects over the summer and talking about coming back to the city to ‘keep doing this kind of work after we graduate from college,’ you know something is going right.
Are you underestimating the work that your students could do?
Image credit: Bethany Jordan
High school student Jeff Bliss famously said in 2013, “If you would just get up and teach them instead of handing them a freakin’ packet, yo. It’s kids in here that don’t learn like that. They need to learn face to face.” Unfortunately, too many alternative high schools are just about worksheet packets and self-paced online courses. East Campus in Muscatine, Iowa takes a different approach, one that is paying enormous dividends in terms of student engagement, academic success, and high school completion.
East Campus has a strong emphasis on hands-on academic activity. For example, students learn about metal absorption, evolution of plant species, and trait adaptation in science by engaging in real-world hydroponics and phytoremediation projects. They partner with the University of Iowa and Muscatine Power & Water to do this work, learning about cell biology, ions, and molecular polarity along the way. Similarly, they’re learning about urban renewal and the environmental impacts of human behaviors through the lens of bicycling, applying their English / Language Arts skills as they evaluate resources, write grant proposals, utilize social media, and engage in marketing techniques to advocate for more bicycle-friendly areas in their community.
Students also are investigating molecular structures by testing sugar substitutes and seeing which configurations taste better; the end goal is to create a book or video that places a culinary lens on the subject of chemistry. They’re working with a nonprofit that makes hand-powered bicycles for people who have lost the use of their legs, analyzing different countries and cultures to determine where the need for such transportation is greatest. Most students are learning to code, and nearly all of them are incredibly active in their community’s Blue Zones initiative, helping the food insecure grow healthy vegetables and making commercials that promote healthy behaviors. They work with Monsanto to understand the seed production process. They make documentaries with local survivors of heart disease for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. They’re using scrum boards and other project management techniques. Their video production work is so fantastic that they participate in national media conferences and get asked by out-of-state businesses to make videos and commercials. And so on…
The work that East Campus students do isn’t sitting at a desk regurgitating facts from a textbook. They’re not just answering a few short essay questions based on a teacher lecture days before. Instead, they’re engaged in challenging, real world work. Their assessment is in the quality of what they do, not just recalling minutiae that can be found in five seconds with a smartphone voice command. Are your high school students doing this kind of complex, authentic work on a regular basis? Are your local youth making a positive, meaningful impact on their community and the world around them?
In his most recent TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson notes that our best alternative education programs are “very personalized” and often “involve students outside school as well as inside school. And all the evidence from around the world is – if we all did that – there’d be no need for the alternative.” East Campus proves that every day, reclaiming students’ brilliance that too often gets lost in our more traditional systems.
What do student projects look like in your school? In most classrooms, so-called student ‘projects’ look like sugar cube pyramids, styrofoam ball solar systems, coat hanger mobiles, and dioramas. Or maybe posters, brochures, or PowerPoint presentations. Or 3-dimensional structures made out of construction paper, cardboard, paper mâché, and other materials. The common factor across these ‘projects’ typically is the presentation of low-level facts found from a textbook or the Internet. But none of these rise to the level of ‘gold standard’ project-based learning (PBL), opportunities for students in which they are doing deep, complex thinking work over many days or weeks, usually in collaboration with others and enhanced by relevant, meaningful uses of digital technologies.
As leaders, why should we care about project-based learning? Because if we want graduates who are critical thinkers and problem solvers, we have to create learning environments in which students get to practice those skills in meaningful, authentic ways. Higher-level thinkers don’t just magically emerge from low-level thinking spaces. And that means we have to expect more from what we have traditionally called a learning ‘project.’
The Buck Institute for Education has outlined 8 essential elements of PBL, including significant content, a driving question, opportunities for inquiry and innovation, and high levels of student voice and choice. Typical classroom ‘projects’ lack these essential elements and thus are mostly busy work. The content isn’t significant because it’s just recall and regurgitation. There is no big question driving students’ efforts. And every student work product looks the same, which, as Chris Lehmann notes, means that it isn’t a project, it’s a recipe (e.g., 20 identical student posters of a cow’s digestive system!). We can do better…
There are many different models for creating high-quality PBL experiences for students. For example, here in Iowa the Iowa BIG School in Cedar Rapids has organized its entire school day around rich inquiry and problem solving. The Spirit Lake, Okoboji, Newell-Fonda, and North Union school districts all have two-week PBL sessions in January or May in which students spend 50 or more hours immersed in deeper projects. Some Iowa teachers are experimenting with genius hour, 20% time, and other structures to facilitate student passion projects. And across the country and planet a bevy of other models are emerging as well.
John Dewey famously reminded us that we learn what we do. If students spend 90% of their time making a poster / mobile / shoe box float and 10% of their time writing down facts that they quickly look up and rarely retain, we can’t really say that significant learning is occurring. The products look nice but there’s little substance behind them. As leaders, I encourage you to walk around your schools and look at the ‘projects’ that your students are doing. Ask yourself if the creation of those student work products requires deep, complex thinking and problem solving. And, if not, get some conversations started about how to make student projects richer and better…
What do student projects look like in your school?
Image credit: Russ M
When I work with educators, I get asked on a regular basis, “What about the universities? What are they doing to prepare educators who can facilitate technology-infused learning environments that emphasize deeper cognitive complexity and greater student agency?” Unfortunately, I don’t have much to offer them.
I’m not up on all of the thousands of preparation programs that are out there but, as I think about the shifts that we need to see in schools (and the new building blocks that we need to put in place), at a minimum any teacher preparation program that wanted to label itself ‘world-class’ would be able to affirmatively say the following…
Our graduates know…
Project- and inquiry-based learning
- how to operate in student-driven, not just teacher-created, project-oriented learning environments
- how to facilitate inquiry-based activities like ‘passion projects’ or ‘FedEx days’ or ’20% time’ or ‘genius hour’
- how to facilitate students’ development as creators, designers, innovators, and entrepreneurs
- how to integrate communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills into these types of environments
Authentic, real-world work
- how to organize student work around the big, important concepts central to their discipline
- how real work gets done by real professionals in that discipline (practices, processes, tools, and technologies)
- how to find, create, and implement robust, authentic simulations for their subject area
- how to facilitate and assess authentic performances by students
Standards-based grading and competency-based education
- how to write and implement a ‘competency’
- how to help students thrive in a standards-based grading environment
- how to facilitate learning-teaching systems that focus on mastery rather than seat time (or other dumb criteria)
- how to manage and support ubiquitous technology-infused learning spaces
- how to facilitate student success with digital tools, online systems, and social networks
- how to help students create appropriate AND empowered ‘digital footprints’
Digital, online, and open access
- how to leverage digital and online open educational resources to full advantage
- how to meaningfully curate digital materials in their subject area
- how to helpfully contribute to our online global information commons (and have students do the same)
Online communities of interest
- how to utilize online networks and communities of practice to further their professional learning and growth
- how to meaningfully connect students to relevant online communities of interest for academic and personal development
Adaptive learning systems
- how to integrate adaptive learning software into students’ learning and assessment
- how to utilize blended learning environments to individualize and personalize students’ learning experiences (time, place, path, pace)
I think most teacher preparation programs probably fall short of the mark on these, but a program that could say these things about its preservice teachers would be INCREDIBLE.
What do you think? What would you add to this list? More importantly, does anyone know of a teacher preparation program that’s doing well in some / many / most of these areas?
Kari Webb says:
If you give a kid a fish, she’ll eat for a day. If you teach a kid to fish, she’ll eat for a lifetime.
But… if you let that kid investigate a local fish population, working alongside regional experts in fish management and the aquatic environment – she may develop a love of STEM which will launch a career in sustainable resource management, with the goal of feeding the whole planet.
I am increasingly convinced that an essential component of STEM education is the inclusion of locally-relevant problem solving. . . [T]his is the hook which will capture the minds and the hearts of our youngest problem solvers. We need to match STEM-mentors with teachers and students, and then encourage everyone to jump into the deeper waters of collaborative, student-centered, problem-based learning.
STEM challenges are real, and real challenges often involve failure, messiness, and unexpected complications (anyone who has ever gone camping knows the truth of this statement). The role of the STEM professional is to help students press through the set-backs, ultimately establishing precisely the sort of tenacity (e.g., grit) that Iowa’s future demands. . .
Iowa should cast the STEM-net in deep water, looking for a catch that includes STEM business partners, non-formal educators, and teachers and learners from just about every discipline.
FedEx Day: a 24-hour hackathon in which individuals or teams work on new ideas and new projects. Participants must work on something that’s not part of their daily work and, most importantly, they have to deliver something in 24 hours (in the words of Seth Godin, “they need to ship“).
Here are some resources on FedEx Days generally and for schools specifically. Happy innovating!
General resources and information
- What it takes to do new things at work, overnight
- Atlassian ShipIt Days: FAQs and past events
- How to deliver innovation overnight
- Lighting corporate passion: Everything you need to know about FedEx Day
- 10 reasons why you should organize a FedEx day
- Six Feet Up’s fifth FedEx Day yields 13 successful projects
- ShipIt: A little pamphlet for people who can