Monthly Archives: March 2021

Project Based Learning: Let’s Say What we Mean and Mean What We Say

File:Project Based Activities in the Classroom of the Future.jpg (Creative Commons license)

Our education world is filled with terms that mean different things to different people. I’ve written before about the ambiguity of the terms formative assessment,  learning transfer, and brain-based learning/teaching. Any teacher with at least a few years experience can list education terms that are so ambiguous or are used in so many different ways that we have to be careful to define what we mean when we use those terms, especially when someone is advocating for a change in our classrooms. 

I’m currently working with people in my district on a “project based learning” (PBL) discussion, and I want to carefully define what we mean by this term before we start. This overall summary of PBL research by Jill Barshy highlights the importance of careful definitions in PBL. The post quotes a researcher trying to do a comprehensive review of PBL research, who concludes “… it has been difficult to assess whether there is good evidence for project-based learning because there’s so much confusion over what project-based learning is.” 

I suspect every teacher at every level uses something they may call a “project” to help students learn. They are one of the main tools we use to “hook” students and help them experience what it’s like to apply their knowledge and skills to answer a question or produce work that shows application of knowledge and skills to a “real world” issue. Here’s how one source (PBLWorks) defines Project based learning: 

“Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.(see also the “Gold Standard” PBL list from the same source) 

The “extended period of time” part of that definition is kind of vague, but the part of the definition that interests me most is the “gain knowledge and skills” part. Is it better if students get some direct instruction in the knowledge and skills they need BEFORE they try to complete a project? Or is it better if students dive right into a project and learn the knowledge and skills they need “on the fly” WHILE doing the project? 

I suspect the answer (like everything else in education) is “it depends on the context.” This blog post from the Learning Scientists tries to dig into the context of PBL projects and tackle our “should we teach the knowledge/skills before students start the project?” question head on:The Impact of Guided Discovery vs. Didactic Instruction on Learning (The Learning Scientists) In the post, Elham Arabi describes research investigating whether, “withholding the explicit instruction and allowing learners to discover by themselves enhance deep learning and increase transfer.” One important part of the conclusion from that blog post is the distinction between two terms: 

  • Discovery Learning: during a project, students are “left on their own to explore and discover ideas,” without direct instruction in knowledge or skills. Students have to discover the knowledge and skills they need on their own while doing the project. 
  • Guided Discovery: during a project, students “have access to prompts and domain knowledge from experts” (i.e. the teacher). Explicit instruction happens during the project to help students understand the knowledge and skills they need for the project. 

The experiments described in this blog post indicate that Guided Discovery is more effective than Discovery Learning, and that Guided Discovery may have advantages over explicit instruction because it may lead to students being able to transfer what they learn in the project to other applications because they understand the “deep structure” of a topic. 

These studies may help us think through the “knowledge/skills first, or knowledge skills during?” PBL question in my district. We will talk about the difference between Discovery Learning and Guided Discovery and what elements of Guided Discovery might be useful in our specific classroom contexts. 

A Gift For Teachers: Education As A Ratchet

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I’m writing this as a gift to teachers. I hope teachers get better gifts than this blog post: thank you notes from students and families, gift certificates to coffee shops, and maybe even a free adult beverage would be way better gifts than a blog post. But this is what I can do right now, and I hope this attempt at a thank you gift (with a special THANKS to my son’s teachers and all the other teachers in Lincoln Public Schools) makes someone smile and feel appreciated.

About 3 years ago I was invited to write a short speech in honor of the third anniversary of our new district office building. I’m still not sure why they asked me to do this, but I ended up writing something I’m proud of. Here’s the full text, and this is the part that stands out to me right now: 

“…we live in a time where the folks in our community give money to support a system that gives every single student access to an amazing variety of important learning experiences. In each of those classrooms, caring adults are working hard to help students discover the wisdom of human civilizations.”

I was trying to make a point that is discussed in a much more detailed way in this amazing Psychology Today blog: “How Culture Makes Us Smarter” . It’s long, but I highly recommend it. In the post, Steve Stewart-Williams walks the reader through “The Ratchet Effect” argument. Brief version of the argument: since humans evolved the ability to communicate orally and in writing, we can stockpile knowledge, skills, etc. over time. It’s like a ratchet: over time we humans can make a knowledge/skill gain – one click forward on the ratchet – and then we can communicate and preserve that knowledge for future humans, so the ratchet can’t click “backwards” and we don’t have to lose progress. Here’s a relevant (and inspirational!) quote from the post: 

“We don’t each need to have our own Eureka moments to understand fluid dynamics; we don’t each need to have an apple fall on our head to understand gravity; and we don’t each need to dream of a snake eating its own tail to understand the structure of the benzene molecule. All we need is to go to school, or to own a library card, or to have an Internet connection. We can then download into our brains some of the achieved knowledge of the species.”

I love this idea and the ratchet analogy. Teachers, here’s the “gift”: it may often feel like all your efforts aren’t helping anyone. You answer thousands of questions every day (really! Thousands!) , provide feedback to hundreds of students, and deal with a huge level of cognitive load while teaching. This year, on top of all that, many (most, I think) teachers got to very quickly learn how to teach online, revise materials for online learning, and many of you got to teach in person students and online students at the same time. I got to experience this “hyflex” teaching model the few times I covered classrooms for teachers, and… wow. I had to write myself notes, keep my “zoomer” students on the same screen as my slides, and all sorts of other cognitive load lessening tricks just to make it through the period. 

So does all this effort add up to anything? You are knocking yourself out mentally and physically – does it do any good? Even if some days it feels like the answer is “No” (or, on the worst days, “Hell no”) , please know that YES, IT DOES! You are part of one of the most amazing systems in the history of humans: the cultural ratchet. You, your work, your brain, your caring, your relationships with students, and all the work you do help nudge that “learning ratchet” one notch forward for students every day. You often can’t see it or measure that impact, but you are doing it. So, THANKS. 

Last thing: I like thinking about the purposes of teaching and education, and this cultural ratchet idea is sticking with me for right now. But there are many other great perspectives on this same topic, and they are super fun to think about too: 

  • Bill Ayers wrote a book called “To Teach” and he writes eloquently about what a teacher’s mission might be. 
  • Nel Noddings argues that the reason teachers teach and we set up schools for students is because we CARE. The “ethic of care” might operate underneath everything we do, and drive our decisions as teachers.


I am a lucky fellow: I got to attend the online conference “THE SCIENCE OF TEACHING DURING A PANDEMIC: Creating Motivated, Focused, Active, Autonomous Learners” organized by Learning & the Brain . I’ll start with an admission: I loved going to academic conferences, and I hope to get to travel to in-person conferences again someday. An all day virtual conference didn’t appeal to me, but the line up of speakers at this conference was too good to pass up. This conference turned me into a believer: I think I may have learned more at this one day virtual conference than I have at multi-day in person conferences. I expect it would have been even more powerful in person, but Zooming in to these talks was unexpectedly effective and fun. I’m a believer, and I hope the virtual format allows more people to attend conferences like this one. 

This blog post is an attempt at a summary of the conference highlights for me, and I’m sharing it in case it’s useful for someone who isn’t as lucky as I am and couldn’t attend this conference. For those of you who want the complete summary, here are my notes (warning: I editorialize!) 

8:00 Keynote: Uncommon Sense Teaching: Keeping Students Focused, Motivated, and Engaged in the Classroom and Online – B. Oakley

  • I’m cautious whenever anyone in education/teaching research tries to use brain research (there are SO MANY examples of overgeneralizations of brain research in education advice) but Dr. Oakley is definitely the real deal. She uses brain research cautiously and precisely, as far as I can tell. 
  • Her “Neuron as space alien” idea is super cute and useful. 
  • The discussion of Dopamine’s role in learning was new to me. Dopamine allows the stimulus response conditioning (positive reinforcement). Parent excitement can be a reward for a baby – dopamine allows that reward system to work. You only get a dopamine hit if learners don’t EXPECT the rewards. No dopamine increase for an expected reward (related to the mouse research on latent learning?). An unexpected reward = dopamine boost which strengthens the connection (long term potentiation?) This finding may have implications for how we use rewards, etc. for student motivation (I’m interested in thinking about how this connects with the advice in Peps Mccrea’s new book Motivated Teaching). 

9:10 Keynote: How Learning Happens in the Classroom and Online – Paul A. Kirschner

  • Dr. Kirschner is a “pull no punches” kind of writer/speaker, and I’m excited to hear his clear, direct advice. He helped me before with a learning equation
  • “Please close your WMDs – weapons of mass distraction” 
  • Dr. Kirschner discussed research about “Advance organizers” – I’m interested in checking that research to see what might be useful for teachers in my district. 
  • He asked a tough question:
    • What’s the most powerful influence on learning?
  1. The teacher
  2. The teaching method
  3. Student prior knowledge
  4. Learner motivation
  • The answer to this question (3! Prior knowledge!) relates to Assimilation/Subsumption theory: new information is linked and assimilated into already existing knowledge. Meaningful learning = constructing meaning from new information (Connections to constructivism! Dewey!) Learning depends on information processing.
  • Then we got to go on a great, concise tour of learning/memory theories: Information processing (Atkinson and Shiffrin), Baddeley (Central executive, PL and VSS), Sweller Cognitive Load theory, Pavio Dual Coding theory, Mayer’s cog theory of multimedia 

10:20 Option 5 (K-12): The Future of Technology and Assessment in Schools – Christodoulou

  • Dr. Christodoulou just published a book about technology and teaching. I haven’t read it yet so I was especially excited to get a preview.
  • In her book, she tries to figure out what these terms/ideas actually mean: personalization, online content, active learning, screen based learning. I loved how she talked about these issues. She imagined a “contiuuum” for each idea and described the ends of each continuum. The bottom end = “not effective for learning” and the top end = “Effective for learning.”
    • Personalization: not effective end = learning style. Effective end = adaptive learning
    • Online content: not effective end = “you don’t need to teach anything that you can google”, Effective end = Multimedia learning (Mayer’s principles) 
    • Active learning: Not effective end = “learn by doing” (what students are THINKING about is the important thing, not what they are physically doing). Effective end: learn by quizzing
    • Screen based learning: less effective = all purpose devices (can be really distracting). More effective: dumber devices (using app blockers) (e.g. one laptop per child didn’t work)
  • I love this approach. Talking about the continuum instead of binary right/wrong ideas is much more useful and realistic
  • She also talked about the Comparative Judgment technique. This was a great reminder of something I learned about a while ago, and I was so motivated that I signed up for one of her free Comparative Judgment webinars and I’m trying to figure out how this idea might be useful with some social studies assessments in my district.  

11:50 Keynote Option 1: Helping Kids Teach Themselves) Willingham

  • I think Dr. Willingham is one of the best science communicators out there, and I appreciate all his work trying to clearly summarize what psychology research can tell us about teaching and learning. He’s great. 
  • In this talk, he synthesized research about why students procrastinate, how to use research about selective attention, studying methods, and checks for understanding/questioning techniques to overcome procrastination and other learning obstacles.
  • Overall: he may be our best “research summarizer” in education. We need more of this kind of overall synthesis and then we need to act on it. When we want to try something new, we shouldn’t start from the beginning. We need solid ground to stand on.

1:00 Option 5 (All Grades): Embedded Formative Assessments in Schools: Using Strategies that Drive Student Motivation, Self-Regulation, and Learning – Dylan Wiliam

  • Dylan Wiliam is so good at starting with clear definitions and working from there to logical conclusions based on research. 
  • If we define earning as a change in long term memory (makes sense!) then we have to remember that this is a LONG term process. If we forget it in a week, it wasn’t learning. We should reserve the word learning for a relatively long term change in LTM. 
  • Teaching takes place in time, learning takes place over time
  • I love this definition of assessment: a device for drawing inferences or conclusions. That definition clarifies some muddy waters (like the horribly abused terms formative and summative assessment!) 
  • Love this quote: “The only important thing about feedback is what students do with it.”
  • “None of Hattie’s effect sizes make any sense”  – damn! Shots fired!

There were many other talks I would have loved to hear: Steve Chew! David Daniel! James Lang! Richard Mayer! It was a great conference, and if anyone wants to talk about any of these ideas, please holler!