Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Perkins Educational Consulting has merged with TeachThought Professional Development!

Thank you for your readership. I have recently taken the position of Director of Professional Development at TeachThought.com. Please visit our TeachThought PD site here: TeachThought.com/PD.

Drew Perkins

Thursday, October 29, 2015

5 Levers for Better Quality Thinking and Learning through PBL

As I've written before (What PBL Can Do For Your School...And What It Won't) project based learning can be an amazing tool for student, teacher, and school growth but only if you're getting great thinking and learning as a result. It's not enough to just have students making something or doing hands on, experiential work. Quality PBL takes advantage of built in and designed levers of quality that helps the teacher as facilitator align the thinking and learning we're after in our students. As the graphic below shows, it's these 5 Levers of Quality working in concert that elevates the desired thinking and learning whether that be content standards, skills, or both.

Aligned Thinking and Learning

Project is intentionally designed to solicit thinking around desired standards, content, & skills students need to know.
When planning for project design what thinking and learning do we want our teaching to align with? While this certainly can be and most often is focused on content and standards, that may not necessarily be the case with all projects. In fact there's a great case to be made for a very healthy balance between content and skills and perhaps even focusing on thought to more deeply learn content. The big emphasis here though is that there is intentionality in planning on the part of the teacher/facilitator about the thinking and learning, whatever that may be, that students will need to know and demonstrate understanding of in order to complete the project and challenge.

Rich Inquiry

Project provides multiple opportunities & need for high level questioning by students & teacher.
A More Beautiful Question
Good facilitators/teachers plan good questions to ask learners, great ones plan for scenarios from which great questions grow from everyone. Throughout a project we want to see opportunities and the need for students and teachers to ask questions both planned and organically. Starting with an open-ended Driving Question aligned with the desired thinking and learning, students might have questions for an outside expert, questions for fellow students around a text or other resources, questions to help lead the thinking of others or just clarifying questions. Moving from a classroom where answers are the norm, rich inquiry yields profound thinking and creativity as one idea builds upon another. 


Project challenges students to create products for real world purposes & audiences.
Students (and teachers) need to be clear about the product, purpose and audience in a project and this is closely linked to authenticity. Connecting the product to an authentic purpose and audience allows another leverage point that is missing if the work is just "for school". Instead of asking how many points they earned or what their grade is, authenticity shifts those inquiries to asking if and how well the work is serving the purpose and needs of the audience. While we do want to use the process and the products of PBL to measure learning, the addition of authenticity helps to increase student interest and engagement and can empower them as they do real, meaningful and purposeful work that transcends traditional schoolwork.


Project provides opportunities for student voice & choice in the process & product.
As Daniel Pink notes so eloquently notes in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, if you want commitment and engagement, not just compliance, self-direction is better. As teachers and students grow in a PBL environment this is a culture shift where teachers are increasingly releasing "control" and becoming more of a facilitator. This autonomy can show up in a number of ways including allowing for increased student inquiry and choice over what to investigate, how to uncover the necessary learning as well as the ways in which they will show they know and understand.

Meaningful Assessment

Project guides teaching & learning using purposeful formative and summative assessments.
Ask most students how they feel about assessment and you're likely to get a less than positive response but this doesn't have to be the case. Using assessment as a tool to inform next steps and needed areas of improvement can be exciting, especially when the work is authentic, meaningful and purposeful. Meaningful assessment can come in many forms including formal and informal and may in fact be questions, not always just answers. It can also originate from multiple sources including self, peers, outside experts, and of course teachers.


Project provides opportunities & reason for students to create craftsman-like products.
We want students to produce high quality work and thinking but how often do we provide them with authentic challenges that they see as worthy of refinement and improvement outside of pursuit of just a grade? Quality project based learning empowers students by engaging them in processes of reflection and revision as they seek to improve their products to meet the needs of an authentic audience instead of just playing school.

Interested in learning more about how to leverage great thinking and learning using authentic project based learning? Contact Perkins Educational Consulting.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Most Likely to Succeed or This Whole Thing Called School is...?

Last week I had the honor and pleasure to be invited by Renee Boss of The Fund KY to a round (well sort of a long rectangle) table discussion with a group of stakeholders in Kentucky education. The conversation starter was the education documentary Most Likely to Succeed, and we were joined by the producer Ted Dintersmith. The documentary was part of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and is currently being screened around the country including October 8th in Louisville. I had the opportunity to view the documentary this week and it reaffirmed many of my beliefs about education as a student, teacher, and now consultant with the opportunity to work with and be in schools around the country. The documentary and our round table discussion also left me with questions including this biggest one: how do we get the American public to understand the urgent need for change in our education system in a way that they will act?

The film opens with the director and narrator Greg Whitely's 4th grade daughter as he explains that his previously "good student" is now bored and frustrated by school and in tears over a bad score on a math test. As she's wiping her tears we hear the teacher in the parent conference telling the little girl that she is building character and perseverance. Suddenly the narrator stops and shares what he thinks is going through his daughter's mind: "This is bullshit. This whole thing called school...is bullshit." Now don't get me wrong, I understand that this is anecdotal and there are more than a few moments in every child's life that elicit tears and that's not always bad.
credit: Most Likely to Succeed
But this opener really hit home with me because I've lived it too. I saw something frighteningly similar a few weeks ago with my 3rd grade daughter when she found out that she regressed two points on her MAP score. Keep in mind that my daughters attend arguably the most progressive and innovative public school district in Kentucky and we made that school choice largely based on the leadership's philosophy that generally de-emphasizes tests and scores focusing more on teaching and learning than "achievement" (for more on that: How the Culture of Achievement is Hurting Our Schools). That's not to say they don't care about their accountability scores but they don't place them as such a high priority that their teachers feel compelled to teach to the tests. So if that's still happening in our school district, how is this playing out in the less progressive districts? And why? Why is learning put in "subject area" silos that don't in any way replicate the world that most of us, outside of teachers and students, live in? Why are students schooled according to their birthdate with standards that correspond? Why are our schools being held accountable for the data they produce when it doesn't reflect real learning? Why are our students being asked to learn loads of content they are very unlikely to ever use, and most certainly won't remember because they have no contextual connection to things they care about? Why are they being asked to recall facts for tests that really only matter to people other than students? Why aren't our students engaging in authentic work with real meaning and assessment that helps them (and their teachers) improve their learning as they pursue craftsmanship because, well frankly...it's not "bullshit"?

credit: Most Likely to Succeed
Much of the rest of the film shows students and teachers in a much different setting at High Tech High and does a nice job of documenting parent fears and concerns around this very different approach that emphasizes deeper learning of less "content" and "standards" while students develop what they feel are more important skills like critical thinking and collaboration. In the interest of full disclosure; much of the work I do with schools around the country focuses on this kind of (primarily project based) learning, so call me biased. But if we're truly looking to move our education system (and country) forward I don't see how we'll ever do that by continuing with the status quo where only the students who are good at "playing school" experience anything remotely looking like success.

As a student I (maybe way too often) wondered and asked "why am I doing this?" when it came to schoolwork. When the answer was "because I said so", "it'll be on the test", "it's for points or a grade", or "you'll need this in the future" I almost always immediately checked out and quite honestly my report card often reflected that I just chose not to do it. You see, I was always interested in learning and excelled in extra-curriculars like Future Problem Solvers but I was almost never interested in school and there are millions of others who feel the same way. In fact, as a senior I once informed my parents that I was not going to college because I just wasn't interested in doing school anymore. Thankfully they "advised" me otherwise but think about the absurdity. We want and hope for students to continue their education past high school after they've endured what is likely a very uninspiring 13 or so years and oh by they way, we also want you to pay (and likely go into debt) for it. This is not to say that college is always the right post-secondary path but if we really want students to be excited (and prepared) for learning past the compulsory age then shouldn't we be doing much more to empower their learning in K-12?

1991, sound familiar?
Fast forward to my adult life where I often felt marginalized by my administration and peers as a teacher trying to operate on the premise that the best way to teach content is through thought, not the other way around. As a consultant I almost never encounter a teacher who places content before skills and thinking until we start talking about testing and scores. One of the most frustrating things about this as a professional is that we have been having this conversation for decades but in many ways regressing. At this point, the single biggest obstacle to teachers creating great projects and authentic learning for their students is the list of content standards they feel beholden to. So how do we move this conversation forward and get past the industrial model in which we've all grown up? Ironically it's education. I firmly believe that if parents understood what education could and should look like they'd demand change one vote at a time. As it stands our policymakers have little incentive to shift from a system that attempts to efficiently quantify student learning into a number.

So what can you do? Ask lots of questions and learn more. The folks at Most Likely to Succeed have put together a nice set of resources called Moving Forward to help learn more about how our school experience could look for students.

Reach out to me at PerkinsEd.com if you're interested in project based learning and/or re-visioning your school culture, let's talk.

Most Likely to Succeed Trailer from One Potato Productions on Vimeo.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Improving Student Inquiry with the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) and PBL

I'm a big fan of inquiry, hence that tagline above, so when I came across the Question Formulation Technique by the Right Question Institute while reading the fantastic A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger, I was excited for such a simple yet powerful tool to increase the quality of student inquiry and immediately ordered Make Just One Change. While there are many ways you can use the QFT in any classroom, and the Right Question Institute (RQI) provides some great examples on their web site, I see it as a valuable tool in a project based learning setting. This type of rich inquiry elevates student autonomy and collaboration in a Yes, And sort of way and helps create a culture focused on safety in discovery rather than intimidating teacher coverage.

Taking a look over the infographic to the right you'll notice the QFT starts with a Question Focus. This is something that typically pushes the learner to take a side or provoke deep thought. Students then produce questions in a sort of "question-storming" way that I think works best when they all contribute (in small groups) on one large chart paper (see video below) or whiteboard. The synergy that can build from this type of collaboration is powerful as students essentially "Yes, And" the thoughts of others without judging or working to answer these questions. As the RQI folks note, the shift from being asked for answers to being asked for questions can really be powerful in building a safe learning environment. As students improve and work through the remaining steps of the QFT the opportunities for meta-cognition are rich and should improve as they become more comfortable with the process.

In the course of a PBL unit there are several phases and I can see the QFT being used in all of them. Initially you want to create some sense of cognitive dissonance or emotional engagement around the project's challenge or problem and the QFT can help do that by using it as an Entry Event and hook. In PEC PBL workshops we use the QFT this way to generate questions around data showing drops in student engagement and questioning over time. We then use these questions to clarify the purpose in our resulting Driving Question for the workshop. As a classroom teacher you might engage students in the QFT as a way to better understand student passions and interests (Genius Hour/20% Time anybody?) and use that data to design a project weeks later but using a powerful Question Focus to kick your project off can generate student interest and excitement while activating their schema (buzzword alert!) and helping to start your Need to Know list.

During a project there should be multiple opportunities for meaningful assessment as students work toward craftsmanship and refining their products. What if you used the QFT to assess student understanding of a text or teaching resource/material and generate meaningful conversation much in the same way a Socratic Seminar might to help spur deeper learning and differentiate? I could also see the QFT process being employed in the service of helping students struggling to move forward with an iteration or just needing peer critique and most certainly in helping them add to their Need to Knows. What if you engaged students and experts collaboratively in the QFT around student products in a way that helped them display their thinking like and alongside actual content area experts?

As you're coming to the end of your project what if, instead of giving a traditional test, you used the QFT as a summative assessment as the video below shows? While this might force you (and your students) to think differently about summative assessments, a teacher/facilitator can learn a tremendous amount about content understanding while engaging students in critical thinking.

Ultimately the QFT is a multi-faceted tool and the beauty of it is in it's simplicity. It helps students have more of a voice and helps teachers shift from being the center of attention and thinking to to the facilitator creating scenarios allowing for great questions that effective PBL demands. It also helps create a mindset and culture where students become resourceful and empowered by their inquiry because it's just that, their inquiry. As teachers we need to ask great questions but we also need students to ask great questions. They have them but often aren't asked to share in meaningful ways. Designing great learning means we're asking questions important to our students and presenting them with opportunities to do the same. This can be a challenge at all levels but the QFT can help. For a reflection of using the QFT in elementary PBL check out: What are you wondering when you hear…?: Student Engagement in a Project-Based Learning Primary Classroom.

For more resources about Inquiry and Project Based Learning visit my PBL bookmarks and the PEC Web Site.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What PBL Can Do For Your School...And What It Won't

Project Based Learning is a great way to reach and teach students but what is often overlooked is what high quality PBL can do for a school and district...and what it won't.

As Project Based Learning gains traction and momentum as a classroom approach it's important to be clear about what PBL is and is not.  The two short and artful videos in this playlist by High Tech High teacher Jeff Robin do a good job of illustrating those differences.

It's also important to understand that for PBL to really take hold and have long lasting effects you'll need to engage in the shift over a period of years, not just a one time workshop and revisiting it a couple times during the school year. For more on this visit my recent The PBL Mindset for Leadership post. 

If you boil PBL down to two things it's learners making/creating/doing something meaningful and using rich inquiry to get there. What this means for students is powerful but developing a PBL mindset at your school or district is an opportunity to shift teaching and leadership practices and the overall culture from one of "Achievement" to a Culture of Teaching and Learning. Engaging in this mindset requires a commitment to inquiry and encourages democratization by empowering learners at all levels to engage in seeking A More Beautiful Question.

Project Based Learning Helps Leadership

As leaders, the PBL process allows you to empower your staff by giving them voice and choice in the decision making for your school.

These pictures shared by Round Rock ISD instructional coach Vicky Arms, with whom I've had the privilege of working with as part of my role as a Buck Institute National Faculty member, show evidence of the Old Town Elementary leadership and staff using a Driving Question and Need to Know process to wrestle with school challenges. Just as teachers shift to facilitators in a PBL classroom so does leadership in a PBL school. By doing so you help make your school or district a better place to work because your staff feels empowered. Truly valuing their thinking and making it visible in meaningful ways helps move them from compliance to commitment. PBL also helps leadership support and coach teachers in a continuous growth model by shifting the heavy load of being the "evaluator" to the use of effective peer critique processes that professionalize teachers and help elevate the working norms and language of collaboration. I can tell you from experience that when teachers engage in quality peer critique, getting the opportunity to really talk about their work they come away elated. No longer are "PLC" type meetings met with "how long will this take and what do I have to turn in" comments. Instead the expectations of great teaching and learning are elevated as is the synergy that comes from high quality collaboration.

Project Based Learning Helps Teachers

PBL helps teachers:

  • improve because it asks them to put learning in context by asking questions that are important to their students, not just teachers. 
  • improve their use of formative assessment in a way that results in more responsive teaching. 
  • deepen learning and connect their content standards (and/or skills) to the work their students are doing as scaffolds and checkpoints in the process. 
  • improve the quality of student work because instead of "playing school" or doing work for points and grades they're pursuing craftsmanship by engaging in constant loops of critique and revision because they have an authentic and meaningful purpose to do so.
  • teach content literacy as students read, write, speak and listen as and with content area experts like this student.
  • make interdisciplinary connections as they creatively combine content like Art and Politics.
  • become better at classroom management as students use contracts to become better collaborators and removes the tension between adults and students around the struggle of compliance.
  • become better communicators and collaborators through intentional processes like Critical Friends Protocol looking at student and teacher work and thinking.

Project Based Learning Helps Students

PBL helps students:
  • become lifelong and more self-directed learners as they do intellectually and emotionally engaging work that leaves them asking more questions and wanting to learn more. 
  • become better at asking questions as they engage in the Inquiry List as a living, breathing document fleshing out and learning the things they Need to Know in order to answer the Driving Question. 
  • engage in a growth mindset as they refine their work and learn leadership skills.
  • become more prepared for life beyond school as they are taking part in adult-like thinking.
  • add value to the world and community.
  • learn content more deeply as it is necessary for the overall challenge.
  • become more confident and better communicators.
  • enjoy school.

Project Based Learning Helps Schools

PBL helps schools improve the culture and yes...according to research, test scores. A quality PBL culture leads to exciting innovation and creativity by using a "Yes, and..." approach where ensembles or teams effectively collaborate to build upon one another's thinking. This applies to adults and students as we employ divergent and convergent thinking to build and question. While the above lists are in no way comprehensive or exhaustive (what would you add?) they do outline many of the things that making the PBL shift can do to improve your school or district.

What PBL Won't Do 

Project Based Learning won't solve all of your problems like poverty, lack of funding, the effects of high stakes accountability or other obstacles that get in the way of school improvement but it certainly can help you move towards a more positive learning culture given any set of circumstances. Actually, PBL can be detrimental to test scores and teacher morale when engaged in poorly or as a short term fix. As teachers make this often difficult shift they sometimes experience the J Curve of Implementation with a short dip in achievement but without at least adequate support the J may not actually trend upward after that dip. It's also important to realize that if PBL isn't given time and attention to take hold it will result in teacher frustration as they chalk it up to just another initiative come and gone.  With that in mind I strongly suggest building in a robust partnership/support plan that includes frequent contact with a PBL coach/specialist. In addition to an initial workshop, regular (at least monthly) check-ins to refine and tune projects, observe and provide feedback, reflect and revise and even some co-planning and co-teaching are all great support possibilities. As this work unfolds, building internal capacity in leadership, teachers and building/district coaches to carry the PBL mindset forward with other district initiatives is essential. PBL without this type of thoughtful support won't do much for your school other than perhaps ignite the passions of a few teachers who will end up trying to implement a more progressive approach in a mostly traditional setting.

Implementing Project Based Learning is tough but worthwhile and rewarding work and while it often requires a learning curve for teachers, leaders and students the payoff is a much better learning and school experience for all stakeholders involved.

Want to work with PEC to learn more about using Project Based Learning to improve your culture of teaching and learning?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The PBL Mindset for Leadership

J curve of implementation
In a recent blog post (How the Culture of Achievement is Hurting Our Schools) I noted the dangers of chasing achievement and scores in lieu of creating a culture focused on teaching and learning. If we're truly trying to create a school and culture where students and teachers are excited, engaged and empowered by their work and thinking it will take more than a workshop or conference trip or even a few touches throughout the year. In fact, that type of limited engagement can be more problematic in terms of student and teacher performance and trust. As a believer in quality Project Based Learning as a transformative model it's important to note the same dynamic and realize that PBL done poorly can leave you at the bottom of the J curve that research shows is a typical progression of implementation as teachers refine their practice.

Implementing quality PBL takes at least 3-5 years but it also takes consistent guidance, work and leadership over that time. Teachers cannot operate as rogues and cowboys with an occasional refresher. PBL is a major shift for most schools and it's processes have to be embedded in the school culture in ways that strengthen and support the work of teachers and students. Principals and other administrators are busy people who have stakeholders coming at them from all sides. These distractions can take the focus away from what Sir Ken Robinson notes as the most important anchors (14:24 mark), teaching and learning.

With this in mind it's essential for leadership to engage in the work in much the same way they expect from their teachers. The best examples of leaders I've seen have participated in the PBL workshop alongside their teachers and used PBL to engage with their staff throughout the year. Creating a PBL mindset includes democratizing the culture by encouraging questioning and inquiry around purpose, product and audience. Strong PBL leaders learn alongside their teachers and use the thinking behind Driving Questions (How might we...do...so that...?) to flesh out what they need to know and do. They utilize the PBL process with staff development and to solve real problems in much the same way teachers would with their students.

I have too often worked with schools and teachers where the administrators are running in and out of the workshop or support visit tending to their always growing list of administrative duties. While understandable, it raises the question of how well they'll be able to support the work of their teachers going forward and if this is the approach they'll take over the school year. Without this support and the understanding that real change and shift takes time and steady, focused work the chances of the quality implementation are greatly reduced. Leaders with a PBL mindset understand that focusing on achievement and scores comes with a low ceiling. Instead they realize that the real growth potential is in refining teaching and learning by trusting teachers and equipping them with tools that allow collective critique and improvement of the craft. This might feel uncomfortable just as it does for teachers to relinquish "control" to their students but it's actually quite liberating and powerful.

Interested in implementing PBL at your school? Visit the PEC web site.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Inquiry in Education and PBL - A More Beautiful Question

Last week I had the pleasure of talking with Warren Berger, the author of A More Beautiful Question via Google Hangouts on Air. This discussion coincided with Twitter's #PBLChat for the first ever (that I know of at least) mashup between Google Hangouts and Twitter chat. If you missed it I've embedded the archived video here followed by a few reflections and takeaways.

I believe in the power of inquiry to foster deeper learning and often work with teachers, coaches and facilitators to improve their questioning practices. Great questioning is important because it can stimulate higher-order thinking and vital metacognition and as Warren points out early on in our conversation, questioning should not be limited to teachers. When we make the shift to students utilizing effective questioning we empower them to take control of their own learning and help create a more democratic growth-mindset culture. One simple approach Warren mentions in his book and we discuss around the 7:48 mark is the "Why?, What if? and How?" method. I like how this fits with project based learning as we strive to create an authentic and engaging purpose for student work and thinking. Starting with the Why? it's important to create some cognitive dissonance or reason for the project and an Entry Event is a great way to do this. One example I used as a government teacher when asking students to make budget policy recommendations to a Senator was to simply show this version of the National Debt Calculator. Instantly my 9th grade students starting asking questions begging me to click on certain numbers and I knew had a hook. We might see the What if? show up in PBL in the Driving Question as we outline the challenge for the students. While it's essential for teachers be clear about the product, purpose and audience sometimes a "What if?" DQ works great for engagement purposes. Finally, students need to engage in the How? as they dive into figuring out what they Need to Know (and Do!) to complete their challenge.

credit: A More Beautiful Question
One of the unfortunate realities we discussed around the 15:39 mark is the drop-off in questioning in children with age. As children become students it's clear that they pose less questions, but why? Are questions relegated to a background distraction while answers are pushed to the forefront of importance? Warren makes a couple of great suggestions for remedying this including intentional strategies for making questioning, not answers, the goal. He cites the work of the Right Question Institute (watch for a future Hangout with them!) and their Question Formulation Technique as a great resource and offers up the query, "what if we gave tests where the answers were actually questions?" I love this type of pursuit as a paradigm shift but also as an equalizer in the classroom. Many students fear giving the wrong answer but fewer fear asking a bad question, especially when they are valued. Examining questions the way Warren and the QFT suggests is a great way to get at the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy.

As we neared the end of our time I asked Warren (48:13 mark) to discuss the Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett's thinking that scaffolding around problems should be supported by questions. What he offered was a perfect fit for In-Depth Inquiry in PBL as he noted that complex problems have to be solved in stages. We start with a basic Inquiry List of what we Need to Know but as the components of the problem show themselves we're faced with new and often deeper questions. It's so important for teachers to leverage the use of the Inquiry/Need to Know List throughout a project to get at deeper learning of the content and skills necessary for the challenge. Many of those may not bubble to the surface initially but should after repeated dives into the issues and questions.

This just scratches the surface of our discussion, I encourage you to view the entire discussion yourself and order Warren's book, A More Beautiful Question. For more on Inquiry in Education visit the PEC web site.