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Deeper Learning: Introduction


V1.1/Last update 03-07-2018CM

The Buzz on PBL                                                                               Screen_Shot_2018-03-07_at_11.22.58_AM.png

By Camille Mortimore, Ph.D. Chief Learning Office, Foundry, 2018

As a Deeper Learning educator, I’ve always been about making learning happen in relevant, real-world ways, about inquiring and building evidence of learning. Now that I have grandkids, I have a whole new line of deep inquiry: What kind of schools will they attend? Will their wonder and awe about the world be kept alive?  Will they be guided in exploring their communities, our planet, their lives? Will they go to college or work still curious? Will they be ready to build a better world?  I remember how I became a deep learner… 

My first big project happened the summer after I turned eleven. It was like all great summer projects, outdoors and filled with the sun-baked buzz of the garden. It wasn’t a fancy garden, just a strip of purple asters dancing between the gravel drive and the house. The joy of it was the bees, their endless variety and energy, their lack of interest in me, and the intensity of their work.

That’s how my first great project began: I couldn’t stop watching their gathering and pollinating and endless trips back-and-forth. And that was how I started the collection. I spent my summer and fall catching, pinning, identifying – and loving – dozens of varieties.  I became “entomologist,” “field researcher,” “librarian,” “curator.”  The rigor of my study and quality of my collection were self-imposed benchmarks. My youthful summer passion for the bees drove my learning to deep understanding, caring, and connection to all things natural.  Like all great projects, it changed the learner.

Remember some great project of your youth…your intense focus, your self-motivation and delight in discoveries, your desire to share your triumphs of learning. Aren’t projects the way humans learn?  Learning to walk. Climbing the monkey bars. Finding a best friend. Building a campfire.  Conquering Japanese beetles.  Hiking a 1,200-mile trail.  Learning a new way to teach. 

Learning that matters and stays with us – deep learning – is a journey of wanting to know or do, for passion or need-to-know. It triggers real questions, exploration and discovery. It moves us to find mentors, experts, or fellow travelers along the way, because our discoveries demand sharing, discussion, and a real audience. Critique, recalibration, and revision feel natural, even joyful.  Celebration just comes with the journey. Learning through projects! 

PBL starts with a real life “entry event”

So what happens when we decide to replicate this natural human learning process as a project? How do we capture the passion, interest, and need-to-know nature of real-life deep learning? Does writing it down destroy it, take the life out of it, make it just a worksheet? 

I begin creating projects by capturing some real life “entry event,” a starting point that prompts me to generate ideas and questions. Watching the bees gather-pollinate-transport prompted me to wonder, “Why do bees love flowers? Why are they coming and going so much? How is it that bees help plants? Why the honey?” My own curiosity, passion, voice and choice generated these questions, and they, in turn, guided my young independent student-created project.

Today, as an educator creating projects, it is not very different.  Life routinely presents “entry events.”  The art of creating great projects is to turn these events into engaging questions about ideas of significance.  Projects are full of questions; they are what drive the learning. 

For example, recently visiting a Rochester cemetery and standing at the graves of both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, I was amazed with the question, “If Susan and Frederick were friends, in what ways might their friendship have change our history?” 

Last month, attending a program at Golda Meir School in Milwaukee, I was struck by how little I knew about Golda Meir. I wondered, “How did a local girl come to have so much influence on world affairs?”

One of my students finished reading Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and wondered, “How have other personal journals influenced people’s beliefs? “In what ways could my journal affect others?”

As guides to our students, it is our responsibility to help them see the entry events of their own lives as platforms for exploration and creation or to immerse them in intriguing events that trigger their wondering and questions.  Each of these questions leads to smaller questions, tasks, and activities that transform the learner from wondering to knowing, and with persistence, to understanding and deep learning. 

PBL workflow reflects an ethic of excellence

The workflow of project-based learning is simple: Think, Plan, Do, Assess, Show.  In real life, PBL looks much more like: Think(Reflect). Plan. Reflect. Do. Reflect. Revise. Do. Reflect. Assess. Revise. Reflect. Present. Reflect. You get the idea.

“In most schools, students turn in first drafts – work that doesn’t represent their best effort and that is typically discarded after it has been graded and returned. In life, when the quality of one’s work really matters, one almost never submits a first draft. An ethic of excellence requires revision.”  [Ron Berger, of EL Education https://eleducation.org/]  Ron exemplifies this exquisitely in Austin’s Butterfly (http://vimeo.com/38247060) Required watching!

At the heart of simple PBL workflow is an ongoing stream of reflection, critique, and revision.  It is out of this flow that rigor, mastery, and quality are born.  Students, advisors and expert mentors engage in this formative assessment and it forms their minds and hearts. The formative effect – the learning – happens in doing the reflection itself, not in the results of the assessment.

PBL is doing

Products, publications, presentations, and performances are essential components of projects. They are a natural result of real work. Real work has an audience, users, consumers.  Products are the summative assessments for project plans, showing how students answer the questions of the inquiry and demonstrate the learning of significant content and procedural knowledge, that is, what they know and are able to do. They are showcased to the learning community.

The showcase event happens multiple times a year. It is always a celebratory event. Families, experts, and community leaders act as an “authentic audience” that has a powerful elixir – listening, questions, and affirmation – that transforms students. The magic of the showcase is that students, using their newly developing voices, come to see themselves as experts, collaborators, and contributors. The pressure of preparing for a public audience draws teachers and students together into a true powerful learning community.  It raises expectations, commitment, belonging and trust. Instead of being just the summary of learning, the showcase process becomes some of the best learning of the year.  It is the honey that empowers the whole project-based learning community.

Immersing oneself into the thinking and experiences of project-based learning communities is essential to deepening one’s beliefs, skills, voice, and expertise. Resources worthy of study and dialogue with other educators about PBL are numerous. Visit the Alliance for Excellent Education - Deeper Learning http://deeperlearning4all.org/resources to explore the Deeper Learning ecosystem. Go to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) http://bie.org to get the big picture of PBL and to view in quality videos of skilled PBL practitioners at work.  Check out EL Education at http://eleducation.org/ and especially the quality work samples and videos at http://modelsofexcellence.eleducation.org/. Edutopia shares quality videos of Deeper Learning in action http://www.edutopia.org/.  Happy exploring!

But most essential, see into the power of your every day events, your local place, things that touch your heart and challenge your thinking…

 It’s early summer and I stand tucked under the in-full-bloom apple tree with my daughter and young grandson. Thousands of droning bees, only inches away, are working so furiously we are quieted in awe and wonder. Pensively, she breaks the silence, “I have to bring him here every summer.”  

I am whisked back to my days in the garden with the bees.  What could be more important than to connect him to the inner workings of our world?  What could matter more for us as educators than guiding our students to experiences that will form their minds and hearts to use their skill, imagination, and creativity to build a better world?


For more buzz on Deeper Learning and PBL for your program, school, or district, contact Camille at camille@projectfoundry.com.  Learn more about professional learning opportunities to drive teacher expertise and student learning and agency.

Labels: projects, reflection, deeper learning, pbl, reflect, PBL,
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