Articles – Amy Baeder

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The Forgetting Curve (and a Reason to Remember)

We know it happens, both to our students and in our own lives—we forget. There are whole days we can’t remember (quick—what were you doing on February 4, 2018? See!), whole books we don’t remember reading, and names of individuals we have met but can’t call to mind. We have taught our students particular skills or concepts, but they act like it’s new content when they get to the next grade level. Of course, it’s obvious that our minds can’t retain everything, and that in the onslaught of news, memes, and social-media-scrolling, we shouldn’t. But in a classroom setting where the main goal is to help students gain new skills and concepts, it’s our job to be sure they do. So what’s going on, and how can we change this?

In 2017, Edutopia featured an article called “Why Students Forget and What You Can Do About It,” which introduced me to Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, a graph of how much of something we forget each day. It’s discouraging. Take a look:File:Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve (Figure 1).jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ebbinghaus%E2%80%99s_Forgetting_Curve_(Figure_1).jpg

For those of us in the education world, this is especially disconcerting. It feels like our time and effort in the classroom is being poured down the drain! Why do students forget, and what can we do when we want to ensure our students remember key skills, content, and knowledge?

Think of a memory like a pathway created in a dense jungle. Learning a new skill or new content is like creating a trail through the vegetation with a machete. If you don’t use that path and clear it often, the vines, bushes, and lush plant life will reclaim that path, just like your brain makes space for new memories by forgetting.

Our job as teachers is to keep the skills and content pathways clear for students to help them retain more of what we teach them. We want to intervene as much as possible so that the 25% retained after 6 days ends up being a much higher number. Fortunately, this can be done. By repeatedly accessing a memory, we clear the path—we strengthen the neural networks—and remember something longer than if we don’t access it again.

So what does this have to do with PBL, and what practical strategies can we use?

The Edutopia article I mentioned earlier suggests using these 5 strategies to increase student memory:

  1. Peer-to-peer explanations
  2. Review-break-review again
  3. Give frequent practice tests (formative assessments)
  4. Don’t group similar concepts (use interleaving)
  5. Pair texts with images

These strategies work especially well in a PBL context because project-based learning units often utilize cooperative learning and collaboration and rely on formative assessment. PBL units can use interleaving and reviewing of concepts, and the best PBL units also utilize readings (preferably image-rich texts). More importantly, however, PBL units give the content a storyline—a reason for the content to exist that matters to students. By enhancing the meaning and relevance of content for students, PBL gives students a reason to remember the content.

In addition to added meaning, repetition matters. Just like classic family stories that get retold at holidays and gatherings, project-based learning unit content gets revisited throughout the unit and across units, helping students retain knowledge and understanding.

Other features of memorable moments, from Chip and Dan Heath's The Power of Moments (2017), are that they have:

  • Elevation (sensory appeal, high-stakes, break the script)
  • Insight (“aha” moments, meaning-making)
  • Pride (milestones, intrinsic motivation, celebration)
  • Connection (shared meaning, shared struggle, attunement)

These are all key elements in PBL units, from the launch day (which can be a moment of elevation), through the project work (which should be full of insights from meaning-making and connection from collaboration) to the final presentation day (certainly a moment of pride).

If I may, then, add the following strategies to Edutopia's list through my PBL lens, we can have more tools in our toolkit for boosting memory:

  1. Create milestones within the unit for students to complete, and celebrate their completion
  2. Launch the unit in a memorable way that includes an appeal to the senses and that is surprising (but also requires students to engage in the unit challenge right away!)
  3. Raise the stakes by having students share their work and learning with others outside of the classroom
  4. Embed meaningful ways for students to work together in the unit
  5. Provide scaffolds and tools for students as they make sense of the content

With this combination of strategies, you now have multiple ways to change the forgetting curve, as you have given students multiple reasons to remember. So, if we want to increase students’ memories and ensure that our teaching is not in vain, let’s polish our PBL neural pathway-clearing “machetes” and get to work!

What Is Effective and Engaging Project-Based Learning (PBL)?

You've probably heard the term “PBL” at conferences, professional development sessions, and maybe even on Twitter. But what is PBL, and why are teachers drawn to using it with students? What makes something a project-based learning unit and not just a project? And how do you get started with PBL in your district, building, or classroom? We'll discuss these topics in this post so you can better understand project-based learning and how it can make a difference for students in your context.

What is PBL?

Project-based learning (PBL) is a type of instruction in which students learn important skills, concepts and knowledge while working together to complete a meaningful, authentic project. Let's unpack that definition and elaborate on each piece while addressing some questions.

  1. Type of Instruction: PBL is more than a strategy–it's an informed approach. PBL instruction is based on the underlying belief that students can and should make a difference in the world around them. Positioning students as problem-solvers who have the ability to learn content deeply and impact their community leads to empowered students.  Project-based learning teachers aim to engage and motivate all learners by holding high expectations of students while using strategies and tools to support students who need scaffolding. Project-based learning teachers skillfully plan and enact PBL units while requiring students to do the “heavy lifting” when it comes to thinking and reasoning during the project. PBL learners feel both challenged and supported by their teacher, leading to higher engagement throughout the project.
  2. Important Skills, Concepts and Knowledge: The first pushback we get when introducing the idea of PBL to some teachers is, “I don't have time for projects because I have so many standards to get through.” Some teachers like the idea of PBL, but have a hard time reconciling it with standards-based grading. However, PBL works WITH standards and content learning, not against it. High-performance PBL units are built on learning standards. PBLs give students a reason to learn the content, resulting in higher motivation, deeper learning, and longer retention.
  3. Working Together: Although you can have meaningful group work and collaboration in a classroom without PBLs, the value of students working together to complete a project extends beyond the moment of collaboration to the public exhibition of learning. First, when some teachers think about students working together, they may think about group work in a “divide and conquer” sort of way. We know more occurs in true collaboration, including students exchanging ideas, socially constructing their knowledge, bolstering their communication skills, and more. However, when students work together to finish a project, they accomplish all of that as well as approximate what they will encounter in life beyond the classroom, share their learning with other adults, and experience pride in completing a complex project.
  4. Meaningful, Authentic Projects: When was the last time you worked on something so engaging that you lost track of time? When did you last get so engrossed in working on something so important that you stayed focused for a lot longer than normal? When that moment occurred, you were probably in “flow state,” a state of heightened focus and immersion described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that many people don't get to experience often enough. However, we can foster this flow state in our classrooms by planning PBL units in which students work on meaningful, authentic projects. PBL teachers I work with continually report that students who would rarely (if ever) finish an assignment or contribute to class discussions before PBL are now on fire. They are asking amazing questions, working on their projects at school and at home, and learning the content. What changed? They care about the project and it's more interesting! It actually matters to the students and their work impacts others.

Creativity, collaboration, deeper learning, meaningful work, engagement, problem solving…this all sounds like the outcomes we ultimately want for our students, right? So why aren't all teachers using PBL? Sometimes it's that buildings already have adopted textbooks or curriculum and they aren't sure how PBL would fit in, or maybe it's just dismissed immediately as impossible. Often there are multiple competing demands for teachers' time and a lack of PBL training in most teacher education programs. In all cases, PBL requires support, time, resources, and training. This can seem daunting for teachers and leaders, but with planning and creativity, schools that I have worked with have found a way to make PBL successful for their teachers and students.

How Do We Get Started With PBL in our School, District, or Classroom?

You've done your research. You know what PBL is and you've seen multiple examples of excellent PBL in action. So how do you get started? As in most cases, it depends. To help individuals and schools navigate their PBL journey, I have developed a PBL Roadmap for teachers as well as one for school leaders. I also use PBL Readiness Discussion Questions when discussing Project-Based Learning with teachers and leaders. If you want to move forward with PBL in your site, join the PBL network and you'll have access to other educators' ideas and our content. You can also contact me and we'll discuss your site's next steps for PBL.

 

 

Making Time for PBL: Planning Project-Based Units

Anyone who has planned a PBL unit knows that it takes a tremendous amount of time to write it well. I'm currently in the process of writing a 7th grade science unit, and the background research and initial planning stages alone take a significant amount of time. Add to that the everyday teacher duties of lesson planning, grading, contacting parents, and more, and there's not a lot of time left for big-picture PBL planning.

In emails I've received from teachers, as well as in webinars, I hear the same refrain: “We love PBL and we want to do more. We just don't have the time!”

Unfortunately for myself as well as the rest of the teachers I work with, I've not been able to add more hours to the day! However, I do have 5 ways you can seemingly “make time” to add more PBL to your year.

The Five “S”s: Making Time for PBL Planning

  1. Start Small: It is COMPLETELY fine to expect to do just 1 PBL unit per semester when you are just starting out. Use any time you can to start thinking about next year's new PBLs. Make peace with this, and work on adding 2 more PBLs next year. Soon you'll be swimming in high-quality PBL units that you've created for your own context.
  2. Split Up Duties: When I was teaching the Senior Project, I had a common planning time with my wonderful collaborating teacher (Hi, Mark!). We would sketch out the big ideas for our upcoming unit, then divide and conquer gathering resources, creating assessments, and planning lessons. We'd share the resources and discuss our choices, saving each other dozens of hours a week. This works well when you're on the same page with a teacher and if you have a common vision for the outcomes of your class.
  3. “Steal” and Adapt: It may take some digging, but there are some free PBL units or unit starters out there. Not everything is high-quality, and not all that you will find is truly even project-BASED. However, it's fine to use these as starting places and adapt them to your context. You can also build a project using lessons, labs, resources, and readings that you use now, just create a PBL storyline, launch, and project to house them in. Ask me how to do this if you get stuck!
  4. Schedule a Sub: Sometimes you just have to ask for a sub. Hopefully your building principal is behind your vision for PBL and has the funds to do this. If not, ask for half a day and split the sub with a collaborating teacher. Or, have an in-building teacher cover your class for an hour or two. You can return the favor another day.
  5. Share with the PBL Network: The PBL Network exists to connect teachers, coaches, and administrators from around the world as they hone their PBL practice and support PBL in their settings. In 2018, we are looking forward to providing a way for members to share units and resources with other practicing PBL teachers so you don't have to reinvent the wheel…you can just adapt it to your context. Stay tuned for more about this development!

Whether it means making peace with starting small and building as you go, or finding coverage for your class for an hour or two, or splitting up duties, there are ways we can make time for PBL in our settings. How have you and your colleagues made time for PBL in your buildings? Let us know in the comments!

 

 

Reaching Cruising Altitude: Persisting with Professional Learning

Over the course of a year, I experience many takeoffs and landings in airplanes ranging from CRJs to Boeing 737s. Sometimes, I come across nervous passengers who hold their breath through the ascent and tightly grip the armrest during the occasional turbulence. They aren't quite sure about this whole “flying” thing, and it's not until the captain comes on the intercom and (unintelligibly) announces that we've reached a comfortable cruising altitude that everyone relaxes and settles in to work on their laptops, read, nap, or start their movies. Even though everyone's on the plane together, the trust, comfort, and speed comes when we reach a cruising altitude. It's time to get going!

Those of you who are teachers and building leaders will know that the same is true of professional learning and new initiatives. At first, there's a huge learning curve and possibly some resistance to overcome. Some folks are nervous and aren't quite sure about where this whole thing is headed. When we as leaders (teacher leaders, building or district administrators, PD providers, and coaches) provide enough time, support, and resources to see teachers through to “cruising altitude”–proficient and mostly independent implementation of the strategy or initiative–the teachers who are along for the ride will be confident in their ability to move ahead and make progress. However, not every site that introduces a new initiative or strategy reaches “cruising altitude” before ending training, support, or collaboration time, and that is often a recipe for disaster.

As the calendar year draws to a close and teachers here in the U.S. begin to wrap up their first semester, I have been reflecting on the success of various cohorts of teachers I've worked with this year as a Project-Based Learning consultant. Thankfully, many sites I work with have the long range in view. Leaders at every level plan to see teachers through the initial stages of learning about and experiencing PBL, planning and refining units, and implementing units over a long period of time. By investing in that critical “takeoff” and “ascent” period and seeing teachers through to their “cruising altitude,” leaders gain teachers' trust as well as ensure that they are confident in their abilities to enact their newly-honed skills with students.

Leaders, when we provide an initial training, we're taxiing.

Leaders, when we provide a follow-up training, we're contributing to take-off.

Leaders, when we have teachers collaborate, write and design PBL units, refine their work in peer reviews, and see multiple examples of PBLs in action, we're ascending.

We need all of these components over a long period of time to reach “cruising altitude;” otherwise, we are in danger of teachers stalling out before they experience success.

Leaders, how can you support your staff to reach “cruising altitude” in the initiatives you are asking teachers to enact?

If you'd like to discuss your site's plans for implementation of PBL, feel free to set up a call by emailing me at amy@amybaeder.com.

The Lucretius Underestimation: Of Mountains and Teaching Practice

I live in a beautiful area of the Arkansas Ozarks in a lake and river town with natural mineral springs. Heber Springs, my hometown, was once named Sugar Loaf Springs after this rocky hill that locals call “Sugar Loaf Mountain.” After living in Seattle, which is surrounded by the Cascades and the Olympics, I know that this feature called Sugar Loaf is not, in fact, a mountain. But if you haven't seen anything higher, you might call it a mountain, too.

Image from http://www.cleburnecountyar.com/

In her book Mastermind, Maria Konnikova (2013) explains this phenomenon known as the “Lucretius Underestimation” (named such by author and mathematician Nassim Taleb). Lucretius, a Roman poet and philosopher, stated that, (translated from Latin), “a little river seems to him, who has never seen a larger river, a mighty stream; and so with other things—a tree, a man—anything appears greatest to him that never knew a greater.” In other words, a person is a fool if he or she believes the tallest mountain he or she has ever seen and the tallest mountain in the world are one in the same.

So what does all of this talk about mountains have to do with teaching? What, exactly, is being underestimated?

As soon as I read this paragraph in Mastermind, I realized that in order to pursue excellent teaching, we must be observing (and having our colleagues observe) excellent teaching early and often. We should underestimate great practice no longer.

Konnikova states, “simply put, we let our own personal past experience guide what we perceive to be possible.” In teaching, this is known as the “apprenticeship of observation” (Lortie, 1975). We tend to teach how we were taught, unless specific steps are taken to guide us differently. Konnikova goes on to explain, “our repertoire becomes an anchor of sorts; it is our reasoning starting point, our place of departure for any further thoughts.” When we or our teachers have a vision of teaching and learning that is a “Sugar Loaf” instead of a “Mount Everest,” we will be anchored in the repertoire of the Sugar Loaf. (No offense, dear hill of mine! You're being used as a metaphor.)

So where can we find excellent examples of curriculum, teaching strategies, school systems, and programs.

  1. Leaders, start by researching what is working. Find schools that have the programs and vision you want for your school. Visit them and ask questions. Do a phone interview or Skype if you can't leave, but it's powerful to be on site.
  2. Teachers, follow great teachers on social media. Go to the Teaching Channel website or Edutopia for videos of excellent teaching strategies. Get into fellow teachers' classrooms. Do lesson studies and watch each other teach. Some of the best “mountains” you'll find will be in your own buildings.
  3. Find excellent curriculum that does what you want it to do for staff and students. Educurious has wonderful PBL units for secondary schools.

By expanding your repertoire and opening up what's possible, you'll no longer underestimate what greatness looks like. But you will be striving for it.

 

 

 

Beyond the Walls: How to Involve the Community in Our Classrooms

This week, my husband and I spoke in our eldest daughter's first grade classroom as guest speakers for their “Community Helpers” unit. We enjoyed explaining our work to her classmates and providing them with examples of new and different kinds of careers. We were grateful to her teacher for involving us, as it's not simple to schedule adults to speak or easy to find meaningful ways to connect parents to the curriculum.

Whether you are an elementary school teacher or a secondary teacher (or one of those amazing people teaching middle school), you can also embed experts and community members in your classroom, especially in your project-based learning units, in 5 powerful ways.

  1. Consult & Brainstorm: Perhaps one of the least utilized methods of involving experts and community members is the pre-PBL unit consultation call. This is just reaching out to someone who works in the field you'll be teaching to talk about current problems, resources, articles, and research so you have a sense of the content and context. This will help make your project even more relevant, accurate, and authentic. In a recent project, I called a USGS office to talk to someone about sinkholes and karst formations and learned so much in that 15 minutes!
  2. Drop-In Guest Speakers: Maybe you live near a natural history museum, university, or fine arts hub with a wealth of speakers that are willing to come to your classroom. When I taught in Seattle, I had access to hundreds of willing experts–it was a matter of making a good match and finding the time (as well as finding something for periods 4, 5, and 6 to do if the person couldn't stay!). Now that I live in a small town in Arkansas, finding experts is not impossible, but it is amazing to know that Skype, digital video, and other ways to connect with experts allows for us to have guest speakers that we normally couldn't access. Guest speakers can be especially powerful if they are individuals with personal experiences, skills, or content knowledge that relate to your project.
  3. In-Person Feedback: If you teach secondary students, you know how difficult it is to give 150+ students meaningful feedback. That's why one 9th grade biology teacher I work with is planning to find college students from a neighboring university who can come into the class to provide feedback to students on their lab report drafts. She will have tables set up so that each group of 4 students can receive feedback from one college student. By selecting college students that match the demographics of her students, she can accomplish multiple goals at once: facilitating feedback, connecting students with “experts” in experiment design, and providing role models.
  4. Project Mentors: When I taught senior project and facilitated the BioTech Expo project, having project mentors proved to be beneficial for students and me, as well. This person can make sure students are meeting the benchmarks of the project, help with research and resources, as well as guide students through the process. Mentors can be for individuals or groups, and in some schools, students have a mentor over the whole year!
  5.  Panel and Audience Members: This is my FAVORITE way to engage community members because it is a compelling way to show others what your students can do at the end of the project. It's relatively easy to plan for with a low commitment for the audience/panel members, so this is a simple strategy to begin using. I usually reach out a few weeks in advance to invite individuals to come, explain the project students will be presenting, pass along the project rubric, and send multiple reminders. Students will love sharing their work with other people, and they will work harder than ever to shine on presentation day!

If you're just getting started with the process of using experts, I recommend starting with “Consult and Brainstorm” and “Panel and Audience Members.” You could also start with Guest Speakers, but the other two are a bit more high-leverage ways to utilize community members. Project Mentors and Feedback are tough to pull off, but after you get them implemented, your students' projects will be richer and more high-quality as a result.

Ready to get started? Start making a list of places in your unit that would benefit from community involvement. Then, research or list out who you might recruit to help you. Happy connecting! Your students will thank you for it in the long run.

 

 

 

Why Connecting the Community to Our Classrooms Is Vital

Our classrooms can be vulnerable places for us to share with other people. Fear that our lessons, classroom, or students aren't perfect might keep us from involving parents, experts, and others in the community. Or maybe it's not fear, but time. How does a busy teacher make the time to find a community member that might enhance the lesson? Will having someone else come in to the classroom take away from time already devoted to teaching specific skills or content? Whatever the obstacle keeping us from more fully integrating our classrooms with what's happening outside our four walls, the benefits of involving community members and experts are worth finding a way around what's holding us back.

There are ways to involve community members, especially in a project-based learning (PBL) unit, from the beginning to the end of the unit. You could get ideas for your project by discussing real-world problems with subject-area experts before the unit begins, and have community members serve as audience members for the final project presentations.

Who are these community members, anyway? They can be:

  • Experts (people working in a specific field or discipline or those with a specific skill)
  • Volunteers (parents, college students, retired teachers, business owners, etc.)
  • Community Members (a wide array of neighborhood or community members who could be interviewed, surveyed, or consulted with on projects, those with life experiences that connect to the unit, or anyone invested in the students and the school from the community)
  • Panel Members (those with the ability to speak to the topic at hand–they can be experts or community members)
  • Audience Members (community members, volunteers, or experts that can listen to student presentations or engage with their final projects in a meaningful way)

Before delving into HOW this can be done (I'll do this in Part II in another post), let's start by considering WHY involving community members is so important, especially in a PBL classroom.

  1. Community Connections Increase Relevance: When we have our pulse on the real issues in the community, problems arise that students can act upon. Designing project-based learning units around REAL community problems helps students know that the work they are doing matters.
  2. Students Need Networks & Possibilities: Some students may only engage with an astrophysicist, an environmental lawyer, a city planner, or a genetic counselor because you have connected them with individuals in these fields, either virtually or in person. When students see a wide range of careers, especially at an early age, their ideas of what is possible expands. This is especially true if these individuals are representative of your student population, in both gender and ethnicity.
  3. Novel Adults Get Noticed: There's something about novelty that “sticks” in our mind more than the everyday. If you Skype in a paleontologist to speak about the finer points of fossils to help students in their PBL, students will remember that (and they might even tell their family)!
  4. Experts Bring…Expertise: We can't know everything, despite our best efforts. It's actually HEALTHY for us to admit that we don't know it all and that we're willing to share the burden with someone else. Veteran Arkansas Teacher Amanda Jones realized that as she taught multiple subjects and decided to include experts in her rural classroom through the “Phone a Friend” cards in her classroom. Whether it's how to produce an amazing podcast, what relevant problems there are in the ocean, or specific details about the rocks and caves in your area, experts can provide insights for both you and the students.
  5. More Adults=More Perspectives: Sometimes it just takes a different adult to give the feedback students need to hear. As a biology teacher with students competing in BioTech Expo and a Senior Project teacher, I gave detailed feedback to students that sometimes could get overlooked. However, if a student's mentor gave them the same advice, or if the final judges gave feedback about that aspect of the student's work, the advice became more seriously heeded.

It takes time to build up a network of ready and willing community members. It takes time to train them to engage with your students, and you must also prepare your students to interact with the community members. It takes time for you to find places in your curriculum where experts, community members, and other adults would have a beneficial connection and role. Non-profits like Seattle-based Educurious have considered the role of experts as they have designed their PBL units, and they have built an expert database for teachers to consult.

Now that you can see the benefits of involving the community, think about your upcoming unit. How might you consult with someone from the field? Where might students benefit from connecting with an expert? What audience will view their final products? Start small, prepare the students and the community members, and build your network and community involvement from there. You'll see an increase in student engagement and motivation, and you'll be benefitting your students in the long run.

 

Hook Vs. Launch: What’s the Difference?

When I work with teachers to design their PBL units, some talk about having a video for a “hook” or discuss reading client letters in the “launch.” Both seem to connect to the first day of the unit, and both are important elements to include in a PBL unit. But is there a difference between a hook and a launch? Can you have one without the other? What are the components of each that make them useful or even necessary to include?

First, let's take a look at the “hook” and my understanding of the term:

  • Hooks are meant to increase engagement and motivation.
  • Hooks inspire student curiosity and a desire to know more.
  • Hooks have an element of student relevance.
  • Hooks do not have to be lengthy.
  • Hooks can be a puzzling phenomenon, a skit, a video, a demonstration, or any number of engaging events.
  • Hooks can be at the start of the unit, but could even be used to start a lesson within a unit.

A hook then, in a sense, is like an appetizer, or like the smell of waffle cones baking at an ice cream shop. It's meant to draw us in, but if there's not more to it, we might leave feeling empty or disappointed.

That takes us to the launch, which is an often-overlooked aspect of instruction within a unit. Because our time is so limited, we often start a unit by giving a pretest, providing some sort of hook, and then dive right in to the learning. However, by doing so, we miss an important opportunity to frame the unit in a way that involves all learners, intrigues all learners, and honors all learners. Let's break down the elements of a launch of a PBL unit:

  • Launches include a hook (perhaps a specific event, stories, photos, demonstration, videos, etc.).
  • Launches set forth a problem students will be working on or thinking about.
  • Launches get students right into the work of thinking about the problem with whatever background students start with.
  • Launches provide students with a challenge that has specific parameters for a specific audience (even if students get to choose some aspects of this).
  • Launches give students a chance to identify their knows and need to knows.
  • Launches leave students with a clear sense of where they are going and why they are doing this work (even if they aren't quite sure how they'll get there yet)
  • Launches leave students wanting to work more on the problem.

Notice that both hooks and launches are highly engaging and that both increase motivation. Launches have the added layer of getting students into the work of the problem and/or uncovering students' prior knowledge in a social setting. Launches also zero in on the problem students will work on, and help students consider the learning that needs to take place for students to complete the project. Finally, just as a ship launches and everyone who is on board is in that voyage together, fully launching a project gives the students the sense that “we're all in this together.” It brings about a cohesiveness that a pretest kickoff won't.

As you plan your PBL units, consider how you'll build out a full launch. Think about where to embed hooks and how to expand your repertoire for both hooks and launches. Once you begin a unit with a full launch, you'll find the final product will reflect the intentionality with which you started the unit.

Happy planning!

Creating a Growth Mindset Culture

In the first few weeks of school, students watch us closely. They tune in to how we frame lessons, they read our feedback, and they listen to the kinds of questions we ask. We may not think they're paying attention, but they are, and one aspect of our classroom culture that they notice is whether they are in a GROWTH classroom or a GET-IT-DONE classroom.

We've all been in “get-it-done” classrooms. The focus is on students completing work, turning it in, and receiving a grade. Success is praised above all else. When the work is done, the learning is done. Everything feels final, and somehow it's not a pleasant learning environment.

Growth classrooms, on the other hand, have a different feel.  Everything–from how the teacher frames the unit's first lesson to the reflection discussion at the unit's conclusion–points to ongoing learning. Students take risks and ask questions. They collaborate with their peers and share interesting ideas. They give each other tough feedback because the teacher has cultivated trust among the students and has taught processes for providing feedback. While the work is in progress, learning is occurring, and it is expected to continue.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is the perfect vehicle for promoting a growth mindset culture that emphasizes persistence and learning from mistakes. PBL units not only allow for students to develop expertise in the content they are learning, but students can also exhibit growth in skills through PBL units across the year.

For example, in a middle school science PBL unit, students take on the role of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation experts. They are to design an optimal temporary habitat for a displaced animal after a disaster. In this unit, they are learning about ecosystems and relationships within them, and they have the example of real-world Wildlife Biologists on which to model their growth. In this unit and others throughout the year, they are also growing in their ability to collaborate, communicate, research, solve problems, persist, and exercise key Science and Engineering Practices.

How does a teacher take steps to build a growth-centered classroom? Here are a few ways you can begin to embed key features of a growth mindset culture in your PBL units:

  1. Uphold Examples: Find real-world examples of products that scientists, engineers, and mathematicians create. Show students what they are aiming for in their work.  Connect students to STEM professionals in person or through video, Skype, or articles so students can see their journey of expertise.
  2. Build Processes: Help students develop the language of a growth mindset through sentence- starters as they provide feedback to each other. Have mini-deadlines within the project so students get feedback along the way and make revisions. Structure peer-feedback sessions using protocols.
  3. Integrate Reflection: Either as exit tickets, warm-ups, or other points throughout the unit, provide students with opportunities to reflect on their learning and progress in the project. Assess their prior knowledge as well as their initial thinking about the content. Have students revise their thinking midway through the unit and at the end.
  4. Give Meaningful Feedback: Nobody likes feedback on a paper that they can't resubmit, and feedback that corrects but does not instruct isn't helpful, either. Consider focusing your feedback on the highest-leverage areas. Provide feedback on aspects you want students to grow the most in.
  5. Circle Back: When you move on to new units, remind students of skills or content they've learned before. Reiterate that you're deepening knowledge and growing skills. Be intentional in your growth language, and students will remember to build on their progress rather than feel as if they are starting from scratch.

For more on cultivating a growth mindset classroom, check out this Edutopia post with several teaching tools and ideas.

Hold off on the Syllabus!: Creating Community in a STEM PBL Classroom

It’s tempting, especially in a math or science classroom, to dive right into the syllabus on Day 1. However, that’s likely what students will be hearing all day in their other classes. What might it look like to dive right into thinking and learning? You could show them how a positive classroom community works in the context of the work students will be doing. Some of you may be thinking, “There’s so much to teach!” and, “We need to get into the basics of scientific method and math review!” However, there are multiple ways to accomplish these goals while also understanding who students are as learners and what strengths and knowledge they bring to the classroom.

In those first few weeks, you can dive into the necessary learning while also attending to these 5 “Rs”:

  • Relationships: Commit to learning the students’ names and helping them call each other by name within the first day or two. Use name tags, name tents, photo grid class lists, and purposeful activities to assist with this. Understand students’ interests, fears, and strengths as it relates to the discipline you teach. Reveal some of your interests to students early on so they see your multidimensionality.
  • Routines: Be clear about the way things are done in your class by modeling, practicing, and consistently acting out routines in your class. When students know the expectations for lab clean up, for completing the warm-up activity as they enter, and for whole class discussions, the class transitions will move smoothly by the second or third week.
  • Review: It’s ok to review concepts and skills as needed in the first couple of weeks of school, but as much as possible, try to contextualize it within your current project. Also, be mindful to keep student status in check as those who may require additional review can be easily stigmatized by other students. Therefore, providing a mini lesson on measurement, the components of an atom, or science safety can serve as “just in time” instruction as well as a brief review during a PBL rather than before.
  • Roles: Think about how you may want to use roles in the class to distribute leadership and provide everyone with responsibility. Will you use new roles specific to each PBL, or will you use roles that rotate each week or month (materials manager, facilitator, questioner, recorder)? Will you use thinking roles (skeptic, checker, innovator, harmonizer)?
  • Rigorous learning: Help students dive right into thinking and learning by structuring learning experiences that motivate, excite, and engage them from the outset. Provide an activity like the Black Box Mystery, an engineering challenge, or graphing class preferences on the first day. An activity that promotes cooperative learning, reviews skills, and leaves students feeling both confident and competent is ideal.

After spending time on these 5 “Rs” of classroom community, your students will be primed to engage in PBL work. Of course, you will always add more to their repertoire of cooperative, academic, and relational skills, but providing this foundation will help your PBL units roll out smoothly without much front loading and review. Best of luck to you as you begin your year, and for those of you who have been in session for a few weeks now, some of these strategies can still be applicable!