The 4-way PBL Project

This week I kicked off a six days (three and a half hours a day) of technology projects for year 7 & 8. I have some 85 students and we do this two days a week over three weeks. All my students are in the same room. I should point out here that I’m teaching with the Maths, Science, English, HSIE, PDHPE teachers along side me.

In fact, we each do this in turn, so in actual fact I am ‘convening’ four projects that are happing at the same time with their help – Timber, Electronics, Communications and Innovation. Each teacher has roadmap of what I want and I make all the resources to support each of the four projects (a website) which the kids dip-into as a series of ‘learning episodes’. I have a system now where kids have to achieve the key outcomes in their first one or two projects which I set, after that, there are a series of projects they can do, and roughly 22 kids choose which of the four they want to do – based on what they have not yet done. When they have done four projects, they get a ‘master project’ brief (typically year 8) in which they create their own technology ‘start-up’ and make a prototype and the necessary items to promote it. For example, they could start a skate business in year 7 and use their tech-time to investigate and experiment with creating ‘things’ for it over the entire course.

What I’m giving them are a set of non-negotiable learning aspects. For example, if you want to make skateboards, then you’re also going to have to tell me what kind of timber is out there, what tools you can use etc.,

Let me give you an idea of how this works. Kids will work on a “maker space” project as a core-unit. The essential questions is “what would you make, and how are you going to make it happen”. Of course they probably have no idea what a Maker Space is .. but by Day 2, they all have to come up with a ‘pitch’ for what they want. A “pitch” has a few parts … the opportunity followed by the hurdles and hassles. As we all know, nothing get’s done easily and even the best ideas soon meet hassles and ‘yeah buts’. So the kids have to be clear that they know what the barriers are and then present their vision (which must get around those hurdles). Next the have to come up with 3 (or more) options in their idea, then pick the one they want to go with – and defend why. Finally, they have to list the potential risks and problems that might happen with their idea.

By the end of Day 2, all the kids have a pitch. Some will have got into their ‘birds of a feather” groups, which are people who have skills they need, or ideas and goals similar to theirs. If they like, they can pitch again as to why they want to form a group (company) rather than stay solo – but I want that over night.

So what’s the driving question? well, there really isn’t one in the traditional sense. What we’re doing here is learning how to tell stories (reports, explanations, pitches etc.,) and to visualise them using the head, heart and facts available. To be specific, a few kids decided to form a business to ‘up-cycle’ skateboard decks. On day one they didn’t know what a maker-space was, by the end of day 3, they have spoken to veneer suppliers, skaters, board-makers and started to work out how to pitch their plan to the community. They know what tools they need and what they need from a space to make it happen. So they are busy this week trying to work out how to raise the capital to for their ‘start-up’.

What I like about this is that we’re not stuck in a loop of Googling and sketching out designs for skateboard decks. We’re not trying to make one deck, but create a long-term start up which will recycle and build new boards, and allow other kids to come and learn how to do it.

All 4 projects work the same way. There are goals, rewards and visible learning systems to work with that allow them to believe they can be a start-up. Thats what I’ve been working on for a while. You might like.

Why do teachers talk at all?

In an era where the Internet seemingly has all the answers, why do teachers spend so much time talking to students? The answer is of course complex and unresolved in totality, but we do know why teachers feel as though they should lecture students. One is the dang bell that signals the start and end of a lesson. Teachers believe they can ‘on-ramp’ students with an intro and with 5 mins to go, the are using the verbal whip to push that pony home in the last stretch. We know that many teachers like to teach the way they were taught (particularly early career) on the whole and it takes time for them to build strategies and confidence to do otherwise. It doesn’t help that there isn’t much ‘modelling’ going on in University to show them otherwise either. Some like to simply show off and talk about themselves, because it’s nice to have a captive audience.

I’ve been reading and picking at a great little book recently called Show and Tell by Dan Roam. Although it’s about presentations, it’s really about communication. Communication can’t be easily defined either, although a horrid woman once told me it’s ‘verbal, spoken and written’ which amused me and really summed up her skills brilliantly. Roam says it is to “tell the truth, tell it with a story and tell the story with pictures” which is delightful depiction for my middle school students immersed in project based learning. He also says we should used “head, heart and data” which again is fundamental and sadly ‘data’ is routinely omitted by many of the soch-presenters broadcasting on Chitter.

Talk fades fast, where as drawing and visualising the conversation captures information, ideas, data and most of all a shared connection between the participants. I get through a stack of paper doing this every day. Nothing beats a bold line from a sharpie to cut through tricky problems.

All that glitters …

There was a time I hearted Chitter, the conversations and the connections. Today, Chitter is quite a different proposition as a media channel. It’s ability to allow anyone to have a voice is mediated by their audience. Chitter is free and allows anyone to dive in and grab some attention. Chitter works better for individuals, when they cluster together as a vaguely aligned group who understand and share some common understandings about how to behave. Following the rules, means the cluster expands and so doe the chances of the individual to increase their social-capital – be it neo-capital within the phenomenon.

Of course if you don’t know this, then someone who apparently has connections and followers, posting attractive messages may well appear knowledgeable and influential. To make sure, people produce all sorts of media around their social-presence which reinforces their correctness. But all that glitters is not gold. It is less easy to impress people who demand evidence. For example, while videos about using Minecraft, doing science etc., are interesting, as is posting links to scholarly work — actually showing that what is happening cannot be achieved in another (often simpler) way is more difficult. Showing that what is happening is ‘better’ is ineffable though the media and human filters that regulate the ‘clusters’ correctness (social importance). If this wasn’t’ the case, no one would bother researching or talking about methods of research in attempting to improve education. I reject the idea that ‘social’ is a short-cut or ‘grass-roots’ version of academia. Plenty of people do both.

The clusters tend to focus on particular topics (each node likes to have it’s own operating space). This can have an effect on reality. By appearing to be on the leading edge, it is possible to build social capital and actually climb the ladder. Remember nodes like to bind with other like-nodes in the cluster, which is another form of in-group and out-grouping. The problem I have here is that I want to be convinced by evidence rather than media representations. While it’s great to see people blogging and sharing, it does no harm to look a little deeper than media-presence and ask yourself, is this really golden?


School leadership comes in many forms and sizes. People are complicated and want what they want and perceive what they perceive. This results in power-plays between groups and individuals. In some cases, notably the pre-iPhone world of management and manufacture, when western manufacturing still provided work for the masses – top down culture, middle management and time served was well established. This has proven to be broadly disastrous in the face of globalisation. Today few kids can expect to fail school, avoid further education and still find a long term job.

So we need a new kind of leadership. We need people who can lead and most of all we need people who genuinely connect, collaborate and share with others. Not people who do it for their own ambition, but ones who actually understand that individualistic approaches to the workplace neither model to children the skills they need, nor will people around them participate with or be subjected by it anymore.

This presents considerable issues for the adoption of so called ‘new’ pedagogical arrangements such as service based, problem, project or game based learning. Not only do people need to understand and be able to implement a multi-focused curriculum to engage and inspire children, but they also need to grapple with their collective and individual power issues that come with the modernist legacy — and indeed general ambition or lethargy of humans.

Edutopia provided 5 characteristics of an effective school team. I think ‘effective’ is a great way to look at running a several classrooms, subjects and teachers. As being effective cannot be disconnected from being professional in the 21st Century ie – Connected, Collaborative, Communicative and Creative.

In a good team, there’s healthy conflict.

This is inevitable and essential if we’re learning together and embarked on some kind of project together. We disagree about ideas, there’s constructive dialogue and dissent, and our thinking is pushed.

Of course this one is really problematic to people who operate on characteristics such as with holding information, excluding people from important discussions or meetings, acting passively at times when action is needed and an array of saboteur behaviours which prevent overall effectiveness. From experience, I am firm on the reality that people who behave in this way are never going to make an effective team member – and these days, that means an ineffective teacher.

What is more scary is the pre-teacher dislike of ‘group work’. Of course knocking out essays and attending tutorials can earn some form of a degree, but with the number of students being churned out these days – the danger is we have people who will readily engage in the pre-iPhone hegemony and perpetuate the exact culture that kills innovation, creativity and the kind of learning episodes that are needed.

Never participate in other peoples power-plays if you want to be in an effective team. It’s socially awkward to say “No”. But that is all that’s required to start a new, and better ‘healthy’ conversation. In situations where you are not included in the decision process, excluded from prior conversations etc., then it’s easy to go along with it, because the intention has been to ensure you ‘get the message’ and comply. These are unhealthy. It’s really hard to say “No” but sadly it’s the only way to draw the line and be heard.

To create a safe and healthy learning environment (Edutoipia link) then everyone needs a voice and to know they are important and valued – students, teachers and administration. It’s not like the Internet isn’t full of great advice about this … but the people with power rarely talk about, or point you to them.

A handy PBL student talkie

I have a thing about Mind Maps in PBL. At times, I’ve seen them used as a sort of patchwork quilt, where students set out ‘what they need to know’. While some kids will come up with imaginative and probing questions, quickly reflecting on what they already know and predicting where this topic is going … the majority tend to set out a set of keywords and phrases they have picked-up from the initial teacher mini-lecture and hints. As teachers like kids to succeed and get started, the core terms they issue freely quickly become the foundation of the mind map.

Young Creators: Good Practices across Europe

These mind maps are flat and don’t offer any heights to climb or depths to explore. Kids generally write down the low-level stuff, which is often quickly forgotten (remembering, memorising) – as it’s easy(ier). There’s a high level of work that some students get the opportunity to do. There are also the neo-ideals presented by the post-modernists in love with the 21st Century trope – all very exciting, but for many classrooms, not really going to happen unless culture and funding changes. But it makes a great story and teachers love to hear about it.

I do like Doug Belshaw’s ideas and respect that he’s been making useful stuff for ages – most of which isn’t space-cadet stuff, but quite practical and easy to put in front of someone and they can work with it.


Here’s a good example from 2009. I like to use by making students ask ‘need to know’ questions based on the rotation of the circle, beginning with knowledge (remembering). The technology around the edge might of moved on, but it’s really handy to ask students what ‘tool’ or ‘presentation’ they are going to give me to show me that they get the idea or can solve the problem.

Another tool I like to use is to shift the focus of their mind map. The ‘easy’ mind map is the focus area. Logically this comes first, as the teacher is generally in charge of bringing the topic into focus. However, the focus should just provide a foundation, delivering terms the teacher thinks (but doesn’t know) are going to be unfamiliar and also critical to the enquiry. They can also drop in some red-herrings too, just to make sure kids start with their ‘crap detectors’ turned on.


I like this simple chart for several reasons, the main one being is I can push kids into these other areas and get them to formulate better need to knows around them. The problem with flat mind maps is that there is no ‘so what’ at the centre, so the task becomes procedural, even didactic.  I am also a fan of one-page talkies. Things I can show and kids can point to, highlight and choose. Both of these work and will transform the flat mind map into a much deeper enquiry with distinct phases.

The Screenie Generation

Not all kids are ‘screenies’ but and increasing number appear to abandoning corporeal life-lessons for virtual ones. The screenies have been furnished with iPads and Smart Phones which they carry around everywhere their parents go.

Media form-factors have homogenised the viewer into normality. Take a look at this photo of kids watching personal screens and compare that to the neo-evolutionary screenie who hides their phone in the hand, or conceals their ear-buds in a hoodie. The act of viewing hasn’t changed (passive watching), but the modality has. No longer do screenies have to suffer the boredom of visiting aunt Norma, subjected to passive adult-chit-chat as their parents did. Screenies will ask for the wifi password of every home they visit — and get it. Between Temple Run, Tower Defence and checking in with their Clash Clan, they will guzzle down YouTube channels on everything from cupcake obsessed mommy channels to the endless parade of Minecraft channels with sarcastic multi-millionaire presenters and millions of inter-channel connected shared-audiences.

Shows such as Big Bang Theory have embedded ‘insults and comedy’ as a cultural pass time. It is no surprise that the screenie generation are having a hard time understanding and applying their communication skills to the real world – as it once was and how parents generally believe it should be. The screenies don’t have deep and meaningful conversations JK embedded into the Harry Potter narrative, they are busy on Insta, Snap, Kick and FB Messenger – as their connection is more virtual than real – and it seems so are many of their ‘problems’.  They have been drip-fed sarcasm, insults and consumer culture and amongst each other, apply and re-apply with increasing severity as they approach fifteen or sixteen.

The worst of these is the Neo-Insult Comic. They believe someone needs to, and can be, humiliated on a large scale. They don’t believe they have to get into television or become a front page journalist to do this. The Insult Comic can take an online audience of people and get them to laugh at the unfortunate target – hashtag #boomcomedy.

A decade or more of instant access to YouTube, streaming TV series and movies has removed the once visible boundary markers of media watching. As a parent, it’s not possible to vet, monitor or even attempt to ‘ban’ media from the lives of kids. Kick her off Minecraft because you’re worried, and she’ll demand her iPad and watch YouTube (about Minecraft). Threaten to take away media and the tantrums begin — often acting as an accelerant for the negative-media images of power-struggles between family members and friends.

Screenies are very difficult to manage. There’s no roadmap for parents here either. While the previous generation needed a sofa and TV to watch DVDs, this one doesn’t. Regulation is much harder now than even five years ago. 4G data is cheap, fast and by the age of twelve or thirteen, having it is seen as ‘normal’.

I’m amazed however, that despite their access to media and a the section of teachers online who promote it’s totes awesomeness, screenies are fickly, self-indulgent and quick to throw tantrums if their media-hub is removed. From stats on my blog – it seems parents are looking for answers over ‘too much Minecraft’ where really the issue is too-much-media-culture inside a neoliberal society that guzzles down endless ‘reality’ renovation shows and cooking competitions in between binge watching Weeds and Sons of Anarchy on Netflix.

I’m not sure what the ‘cure’ is – aside from once again reminding parents that in Australia at least there is no media-education in schools, no curriculum and no teacher training. What is happening in schools is totally random and ad-hock. The border of bad-taste and inappropriate content is set often by an establishment that has never had success with it’s ‘banning’ and ‘filter’ approach. This might cover the school against future litigation over media-exposure and use, but don’t for a second think that it’s a ‘media eduction’ for this century. Kids skip around the filter and these days, most have 4G and don’t even bother with the local network.

The mobile devices are also symbolic. Media is everywhere and not something to be accessed (and critically appreciated) in certain locations, such as library, computer lab or family lounge room. Everything is media to the screenies. As a teacher, this is most noticeable when they are asked to do something that requires comparison, critical thinking or choosing one thing over another. They struggle to break free of their neoevolution-self which believes that typing “how do I” and “what is” into Google is how to get though the school day. Screenies live on a virtual-goat track. They roam back and forth between media-sites which feed their interest or are seen as ‘in group cool’. Occasionally some kid will show me something they made online, but mostly they show me things they’ve seen.

As I said at the top, not all kids are screenies and many kids are both screenies and sporty, screenie and academic. The question is what are they losing as a result of learning about the world around them though a globalised media phenomenon fuelled by adwords, remarketing and savage media bias in subscription channels which celebrate sarcasm and promote the narcissistic self. Being a ‘hater’ is seen as a valid form of social-expression, overlaid on TV media shows – and you can’t really be good-at-Twitter unless you’ve got something to hate-on these days.

There’s no point moaning and freaking out about the time she spends on Minecraft, without looking at the environment that creates and sustains it. Few parents are interested enough in media education to demand it in schools – and yet media education is increasingly fundamental to how kids are growing up. By media education, I mean actually knowing how media works, and why it is presented to them as it is – and that includes the role consumerism and advertising plays in media-diet. I have at least one screenie in my house … and it takes a lot of effort (and cost) to engage him in other activities. I am not at all sure I’m winning … but I’m very sure that his school-day won’t even be trying due it’s modernistic views organisation.

Why I don’t make workbooks.

I’m going to build on my deep suspicion that Blooms Triangle is one of the most problematic ideas sold into the undergraduate psyche. It symbolises an idealistic, progressive, narrowing ladder towards so called ‘high order’ thinking that students can climb. A ladder which is provided by a teacher. A teachers starts with the list questions and keep going regardless of time or understanding.

The biggest problem with Blooms is that it doesn’t account for time in either the corporeal or virtual world kids live in today. Most schools run on 40-50 minute sessions because it fit’s the organisational structure of school, not because it’s good for learning. No one ever runs a conference keynote argument about time-table reform – and teachers seem to think that reform is bounded by the same timetable arrangements of the last fifty years. Classes run X number of times a cycle and there are Y dot-points to ‘get through’ according to the overseers who decide what our cognitive apprentices need to ‘learn’. These are then divided into ability levels. I refuse to stream kids by some faux-measurement of ‘ability’. I really doesn’t make sense in today’s classroom. What some kids need to know – and can know in 50 minutes is never going to be stable or standardised. Instead teachers are told students should learn to and learn about … which is well meant, but hard to do.

I say need to learn, because it’s fundamentally different from need to know. The latter cannot be regulated by 40-50 minute sessions or planned into a timetable. Today you and I are probably going to encounter a problems and generate a ‘need to know’. It is ridiculous to believe that this will be a t !:40pm.

The ladder is broken. Kids don’t climb it on a chain like sherpas. More capable kids don’t like being tied to less capable and visa versa. A piece of advice I gave a prac-teacher this week was to be careful of the assumptions around these procedural ladder climbing sequences. More importantly – question idea that fun activities are rewards for work and those who don’t do enough work are somehow less worthy of having ‘fun’.

When I say ‘fun’, I mean any activity that to most kids is ‘active’ – throwing/catching, chasing, exploring, experimenting, playing a game, running around etc. In other words, activities that require learning through reflection on doing, rather than copying down, remembering, memorising and so on. While there’s a need for that, the ladder method assumes these things are low order and ‘beginning’ tasks that lead to doing (proficiency testing). In essence, experiential learning (Kolb) is a collection of spirals that become relational though doing.

Some kids need to so some of the spirals a few times before they recognise how to move from one to another. Eventually the spirals become connected (repeatable) patterns that have a shape which is both recognisable and applicable in new situations. Games do this rather well, which is one reason she doesn’t want to get off Minecraft and becomes so engaged in it. Some people are mistaking this experiential learning for addiction. One reason for that is probably that they themselves didn’t do any at school and therefore don’t see much value in it.

In school, while we are aware (or should be) of Dewy, Piaget and Lewinian theories I’m hinting at here … if not more recent work by contemporary scholars (Brown, Gee, Jenkins, De Freitas) there remains this lingering loyalty to Behaviourist ideology (especially computing-machine learning) which is also touted as being somehow experiential by design.

Learning design which doesn’t reform the rigid time-table, rethink physical space and allow students to step and repeat (voice and choice) cannot realistically be called ‘new’ or ’emerging’. Where they do have this … I would hope that their own knowledge of educational theory and instructional design would immediately tell them to avoid the cognitive apprentice model at all costs.

Learning in open spaces, flexible time tables and with mobile technology can be elegant and rewarding. It’s not about being one or two steps away from the modernist norm, it’s about realising that norm was wrong to begin with. It’s only now that we deliver experiential learning with relative ease – using imagination, creativity, games and, dare I say it – fun at a sustainable, relatively low cost level.

I don’t make workbooks because kids don’t learn anything. If they can do the workbook, then it pointless and if they can’t do the workbook, then it won’t help them. If one simply has to give a test, then give a test now an again … but modern learners live in an experiential world – so why give them a factory model of learning anymore.