09/01/2014  |  Camille Mortimore

My first big project happened the summer after I turned 11. 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.

Do you 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?.

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 and 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.

Do you 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. Project-based learning (PBL)!

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 and 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. PBL is full of questions; they are what drive the learning.

For example, recently visiting the local cemetery filled with graves of 19th century Norwegians and Germans, I wondered, “How did the lives of these people make a difference? How did early immigration influence our culture and economy today?”

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, Present. In real life, PBL looks much more like: Think. 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 Expeditionary Learning.] Ron exemplifies this exquisitely in “Austin’s Butterfly” ( 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 project-based learning. They are the summative assessments for the project plan, showing how students answer the guiding questions and demonstrate the learning of significant content and procedural knowledge.

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 voice, come to see themselves as experts, collaborators and contributors. The pressure of preparing for a public audience draws teacher and students together into a truly 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 Buck Institute for Education (BIE), to get the big picture of PBL and to view quality videos of skilled PBL practitioners at work. If you are working to sort out personalized, differentiated, and individualized learning methods and how to use their particular strengths with your students, check out the work of Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, Personalize Learning, LLC. Personalization v Differentiation v Individualization Chart.

Most essential is to 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?

Camille Mortimore, Ph.D., is Chief Learning Officer of Project Foundry, providers of project-based learning workflow software, K-16. Camille partners with schools and districts to empower learners through deeper learning methods, especially in PBL. She is a practitioner at heart — teacher, principal, superintendent, charter school leader, mom and grandmother — deeply committed to place-based PBL and students taking the lead in their own learning. Contact her at [email protected].
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