6 Strategies for Differentiated Instruction in Project-Based Learning

Edutiopia

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: FEBRUARY 8, 2012 | UPDATED: JANUARY 8, 2016

Project-based learning (PBL) naturally lends itself to differentiated instruction. By design, it is student-centered, student-driven, and gives space for teachers to meet the needs of students in a variety of ways. PBL can allow for effective differentiation in assessment as well as daily management and instruction. PBL experts will tell you this, but I often hear teachers ask for real examples, specifics to help them contextualize what it “looks like” in the classroom. We all need to try out specific ideas and strategies to get our brains working in a different context. Here are some specific differentiation strategies to use during a PBL project.

1. Differentiate Through Teams

We all know that heterogeneous grouping works, but sometimes homogenous grouping can be an effective way to differentiate in a project. Sometimes in a novel- or literature-based PBL project, it might be appropriate to differentiate by grouping into reading level. That way, I can take groups that need intensive work and ensure they are getting the instruction they need. I think teaming should be intentional, and we need to know the “why” of how we structure teams. Are you differentiating for academic ability? Are you differentiating for collaboration skills? Are you differentiating for social-emotional purposes? Are you differentiating for passions? If you’re a designer or co-designer of a PBL project, teams can be an effective way to differentiate instruction.

2. Reflection and Goal Setting

Reflection is an essential component of PBL. Throughout the project, students should be reflecting on their work and setting goals for further learning. This is a great opportunity for them to set personalized learning goals and for you to target instruction specific to the goals they set. At specific milestones in a project, one teacher that I observed had students reflect on what they’d learned so far in math and science, and then create goal statements for what they still wanted to learn. The teacher then designed activities to support students in learning not only what they wanted, but also what they needed to know.

3. Mini-Lessons, Centers, and Resources

This is probably one of my favorites. In addition to being a great management strategy to prevent “time sucks” in class, mini-lessons and centers are a great way to differentiate instruction. Perhaps you offer mini-lessons or center work to support your students’ learning, or maybe you show students a variety of resources from which to learn, including videos, games, and readings. I know a teacher who has a well-oiled PBL machine of a classroom. Students move seamlessly from product work to learning stations, resources, and mini-lessons based on what they know. Students are so in tune with their learning that they are able to truly take ownership of it, and the teacher provides instruction without assumption. Not all students may need the mini-lesson, so you can offer or demand it for the students who will really benefit.

4. Voice and Choice in Products

Another essential component of PBL is student voice and choice, both in terms of what students produce and how they use their time. Specifically to products, you can allow students to show what they know in a variety of ways. From written components to artistic or theatrical, you can differentiate the ways that students are summatively assessed. Their passions actively come into play here. Again, it all depends on the standards that you’re assessing, but don’t let standards confine your thinking. Yes, you may have a written component if you’re assessing writing, but ask yourself, “How can I allow for voice and choice here?” Embrace possibilities for differentiated student summative products.

5. Differentiate Through Formative Assessments

Formative assessments can look the same for all students. They can also look different. We know that students can show what they’ve learned in different ways, as mentioned above in terms of products produced as summative assessment. In addition, as you check for understanding along the way, you can formatively assess in different ways when appropriate. Perhaps you are targeting collaboration in the project. You can differentiate a formative assessment of this through a variety of ways. Perhaps it’s an oral conference. Perhaps it’s a series of written responses. Perhaps it is a graphic organizer or collage. More importantly, these formative assessments allow you to differentiate the type of instruction needed as you “feed forward” in the project.

6. Balance Teamwork and Individual Work

Teamwork and collaboration occur regularly in a PBL project. We want to leverage collaboration as much as content. However, there are times when individual instruction and practice may be needed. You need to differentiate the learning environment because some students learn better on their own, and others learn better in a team. In fact, we all need time to process and think alone just as much as we need time to learn from our peers. Make sure to balance both so that you are supporting a collaborative environment while allowing time to meet students on an individual basis.

As you master the PBL process in your classroom, you will intuitively find ways to differentiate instruction for your students. You will design the project to scaffold content and skills in a variety of ways. You will create formative and summative assessments to allow for student passions and goals, and you will manage the process so that it allows you to meet students where they are and move them forward.

Please share some of your successful strategies with us!

Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?

A few years ago, I was working with a group of student teachers. One of them—we’ll call him Eric—was teaching seventh-grade social studies. His class was studying ancient Greece. The standards for grade 7 required teachers to address concepts like the government, economics, and culture of this era. For his 5-day unit, Eric was going to focus on the “culture” part.

On the first day of the unit, which Eric developed with his cooperating teacher, students would read the chapter of their textbook that swept through three centuries’ worth of ancient Greek culture in about five pages. Then they’d write answers to a set of end-of-chapter questions. On days 2 through 4, students would create their own Grecian urns by wrapping balloons with papier-mâché. Once the urns were dry, students would paint them in a similar style to that of the Greeks, incorporating something personally meaningful as the main artistic feature. Finally, they would present their urns to the class. On day 5, they would be given a quiz asking them to match 10 vocabulary terms, such as comedy, tragedy, urn, and Olympics, to their definitions.

Feeling more than a bit skeptical, I asked Eric to show me the standards his unit was aligned with. He rustled through some paperwork, then pointed to this language from the state standards: Students will demonstrate an understanding of the complexity of culture by exploring cultural elements (e.g., beliefs, customs/traditions, languages, skills, literature, the arts) of diverse groups and explaining how culture served to define groups in world civilizations prior to 1500 A.D. and resulted in unique perspectives.

I read this out loud to Eric, then asked him to show me exactly how his plans taught or measured the standard.

For a long moment, he said nothing.

Finally, he shrugged and told me the unit was basically what his cooperating teacher had “always done for ancient Greece.” She’d told him the urn project was really fun, and that the kids loved it. The only problem was, it had nothing to do with the standards. Draping wet, gluey newspaper around a balloon has nothing to do with deepening one’s understanding of societies and cultures.

All Hands-On Tasks Are Not Created Equal

I wish Eric’s story was just a rare example, but in my work with student teachers, as a classroom teacher myself, in my many years as a student, and now as a parent, I’ve seen far too many “Grecian Urns”: projects that look creative, that the teacher might describe as hands-on learning, interdisciplinary teaching, project-based instruction, or the integration of arts or tech, but that nonetheless lack any substantial learning for students. What’s worse, because these activities are often time-consuming, they take away from other tasks that would give students the chance to wrestle with more challenging stuff.

In their groundbreaking book Understanding by Design, Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins describe this problem as the Sin of Activity-Oriented Design. Instead of focusing on the desired learning outcomes, this approach merely seeks out tasks that might be fun, or at least keep kids busy: “The activities, though fun and engaging, do not lead anywhere intellectually. (They) lack an explicit focus on important ideas and appropriate evidence of learning.”

To illustrate this, Wiggins and McTighe describe a 3rd grade unit on apples. In this two-week unit, students read about Johnny Appleseed, paint pictures of apples, do math problems that involve apples, write apple-themed stories, make applesauce, and take a trip to a local orchard. Students probably enjoyed all of these activities, and it’s likely that both teachers and students were charmed by how cleverly the theme was woven into so many different content areas. Throughout the unit, students probably seemed engaged, the classroom was full of colors and productivity and maybe even collaboration, but what valuable learning actually took place?

Let’s move our lens to the higher grades. Here, the Grecian Urns might involve no crafts at all, but still force students to ride along curricular tangents that, rather than inspire and ignite a passion for learning, lead to dead ends.

Take the math and social studies teachers who decide to co-teach a two-week unit on famous mathematicians. Math and history, right? Students spend most of the first week on computers, researching the mathematicians’ birthplaces, families, deaths, and contributions to the field (which most students simply copy, because the actual mathematical concepts are over their heads…how many eighth graders do you know who can explain the Fibonacci sequence?). They spend another three class periods creating PowerPoints or Prezis full of facts about these obscure pioneers in math, complete with neat-o animations and stomach-turning transitions, and another three days presenting these to the class…

For what?

None of the kids got any better at math, nor did their thirst for history grow. But to someone walking by, maybe even to an administrator doing a formal observation, this unit would look kind of amazing. Students doing online research! Cooperative learning! Technology! Interdisciplinary study!

No!

These teachers misunderstood and misapplied the concepts of interdisciplinary study, hands-on learning, and tech integration, and two weeks of precious instructional time were wasted because of it.

How to Spot a Grecian Urn

It could be argued that all lessons have some educational value, that any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning. With that in mind, think of “Grecian Urn” as more of a relative term than an absolute one: Few lessons will be pure Grecian Urns; almost any lesson will probably have some arguable educational value. Far more lessons will simply contain elements that are Grecian Urn-ish; we can make these lessons better if we try to minimize those elements.

The best way to identify a Grecian Urn is to look at a task and ask this question: Does it consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact? If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn. And it may need to go.

Here are some more specific ways to spot the Grecian Urns in your teaching, and what you could do to replace them:

1. Excessive Coloring or Crafting

If your lesson requires more time coloring, cutting, or pasting than meaningful work with the content you’re trying to teach, it might be a Grecian Urn. If you are a primary teacher and students need to develop their fine motor skills, then these activities have a clear place in your classroom. Everyone else should use these tasks more sparingly.

This doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning. If not, there may be a way to cut down the time it takes. Suppose you want students to draw illustrations of vocabulary words. Adding visuals can work wonders to boost memory, so this is an instructionally sound decision. But is it necessary for these illustrations to be colored? On posterboard? Or hanging from a mobile? Would a simple line drawing beside each word on a regular sheet of paper serve the same purpose?

Now if your goal is true integration of the arts into your curriculum, I have two articles to recommend to you. Both of these really dig into what it looks like when teachers use art to really enhance students’ learning: read this post on arts integration from MindShift and this one from Edutopia to learn more about what this looks like.

2. Excessive “Neat-O” Tech

This is the tech equivalent of item #1: If students are spending lots and lots of time searching for images, making digital drawings, adding animations or effects to slideshows, adding sound effects or special titles to podcasts and videos, you are probably heading into Grecian Urn territory.

The key phrase here is lots and lots of time: Our students will absolutely benefit from learning how to combine text with images, manipulate presentations to make them more interesting, and make use of all the digital tools at their disposal. But when a student burns two hours listening to sound clips so he can make a photo of Langston Hughes zoom onto his PowerPoint slide to the sound of screeching brakes, well, he’s probably not doing much thinking about the Harlem Renaissance.

So when you’re assigning work that requires the creative use of tech, be mindful of how much time students are putting into the bells and whistles. Look at your rubric and make sure you haven’t required too many of these bells and whistles to begin with. And if possible, see if they can make the bells and whistles relevant: If students want sound in their slideshow about the Harlem Renaissance, have them add a Duke Ellington song, music that’s actually from that era, rather than a funny sound effect.

3. Low-Level Thinking

Most of the thinking in a Grecian Urn task is on the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. In other words, the task appears to be creative, but the primary academic work is rearranging and regurgitating basic facts or definitions.

Let’s look at two possible assignments for students to demonstrate their understanding of the Food Pyramid. In one class, the teacher has students re-create the pyramid as a hanging mobile. They write all the parts of the pyramid on pieces of colored paper and hang those papers onto a hanger or something. They might also be asked to draw or cut out magazine pictures of foods that represent items within each part of the pyramid. All of this work is at the Remember and Understand level of Bloom’s. Students are more or less defining stuff, and yet the task still takes an awfully long time to complete. Grecian Urn.

But what’s the point of teaching the Food Pyramid? Don’t we want students to learn it so they can make healthy eating choices? Here’s a different assignment: Have students write up a 3-day eating plan that applies the principles of the Pyramid. Sure, they can draw a border around it if they like. This will take five minutes. They can choose a cool font for the headings; that’s 10 minutes. But shouldn’t the real time-consuming work be put into deeply wrestling with the content itself?

4. Big Points for “Creativity”

An assignment might be a Grecian Urn if a significant part of the grade is based on “creativity” or “attractiveness.” And by the way, I’m a big design snob. I think presentation is important. But if more than 10 percent of a grade is based on these things—and I even think 10 percent is pushing it—we’re not measuring the learningthat’s supposed to be taking place.

The fix for this couldn’t be easier. Cut way back on the points you assign for creativity or attractiveness. And if you find that the projects you get don’t excite you because they are not colorful or pretty, it’s time to start planning projects that will excite you with their content.

5. Word Search

If the task is a word search, there’s a very strong chance it is a Grecian Urn. Some argument could probably be made for how word searches reinforce letter recognition in the very early grades. Fine. But if some form of letter recognition, decoding skill, or language development is not the curricular intent of your word search, then your word search is probably a Grecian Urn. If you are a teacher who doesn’t have time to do things like project-based learning or Genius Hour, but you have time to make word searches and have students spend time doing them? Drop the word searches and you just bought yourself and your students at least 30 extra minutes per week.

What Then?

So you have identified a couple of Grecian Urns in your lessons. What do you do about them?

One option is to cut them out. Just move those lessons out of your plan book and replace them with activities that will actually result in learning. Look again at your goals: What do you want students to know or be able to do by the time they’re done? And what tasks will help them get there?

The other option is to revise them. Let’s go back to Eric and his urns. Maybe instead of using up three class days on all that wet newspaper business, he could have students draw their urns on paper. He could build the historical relevance by providing students with images of typical Greek urns, have them choose one, then draw their own urn with images that parallel those in the original, but with a modern twist. So if the urn they choose depicts a battle, they might draw something on their own that represents a significant war or other “battle” that has occurred in the last century. Students could then add captions to their drawings, pointing out these details and the thinking behind them.

If you really like your Grecian Urn activity, you don’t have to completely drop it. But if you can tweak it to make it take less time and build in more curricular relevance, you’ve made it a lot less “urn-y” and, in turn, given it a more rightful place in your classroom.

The Fun and Sanity Loopholes

Having said all this, I think it’s important to note that not all classroom activities have to have a clearly defined, rigorous academic purpose. There will be times when a task that would be called a Grecian Urn in one context serves a completely different purpose in another.

The Fun Loophole
Building relationships with students, creating a family-like atmosphere, and making the classroom a place students love to come has incredible value. If I didn’t believe this, I never would have written something called When a Principal Whips and Nae-Naes. Some things should just be done for fun. If students absolutely love playing with the drawing app on their iPads, make that an option for free time. If students want to create a collage as a thank-you gift for a departing student, by all means let them.

The Sanity Loophole
At other times, you just need your students to be still and quiet. Maybe you’re coming down with a stomach bug or you just got bad news over the phone. Maybe the morning assembly left you with only 6 minutes of class time and you know you’re not going to get anything done. Maybe they have driven you to the absolute brink and you’re about to start throwing things. The best teachers in the world have days when they just can’t be on. At those times, good old-fashioned busywork is like manna from heaven. That’s when you have them color. That’s when you pull out the word searches.

When used for fun or sanity, these tasks are no longer Grecian Urns; they’re more like classroom management strategies. The important thing is to know the difference.

 

That’s what I tried to teach Eric as we revised his unit. We had him use some graphic organizer activities, where students did side-by-side comparisons of ancient Greek and modern-day cultural elements. Students then completed a lengthy questionnaire, where they took on the identity of a person in Ancient Greece. Each student chose a social rank, age, and gender, and wrote about what their life was like. Some questions asked them to describe their feelings about other people in their community and about social issues. They had to draw a few sketches of some of the artifacts in their daily life and describe why these artifacts were important to them. Once all students completed these questionnaires, they worked together to arrange them on a wall in a way that represented their social hierarchy.

The activity took three days. Students collaborated, used technology to research their person’s life, and even used a bit of color for their sketches. In the end, they understood a lot more about ancient Greek culture and about how culture influences who we are.

And they did it all without a single strip of gluey newspaper. ♦

‘Brain-hostile’ education: how schools are failing adolescents

Here’s an interesting brain research based article that supports so much of what we’re doing at Sacred Heart – especially our concentration on student-centered learning.

The Washington Post

By Valerie Strauss September 26
When people talk about making sure that curriculum is “developmentally appropriate,” they are often talking about the work young children are given to do at school. Increasingly, in this era of standardized test-based school reform, very young children are being asked to do things — such as read and write and analyze — before many of them are able to it, and kids can feel like failures before they get to first grade. But it isn’t just young kids for whom developmentally appropriate material is vital.
Modern neuroscience is presenting revelations about how the brains of middle and high school students develop and how best to engage them, but, as the author of this post says, “Regrettably, these proactive practices in middle and high school appear to be the exception rather than the rule. In this post, educator Thomas Armstrong discusses how schools are ignoring what science is telling them about how older students learn — and how they can fix it.

Armstrong has been an educator for more than 40 years and is the executive director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. He is the author of sixteen books related to learning and human development, including his newest, “The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students,” from which this selection was excerpted.

By Thomas Armstrong

The last 15 years of neuroscience research on the adolescent brain reveals that it is still under construction and amenable to influence from the environment. While there are a wide range of factors that educators have no control over, the one place where educators can have a high impact on adolescent brain development is school. Students in the United States spend about 1,000 hours in school each year (not counting extracurricular activities and before-school, after-school, and summer programs). This time, which amounts to about 15 percent of students’ waking lives, presents a golden opportunity for educators to create instructional activities that can change brain functioning in positive ways.
My new book, “The Power of the Adolescent Brain,” presents “brain-friendly” strategies that secondary schools throughout the United States (and the world) are currently using that dovetail with the way the adolescent brain works. Regrettably, these proactive practices in middle and high school appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

Evidence has been mounting to suggest that too many secondary schools are “brain-hostile” at worst, and “brain-ignorant” at best in their use of outdated practices that fail to take advantage of the neuroplasticity of the adolescent brain. These practices might even be termed “brain-damaging” to the extent that they create stress, apathy, and resentment among students that negatively affect brain functioning.

A large-scale national survey of middle and high school students revealed that more than half of all 10th grade students were bored in class and less than half enjoyed being at school, while another survey of 14- to 15-year-olds revealed that only 33 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys were seen by their parents to be actively engaged in school. A 2013 national Gallup Student Poll found that 75 percent of elementary school students were actively involved and invested in school, while only 44 percent of high school students had the same level of engagement.

“If we were doing right by our students and our future,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, “these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.’’ Even students who appear engaged may in many cases just be going through the motions by providing teachers with responses that are least likely to cause them harm or exposure.

At a time when adolescents’ emotional brains are jacked up to the max, the middle and high school curriculum suddenly “gets down to business” and becomes emotionally flat in tone. This has only become more common during the last few years. One recent study revealed a strong pattern of emotional suppression in students’ relationships with teachers at urban high schools. The authors wrote:

As teachers come under increasing pressure to produce demonstrable student achievement gains because of newly developed teacher evaluation systems and enact challenging pedagogy because of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, they may be more likely to think about understanding and improving emotion related interactions as a distal goal—one that diverts time and energy from the primary task of fostering student learning.

Owing to challenges from interest groups and other factors, such as the “committee” authorship of most textbooks, the textbooks that dominate so much classroom time lack any real zip, as former U.S. Assistant Director of Education Diane Ravitch points out, referring to high school history textbooks: “There seems to be something in the very nature of today’s textbooks that blunts the edges of events and strips from the narrative whatever is lively, adventurous, and exciting.’’

At a time when the adolescent’s brain increasingly craves stimulation from peers, education becomes more teacher-centered, offering less small-group interaction and cooperative learning than elementary classrooms. In addition, teachers promote student embarrassment by posting students’ grades and test results for everyone to see, and ban or restrict social media that could facilitate interpersonal learning in the classroom.
At a point when students’ decision-making skills are at a critical stage of development and the prefrontal cortex is going through a process of fine-tuning, zero-tolerance discipline policies run roughshod over students’ capacities to learn from their mistakes. In addition, schools heap required courses on students to prepare them for college, some actually requiring students to declare a major or course of study in ninth grade or even earlier. This approach deprives students of opportunities to take electives that are interesting to them and that might lead to a vocation in adulthood.

During a point when students are entering the developmental stage of formal operational thinking and are able to engage more deeply in metacognition, the curriculum begins to devote more attention to lower-order skills, such as recall of facts, formulas, and details.

Finally, at a time when adolescents have a huge appetite for rewards, teachers start employing higher standards in judging student competence and tend to give lower grades than elementary school teachers.

It’s clear that substantial reform is necessary to align classroom and schoolwide practices with the mountain of research now available on how the adolescent brain develops. One professor has gone so far as to suggest that we need a Head Start program for adolescents.

The guiding principle in reforming secondary education should be to craft educational programs and instructional strategies that link the evolutionary advantages of the adolescent brain to socially appropriate and constructive learning outcomes . So, for example, although risk taking can lead the adolescent to engage in unsafe driving practices, it can also lead him or her to try out new, challenging activities that promote learning, such as a poetry slam.

As one 16-year-old commented after competing in a poetry slam, “It’s really scary. You’re nervous and shaking. Then afterwards you get that same feeling you get coming off a roller coaster. You want to go again.’’
Similarly, adolescents’ need for bonding with peers might propel them into membership in a violent gang—or it could drive them to get involved in a service learning project that benefits the whole community. The sensation-seeking behavior that can lead adolescents to drug abuse could alternatively be directed toward a highly engaging student-centered learning project. The reward-seeking behaviors that might lure teens into Internet addiction could be tapped through a game-based learning experience in the classroom.

Personalized Learning: Enabling Student Voice and Choice Through Projects

Edutopia

Adapt these six tips to bring personalized learning projects into your classroom and build student engagement.

Follow this link for an interesting video

Overview

Addressing four teenagers standing at the front of the classroom, Gary Hook, a history teacher at Nashville Big Picture High School, told them, “I’m going to give you $100,000 for 20 percent equity in the company. I need to know right now, though. I need to know whether you’re in or not.”

A panel of four additional 11th-grade teachers sat beside Hook, and each of them took turns making different investment offers based on the product, potential revenue, and investment request that the students initially pitched.

The power switched into the students’ hands when they chose an offer, and all of their classmates erupted in cheers. They were participating in a two-week Shark Tank project — based on the show of the same name — where entrepreneurs pitch investors to fund their company.

 

 

What began as a classwide math project to learn about the profit function equation and quadratic functions culminated into a grade-level presentation to imitate the show Shark Tank.

Each student was tasked with joining a group to create a fictitious business, which included developing a product and marketing plan, choosing a location and work space, and identifying how much money they would need for startup costs and what the return would be for investors.

“One of the things you hear all the time as a math teacher is, ‘When am I ever going to use this?'” says Derick Richardson, a Nashville Big Picture math teacher. “I try to bridge that. And so through this project, the kids were able to see, ‘Oh, man, we’re talking about stuff that I hear on the news and that I see on this TV show that I like, and it actually makes sense.’ Everybody got involved, even the kids that are not good at math. I’ve never seen these kids get this excited about a math project.”

“When you’re able make learning relevant to a student,” adds Chaerea Snorten, Nashville Big Picture’s principal, “it helps them want to do it and not just because that’s what’s expected. The whole focus of personalized learning is that students see the relevance of what it is that they’re doing. The outcome is students are engaged, and they’re enjoying the learning process.”

If you want to engage your students in personalized learning projects, here are six tips from Nashville Big Picture High School for how you can get started.

How It’s Done

1. Make Your Projects Simple

Not every project has to be a grade-level collaboration like the Shark Tank project. Instead of the traditional paper or PowerPoint presentation, give your students choices in how they show their learning. They may choose to make a video, act out a skit, or create a painting.

Kristin, a Nashville Big Picture junior, was asked to depict slavery in any way that she wanted for her history class. She chose art. Her painting depicted Harriet Tubman and a slave girl against a backdrop of words.

These words — ranging from “kidnapping” to “hope” — depicted a slave’s journey from slavery to emancipation. She appreciated not only being able to choose how she would express her learning, but also the public display of her art — alongside other students’ work — in the school hallways. “My art is a part of me,” shared Kristin, “and so for people to walk by and see a part of me, it feels great.”

When Harley, an alumnus, entered Nashville Big Picture in ninth grade, he was given the choice in how he could approach his first project. “I made a video documentary about myself,” Harley recalls, “and from that assignment, I realized that I loved making movies.” From that moment forward — from his exhibitions to his senior capstone project — Harley expressed his learning through video. “I wouldn’t have put in as much time and effort if I had to write a lot of papers, but by making a bunch of videos, I was able to do awesome work because it was something I cared about,” he says.

Watch Harley’s short video for Edutopia about student voice and choice (and read his four tips on how teachers can engage students).

2. Let Your Students Choose What They Learn (It’s Not as Scary as it Sounds)

In place of a quarterly test, Big Picture history teacher Gary Hook assigned his students a mini-project to research, investigate, and present on a topic within modern U.S. history. He gave them a list of topics from the ‘80s to the present — ranging from movements (like gay rights and Black Lives Matter) to the impact of social media on modern-day society. If there wasn’t a topic on the list that his students wanted to research, he let them choose their own topic as long as it fit within modern U.S. history.

Give your students a list of options from which they can choose, whether it’s a book to read in language arts, a topic to research in history, or a business to create in math. “With project work, I try to give them a menu of options that they can choose from to show their learning,” explains Hook, “as well as a menu of options that they can choose to research. This allows them to operate in a space where they are comfortable.”

3. Give Your Students a Project Framework

Giving your students choice in what they learn and in how they express their learning doesn’t mean that content or standards get thrown out the window. Hook was able to give his students choice while still meeting his content objectives. Nor does giving your students choice mean that your assignments lack structure or planning. “When it comes to personalizing our learning, we have to look at what our content and standards are. We start there,” says Snorten.

“The essence of personalized learning is understanding where the student is and where they want to go, as well as where you need them to go,” adds Hook. Give your students a project brief to make sure that they cover the content and skills you need them to learn. Hook gave his students a project brief outlining the objective, topic options for research, guidance on how they’ll carry out their project (such as working in groups and presenting their topic), and details on what needed to be included in their process.

4. Use Temperature Checks to Assess Your Students’ Work

When assessing personalized learning projects, do one-on-one or group temperature checks with your students. Are they hot or cold? Are they way off or close to grasping what they need to understand? When Richardson’s students were working on the Shark Tank project, he would go from group to group, checking in on their profit functions.

Richardson also checked in on their progress with their product, their marketing campaign, and the elements of their project that were less tied to math. “Sometimes you have a project, but you don’t follow up,” he explains. “You hand out a sheet of paper, they go do it, and that’s it. I really wanted them to get excited about this, be passionate about it, and create something that they really might be able to use outside of the classroom.” Student choice about their project brings relevance to their learning. By showing interest in the whole project, you show interest in their passions and in your students themselves. They’ll become more engaged in their work if they believe that you’re excited and engaged in what they’re doing and in who they are.

5. Get to Know Your Students

“We need to understand who our students are and how they learn,” stresses Richardson. Once you understand your students’ needs, you won’t waste time delivering content in a way that they won’t comprehend. “It saves you a lot of time and effort,” he says.

“Like adults,” adds Courtney Ivy Davis, Big Picture’s school counselor and internship coordinator, “their passion is what drives them. It’s what gives them excitement, and we want them to be excited about their passion and tie that to their education so that they can be successful lifelong learners.” Students don’t walk into your classroom with their passions and interests written on their forehead. You have to uncover these things while giving your students the opportunity to explore and discover their interests for themselves. By offering them choice in what and how they learn, you allow them to figure out how they learn best. Building intentional relationships with your students will allow you to guide them in this discovery. Here are 22 ways that Nashville Big Picture builds intentional relationships with their students. (Note that these strategies are applicable even if you’re at a bigger school.)

6. Ask Your Students What They Want and Need

“Student voice is number one,” emphasizes Snorten. “Hear it, learn it, ask for it. ‘What is it that will help you do better? How can we help you improve? What do you need from us?'” Building personal relationships with each of your students is important, but it also takes time.

If you have a class of 40 students, and want to know their needs and interests now, ask them.

See Related Resources: When We Listen to Students and Student Surveys: Using Student Voice to Improve Teaching and Learning

Help Your Students Figure Out How They Learn Best

Rather than opening a textbook, memorizing steps to an equation, or learning the teacher’s method on how to understand something, personalized learning allows your students to figure out how they learn best. They also get to see how their peers learn best, showing them that there are many ways to problem solve and reach the same solution. “At other schools, they might know one specific way to do things,” explains Richardson, “but our students are prepared to be more creative in how they figure out the solution. They learn how to learn on their own, and they take that into college.”

Ignite Student Passions with Genius Hour

May 23, 2016
Tamara Letter

ITRT – Instructional Technology Resource Teacher
Hanover County Public Schools
Ashland, VA

Do you remember the days when learning was fun? Memorable? When the final bell rang and you didn’t want to leave? In the times of standardization, how do we find balance between what we have to teach and what we want to teach? Many of us wonder if we can bring joy back into our classrooms. I think we can when we implement passion projects.

“If you can’t figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose.” -Bishop T.D. Jakes

Passion projects capture the joy of learning while integrating content areas of reading, writing, and oral communication. Students have the opportunity to showcase their creativity and shine from their hard work. Passion projects also have the power to change the climate of your classroom as students learn more about each other and their interests.

Almost 70 years ago, the international company 3M encouraged their employees to devote 15 percent of their work time to innovative projects that captured their interests and passions. More than a decade ago, Google did the same with their “20% Time.” Both companies valued the spirit of innovation and productivity, which resulted in the creation of such products as Post-it Notes and Gmail. This concept of intentional time spent on projects of interest quickly morphed into the Genius Hourmovement in education.

It’s time to ask our students what they can imagine, create, or innovate when they dedicate one hour a week to investigating their passions. While an hour a week seems like an impossible sacrifice for pacing guides and scheduling constraints, creative teachers all across the world are finding ways to bring joy back into their classrooms. It was that mindset that opened the door to a collaborative partnership with Mrs. Bambi Feighner, a first-grade teacher at my school. We decided to jump in, calling our new endeavor Passion Projects.

Finding Joy in the Classroom in Five Steps

Brainstorm 

Before we introduced anything to the students, Ms. Feighner and I brainstormed our own passions together. We talked about things that made us happy and explored the “what-ifs” of being educators. Then we talked about how these questions made us feel. Surprisingly, the more we talked about our passions, the more excited we became. We weren’t inundated with logistical worries but were empowered by the potential of “what if?”Wonder Wall

The excitement. The passion. The joy of learning — that’s what we wanted our students to feel. In class, we had students complete a similar activity where they brainstormed a list of things that made them happy. Then we encouraged them to stretch their thinking by identifying the areas they wanted to learn more about. We did this activity using sticky notes and pencils on a “Wonder Wall,” though it could also be completed using technology with apps such as Padlet.

Question

For Passion Projects, students needed to narrow their focus to one question they wanted to answer, which would drive their research. We added their questions to Google Sheets, which kept everything organized and easy to access. It also allowed us to collaboratively add resource links and additional information as we guided students through the research process.

Research

We knew we needed a good classroom-management structure to ensure students were staying on task and being productive as they worked through the research and creation phase. We chose a once-a-week center rotation to provide support and guidance, which also allowed time for content integration. One rotation helped the students read and take notes in their journals, while the second rotation guided students on the computer as they created a background image for their projects.

We employed both low-tech and high-tech options for research. Some student questions could be answered by reading a library book or a tourism brochure. Other questions required extensive internet research. For those in-depth questions, we found videos and screencasts that provided more information, such as how to make books or build a specific Lego figure. For struggling readers, we used Readability to remove unwanted ads and distractions from stories and articles, then usedScreencastify to record ourselves reading articles for students.

Create

We continued our weekly center rotations until the digital backgrounds were complete, then we started recording students individually as they shared what they had learned about their passion. While Pixie has a built-in audio-recording feature, we chose to use Camtasia for this final step. Students who were not recording worked on editing their stories or on other tasks.

As students naturally transitioned from research to creation, we noticed something different about our students: We had fewer discipline problems, and students were putting more effort into their reading and writing. They were engaged with their research. They were excited about their digital creations. They were helping their classmates. There were smiles, laughter, and joy!

Share

Sharing is vital to the success of a passion project! Students showcased their projects with an authentic audience of classmates, teachers, parents, and administrators during a “Passion Project” Share Fair. As guests walked from laptop to laptop, listening to the student presentations, they not only validated the time and effort students had put into their work, but they also reaffirmed what we had already discovered: The joy of learning was ever-present!

We wanted to reach beyond the concrete walls of our school to share our projects with a larger community, so we created a Passion Project website and tweeted links on Twitter and Facebook — talk about empowering! When students realized that their projects were being viewed by people all across the world, they took more pride and attention in their work and asked, “Can we do this again?”

7th Grade Problem-Based Learning

Madison Huber and Jonathen Schatz show off their Iditabits product during the STEM survival and Iditarod unit presentation at Cheney Middle School. Photos by David Samson

Cheney 7th-graders create innovations for Iditarod project

Students at Cheney Middle School in West Fargo had a tall task when they were given a week-and-a-half to research, design and test a new innovation to help Iditarod dog mushers during a fictitious race across North Dakota.

In the “I Will Survive!” project, 96 seventh-grade students in groups of two or three created a tangible invention to help the dogs or mushers complete and survive the long race across North Dakota. They presented their projects Friday in the school’s lunch commons.

Before students started their projects, they heard a presentation from a local veterinarian who discussed the problems and obstacles dogs and mushers face during an Iditarod race. The real Iditarod race began in Alaska in 1973, with a route from Anchorage to Nome. Mushers and dogs can face whiteout conditions and extremely cold temperatures.

Grace Planteen and Victoria Smith created a “doggy care kit” that includes a blanket with a heating system, a dog booty for paws and organic dog treats.

“We spent like a whole day thinking of many different designs and it just came to us,” Smith said.

“There was so much stuff that the mushers need that they can’t always fit all of their stuff they need for the dogs and so we thought, ‘Why can’t the dogs carry their own,’” Planteen added.

Items in the doggy care kit fit into a lightweight pack the girls designed to fit on the dogs. They even tested the packs on their own dogs.

Smith and Planteen said they both enjoyed working on the project. “I really liked creating the prototype,” Smith said. “I thought it was really fun to interact with it and just working with another person on making this happen.”

Two other students, Abigail Carlson and Elizabeth Lokosang, created a better braking system for sleds used in the Iditarod race that would make it safer for the mushers to slow down.

“We had a lot of ideas, but this is the one we really wanted to do because the mushers were falling off their sleds and getting hurt,” Lokosang said.

Carlson said she enjoyed the hands-on design part of the project and not the research, but said the project required her to become a better researcher.

Abigail Carlson and Elizabeth Lokosang talk about their Total Terrain project for the STEM survival, Iditarod unit. David Samson

Abigail Carlson and Elizabeth Lokosang talk about their Total Terrain project for the STEM survival, Iditarod unit. David Samson

The new braking system uses a hand brake to slow or stop the sled instead of the musher stepping on two brakes on the rear of the sled. Carlson said the current braking system leads to mushers falling off the sleds more easily.

Another pair of students created “Iditabars,” an energy bar snack for dogs to help them get the nutrients and energy they need to complete the race. Madison Huber and Jonny Schatz developed the recipe after extensive research. They also had to develop a way to keep the bars together after baking them proved impossible.

“Instead of baking them we froze them, so they’re like frozen dog treats,” Huber said.

Huber tested the treats on her own dog.

“He loved it,” she said. “He was just wagging his tail and he was running all night.”

Cheney Middle School seventh-grade teacher Karen Lietz said the project helps students prepare for future solution-based career fields.

“These kids when they graduate, they will have all of those 21st-century skills, with collaboration, creativity,” Lietz said. “They’ll be able to communicate effectively with others. They’ll have developed those soft skills as well as the problem-solving skills that are real-world.”

When Schools Overlook Introverts

The Atlantic
As the focus on group work and collaboration increases, classrooms are neglecting the needs of students who work better in quiet settings.

MICHAEL GODSEY SEP 28, 2015
When Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking nearly four years ago, it was immediately met with acclaim. The book criticizes schools and other key institutions for primarily accommodating extroverts and such individuals’ “need for lots of stimulation.” Much to introverts’ relief, it also seeks to raise awareness about the personality type, particularly among those who’ve struggled to understand it.

It seems that such efforts have, for the most part, struggled to effect much change in the educational world. The way in which certain instructional trends—education buzzwords like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts. In fact, these trends could mean that classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior—through dynamic and social learning activities—are being promoted now more than ever. These can be appealing qualities in the classroom, of course, but overemphasizing them can undermine the learning of students who are inward-thinking and easily drained by constant interactions with others.
Just last week the University of Chicago library announced that in response to “increased demand,” librarians are working with architects to transform a presumably quiet reading room into a “vibrant laboratory of interactive learning.” One writer on Top Hat, a popular online resource for educators, argued in a post last month that “cooperative learning strategies harness the greatest part of human evolutionary behavior: sociality.” And earlier this month, Cal State University, Dominguez Hills, promoted their installation of “active learning classrooms” with “multiple desk formations” in which “professors must change their mindsets” because “the lectures should be designed to learn by doing.” Hamoud Salhi, a professor and acting associate dean, explains, “This project is not just about changing the classroom environment; it is also about changing how instructors approach teaching.”

Meanwhile, some advocates for “active learning classrooms” write about “breaking students and faculty out of their comfort zones” like it’s a good thing, and other teachers continue to conflate introversion and an inability to self-advocate. Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric advertises a pedagogy that “seeks to overhaul the model of education” and challenges students to “forego passivity in favor of contribution and participation…students must overcome isolation in order to learn to write.” And Liz Sproat, head of Google for Education—an organization that doesn’t see a profit when students simply read quietly and think introspectively—situates “the increase in collaborative working” as an agreed-upon premise in an article on ComputerWeek.com, one that Google can make more “cost-effective.”

Introverts “feel at their most alive and their most switched-on when they’re in quieter, low-key environments.”
This growing emphasis in classrooms on group projects and other interactive arrangements can be challenging for introverted students who tend to perform better when they’re working independently and in more subdued environments. Comprising anywhere from one third to about half of the population, introverts sometimes appear shy, depressed, or antisocial, when that’s not always the case. As Susan Cain put it in her famous TED Talk, introverts simply “feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.”
I started reflecting on this recently after observing classes at a public high school in California. (I teach English at a different public high school and visited the school as a professional-development activity.) All but four of the 26 teachers I witnessed had their students arranged in groups or with partners. Such formations aren’t necessarily irreconcilable with the needs of introverts, but these arrangements can inherently enable noisy, distracting conditions that make learning particularly difficult for certain students.

Recommended Reading The Influx of Latino Students at Historically Black Colleges
Many of my own high-school students regularly request extended sessions of silent reading. Some prefer learning with the fluorescent classroom lights off, instead relying on the softer sunlight coming in through the window. Some admit to enjoying the opportunity to work in a quiet room and are eager to write about certain prompts for as long as I let them. I used to think their ubiquitous earbuds were feeding their need for stimulation; now I wonder if they’re sometimes blocking out the noise.

These are, of course, generalized observations, but I recently met with two high-school students who spoke directly and frankly about their need for quiet, solitary learning environments. Both of proudly spoke of their success at Grizzly Youth Academy, a 22-week charter-school program in San Luis Obispo, California, targeted at teens who’ve had a “history of school failure” at a previous school. Asked what she thought facilitated her success, one student responded: “The structure—I can concentrate here.” Acknowledging her tendency to get distracted, the student noted that there was “absolutely no quiet time” at her former public school, and she now appreciates the disciplined classes and quiet study hall sessions. “I’m like a completely different person now.”

I used to think their ubiquitous earbuds were feeding their need for stimulation; now I wonder if they’re sometimes blocking out the noise.
The other student, whom I interviewed separately, offered similar reflections: “It’s more focused here [at the charter school], and noisier there [at the public school]. I have ADD so I’m usually distracted.” Beaming, he added, “but now I’m getting the best grades ever. I’m able to concentrate here more.”

It’s striking to me that a premise on Grizzly’s website is that there are “students who struggle in school [because they] often lack social and emotional skills to succeed in the classroom,” and the students themselves are quick to diagnose themselves with an inability to concentrate at their former school. The improvement they’re describing at Grizzly, however, isn’t based on a cure for a dysfunction or a breakthrough in social skills—it’s just a significant change in environment. And in the five Grizzly classrooms I observed, the students sat in rows that Cain nostalgically praised in her talk—the traditional classroom setup in which, Cain said, “we did most of our work autonomously.”
Certainly, group activities can serve a purpose in the teaching of introverts. In part because of the Common Core standards and the Internet increasingly serving as a proxy for classroom teachers, “cooperative learning” has grown in popularity among teachers in recent decades. As the English teacher Abigail Walthausen noted in The Atlantic two years ago, “Common Core standards place far greater value on small-group discussion and student-led work than on any teacher-led instruction.” And overall, this trend is a good thing. Several recent studies offer the latest evidence that students who engage in cooperative learning tend to outperform those immersed in traditional learning approaches—namely lectures. But cooperative learning doesn’t have to entail excessively social or overstimulating mandates; it can easily involve quiet components that facilitate internal contemplation.

Near the end of my observations last week, I told two teachers on separate occasions that I’d feel incredibly exhausted at the end of every day if I were a student at that school. To my surprise, both of them responded by immediately laughing and then agreeing. One recalled learning best when arranged in rows, while the other concurred, “I know, right? How exhausting it must be to have another student in your business all day long.”

The ideal, of course, would be to establish arrangements that facilitate differentiated instruction for varying personality types, but this might be difficult in large classes with students of diverse levels of proficiency and motivation. I’ve noticed that, like Grizzly, the private schools I’ve visited also seem to create space for the introverted students, ultimately resembling the university classes to which they hope to send their students. And at the aforementioned public school I observed, three of the four classes where students were in fact seated individually in rows were AP or honors courses.

But I’m reminded of Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people,” when I see that Georgia College’s webpage dedicated to collaborative learning, which includes the topic sentence: “Together is how we do everything here at Georgia College. Learn. Work. Play. Live. Together.” Everything, that is, except quiet introspection, free of cost and distraction.