Empowerment and Productivity aka Project Based Learning

I dove into Problem Based Learning this week.  As an administrator sometimes I feel like I am constantly solving problems–lots of people come to me with their problems on a daily basis.  I love Problem Based Learning (PBL) and when I was a teacher I did lots of it, but in a new role I am looking at it from a different point of view.


I read lots of articles on PBL, but this report (albeit a bit old) hit all the important parts and gave a good summary of what it is, “Project-based learning is a form of situated learning (Greeno, this volume) and it is based on the constructivist finding that students gain a deeper understanding of material when they actively construct their understanding by working with and using ideas. In project-based learning, students engage in real, meaningful problems that are important to them and that are similar to what scientists, mathematicians, writers, and historians do. A project-based classroom allows students to investigate questions, propose hypotheses and explanations, discuss their ideas, challenge the ideas of others, and try out new ideas. Research has demonstrated that students in project-based learning classrooms get higher scores than students in traditional classrooms (Marx et al., 2004; Rivet & Krajcik, 2004; William & Linn, 2003).”

As I read I kept nodding my head as I read obvious statements such as, “In the 1980s and 1990s, education researchers increasingly realized that when students are bored and unengaged, they are less likely to learn (Blumenfeld et al., 1991)” or when the authors stated that students are learning at superficial levels and rarely get to the conceptual levels. I became frustrated because once again in education we know what we are doing isn’t working and we aren’t changing.

The article went on to say that a PBL environment had the following things:

  1. They start with a driving question, a problem to be solved.
  2. Students explore the driving question by participating in authentic, situated inquiry – processes of problem solving that are central to expert performance in the discipline. As students explore the driving question, they learn and apply important ideas in the discipline.
  3. Students, teachers, and community members engage in collaborative activities to find solutions to the driving question. This mirrors the complex social situation of expert problem solving.
  4. While engaged in the inquiry process, students are scaffolding with learning technologies that help them participate in activities normally beyond their ability.
  5. Students create a set of tangible products that address the driving question. These are shared artifacts, publicly accessible external representations of the class’s learning.

Dewey argued that students would have more personal investment in authentic tasks that emulate what experts do in the real world do, however I would argue if they are authentic meaningful problems that are student created from what they face in their everyday lives.

Another two things the article mentions is that students learn social interaction with others and learning how to collaborate through PBL. In my past experience I would say this is one of the biggest takeaways for students.  Upon their reflections they learn more about themselves as learners, but also as part of a group. It’s almost like the content and concepts seep in naturally without them noticing, but the experiences with others sticks out and is brought to the awareness level.

Rubik's Colour Brokah by formerly_of_devon
Rubik’s Coloured Brokah by formerly_of_devon

Now, how does this impact me and my practice? Rewind to a few months ago Lee Crockett came to my school and spoke on the 21st century literacies, with a particular focus on Solutions and Media fluencies. Our teachers’ minds were blown. Fast forward to this week of COETAIL and my mind kept going back to how I could help teachers being PBL in their classrooms. The link connected and I realized that I could do a couple of things tying back to Lee’s workshops.  

The easiest thing to do would be to do a book study of his book and have teachers start looking for PBL connections and ties into their curriculum.  This being the end of the year is actually a good time to review the curriculum, and maybe I could get some eager teachers in a virtual book club over the summer. If not, I think it would be a great idea to have it begin next school year and continue during our monthly staff meetings.  

The other idea I had was to actually do PBL with my teachers.  As I said before, teachers come in with lots of problems that are important to them.  What if, I harnessed their desire for solutions and we spent a day (we have a week of PD at the end of the year) and gave teachers the opportunity to collaborate and solve their own problems.  My vision is to have a big problem dump session where teachers can identify problems they have or we have as a school.  Then teachers can select the one they want to work on in a group and they get down to it.  The benefits are twofold–teachers are experiencing PBL first hand and problems are getting solved!  It is empowering and productive, two of my favorite things.


A Letter to Myself on SAMR

Dear Megan,

This week of reflection on technology integration was hard for you, you felt frustrated when you reflected on your technology integration according to the SAMR and TPACK model. Sure, as a teacher you felt confident because you knew the content and pedagogical approaches which made finding the right tech tool to take the task/learning up a level felt natural. As a first year administrator you realized you are still finding your footing.  Your day is taken up with tasks that revolve around a computer, but let’s be honest most of it is substitution and augmentation.  

You did find articles on SAMR for educational administrators about file management, staff presentations, community interactions, classroom evaluations, and staff input that were helpful, but what got to you the most was that these articles focused on managerial tasks; not the educational, creative, and passionate stuff you love about education and your job.

You broke your reflection down into three topics: leading by example, supporting teachers, and community. This task made you feel a little better because you really are doing some good “SAM”ing, but as far as redefining administration you aren’t there yet.  

Here are some of the things you came up with: (S=substitution, A=augmentation, M=modification, and R=redefinition)

Lead by Example:


-Google Forms for feedback/reflection (M)

-Today’s Meet (M)  

-Structure of the meeting (less sit and get, more interactive) (M)


-Google Docs you’ve created–teachers can make copy and customize (A)

-Articles and resources you’ve found on Twitter with teachers (A)

-Teachers and students’ brilliant work on Schoology page (A/M)



-CARES student projects–student created videos shared on Schoology  (R)

-cross divisions (A)

-My PLN via Twitter–5th grade DL passion projects, hooking teachers up with others ®



-Share them via Google Drive (A)

-Presentation Zen (S)


Supporting Teachers

Grade Level Meetings

-schedule via Google calendar (A)

-Share minutes via Google Drive (S)

-Teachers compile information prior to meeting via Google Drive (S)



-create and share editable docs (A)

-Data, data, data via Sheets (A)

-Created Google Folders to house live curriculum and student data (A)


Share Resources

-Make “How To” videos for Schoology, PowerSchool, SBG (M)

-Articles (A)

-Apps (Literably,  Seesaw, Shadow Puppet)  (A)



-Google Form for drop ins and sent directly to them (M)

-Student data analysis with Google Sheets (A)


Community Interactions 


-Create informative videos for parents (M)

-Highlight learning with weekly photo posts (M)  

-Disseminate information and ask for feedback (M)  

-Announce parent sessions and important events (A)


Highlight EAC #wearegiants

-Twitter (M)

-Schoology (M)


Parent Sessions

-Interactive (A)

-Infographics for ELL parents (S)


Ask for Input

-Google Forms (M)

-Schoology (M)


The thing that irks you is that you know how powerful technology is as a tool for connecting and pushing people forward in their thinking, but you just can’t figure out how to get it working with where you and your school are now.  But Megan, you need to be patient. When you stepped back you realized how far your school has come in the 4 years since you arrived and then you get excited because that amount of growth is just the beginning.

So Megan, keep doing the substituting and augmenting, keep leading by example and planting little seeds into teachers’ minds, and definitely keep connecting them to other amazing educators around the world. It may take some time, but the seeds will grow, and then although you didn’t implement the redefining moments of learning you did help plant them. As John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions others to dream more, learn more, and do more and become more, you are a leader.”

I know you, and your brain is already thinking of ways to redefine what you do.  Connecting and collaborating with other administrators via #adminchat is a start. Put questions out there, read other administrators’ blogs (like this one), and become a student of great ones you are surrounded by every day.  And Megan, don’t forget purpose and audience, because sometimes you get a little carried away and it’s my job to keep you in check.

May the force be with you,

Your reflective conscience