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Author: ejones

By in News & Updates Comments Off on Change is Exhausting

Change is Exhausting

This was a recent post I wrote for the Valley Torah Blog focused on change, our trip to High Tech High funded by the I.D.E.A. Schools Network and a behind the scenes look at the change process one of the founding schools is going through. 


This has been wonderful week of learning. Not just for the students, but for the staff as well. We began the week with a staff development day focused on Leader In Me. We spent most of our time on our current mission and vision of VTHS and where we are headed in regard to bringing in this framework of leadership for our students and staff. Later in the week, Mr. Joseph, Mr. Rodgers, Rabbi Semmel and I went down to High Tech High in San Diego to see project-based learning in action. This was our second staff trip. Rabbi Felt, Mr. Paradzik, Rabbi Samuels and I went last time. This trip was organized by theI.D.E.A. Schools Network of which Valley Torah is a founding school and is generously funded by a grant from the Joshua Venture Group. We spent time with the C.E.O. Larry Rosenstock, met students and teachers, saw amazing classes and engaged in discussions with representatives from YULA, Shalhevet, Kohelet and Yeshiva Lab who were in attendance. A special thank you to my co-founder of the network, Tikvah Wiener, who made this trip happen. In both of these learning experiences culture was a prominent theme. Specifically, a culture that promotes growth, change and innovation is critical to success. However, to support this culture you must focus on, as Dr. Todd Whitaker says, the people not the programs.

In 1998, psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister produced groundbreaking research in the area of self control. Basically, two groups of participants were placed in a room with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in one bowl and radishes in the other. One group was told they can eat the cookies but could not eat the radishes, and the other group was told they could eat the radishes but not the cookies. As we might expect, the radish eating participants were not happy and their self control was truly tested. However, this was not the end of the study. Both groups were given an unsolvable puzzle to solve after the cookie/radish test and that is where the study took shape. You see the radish eating group made fewer attempts and spent less than half the time trying to solve the puzzle than the cookie eating group. Why? Simply put, the radish group had used up more energy resisting the cookies than the other group so that when it came to pushing themselves to solve the puzzle they were exhausted.

This was a study that I opened our staff professional development with on Monday. Valley Torah is commitment to continued growth, innovation and change to ensure our students continue to always get the best learning experience possible. However, change is not easy and it can be exhausting for the team supporting it. At the same time, this exhaustion often gets confused for laziness which could not be further from the truth. As Dan Heath, best selling author and lecturer, states “that what looks like laziness is often exhaustion. Change wears people out—even well-intentioned people will simply run out of fuel.” Why?

To create change and make it stick requires a deep and consistent focus on the new task you are learning, while, often at the same time, remaining focused with expected excellence at the current way you are doing things. Plus, this exhaustion is only exacerbated when the call for change is different every other week. So what are the solutions? There are things teachers can do to help support a change process, but for now I would like to focus on what the administrators can do as I am currently working hard together with the VTHS administration to do them.

The first thing is to recognize that your teachers are the most important cog in the wheel of this mechanism called school. At our training we had each teacher share why they went into education and “inspiring” would be an understatement to what I heard. Second, as we see from the study above, we must recognize that resistance to change is not laziness. It is often exhaustion or in some cases fear, lack of confidence or a deep sense of loss for models of teaching and learning they truly believe in and, in their skilled hands, works. When we call for change without taking into account the emotional impact of our teachers we have completely sidelined those who are in the best position to affect change. Third, we must work together with our teachers to define the change needed. They are likely to have better insights into how new ideas can actually be integrated into the current culture than you could have ever had. Also, if you choose not to do it with them, you are giving a strong message that you do not value their opinion. What impact do you think that could have? Fourth, whatever change happens, make sure there is a clear path to its fruition so everyone can see where we are headed. That does not mean that path won’t change, but if new ideas are just thrown out every other day without fully thinking it through, you will likely see teachers who learn to ignore you. Fifth, realize that no matter how well you work with your staff on change there will be mistakes that tire them out. So, be sure to plan some ways to rejuvenate your staff and celebrate the things that are working. Organize staff get togethers, give gifts, point out what they are doing right or simple say thank you. Lastly, make sure to support your teachers with any of the changes. That includes professional development for new tools, models, etc., time to work on new ideas, mentors and coaches if possible and a sensitive ear when things get challenging.

The goal is that everyone should be in the change process together. This is not simple, but critical lest we exhaust all are amazing educators to the point where they won’t have the energy to do what they do best; educate.

Click here if you would like to read the study

By in Blog Comments Off on The Driving Question in PBL

The Driving Question in PBL

Judaism is a religion that has thrived, been transmitted and stood the test of time on the value of questioning in order to seek, pass on and ensure the integrity of the truth. The Jewish people were given a written Torah that is often intentionally ambiguous, that without the oral tradition could not be fully understood or applied. The sages are constantly asking questions on the written Torah, debating the application of the oral Torah and seeking and explaining the answers to the questions that are raised. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks beautifully states, “Judaism is the rarest of phenomena: a faith based on asking questions, sometimes deep and difficult ones that seem to shake the very foundations of faith itself.” We do not shy away from questions. Just the opposite. We require them. This becomes clear to us at the youngest of ages when we are taught our first pasuk of Torah.

When Jewish children are introduced to the Chumash, they are quickly made aware of what is bothering Rashi, the great Torah commentator. When they begin to learn Mishnayot and Talmud, the questions raised and the debates that ensue are paramount to the truth-seeking process. How about the Pesach Seder, which hinges on the achievement of engaging the youngest of attendees to ask questions? It is truly beautiful! The entire process of Torah learning is one that is driven by questions, which is why, I suppose, I am very fond of Project-Based Learning (PBL).

Project-Based Learning is, at its core, an inquiry-driven approach to learning. Of the eight elements that make up PBL proposed by the Buck Institute for Education, the Driving Question is the most critical, as it is the element that lays the foundation of the project and propels it forward to its completion.

“There are no stupid questions” was the mantra I heard in almost every first day of class growing up. Most students understood this to be an invitation to ask questions; most of my teachers might have said I took it as a challenge. However, what most of us learned growing up in school was that the invitation (or challenge) was an empty one. Very little time was given to student-formulated questions. Sure, we were sometimes allowed to ask for clarification, but we were never taught how to ask the important questions. In fact, most of the questions came from the teachers when, after an hour of giving us answers, asked us if we understood. So, real questioning became an exercise in isolation for many of us. As Chuck Close poetically put it, “ask yourself an interesting enough question and your attempt to find a tailor-made solution to that question will push you to a lonely place where, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself all by your lonesome – which I think is a more interesting place to be.” However, in PBL, questioning does not have to be a lonely place and, when done well, is certainly “a more interesting place to be” in and out of the classroom.

According to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), “a good Driving Question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The Question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn. It could be abstract (When is war justified?); concrete (Is our water safe to drink?); or focused on solving a problem (How can we improve this website so that more young people will use it?).” Andrew Miller, who I have had the pleasure of learning from multiple times and is an expert in PBL, bluntly and correctly writes that “Driving Questions can be a beast.” Amen, brother! They can be a beast in all the best ways a beast can be, if that makes any sense. However, Mr. Miller shows us how to tame the beast in this article on how to write driving questions.

The Driving Question is literally that. It is what drives the project. As the BIE continues, “ A project without a Driving Question is like an essay without a thesis.” It is a primary element that differentiates PBL from just a project. The Driving Question creates a continuous thread that ties the learning, the project, and often its real-world application together from start to finish. Without this, and many of the other elements of PBL, the project is just another activity among various activities that make up a static learning unit. Yes, the activities are part of an overall theme or learning goal, but if not thoughtfully connected, they can feel disjointed and appear irrelevant to the learning process. Having a Driving Question ensures everything that is done in a PBL unit is connected and focused on answering the question. The project is not the goal. Answering the question is the goal. The project is the learning process, as well as the outcome of the learning, in service of answering the Driving Question. This is unlike a project alone which is generally, at best, a representation of the learning, but more often than not, just a product of one singular activity among a series of disjointed activities in a unit.

Hopefully, this clarifies how the Driving Question is an essential element of PBL. I would also advocate the use of inquiry and the teaching of meaningful questioning, even if you do not use PBL. Suzie Boss, journalist and PBL advocate, recently wrote a great article for Edutopia that is resource-filled and focused on using student questions to drive learning. This would be a great place to start in understanding the use of questioning in the classroom and with that I leave you with this: What is the best way to teach students to formulate a good question? Drive on!

By in Blog Comments Off on Content is Still King in PBL

Content is Still King in PBL

I am often asked when discussing Project-Based Learning (PBL) why I would support a model of education that has no regard for the teaching or mastery of content (click here for an introduction to PBL). Why would I use a model that is solely passion and interest-based with no structure? Isn’t PBL basically what we did in kindergarten when we finger painted and built houses out of popsicle sticks? Where is the content?

These would be great questions if they were based on anything but a lack of understanding of what PBL is. To the uninitiated, PBL is often seen as a model that encourages chaos with no substance. Projects with no purpose. Learning with no….well, learning. All of these things could not be further from the truth and in PBL, content is still king. The only difference between PBL and more traditional methods is that content shares the throne with seven other kings.

Back in 2010, the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) wrote a paper for the September issue of Educational Leadership from ASCD to help educators understand the difference between PBL and just doing projects. They broke PBL down into these eight “essential” elements:

  • Significant content
  • A need to know
  • A driving question
  • Student voice and choice
  • 21st century skills
  • Inquiry and innovation
  • Feedback and revision
  • Publicly presented content

You can read more about each element by clicking here and Tikvah Wiener and I will be exploring these elements on the I.D.E.A. Schools Network blog. However, as you can see, the first element listed is Significant Content. It is the foundation of every PBL project. It is just that where more traditional models start and end with the content, PBL is only getting started. Although, to be accurate, PBL starts with the end in mind by working backwards from driving questions that propel the learning forward. The content exists to support exploration and discovery towards answering the driving question and, in turn, solving a problem or accomplishing a goal put forth by the question. We will be discussing more about driving questions when we write about that essential element. For now, the question is how do we ensure that significant content is part of PBL?

Michael Gorman, on his award winning blog 21st Century Educational Technology and Learning, lists ten ways to answer this important question.

  1. The entry event should show a relationship to the Driving Question promoting a “need to know” of significant content.
  2. The Driving Question should allow students to uncover the curriculum in a student friendly and understandable manner.
  3. The PBL planning sheet for students should line up with significant content in the curricular area being studied and assessed.
  4. The project should be ongoing and made up of activities and lessons that facilitate the learning of significant content.
  5. Formative learning activities and assessments that teach and reinforce the significant cont should occur throughout the timeline of the project.
  6. While innovative and student centered learning is encouraged, scaffolding of the project can still include traditional lecture, tests, and textbook reading. that promote significant content. Yes… rich engaging lectures can be used!
  7. There should be rubrics developed that evaluate student learning outcomes and they should be aligned with significant content.
  8. The final project should not only emphasize the 21st century skills, but should show the learning and understanding of significant content.
  9. Final outcome should include more than learning of significant content, but also application and connections of content to real world.
  10. When planning projects teachers should consider Common Core as part of their significant content.

You can read the entire post by clicking here.

Another example of where the significant content fits in can be seen in this sample Algebra project overview from BIE (click here). This is a great template to start designing your own PBL unit, but I want to point your attention to the “Content and Skills Standards” box. In this unit it is clear that the students will learn significant content and skills in the area of Algebra II/Trigonometry. However, if you read the language carefully you will understand what make this uniquely PBL. The content and skills being taught and learned are not passively transmitted. The goal with the content is that the “student will be able to…..” utilize the content and skills to accomplish something, solve a problem and demonstrate their knowledge. The content serves a purpose and does not exist solely to be understood. It must be applied.

The usual follow up question to this explanation is that while it all sounds nice, does it work? Do the student actually learn the content? The answer is simply, yes. PBL students not only learn content knowledge as well as traditional students, they appear to learn it better (Boaler, 1997; Penuel & Means, 2000; Stepien, et al., 1993). More importantly, they not only demonstrate this knowledge for assessments, but show longer retention and a deeper understanding of the content (Penuel & Means, 2000; Stepien, Gallagher & Workman, 1993). The research also points to that fact that the effectiveness of PBL is not limited to peripheral courses such as electives, but impacts teaching and learning across the curriculum (Beckett & Miller, 2006; Boaler, 2002; Finkelstein et al., 2010; Greier et al., 2008; Mergendoller, Maxwell, & Bellisimo, 2006).

Content is still king in PBL despite it sharing the title with seven other essential elements. In fact, in regard to the understanding and acquisition of the content, it may have dethroned more traditional models of teaching and learning content.


Beckett, G. H., & Chamness Miller, P. (2006). Project-based second language and foreign language education: Past, present, future. Greenwich, Connecticut: Information Age Publishing.

Boaler, J. (1997). Experiencing school mathematics: Teaching styles, sex, and settings. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Finkelstein, N., Hanson, T., Huang, C., Hirschman, B., and Huang, M. (2010). Effects of problem based economics on high school economics instruction. (NCEE 2010-4002). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Geier, R., Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Fishman, B., Soloway, E., & Clay-Chambers, J. (2008). Standardized test outcomes for students engaged in inquiry-based science curricula in the context of urban reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45(8), 922-939.

Mergendoller, J., Maxwell, N., & Bellisimo, Y. (2006). The effectiveness of problem-based instruction: A comparative study of instructional methods and student characteristics. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 1(2), 49-69.

Penuel, W. R., & Means, B. (2000). Designing a performance assessment to measure students’ communication skills in multi-media-supported, project-based learning. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.

By in Blog Comments Off on Embracing the Shake in All Our Classrooms

Embracing the Shake in All Our Classrooms

Having spent last week at the ISTE2014 conference, I left a more inspired and motivated educator, not the least of which was because of presentations like the one by Phil Hansen who presented as part of the ISTE EdTekTalks.

As I sat and listened to him speak (see his TEDTalk below which is basically what he presented) I could not stop thinking about my 6th grade science project. My topic was “roller coaster physics” and I was comparing elliptical and spherical looped roller coasters and the differences in coaster velocity. While I have no recollection of my hypothesis or the results, I certainly remember being in tears one late evening working on my project. The marble would not go up the moving stairs! It was all over!

To test my theories of velocity, whatever they were, I was using one of those marble roller coasters (see blog image) made out of plastic tubes with an electric staircase that would push the marble step by step from the bottom of the coaster to the top. At the top gravity would take over and the marble would soar down the tube track I had designed. However, for some reason mine was defective and the marble would get stuck on the last step. I was not one to give up quickly, so I started problem solving.

First, I unscrewed the steps to see if there were any issues inside them. Nope. Next, looking closer at the last step, I thought there might have been a little extra plastic getting in the way so I found a nail file and filed away. Well that just made it worse. So, I did the next logical thing and grabbed a match and began to melt the step down. Suffice it to say, that was far from the solution and I had hit my wall. I ran to the couch, began to cry and, while my mother tried to console me, I would not be calmed. My entire science project was over, so I thought.

If you watch Phil’s TEDTalk below you will see that he hit a wall as well. Having focused on his passion for pointillism for years he injured his hand and was unable to create art the way he wanted. This type of art required fine motor skills his hands could no longer deliver. First he also tried to problem solve focusing only on the one way he thought he could create art; pointillism. He held the pen tighter and tighter until he could not longer create the fine points he needed. So, what did he do? He gave up. That was until his neurologist said why don’t you just create art a different way?

The simple fact was that Phil did not lose his creative ability. He had only lost the physical ability to tightly grasp a pen, which only limited his ability to create art one specific way. When he finally accepted that the limitation was only his hands and not his creativity, he was able to realize the limitless creative ability he always and still had. He just had to get unstuck from his focus on why he could not create one specific way and start thinking about how he can create a thousand other ways. Once he realized how he was limited he become limitless.

My 6th grade roller coaster disaster certainly was not the same as Phils struggle, but I did get stuck thinking that the only way for the coaster to work was to use the stairs. However, after some consolation from my mother, she asked me why don’t you just drop the marble from the top yourself and not use the stairs? Um…….yea! Why not? I had been so focused on what was not working and not accepting the limit that I placed on the project, that I was not exploring alternative methods to accomplish the same goal.

It is easy to get hyper focused on what does not work when something does not go the way you had hoped. However, as Phil said at the EdTekTalk, “embracing a limitation can actually drive creativity.”

So, can we apply Phil’s embracing of the shake to our classrooms?

As educators we want our students to have as many options to success as possible. However, for this to be true it first requires more pathways to success integrated into the curriculum and the models of teaching and learning we use. We can’t have only one way to learn or illustrate learning. This is not how it is in the real world and is not the way it should be in our classrooms. Yet in our current system of standardized testing, drill and kill lessons and industrial bell schedules herding our students from class to class embracing a limitation means failure without opportunity for relearning. This is not real world learning. A rigid classroom does not drive creativity, it destroys it.

So, while I loved Phil’s message and see how valuable it is to the classroom, it requires a transformation of teaching and learning. This is certainly possible and is slowly happening in classrooms and schools around the country. However, maybe it could happen faster if our teachers “embrace the shake” and realize the limitations of our current system so that they, like Phil, become limitless.

Oh, if you were wondering, I did very well at the science fair and went to the county science fair taking home the third place ribbon in physics.


Cross-posted on EJsCafe.com

By in Blog Comments Off on My relationship to cardboard will never be the same

My relationship to cardboard will never be the same

The other day I was walking down my street crossing an alley when it began calling to me. In the corner of my eye was the magnetic force compelling me to draw near, something on any other day I would have rightfully ignored. However, today was unlike any other day and the large glimmering cardboard box begging me to give it the attention it deserved was no longer just a cardboard box. It was an endless opportunity. You see, last week I had the privilege of leading a Cardboard Challenge, with my friend and colleague Dina Rabhan, at the 2014 Innovation in Jewish Education conference (iJED) in New York and my relationship with cardboard will never be the same.

“Inspired by the short film, `Caine’s Arcade,’ the Global Cardboard Challenge is a worldwide celebration of child creativity and the role communities and schools can play in fostering it. (Organizer Playbook)”

The event challenges kids to create and build using cardboard, recycled materials and imagination.The first-ever Global Cardboard Challenge had 270+ events in 41 countries and to date there has been over 1 million kids from over 70 countries engaged in this event. It also paved the road for the Imagination Foundation, a non-profit guided by increasing creativity in our schools. Here is the follow up film to Caine’s Arcade where you can see the full impact finding the creativity in one child has had on the world.

However, while the attention has clearly been focused on Caine, the video reminds us that there is a Caine in all of our classrooms and, in my humble opinion, the true hero of this phenomenon is Nirvan.

You see it all started not because Caine was this awesome kid with such creative talents. Caine was awesome way before the first youtube viewer clicked play. It all began because one person, Nirvan Mullick, saw what was unique and special in Caine and took action. There are so many Caines around us, but it takes the adults in their lives to see them for what is unique and special about them, then take action to nurture it, support it and celebrate it. That is what Nirvan did and by doing so showed us not just how creative our students are and can be, but how important a great teacher is who recognizes their talents and does something about it.

At iJED, we were given the wonderful opportunity to view Caines Arcade as a group and be surprised by the appearance of Nirvan himself after the showing. He inspired the crowd of amazing Jewish educators with his first hand telling of meeting Caine and all that followed. He then engaged in a Cardboard Challenge where the educators who participated were tasked with designing an interactive Jewish game out of the materials provided, which included 400 pounds of cardboard, markers, paints, toys, paper, glue and more. What followed was nothing short of breathtaking.

The effort put into these cardboard games and the sheer joy I saw on all the educators in that room was moving. What they created was thoughtful, creative and, frankly, much more than I had expected. Yet, to see the smiles, laughter and excitement was even more telling. Whether we are a young child or older adult, we all have capacity for creativity and it simply makes us happy. Why we don’t celebrate creativity more in our classrooms and encourage it as we get older is beyond me. It is a lifelong skill that is critical to success and one we have been promoting more and more in our schools as of late, but we need to see more of it. We are doing a disservice to our students and ourselves if we don’t value individual creativity. The educators at iJED modeled it so well and are primed to bring it back to their schools. Based on what I saw the future for Jewish education is bright as more students and staff will be given opportunities to create and be celebrated for their unique talents. Thank you Nirvan and thank you to all the Jewish educators who attended iJED and showed us that our students are in good hands.

You can check out the awesome games they created below:

iJED 2014 Cardboard Challenge from JFilms on Vimeo.

And if you are interested in running your own cardboard challenge in your school you can get everything you need right here: http://cardboardchallenge.com/ . It is pretty simple to put together and will:

  • engages student and/or educators in creative play

  • fosters creativity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, perseverance and teamwork

  • gives our student and/or educators an opportunity to explore their interests and passions, and make things that have an impact on others

  • provides an experience and model a method for schools to actively foster and celebrate child creativity which increases global happiness and makes for a happier, more playful world.

  • just be plain FUN! (from the Organizer Playbook)

Originally posted at www.ejscafe.com