i.d.e.a. schools


By in Blog 1

Yes, and . . . : Creating a Growth Mindset

Culture Change

I recently wrote about a road trip my colleagues at Magen David and I took to Northern California and how it reinforced the idea that a growth mindset is needed for real culture change to occur within a school. As I mentioned in the post, one of the ways the Los Altos school district fostered a growth mindset was by showcasing Tenets of Improv in teacher training rooms. I was impressed by these tenets when I read Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, in which she speaks about the power of coming from a “place of ‘yes'” and keeping an open mind. Here are some of Fey’s wise and witty observations:

1. You must agree. This doesn’t mean everyone has to get along, but it means you must agree on the given set of circumstances. For instance, if I say, “Wow, it’s great to be on the beach!” and you say, “We aren’t on the beach stupid, we are on the ski slope,” then the improv scene is dead. But if you say, “I can’t wait to get in the water, I hope it’s not too cold,” then we have a scene. We have agreed that this stage is now a sandy beach and we can keep moving forward.


I don’t recommend you agree with everyone in your life, but I challenge you to come from a place of “yes” and keep an open mind. Try to understand where others are coming from before discrediting them as “crazy” or “stupid.” “No” should be a last resort, and respect what others create.


2. “Yes” isn’t enough, you must “yes, and…” Add to the discussion. In the example above, the second person did not just say, “Yes we’re at the beach,” she said, “I can’t wait to get in the water, I hope it’s not too cold.” This statement adds value to the scene. Now the audience knows it’s cold and that we plan to enjoy the ocean as opposed to looking for gold or taking a yoga class.


To me, this rule challenges you to contribute. Whether you are developing an ad campaign or deciding where to eat dinner, put your neck out there, give your thoughts and have a say. Two minds are always better than one.

los altos improv

Tenets of Improv from the Los Altos school district

Developing an Inquiring Mind

In order to foster this growth mindset at Magen David, we recently held a professional development day where we shared some quotations from works that emphasize its importance. One of the works is Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question, which participants of the Summer Sandbox read and which challenges readers to develop an inquiring, curious mind. Here’s a thought-provoking statement from the book:

“In many cases, our Google queries are so unimaginative and predictable that Google can guess what we’re asking before we’re three words into typing it.”

Berger spends his book explaining the importance of developing the kind of mind that might outsmart a Google search:

“[T]he most creative, successful business leaders have tended to be expert questioners. They’re known to question the conventional wisdom of their industry, the fundamental practices of their company, even the validity of their own assumptions.”

“Inquiring minds can identify new opportunities and fresh possibilities before competitors become aware of them.”

“[T]hroughout his life Einstein saw curiosity as something ‘holy.’”

Many people are reluctant to change: they may have fixed notions about what societal structures look like or be fearful of the new and untried. Berger writes:

“[Q]uestions challenge authority and disrupt established structures, processes, and systems, forcing people to have to at least think about doing something differently. To encourage or even allow questioning is to cede power—not something that is done lightly in hierarchical companies or in government organizations, or even in classrooms, where a teacher must be willing to give up control to allow for more questioning.”

Berger stresses the importance of challenging the status quo:

“With the constant change we face today, we may be forced to spend less time on autopilot, more time in questioning mode . . . . In such times, the ability to ask big, meaningful, beautiful questions—and just as important, to know what to do with those questions once they’ve been raised—can be the first steps in moving beyond old habits and behaviors as we embrace the new.”

“A beautiful question [according to Warren Berger] is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

The Benefits of a Growth Mindset

Dividing the World into Learners and Nonlearners

Carol Dweck’s book Mindset is a logical companion to Berger’s, as Dweck’s research shows the potential people unleash within themselves when they embrace the kind of openness to growth and learning that Berger advocates for as well. Here are some salient points from Dweck’s book:

“I brought children one at a time to a room in their school, made them comfortable, and then gave them a series of puzzles to solve. The first ones were fairly easy, but the next ones were hard. . . . Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and cried out, ‘I love a challenge!’ Another, sweating away on these puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, ‘You know, I was hoping this would be informative!’ . . . What did they know? They knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort. And that’s what they were doing—getting smarter. Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.”

“What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?”

“Alfred Binet wrote in his early-twentieth-century book Modern Ideas About Children, ‘A few modern philosophers . . . assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism . . . . With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.’”

“Babies don’t worry about making mistakes or humiliating themselves. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward.”

“Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist, once said, ‘I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures . . . I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners.”

I find that last line to be quite powerful: How might we create schools where we’re not dividing students by academic standing or skill but rather focusing on making sure our students are learners? How might we create schools where everyone feels challenged to be a learner, to smack his lips, as the boy in the above story does, when presented with a difficult challenge? 


Carol Dweck’s Mindset Principles, summarized

Teachers as Learners

One of the ways to begin thinking about students as learners, instead of beings into which we download information, is to make ourselves — as educators — into constant learners. One of the biggest obstacles we face in doing so is, of course, a lack of time. Schools often don’t have enough professional development days in the school year and those days are often consumed with administrative trivia or the next big event on the horizon, but not on a macro-commitment to culture change. Schools invested in culture change have a conscious awareness of this problem and have come up with multiple solutions.

One is to hire personnel whose main task is teacher training. For example, I’ve been fortunate enough to connect over the past few months with several educators in charge of teaching and learning and curriculum development in their schools. We’ve been speaking on the phone about once a month and emailing questions and observations when we have them. These educators include Rabbi Avi Bossewitch, Dean of Academic Affairs at Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach; Rabbi Yehuda Chanales, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Fuchs Mizrachi in Cleveland; Barry Ehrlich, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Maimonides School in Boston; and more recently Melissa Perl, Director of Judaic Studies at Kohelet. The first thing we did when we all spoke was acknowledge and feel grateful for the commitment our schools have made to meaningful change by acknowledging that someone in the building has to own ongoing, meaningful professional development (PD).

A well-devised PD plan has, in fact, been one of Magen David’s goals this year. Having selected main areas of growth — skills development, edtech, creativity, and PBL — the school began the year with PD in those realms and has focused its monthly PD days on one or two of those initiatives. In fact, in early December, teachers presented to each other units or lessons that they had used to build student skills. What was great about the sessions was that they also incorporated the other initiatives the school has undertaken. For example, Jewish history teacher Frieda Cattan shared how her trimester of PBL honed many skills she wanted her students to develop. History teacher Joanne Auman showed how creative assignments such as clay map making (shown below) created an atmosphere of joyful learning and helped build student skills. Math chair and teacher Moshe Omri Duani shared how the school’s writing initiative helped his students sharpen skills, and Rabbi Michael Bitton, the school’s Director of Educational Technology, (surprise!) shared an edtech tool he used to sharpen skills in a Talmud class.


Students in Ms. Cattan’s class developed a myriad of higher order thinking skills through a PBL unit on the Return to Zion time period of Jewish history


Students in Mrs. Auman’s Global Studies class made clay maps they will be sharing with visiting 8th graders in late December


Yes, that’s a math teacher presenting on how math skills improve through writing!


Rabbi Bitton talks about padlet and other apps useful in skills building

Moving Forward

Creating a growth mindset is a key part of effecting the kind of culture change schools are aiming for today. It’s a crucial step, because I think it’s easy for an educator to feel overwhelmed by all the innovations happening in the field. It’s important for schools, then, to identify the areas of growth they really want to focus on: those areas should align with a school’s mission and vision and should be embedded clearly and consistently into an institution’s professional development plan for the year. In fact, everyone benefits when a school’s overarching goals are made clear to all stakeholders, and we’ll be writing more about that in upcoming posts.


Wonder Walls are all the rage now, and we love ’em. Warren Berger would love them, too, as they build curiosity and spark inquiry. But no one in a school should be wondering what the school’s vision is; every stakeholder — teacher, parent, student — deserves to know where an institution is heading!

By in Blog Comments Off on A Road Trip Redesigned

A Road Trip Redesigned



This past month has been an exciting one, filled with diverse learning experiences, and it’s reminded me of the importance of challenging oneself by leaving one’s physical and mental space. The month began with a trip I took with my colleagues at Magen David Yeshivah High School, Associate Principal, Ms. Sabrina Maleh, and Director of Educational Technology, Rabbi Michael Bitton. Sabrina, Michael, and I traveled to Silicon Valley where we met up with Stanford University doctoral candidate and JEDLABian Matt Williams [You can also catch Matt on the Summer Sandbox videos; he facilitated this year’s Sandbox and led workshops on culture change on Day 3].

Matt generously set up tours and meetings for Sabrina, Michael, and me, giving us insight into the many facets of workplace culture, Design Thinking, Maker Spaces, Fab Labs, and project-based learning that we were setting out to explore.

Day 1


On Monday, November 3, after a hearty breakfast at Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels, Matt, Sabrina, Michael, and I set out for a tour of Google headquarters.

Sabrina Michael and I at Google

Matt and I at Google

Among many other things, Matt Williams arranged our tour of Google

Google interested us because we wanted a look at its workplace culture, and we weren’t disappointed. As you can see from the entry point we posed in front of, the place has a Disneyland-for-adults feel that is echoed throughout the complex. Though I’m not sure if Google employees think it’s the happiest place on earth, the company does aim to keep its workers content, a fact that’s apparent from the Adirondack chairs scattered in casual groupings in outside spaces to the volleyball court set up near the employee-run herb garden. A mobile barber shop was parked in one parking lot, and a laundry room enabled employees to do their wash throughout the day. Of course the fitness room was state-of-the-art, but the biggest talking point — one that I heard repeated often — was the fact that Google has a rule that no employee is allowed to walk more than 150 feet without encountering (free) food. Yes, a Weight Watchers branch had to open onsite, mostly for first-year employees who hadn’t yet learned how to ration.

My one question as we left Google was whether the company was catering to employees in order to create whole-person well-being or because workers needed so many amenities because they didn’t have a home life. . . . I don’t have the answer yet, but here are some of the things I enjoyed hearing and seeing about the most:

Michael at Google Earth

Yes, that’s Michael Bitton at the helm of a giant Google Earth, honing in on various parts of the world, including Israel and NY

Magen David

7801 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn, NY lights up as Michael hones in on Magen David Yeshivah HS

Google herb garden

An employee-run herb garden is only one of the many passion-based “hive communities” that have popped up at Google. All are self-run, with their own listservs and protocols.

town hall

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s founders, conduct weekly town hall meetings, where they share news and let employees voice ideas and opinions. Yes, the color scheme is consistent throughout the complex. You will find no purple at Google, and you’ll find company bikes that are painted in the famous Google palette.

Google was exactly what I thought it would be — though with a larger gift shop that carried a broader range of goods than I had anticipated. Still, hearing about Google’s famous culture and seeing it up close were two different things, and I was grateful for the trip into one of the epicenters of innovation. I have to remain positive: remember, everything I’m typing right now is being picked up by one of these:

Google car

Professor Lee Shulman

After Google, our next stop was a meeting with Dr. Lee Shulman, educational psychologist, professor emeritus at Stanford University, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and past president of the American Educational Research Association (yes, this is all one person). Professor Shulman also happens to be a warm and witty man who graciously shared his wisdom and advice with us. Speaking with us for well over an hour, he told us to tackle culture change by looking at obstacles as opportunities. We’ve been using Lee’s growth mindset language ever since we left his office. You can get to know Professor Shulman and gain from his positive, humorous, Jewish, and cold-cut-filled take on life through his writings, some of which are more insouciant than others.

Stanford University’s d. School

After leaving Professor Shulman, we then headed to Stanford University’s d. School. Let me give this place some context: I have been slightly obsessed with the d. School ever since I saw David Kelley’s TED Talk, ” How to Build Your Creative Confidence.” Seeing that Talk led me to investigate all things IDEO, Kelley’s firm which employs Design Thinking, and that led me to the d. School, the Design Thinking school Kelley started at Stanford, with Steve Jobs’ blessing (Kelley and his firm designed products for Jobs for over 20 years. Apple’s first mouse? Designed by IDEO).

Design Thinking

Here’s a brief explanation of what Design Thinking is:

And here’s the d. School manifesto, on a napkin.


Know, too, that Maya Bernstein of Upstart Bay Area has been working with the Jewish Education Project in NY to bring Design Thinking to Jewish education. We’ve been talking Design Thinking on JEDLAB lately as well, so join the conversation there.

Seeing the d. School in person did not disappoint. It was every bit as sharp, fun, and packed with post-it notes as the videos and websites make it out to be, and the fact that it now has a Maker Space only makes it that much more appealing. I also enjoyed seeing a prototyping cart with all sorts of random objects on it that reminded me of the seemingly useless items now filling the shelves of my office but which I am confident will one day be used in creatively cutting edge ways by Magen David teachers and students. Here’s a glimpse of the d. School, with its emphasis on ideation, prototyping — in both analog and digital form — and failing fast to fail forward:

Make d school

who is at the d school

design school

pretotyping manifesto d school

I love this: can you see the bottom? It says, “Maker sure you are building the right it before you build it right.”

experience prototyping
elmo loves iteration

d school iteration on making

so many stickies at d school

Eco-friendly Silicon Valley makes way for the stickie-note-obsessed d. School!

prototyping cart

A prototyping cart

d school maker space

The d. School Maker Space, complete with a retro-looking 3-D printer

d school maker space tools 1

Stanford’s Fab Lab

From the d. School, it was just a hop, skip, and jump away to Stanford’s Fab Lab. The difference between a Maker Space and Fab Lab? Not much. There were a lot of cool toys lying around both spaces — things a do-it-yourself-er might like to tinker with — such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, tools, and other widgets. This interest in Making as Learning that’s grabbed hold of educators is no doubt the result of more equitable access to formerly high-priced items such as 3-D printers. Dale Dougherty, founder of the Maker Movement, discusses in the following video how Making is making its way into education. I showed this video at the Yavneh Academy Board of Education meeting that took place as soon as I returned from my trip. It got us all thinking about ways we might include Making in the curriculum:

Stanford’s Fab Lab:

invent to learn fab lab

Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager’s book has become a sort of Bible in the Maker Movement

dinosaurs fab lab

Cool things you can make with a laser cutter!

fab lab playfulness

The Fab Lab had the same sort of playfulness we encountered at the d. School. “Who says work can’t be fun?” was a recurring theme throughout the day — from Google to our meeting with Lee to the d. School and Fab Lab

fab lab tools

Day 2

Professor Ari Kelman

It’s hard to believe all that I just wrote happened on one day, but that’s what camp — I mean, a serious business trip — is like. Day 2 was just as much of a learning experience. Matt, Sabrina, Michael, and I began the day with Professor Ari Kelman, the Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Just reading the book titles in Professor Kelman’s office was an education, but Ari, like Lee, also generously shared his wisdom with us. Ari — and Matt — study the Jewish ecosystem, so hearing the opinions of those studying the field of Jewish education from 30,000 feet high was important: those of us who are busy with managing what on some days feel like tiny twigs can sometimes lose sight of the forest.

The Los Altos School District

One place that is busy tending a very well-run forest is the Los Altos school district, our last stop before we headed on to our next adventures — more about those in another blog post. Visiting Los Altos brought our trip all together: the district engaged in Design Thinking to create its teacher training program. In fact, the teachers’ professional development rooms looked exactly like the d. School.

The district also had created an exciting STEM program, decorating its STEM classrooms in inviting ways that inspired students to create and innovate. We peeked in on a group of 8-year-olds who had been given the challenge to balance a LEGO house on no more than 10 index cards without being able to use scissors or glue. The first girl who completed the task did so in about ten minutes, but the truth is that all the students who entered this self-selected class began ideating and iterating from the moment they walked into it. Their motivation reminded us that when students never stop being curious and always look at work as play, then what results is the kind of joyful learning that takes place in kindergarten — and places such as the d. School and Stanford’s Fab Lab.

los altos passion learning

Passion-driven learning creates high levels of engagement — in students in the Los Altos school district as well as in employees at Google who have their passion-driven hive communities within the company

los altos what would happen

Creating an inquiry-based classroom begins with posting thought-provoking questions . . .

los altos einstein

. . . and quotations. This one, of course, underscores the fail forward mentality we also saw at the d. School and the Stanford Fab Lab

los altos teacher challenge

Teacher Katie Farley instructs her students on what to do for their LEGO Challenge, a task the students are willingly undertaking during their lunch period. Katie, by the way, taught at Maimonides day school in Los Angeles!

los altos student ideating

los altos lego

Sabrina, Michael, and my trip to Northern California, as I said, came full circle in many, many ways. Here’s a dot which connected our first and last two stops: did you know Google’s first servers were on . . . LEGO?

los altos ilearn

The teacher training rooms at the Los Altos school district were designed by the d. School’s K-12 Teaching Team

los altos pail

Shades of the Summer Sandbox: the pail as pen holder! And note the d. School-mandated post-it notes.


I’ve been thinking about learning as play for quite a few years now, but it’s a very different thing to think about it than it is to see it in one of the country’s top universities and enacted on a district-wide level in one of the most innovative school districts in the country.

If you’ve been toying with how to begin playing, innovating, making, or designing in your school or classroom, but have been afraid to, perhaps you’ll be inspired by what’s going on in Northern California. And also remember how we began this post — by reminding ourselves to get out of our comfort zones. The Los Altos schools make sure their teachers do so by posting these tenets from the rules of Improv, an art form that demands that players remain open to what their partners throw at them. In other words, Improv requires a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed one, something the curriculum planners at Los Altos told us was at the heart of their professional development plan. We hope it will be at the heart of yours too:

los altos improv

By in Blog Comments Off on Is This on the Test?: Establishing a Real Need to Know

Is This on the Test?: Establishing a Real Need to Know

The Need to Know

So far, Eliezer Jones and I have introduced the basic components of PBL and discussed how it includes significant content. This post will explore the Need to Know that is a crucial part of setting up a successful PBL unit. To review, let’s consider the component, described by the Buck Institute of Education (BIE):

Students see the need to gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to understand the Driving Question and create project products, beginning with an Entry Event that generates curiosity and interest.

We’ll explore the Driving Question in greater depth in a later post, but for those who need an explanation of it, it’s the question that drives the learning and that connects it to a real-world problem or application. For a quick peek at Driving Questions, check out this blog post from edutopia, one of our favorite sites for PBL.

Is This Going to Be on the Test?

As educators, we all know that unfortunately often the driving question for students is: Is this going to be on the test? We’re greedy, though. We want students to be curious and engaged, and we don’t want them to just be “doing school”; we want them to love learning and be lifelong learners. This is why the Need to Know is such an important component of PBL: it arranges and arrays the learning in such a way that it becomes vital for the student to know it.

Creating the Need

What, then, creates the Need to Know?


Looking at the BIE’s image of PBL components, I find it significant that the Need to Know is flanked by the Driving Question and Voice and Choice. A fascinating Driving Question will certainly spark in students a desire to know, but these questions must be appealing to students, not teachers. Teachers may have a Need to Know how force and velocity work, why World War I began, or what Hamlet’s problem really is, but students may not be particularly interested in those ideas. Instead, educators have to think about where students are and bring the Need to Know to their page. I might consider the following Driving Questions:

How might an understanding of force and velocity help me design athletic gear that will improve athlete performance?

How can an understanding of the way countries go to war help me understand how to fight terror today or improve relationships in my life?

Is Hamlet a teenager with a lot of angst or something more? How does understanding Hamlet help me understand myself and the difficult transitions I’m going through as an adolescent?

According to the BIE, once you’ve decided on a Driving Question (DQ) that will engage students, your next step is an exciting Entry Event that introduces the DQ and the project as a whole. More about that below.

I also think, though, that resonant driving questions suppose that students are interested in ideas that relate to them in some way, an assumption that the PBL component of Voice and Choice also makes. In fact, it’s a logical and healthy assumption that not only honors students’ inner lives but also all of our own. Learning takes on an added dimension when a student and teacher feel personally invested in it. Therefore, another way to get students to address a Need to Know is to give them Voice and Choice in class and find out what about the topic interests them.

Wonder Walls

wonder wall

A lot of teachers are creating Wonder Walls in their classrooms, asking students to write down what they want to know — either in general or about a specific topic in a course syllabus. Teachers can decide what they want to do with that information. For example, using Google’s 80/20 model, teachers can devote class time to allowing students to explore a topic of interest on their own. The passion for learning the Google model elicits can spill over into the rest of the course. Or, teachers can use students’ interests as a springboard for the learning in their class, building students’ interests into the course material.

An Example

J hist

It’s up to you as an educator to decide what to do when your students tell you they’re interested in the 80’s (poster on the left) or Elvis in the 60’s (poster on the right)

For example, a Jewish history teacher at Magen David HS, Ms. Frieda Cattan, is covering Classical Judaism this year, and she began the course by asking her students what period of history they’re most interested in. Students then had to use props and other art supplies to bring that time to life on a poster board. Since Ms. Cattan’s Driving Question for the year is How Did We Jews Get Here Today?, she can use the students’ interests in a particular time period to help them wonder how we got from the Classical world to their favored period. Ms. Cattan can also have her students compare their favorite era with the Classical world, and since Ms. Cattan asked students to imagine a role for themselves in their preferred period, she can now also ask them to trace what that role looks like going back in time to the Classical world. In fact, endless opportunities pop up to connect the course syllabus to student interest, now that Ms. Cattan knows what those interests are.

Make the Time

One of the biggest concerns teachers have expressed when given these suggestions is how to make them work in a course where time is never sufficient: a course may have an important standardized test at its culmination or a particularly content-rich syllabus. We believe, though, that learning becomes easier when student passions are engaged, when the classroom is alive with the vitality of those interested in what is going on there. The truth is that the Need to Know has always existed in the classroom, but PBL, with its student-centered focus, places the onus of responsibility on the teacher to discover what might make his/her students not just interested in learning but truly compelled to discover what a course is all about.

Additional Resources

Entry Event into a Unit on the Human Body

An engaging Entry Event, which enables teachers to spark excitement and interest about a learning unit, is a good way to establish a Need to Know. We love this teacher-made video which, as an entry event into a unit on the human body, got kids thinking about why an understanding of the body is vital to their lives. Note how the teachers incorporated their own passions into the entry event video. Passion-based learning always adds a personal dimension to class that everyone — teacher and student — benefits from:

Suzie Boss on Project Launches

Here is PBL guru Suzie Boss on how to do project launches in an exciting manner.

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 2

An Introduction to PBL

So you want to get started with Project-Based Learning?

We think that’s an awesome idea, and we want to provide a path to success. One of the first things we have to do when discussing PBL is explain why it’s important in today’s world. After all, PBL has been around since the early twentieth century when John Dewey advocated that students needed to learn by having experiences in the real world and not by memorizing packaged content. Go here to learn more about Dewey’s philosophy. The truth is that Dewey’s approach wasn’t really new either. The idea that people learn by doing and that learning should have practical value is obviously at the heart of the apprenticeship system, but in the last couple of centuries, emphasis on academic knowledge sidelined educational opportunities that focused on student-centered, immersive learning experiences. For more on this theme, check out Ken Robinson’s amazing RSA Animate video (Sir Ken’s TED Talk is also pretty paradigm shifting.)

What accounts for the adaptation of Dewey’s pedagogy, almost a century after he lived? Technology, we think, plays a large role. Today, students — anyone — can access information in a way that is unprecedented in human history, and they can also create using digital media in a way that is unique to the world. In fact, it’s often students who know more about technology than their teachers do, so for the first time a younger generation is more knowledgeable about something than their elders. We think that calls for a radical re-shifting of how learning takes place. And we’re not alone. Check out David Thornburg’s take on what school should look like:

Tony Wagner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education is also an education change agent. Here’s what he says in his book Creating Innovators:

“Most of our high schools and colleges are not preparing students to become innovators. To succeed in the 21st-century economy, students must learn to analyze and solve problems, collaborate, persevere, take calculated risks and learn from failure. . . . A handful of high schools, colleges and graduate schools are teaching young people these skills—places like High Tech High in San Diego, the New Tech high schools (a network of 86 schools in 16 states), Olin College in Massachusetts, the Institute of Design (d.school) at Stanford and the MIT Media Lab. The culture of learning in these programs is radically at odds with the culture of schooling in most classrooms.”

So we see that there is a serious need for PBL and the kind of thinking and learning it fosters. We’re ready then to get into some PBL basics. The Buck Institute of Education, dedicated to all things PBL, has a good definition of it, as well as a clear breakdown of its components:


Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Essential Elements of PBL include:

  • Significant Content – At its core, the project is focused on teaching students important knowledge and skills, derived from standards and key concepts at the heart of academic subjects.
  • 21st century competencies – Students build competencies valuable for today’s world, such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity/innovation, which are explicitly taught and assessed.
  • In-Depth Inquiry – Students are engaged in an extended, rigorous process of asking questions, using resources, and developing answers.
  • Driving Question – Project work is focused by an open-ended question that students understand and find intriguing, which captures their task or frames their exploration.
  • Need to Know – Students see the need to gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to answer the Driving Question and create project products, beginning with an Entry Event that generates interest and curiosity.
  • Voice and Choice – Students are allowed to make some choices about the products to be created, how they work, and how they use their time, guided by the teacher and depending on age level and PBL experience.
  • Critique and Revision – The project includes processes for students to give and receive feedback on the quality of their work, leading them to make revisions or conduct further inquiry.
  • Public Audience – Students present their work to other people, beyond their classmates and teacher.

We also like this brief overview of PBL, again provided by BIE:

You can find all you need for PBL not only on BIE’s site but also through edutopia, which identifies PBL as one of its core strategies.

Another question that often comes up during a discussion of PBL is: what’s the difference between projects and project-based learning? We think this chart provides a good answer:

PBL vs Projects

Take the time to truly examine the chart. You’ll find that PBL has some key features that we think are essential for deep and true learning:

student-centered learning

context for learning

built-in assessment (the project is the learning and doesn’t come after the learning)

emphasis on acquisition of skills as well as content

a public audience (think of how much more meaningful work can be for students when they know it will be seen by the world)

One final resource:

This past July, at the Summer Sandbox, our professional development workshop, educators got to experience PBL and create their own project-based learning units. This short video of the Sandbox can add to your understanding of the pedagogy:

Now that you’ve gotten an introduction of project-based learning, you can start thinking about how you’re going to marry your course content to the pedagogy.