Mistakes, Failures and Disasters with PBL

I presented a workshop on PBL at the NSW ICT Educators’ Conference earlier this year. About 30 minutes into my presentation one of the attendees asked why I was just talking about the successes of implementing PBL? He wanted to know what mistakes I had made along the way. This was a light-bulb moment for me. I work with a colleague who whenever he hears another school advocating some sort of successful program, will always ask, “OK, but where are the warts?”

So yesterday I spoke at TeachMeet Mint about some of the mistakes, failures and disasters I have experienced with PBL. I have been experimenting with PBL approaches for the past three years. My first serious attempt was with a weak Year 9 History class. I was determined to get them writing, and enjoying it. In pairs they wrote chapters for an historical fiction book about an Australian soldier fighting at Gallipoli. It didn’t work very well. The story-line changed from chapter to chapter, with different names for key protagonists and no real thread holding the work together.

The following year my class wrote stories about World War One for a kindergarten class in the Northern Territory, who then illustrated the stories and we made it up into an audio e-book. However, this time my students obsessed over the stories for the 6 year-olds and lost sight of the history, and some of the stories were too bloodthirsty for 6 year-olds.

This year I simplified it and we wrote historical stories for the Grade 3 class across the road and they illustrated the stories for an e-book. Three years in, the project has become more manageable and more successful.

At the end of last year my class providing me with warm and cool post-it note feedback on each of the four projects I ran. In Year 9 I have established a pattern where I teach an overview of the course for about 7 weeks and then for the last 3 weeks of term they go into depth on an area in a PBL assignment. One of the key pieces of feedback from the students was that the first PBL task that they do in the year needs to be simple, so they understand how to learn this way. Three years ago my driving question was the ambitious “Is it best we forget?”. Now it is simply, “How can we write a story that will teach World War One to 9 year-olds?”

Three years ago I also designed a task which asked my class to design viral videos about an aspect of World War II. It was an unmitigated disaster. No amount of critique or feedback was going to salvage this operation. After cringing through bleating goats, images from the film Frozen, and boys engaging in mock fights on the oval, the task has now simply become “How can we design an awesome World War II documentary?” It is simple and it works.

Last year I ran a project for my class to design and implement a social media campaign for rights and freedoms. The students didn’t know where to start. This year it became an advertising campaign for rights and freedoms, which seems much more achievable.

One task that has not required much modification is a task on popular culture, framed around the driving question, “How cool were your grandparents?” Students interview their grandparents, or someone similar, about their memories of music, film, radio, TV, sport and fashion, and then write it up into a short report with a photo for an e-book. This year I am going to send the finished e-book to the grandparents and ask students to come to class wearing one fashion item from their grandparents on the day that it is due.

I’m now thinking for next year that I might move the PBL task to the start of each topic, rather than at the end. I have been considering a teaching principle I heard mentioned in a keynote earlier this year, ensure that “lecture comes later”, starting with inquiry and piquing the students’ interest before delivering the content.

Everything that I have typed above is anecdotal. It is from my memory. I tend to throw out what hasn’t worked and start again, so I no longer have the tasks that didn’t work so well, but that I learned so much from three years ago. Learning (and teaching) is an iterative process. My key message is that I need to start doing a better job of documenting my own learning.

The Project Zero Classroom

PZ faculty

PZC faculty – Image credit: @JimReesePZ

Last week I worked as faculty at the Project Zero Classroom at Harvard Graduate School of EducationProject Zero studies human learning and knowledge, and pushes thinking further with a focus on arts and creativity. Here is a short animation What is PZ? that gives some more information.

Howard Gardner opened PZC claiming that the US has too much influence on world education through excessive testing and ranking, and Project Zero is ready to help people have a broader view of learning and ethics. Daniel Wilson then claimed that Project Zero has a very provocative view of learning, suggesting that education has not come far since Jean Marc Cote’s 1899 vision of education in the Year 2000, and he pleaded with participants to not be seduced by the transmission model.

Jean MarcThe Project Zero Classroom has five throughlines. These are big, important questions to keep in mind and reflect on during the institute:


Image credit: @maryannesacco

My role was to co-lead a Study Group. Study Groups are like a home base for institute participants to synthesise and personalise information from the plenary sessions and mini-courses. Our role was to facilitate the learning process and let the participants’ interests and passions guide much of the session. This led to deep conversations about thinking dispositions, cultures of thinking, Reggio, active learning, and documentation.

study group

Two PZC highlights for me were listening to Daniel Wilson talk about Making Learning and Learners Visible and being invited to present during Tina Blythe’s mini-course on Protocols for Professional Conversations.

Daniel spoke about how underneath our practices are a particular set of beliefs. Powerful learning moments open up complex windows into seeing who learners are and what they come to know – windows of identity and windows of cognition. He cited John Seely Brown, saying it is not about stuff, it is about creating opportunities for students to become, and he showed this video: The Amazing Circus Act. Learners and learning remain largely invisible in most schools because of time, standardised assessments, ambiguity, and incoherent beliefs and practices. Daniel spoke about learning portraits – what beliefs about teaching and learning do you see in action in this classroom? Learning is…? People who make learning and learners visible believe learning is purposeful, social, representational, empowering, and emotional. He then went on to discuss key teacher moves in documentation: being curious about noticing, intentional inquiry, collecting artifacts for group memory, engaging in reflection that informs teaching and learning, making connections across classrooms, and creating public exhibitions.

Tina modelled the facilitation of professional conversations with protocols (structures for guiding a conversation). Protocols are tools for the work of supporting teacher and student learning. They create opportunities for conversations about teaching and learning and support interactions that enable us to develop our understanding of a variety of perspectives. I presented a dilemma for the group to analyse through a consultancy protocol.

While there are many thinkers cited during PZC, three quotes regularly rise above the others:

“Understanding is a consequence of thinking” (David Perkins).

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience” (John Dewey).

“Children grow into the intellectual life around them” (Lev Vygotsky).

PZC concluded with David Perkins advising participants how to create lasting change. A key message was to invite rather than advocate.

Project Zero Sydney 2016

Inspired by the success of Reggio spreading from Italy, Project Zero is now building up networks around the world and our school will be hosting the Project Zero Sydney conference on 13th and 14th March 2016. The event will be a magnet for educators from around Australia.


The focus is on the opportunities and challenges facing educators in the Digital Age. Young people are connected to one another around the globe in ways unimaginable just 20 years ago. How we respond will influence the level of civic engagement, the ethics and the intellectual curiosity of an entire generation. Do we continue on with a traditional curriculum, ignoring forces in the wider world, or do we meet the challenge head-on and shape it in ways that will be both rigorous and relevant? Using the theme “Global Connections in the Digital Age”, this two-day conference will feature keynote addresses by prominent Project Zero researchers who have been exploring questions such as:

  • How do we educate for the unknown?
  • With an abundance of knowledge now available to students at their fingertips via the internet, how do we shift teaching practices from a model of knowledge transmission to one of developing certain dispositions that transcend subject areas and other boundaries?
  • In our fast-paced world, how do we slow the learning down and focus on depth, not breadth?

In addition, renowned educators and educational researchers from around the world will lead interactive courses and special interest sessions on these topics and more, such as how to make learning and thinking visible, how to teach for understanding, and what school leadership looks like that supports deep learning.  These sessions will provide practical and relevant ways to help young people make important connections—to curriculum, to the world beyond the classroom walls, to their peers, and to their teachers. 

The Project Zero team includes leading researchers, writers and thinkers in the field of teaching and learning. Their interests include investigations into the nature of intelligence, understanding, thinking, creativity, ethics and other essential aspects of human learning. The professional learning from Project Zero has proven to be transformative for teachers and has direct, practical and powerful application in the classroom.

Throughout this two-day conference, in major talks, interactive courses and special interest sessions, prominent Project Zero researchers–such as Carrie James, David Perkins, Ron Ritchhart, Shari Tishman and Daniel Wilson–and educators from around the world will examine the importance of the conference strands in the education of our students today and tomorrow.

PZ Sydney promises to be one of the best educational events Australia has ever witnessed.

The Choices Program


I recently attended a Choices Leadership Institute at Brown University in Providence. The Choices Program develops curricula on current and historical international issues, and the materials incorporate the latest scholarship to draw connections between historical events and contemporary international issues.

I have been using Choices curriculum materials for many years in my own teaching. My favourite unit is Weimar Germany and the Rise of Hitler. Primary source documents, readings, excerpts from literature, and political art immerse students in the spirit of the Weimar Republic and set them up to simulate the debate that surrounded the Reichstag elections of 1932, when, amidst Germany’s economic and political crisis, the NSDAP, the SPD, the Centre, and the KPD were the favourites among the Reichstag’s political parties (together receiving almost 90% of the vote). Each of these parties had a different perspective on the problems facing Germany and each proposed a different program to guide Germany towards the future. The Choices simulation examines the philosophies and sources of support for each party.

“Germany is at a crossroads. The economic depression is nearly three years old and there is no end in sight. Unemployment is approaching 30 percent. Political violence has escalated to dangerous levels. Political division has paralyzed the Reichstag, leading the government to increasingly rely on emergency powers. With the future of the Weimar system hanging in the balance, a Reichstag election has been scheduled for late July. Your assignment is to persuade German voters that your political platform represents the best course for Germany.”

The carefully designed simulations and role plays, and the ensuing deliberations, are the most powerful aspect of the Choices approach.

I also use the Choices unit The Limits of Power: The United States in Vietnam to enable students to evaluate how successive US administrations perceived the situation in Vietnam and implemented policy decisions. In addition to the curriculum materials there are also additional online resources, such as Retracing America’s Withdrawal which examines the key decisions that shaped US involvement in Vietnam from 1968 to 1973.

Choices resources are easily adaptable. I use the character descriptions (designed to introduce students to the public mood of 1989) from the unit China on the World Stage: Weighing the US Response when I teach ‘The Chinese Government and Tiananmen Square’ and I combine the Choices character descriptions with the Project Zero Step Inside thinking routine.

Now I am exploring the unit on Iran through the Looking Glass: History, Reform and Revolution, which considers why Iran become an Islamic republic in 1979, for use with the Year 11 Modern History case study on Ayatollah Khomeini and Islamic Fundamentalism.

For our Year 10 elective courses we are exploring The Russian Revolution and its simulation, set in Petrograd, that has students recreate the debate Russians had over their future in a role play. We are also looking at Responding to Terrorism: Challenges for Democracy, which examines the motivations for terrorism and the heightened worldwide concerns about terrorism following September 11.

The Choices resources focus on historical turning points through a student-centred, inquiry-based approach. In each unit, a central activity challenges students to consider multiple viewpoints on a contested issue and then prepare a presentation. The follow-up discussion requires students to analyse conflicting values and priorities, and shows that History is a series of difficult, complex decisions.

The Choices resource books are available in hard copy, pdf, or as iBooks textbooks. The resources are quite US-centric, although the material is easily adaptable to other contexts.

As a Teaching Fellow, I now conduct outreach activities to assist other teachers to discover, use, and adapt Choices materials for their own context. Please get in touch if you would like to learn more.

Reference: Some of the text in this blogpost has been sourced directly from Choices material.

ISTE in Philly 2015


I attended the annual International Society for Technology and Education conference, held in Philadelphia this year and participated in some excellent workshops. Tim Kaegi presented Documenting Student Agency, explaining how he utilises media to capture the process of learning. He encouraged moving beyond snapshot documentation like Twitter and using a more comprehensive approach such as timelapse video. He recommended KidCam, putting a GoPro on a student’s head or chest, suggesting that visual media is more effective than words. The examples from his classroom are simply outstanding. I will try to stay in touch with Tim as his work fits nicely with a paper I am working on with some academics and the Project Zero Reggio-inspired approach.

I also attended an excellent workshop on Self-Organised Learning Environments. Sugata Mitra’s approach was explained and then we were put through a mini-SOLE answering the question: “What is the most influential design movement?” I teamed up with two other participants and after we sat nonplussed about where to start, we began googling and talking about our thinking. Our conversation began with IDEO and design thinking, moved to modernism and constructivism, and then started to unpack early cave paintings and the design thinking needed to organise the first human communities. It gave us a great insight into the practices and possibilities of the SOLE approach and reinforced my determination to explore this pedagogy more thoroughly.

I presented a 5 minute Ignite talk to an audience of about 500. My presentation was on Mindfulness to Thrive Online, inspired by Howard Rheingold. The audience played along and I received positive feedback afterwards.

ISTE Ignite

I also worked as a volunteer, helping people with directions on the final morning, which was fun. The strangest questions I was asked were: “Is there a dog entrance to the Expo Hall?” and “Will it be raining this afternoon?” I spent the entire time talking to people and laughing. Thanks Todd Kennedy for the inspiration to volunteer.

ISTE volunteer

PBL World 2015


Last week I completed the Buck Institute for Education’s Advanced PBL Coaching Academy at PBL World in Napa, California. The Academy began with the Question Formulation Technique, which I have blogged about before. This process ensures that students have input into the design of driving questions. We then dissected Jim Knight’s partnership principles, which underpin the instructional coaching program at my school. We used many protocols during the academy and this was reaffirming, and I took part in a Harkness discussion and a Socratic Circle.

The keynotes at PBL World were outstanding. John Mergendoller introduced us to the new Gold Standard PBL, a revised version of the 8 Essentials model.


Steve Ritz from the South Bronx gave one of the best presentations I have ever heard, attempting to describe it would be an injustice, just watch him here. Ramsay Musallam presented a highly engaging and quite brilliant explanation of how constructivism and cognitive load work together. He showed a gob-smacking clip of John Sweller explaining the limitations of cognitive load theory, which I really must get hold of. Ramsay’s three teaching principles are:

Is lecture happening later?
Are the products public?
Is feedback anonymous?

He showed how filmmakers withhold information to build motivation, citing the mentorship of Yoda in Star Wars and Mr Miagi in the Karate Kid, and showing how delaying the mentoring makes transformative learning possible. If you don’t know anything it’s easy to be curious. If you are given the information, there is nothing to be curious about. The key is withholding just the right amount of information as this is what creates active processing in the brain. He compared the hero’s journey in films with the processes of PBL. The hero’s journey starts with a call to adventure. In PBL the driving question is the call to adventure.

Joseph Campbell

Then Ramsay cited A. Kleon, “If it’s not public it doesn’t exist.” Kids know the value of a public audience, motivation comes from public product. He uses blogging to have students publicly produce work and he described blogging as a medium that can change the world. When Ramsay switched from using Google docs to blogs it enabled students to personalise their products. He also uses Google forms for students to provide anonymous feedback on his teaching.

There were some other workshops on the following days and I didn’t find these as useful, ending up wishing I had also completed the Advanced PBL Leadership Academy which received positive reviews from participants. Next time.


Finally, Suzie Boss interviewed me for a Buck Institute of Education Google Hangout and we had fish tacos for dinner at the Oxbow Market. It was inspiring having an extended one on one conversation with one of the world experts in PBL and innovation in education.

Key takeaways:

The Coaching Academy greatly affirmed our current professional learning strategy of coaching, CFGs, and instructional rounds. The readings will be useful to share and I’m hoping that some of the speakers will be willing to Skype in to our Professional Learning Forum. Ramsay helped me align my thinking on Constructivism and Cognitive Load Theory, and he reminded me of the importance of an inspiring entry event. I was introduced to an EduCreations unit on Mining Personal Histories which looks useful and I was also reminded of my long-standing intent to complete a Taking IT Global online professional development course.

I have largely pushed PBL in grades K-10. I’m now wondering if I could design a PBL unit around beating the high-stakes HSC?

Year 9 End of Semester Reflections

“I really enjoyed learning in a different way than in other subjects.” (Hugh)

“I wish I hadn’t been ignorant in thinking History would be boring this year. I came in with a negative mindset. I was disproved.” (Josh)

“I liked the fact that we did a lot of practical stuff which made lessons very enjoyable and a better environment to learn in.” (Charlie)

“I liked being shown that history can be viewed from different perspectives.” (Eddie)

“I have come to realise that we commemorate Australia’s involvement in Gallipoli alot differently to other events in Australian history.”

“I liked how in history there were a lot more group discussions and interactive work, where it was not spoon-fed information. By doing this it helped me to get a better understanding of the topic.” (Ryan)


Reconciling Tensions and Radical Openness

A few years ago I returned to fulltime study for a year in the US. My favourite classes were with Tina Blythe and Eleanor Duckworth. Both banned technology from their classes, preferring face to face interactions, and I experienced my most powerful learning experiences in their classes.

I also took a class with Chris Dede, who was fresh from having written the National Education Technology Plan for President Obama. His class was a dizzying array of top US educational technology experts and we were encouraged to use our devices in class. While I sat spell-bound, some of my peers would surf Facebook and this made me question the benefits of technology in relation to learning. I now oscillate between believing that the deepest learning experiences I can design in my classes are face to face conversations, and simultaneously arguing that technology should be ubiquitous and invisible. One of the ways I am reconciling this tension is by explicitly teaching students mindfulness in order to cope with continuous partial attention and our always-on lifestyle.

I have often argued that pedagogy should be the driver, and technology should merely act in support. Project-Based Learning is a pedagogy that works well with technology. My students produce audio e-books for young children, make films, and design social media campaigns for rights and freedoms. We also take part in global learning projects and conduct Skype learning calls.

I know that I need to improve the documentation of the learning in my classes. While I’m a fan of post-it notes and speech bubbles, we also have a class Twitter handle which tweets out photos of our learning, and, when students work in teams, one of them sometimes has my Go-Pro on a headband for real-time KidCam.

Next year I am planning to explore Sugata Mitra’s Self-Organised Learning Environments, I want to get my students blogging, and I’m thinking of using Snapchat to run a short project for students to share photos of local war memorials and commemoration activities. We have a student voice team who attend our Heads of Department meetings and I am curious about what would happen if we adopted the radical transparency of broadcasting these meetings via Periscope. Also, I am in awe of the work being produced by students at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and I want to learn how to do this myself.

Finally, George Couros now has me wondering whether pedagogy really should always be the driver? This video of Lachlan getting his hearing aid shows how technology can be transformational. Could transformational learning become the norm, rather than the exception?

There is a fragile tension here because, despite the wonderful affordances, in most of my classes computers and tablets are off and we still talk to each other in face to face conversations.

NB. Cross-posted on the NSWICTE website.

Mindfulness to Thrive Online



This is warrior training. The Bulls and the Lakers know that simple exercises can increase attentional agility. Mindfulness is about becoming aware of how we direct our attention. It improves attention, decision-making, happiness, and relationships. Our breath links our mind, our brain, and our body – and paying attention to our breath helps cultivate mindfulness. By intentionally practicing mindfulness we ultimately change the architecture of our brain through neuroplasticity.


We have information overload and continuous partial attention. Howard Rheingold believes that mindfulness is the most important practice for anyone trying to swim through the infostream. It is the power tool that all the other literacies depend upon. Attention to intention is how the mind shapes the brain. We used to manage our time. Now we need to learn how to manage our attention. We can notice when our attention wanders and gently bring it back – like training a puppy.

slow food

Just as the slow food movement preserves traditional cuisine and local produce as an antidote to the fast food movement, slow education is a response to content-heavy curriculum and standardised testing. Slow learning encourages close looking. Pico Iyer claims that in an age of speed, nothing is more invigorating than going slow, and in an age of distraction, nothing is more luxurious than paying attention.

How are you directing your attention?

And how are you helping your students direct their attention?

(Images: Paul Vera-Broadbent; blog.eataly.com; Colfe’s History Department)

Skype and the Anzac legend


This term I have been teaching my Year 9 History class about the ANZAC legend and the commemoration of war. I have always enjoyed teaching these topics, though this time as we neared the end of the unit, I started to feel uneasy. My students seemed to be describing things in simplistic black and white terms. While they had read and discussed differing views, and connected with New Zealand students to discuss the significance of Anzac 100 years on, I began to realise that I had not done a very good job of enabling them to see the complexities of the topic. I stewed on my failure, and then went back to the readings I had provided my students and started googling the authors’ names. I found three of them on Twitter and five email addresses, so I sent out eight invitations to Skype with my class. Five replied. Of these, two couldn’t connect with us (one of them was in Turkey). I set up three Skype calls. The first postponed and then failed to respond at the appointed time, that’s just part and parcel of dealing with busy professionals and these sorts of learning opportunities. Two did connect with us.

Dr Craig Barrett is a historian and built heritage specialist, with a PhD focusing on the return of Australian POWs.  He spoke about how the legend itself hasn’t been manipulated much, but the way that war is commemorated has changed. He related how aspects of the Anzac legend were formed in the bush in the 19th century and the key aspect of mateship has been stable over time. He spoke about how the Australian tourism trickle to Gallipoli in the 1980s became a flood in the 2000s and about how Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli film changed attitudes toward Anzac Day and the legend. He also spoke about the disconnect between the legend and what really happened.

The following lesson was with Professor Joan Beaumont from ANU. She explained how the legend is not a historical account of what happened in the war, it is about identity and nationalism, and it tells us what we value today. A myth is how we want to remember the past because it is about what we consider to be important. There were a number of reasons that the Anzac legend took off, both the British and Australian governments wanted more people to join up and it helped grieving families find solace in the fact that their children had died for a reason. She was critical of the recent inappropriate commercialisation of Anzac Day by Woolworths and the AFL.

(With thanks to Charlie for his notes which were used to produce the above two paragraphs).

For each Skype learning call, a student volunteer introduced the class and thanked our guest at the end, three students took notes for the rest of the class to access later, and one student researched the background of the speaker during the call. For everyone else, their job was to listen and think of good questions to ask. They were keen to know the guest’s thoughts on: commemoration, the role of the media, the glorification of Anzac, how the Anzac legend has changed over time, and whether the Anzac legend has been manipulated to suit the morals and values of contemporary Australian society. I was also delighted that they were interested in finding out about what is involved in being a professional historian.

I am amazed at the goodwill of these busy professionals to spend time with a Year 9 class, I am astounded by the learning experiences technology enables for our students today, and I am proud of my students for their great questions and their deep thinking about these topics.  They will be writing about it next week and I am really interested to see what sense they are making of it all now.


From Ping-Pong to Basketball Questions


When teachers start to focus on developing a culture of thinking, their questioning tends to swing away from procedural and review questions towards facilitative questions that push student thinking and make thinking visible.

Taking his lead from Dylan Wiliam, Ewan McIntosh pleads with teachers to stop ping-pong questioning and try basketball questioning instead:

“Pose a question, pause, ask another kid to evaluate the answer child one gave, and ask a third for an explanation of how and why that’s right or wrong.”

In Creating Cultures of Thinking, Ron Ritchhart also supports the basketball approach,

“It begins to feel more like a basketball game in which we have lots of players taking turns with the ball, rather than a simple back-and-forth with the teacher.” (p. 104)

“the ball (question) is passed around and ideas are bounced off one another, as the ball is moved down the court.” (p. 213)

I have coached basketball for years. Now I’m playing it in class.