What?! Take a Midterm Outside?!

PhotoGrid_1395424799095No one really enjoys taking tests even if they happen to be really good at taking them. To celebrate the arrival of spring and it just being naturally wonderful outside today, I decided to let the kiddos take their midterm outside in the sunshine or in the shade of the building. They loved it of course, and it was actually easier to watch them take the test out there than it is in my classroom (which has no windows mind you). While we had to battle a bug or two and listen to a very happy bird chirp fairly incessantly, the experience was nothing short of delightful for me and them. I’ll end this little post by simply saying it’s nice to break out of the ‘prison’ from time to time even when doing something as fettering as taking a test.


NY Times: China Educators Look to US Classrooms

The education crisis in America is a myth.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t serious reform that needs to happen in various districts and states, but the cold, hard reality is that nothing the federal government hands down to the states will ever be a cure all for individual systems’ woes. Another reality is that there are groups making money hand over fist from a crisis that has been manufactured by misleading data, media outlets, and policy makers. A glimmer of truth can be gleaned from an article in the New York Times, which you can read here. Published just yesterday, the article sheds light on how countries such as China are actually looking to our American classrooms for guidance on how to teach and prepare students past primary school, specifically in the sciences.


The article asserts that China’s educators are looking to our classrooms to model our hands-on approach to learning science. The article also explains to readers the highest stakes test Chinese students take and why many parents are sending their children to America for high school. What’s the problem China officials are seeing? Their students can memorize the facts, but they don’t know how they apply to the real world, and they are unprepared to think critically. Sound familiar?

Education can be a problem anywhere, but to state what I’ve said before, we shouldn’t be trying to keep up with other countries’ test scores; rather, we should be leap frogging them in innovation. How do we do that? Continue to push students to think critically, work in dynamic teams, and foster the soft skills so desperately needed in a global market!

When Do Student Results Really Show in PBL?

Good question.

The answer is complex, and I don’t say that as a cop-out. The reality is project-based learning helps develop a very different student than your more traditional classroom model. I was being interviewed by a colleague of mine yesterday and the line of questioning eventually came to the crossroads of evaluating the ability for a student to analyze in a PBL classroom versus a traditional classroom. When answering, I came to my own epiphany that it will always be hard to make honest comparisons to traditional classroom students versus PBL classroom students effectively without being caught up in what just simple numbers tell us. They are just two different beasts–apples and oranges really.

In the PBL classroom, analysis is required daily to make a decision on a project, but this type of analysis does not always translate into high test scores on a reading comprehension assessment. Where I suspect I’ll see my students thrive with their analysis skills is in real-life scenarios that require the student to make decisions that matter to the end result of a project or even situations of greater gravity that may pertain to life changing events. On the flip side, a student who in a traditional classroom can take a reading comprehension assessment and thrive may not be able to handle the pressure of making a time sensitive, make-or-break decisions like a PBL student could.

So from what I can gather, that is the rub. Or the compromise, rather. A traditional classroom student can be drilled and drilled and drilled with practice and strategies, but may have a much harder time transitioning to situations in college and beyond that require critical thinking and project management. A PBL classroom student will at times stumble on an important reading comprehension assessment because his or her analytic skills are not defined by answering multiple choice questions, but by seeing a bigger picture and the real consequences of a decision. All that being said, I do believe that a PBL student can be molded into a solid test taker, but is that the goal? To make solid test takers? Is that what will drive innovation and bring new ideas to our workforce? I’m not convinced that is the point at all.

Apples and oranges. Making a comparison between these students will most likely disappoint us, so maybe, just maybe, we need to change our point of view.

Reality Check

AP results are in and they are what you might call sobering.

I’ll preface that word choice by also stating that the scores were by no means terrible, but they didn’t meet my or my colleagues expectations for The Studio PBL classroom. Like a business strives to improve profits, we were hoping to make strides forward in our AP scores (our bottom line if you will) proceeding our inaugural year. Alas, we just didn’t quite make those strides; however, we did see one particular area of improvement in the scores that we certainly take heart about; I’ll speak more to that shortly.

AP (advanced placement) is a different animal than anything else in our high schools. Controlled by the College Board (the developers of the SAT and PSAT), AP courses and tests are meant to be much tougher classes and tests than what most see in our first few years of college. The tests that are developed all have different protocols for grading and recently, several tests have been revamped or changed significantly including the AP World History exam. Not to make excuses, but no matter the classroom context, these tests are extremely difficult to prepare for whether teacher or student. With each new year of The Studio, we continue to draw closer to what we believe are solutions to see more success in our students’ AP exams. The truth is we are almost the only ones implementing not only clearly defined standards in a PBL classroom, but AP course work and standards as well. It is exciting to be on the forefront of something so game changing; however, the reality still remains that we are still balancing how our classroom meets the needs of both a 21st century learner and a testing system that still needs great amounts of testing practice to be successful.

What we are working on going into this new school year is a more regimented time for students to practice both multiple choice and writing tasks involved in the tests. The idea is to give more context to the test, while also still striving for great, relevant projects. The goal is not to simply give students test practice, but to also evaluate the quality of writing responses and giving feedback to the student, which in turn should give greater context to the point of a correct answer or response. It will be a tough road to hoe this year, but it is essential to us seeing our AP exams reflect the learning happening the classroom. (Bear in mind that our state test scores as well as county are still top notch across the PBL curriculum!) If we manage to develop the right balancing act, then The Studio will take the next step forward in its quest to help innovate the current public school model.

So what did see happen this year? Our tenth graders partaking of the AP World History exam this year didn’t fair as well as we had hoped. The average score was below anticipated, but we did see students who had not been successful the previous year increase their score and in some cases pass the exam. The best news came with the ninth grade group who took the AP Human Geography exam. Half the class (mostly honors and on-level students) passed the exam! This was a great improvement from last years ninth grade group. We’re taking the good with the bad and figuring out how we can grow and improve. Only time will tell, but we’re focused and ready to march forward towards new goals. With school starting in just a week and half, the third year of the PBL experience is about to begin!


…it is so essential to not only success in school and life, but in our own happiness. I think back to being a child and how boundless my imagination seemed. Hours upon hours spent dreaming, plotting, and playing out fantasies that were all very real in my heart. I look at myself today and see evidence of that kid, but the truth is my imagination is most certainly bound now. I would tend to think that those that are able to keep their imagination free and unfettered are some of our most successful businessmen and women, technologists, writers, and visionaries.

In terms of current education, I feel strongly that we need to be fostering the continued growth of imagination in our students. I’m as guilty as anyone at times with how my classroom operates. (My more traditional classroom setting has that prison-like feel to it some days where I’m the sole authority of knowledge and my students are their to just ‘learn their lesson’) Still, what has been one of the coolest experiences of developing a PBL classroom has been seeing students suddenly re-engaging their imaginations to develop projects that matter to them.

Don’t get me wrong–I have several students who really struggle coming up with creative solutions to the problems that these projects present, but I think that may be the result of their own imaginations being suppressed over time in school, or at home for that matter. The students who really take advantage of what PBL offers often times astound me with their work. I’ve seen everything from community events to educational green spaces to 3D interactive educational timeline boards (more on that one later) to ninety page novellas from my students. The point is that the result of these projects would be very rare in a traditional classroom. Why? Because there is no time considering the pacing of units and preparation for tests, right?! No matter the reason or what we might want to blame for hampering our students’ imaginations, what we really need to do is continue to find ways to re-engage those imaginations.

I strongly encourage any one out there that is involved in educating our youth to foster their imaginations by using any means possible to show what they can build, develop, redesign, re-image, write, craft, or invent. The key to their future as well as our own is most often found in unlocking the potential of the human mind.