Fostering Jagged People – For Science!

By: Carolyn Olsen

Data science is made for jagged people.

In his book The End of Average, Harvard University’s Todd Rose talks about how no one is average. Average is a statistical myth. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and evaluating talent based on a single number like a GPA or an SAT doesn’t work. In Rose’s terms, people are jagged.

Data science is the science and art of extracting meaning from data. It can solve problems ranging from diagnosing potential lung diseases with medical scans, to detecting fraud, to identifying products or services to target to which people (like Netflix or Amazon recommendations). It is interdisciplinary, combining business and domain knowledge with computer science, statistics, math, and communication.

Data science and analytics are needed in all industries and all signs point to them being vital skills needed across more and more professions.

Often students learning statistics or data science are taught how to analyze data, but are given sterilized, clean data sets ready for analysis – when in the real world, getting messy, disjointed data prepped can be 80% of the work. As a hiring manager, if someone has experience getting their own data ready, that means that much less work for me when they come on board, because that person will be more self-sufficient coming out of the gate. Luckily for students and educators alike, opportunities abound these days for hands-on practice with data, with free data sets and data science problems available online several places including Kaggle. Additionally, platforms such as Headrush Learning enable innovative schools to embrace, defend, and showcase more agile, cross-curricular approaches to learning that cultivate that kind of talent.

It’s such an interdisciplinary and evolving field, in fact, that we can’t even get our terminology straight. Practitioners coming from a computer science or programming background talk more about “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning.” Practitioners from a statistics or analytics background are more likely to say “predictive modeling,” “predictive analytics,” or “statistical modeling,” even when the math we’re talking about is exactly the same, and being used for the same purpose. (Technical aside: Machine learning is a subset of artificial intelligence. Data science often uses machine learning methods for things like predictive modeling where we predict a possible outcome based on historical patterns.)

But the more important effect of data science’s interdisciplinary nature is that data science is a team sport.

Yes, there are “full-stack data scientists” who build and deploy machine learning models that perform well. But more often, the people who come together to build data science solutions have areas of expertise. For example, one might be best at the data engineering needed to prepare a dataset for analysis. Another might be a statistical whiz. These people go deep in one or more areas of data science. When they come together, they can produce better, faster results than a single data scientist working alone who does all parts of a project “OK.”

In my own work as a data scientist, I often partner with a colleague who specializes in engineering and architecture. I can train the socks off a machine learning model, and I could struggle my way through the engineering side – but it’s better for everyone, especially the paying client, if a specialist tackles that portion.

Five to ten years ago, when data science was just beginning to emerge as a hot field, there were no “data science” education programs. Data science teams were built with people from a variety of fields. My own training was in applied economics, and I’ve worked with teammates trained in computer science, statistics, and physics. Today, there are more and more data science programs at universities. Those programs aim to capture the interdisciplinary nature of data science, but often will be stronger in one area than another – and you can guess which by seeing which department hosts the program— a computer science department, expects strong engineering training, for example. The diverse nature of data science education is good, because it helps foster the complementary skillsets that make data science teams successful.

The combination of this ‘deeper learning’ with an idea that co-founder of Headrush Learning Shane Krukowski shared with me, of ‘liberating learning’ from the confines of how knowledge has been traditionally organized, feels very relevant and directly correct. In data science, a person with a variety of deep experiences in a few aspects of data science can be more insightful, and produce higher quality work, than someone who skirts along the surface evenly.

My advice to students interested in data science is this:

Choose your own adventure!

Data science requires an exciting, complex hodge-podge of skills. But while you’re choosing your own adventure, be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. Know your jagged profile. Based on that, find peers and mentors who complement your skills, to take your data science to the next level.

Reflecting on all of this, I’d expand my original headline a bit wider and give the same advice to all students, regardless of potential career field… get more hands-on experience, learn to work well as part of a team, know your jagged profile, and find peers and mentors who complement your skills. That’s what my data tells me, anyway.

For more, see:


Carolyn Olsen is Principal Data Scientist at Octavian Technology Group, where she helps clients identify and execute on opportunities to leverage data for better or more automated decision-making. She has built data science solutions for insurance, finance, healthcare, and marketing, for companies ranging from small businesses to Fortune 100. She loves geeking out about data science, so if you’d like to chat, please reach out

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.


Supporting Statewide Change Through Microgrants to Families

CARES Act funding encourages states to create a system for providing microgrants to families to ensure they have access to the technology and educational services they need to advance their learning. This funding creates the opportunity to shift some of the most basic power dynamics, and address some of the persistent infrastructure constraints that have held the education system static for a generation. It is also fraught with risk, including the potential to exacerbate the very inequities it seeks to address. There are specific steps leaders can take to maximize the likelihood of success.

Direct access and full transparency

In many places, the pandemic has exposed the extent to which access to resources limits learner and community engagement. After one of the largest-scale forced experiments in public education history, few SEAs and LEAs are satisfied with their first pass at a digital-first education system. The vision for this priority is to create a system that facilitates parent educational choice while also expanding access to the basic technology infrastructure families need to effectively access current and future virtual learning options.  

Envisioning an online microgrant system 

The end result would be a system that creates a state-level market for parents to select and spend their microgrant funds across a variety of options, suitable to their children and their own technology needs. It would empower rural communities to greatly improve connectivity, and provide students and families more agency and ability to access the education options that work best for them.

In our vision, it would also expand access to programming that is learner-centered. This means that it would elevate and expand access to learning that is personalized, authentic, competency-based, and open-walled. 

To achieve this, a statewide microgrant system would have to function at three levels. First, it would need to include a platform accessible to parents and responsive to known and immediate needs. Within this platform, it would need to provide options that fit community technology and learning demands. Finally, it would need to monitor usage, troubleshoot access challenges, and seek to inform the evolution of the network by linking this learning system into other state infrastructures like course credits, grading systems, and public matriculation.

Risk of unintended consequences

Clearly, this vision is a dramatic departure from the status quo. But poorly designed or shoddily implemented, a statewide microgrant system risks worsening some of the most troubling elements of the system students and families have experienced over the past four to six months. Most important is the risk of widening existing gaps in access and outcomes. 

Towards a learner-centered system

While a microgrant system may seem like an operational intervention, it represents a potential shift in power and agency within a system that has been institution and adult-centered. This shift only goes so far if the options available to families simply recreate the institutional / adult-centered experience in a new format. Consider how the design and implementation of the microgrant system can promote access to options that are learner-centered and facilitate programming that was designed to work in a virtual-first environment. 

A new vision for student outcomes  

Also consider how the success of the microgrant system will be measured. Defining this impact framework upfront will go a long way towards preventing simply reshuffling access to traditional programming in a new format.  Ultimately the public will view the success of the system in relation to the outcomes communicated from the beginning. The microgrant program can be a step towards shifting an entire system towards a more learner-centered and complete view of student success. 

Getting microgrants right 

Especially given the urgent, ambitious timeline the microgrant system leaders benefit from practicing the principles of learner-centered leadership, placing student and parent voices, experiences, and aspirations at the center of the design. Leaders should also pinpoint where to innovate, being clear upfront about which elements of the current system they are seeking to change through the microgrant process, and which they are comfortable holding constant. Beyond these basics, here are four specific steps to incorporate into SEA plans: 

Think differently about community and customer engagement. 

This funding is targeting populations who have not been effectively served by the traditional education system. Engaging “the most disadvantaged students, and parents” will require new ways of bringing learners and parents into the work. Instead of traditional task forces and stakeholder committees, focus on more modern, technology-enabled methods of understanding user needs, allowing the user to define value. This includes investing in user experience research and design, leveraging mobile tools like text and social media, and releasing minimum viable products to get direct feedback from users. 

Create the future direct-to-parent infrastructure. 

Focus relentlessly on the target users during design and implementation. Keep this focus narrow, and design something that meets their needs. Needs may include baseline communication about what might be possible within the microgrants and how families may use this type of savings account for their children. Once they are engaged and successful it will be easier to expand to meet the needs of others. Along the way, optimize for mobile technology. The majority of users will be filling out forms and engaging from their mobile devices. Get the basics right, and be careful with assumptions. For example, many students may not have their own email addresses so a system that requires that would be problematic.

Include effective adult learning from day 1

Getting ahead of the capacity building it takes to effectively deliver and sustain systems change is always one of the most challenging parts. Build in feedback loops, incentives, and high quality self-guided learning into the system design so that users are able to learn quickly and effectively at the moment they need it. Implementing these local spending accounts will need to change over time as usage increases. Parents may start by accessing computer hardware and hotspots early on and then move towards other services. Staying in consistent conversations with users will support successful innovation and adult capacity building.  

Modernize approach to assessment and progress monitoring 

Take advantage of this moment to move beyond the traditional, summative, and narrowly focused assessment system to one that monitors competency, interests, and learning patterns. For the microgrant system, this means staying engaged with learners and families, understanding partner offerings and learning trajectories, and possible gaps of what might be missing across your microgrant learner portfolio. Depending on the focus of your microgrants and how your state adopts this network, you may also want to consider how student learning translates into changes within your course credit and promotion systems.  

Operationalizing this strategy

The above points seek to clarify the vision for what a successful microgrant system might look like, how to avoid getting it wrong, and what needs to be included in order to get it right. But how should SEAs approach implementation? How should they be thinking about the process of delivering this kind of system on an extremely rapid timeline?

About the Moving Forward Together coalition

The Moving Forward Together coalition coalesced around the opportunity to build an agile coalition to support SEAs in responding to the current crisis in a way that helps SEAs create a better, more learner-centered system. Anchoring this coalition are: 

  • Altitude Learning which provides learner-centered technology solutions to support competency-based, personalized, and authentic learning both through LEAs and direct to families through Altitude Learning @Home. Leaders in learner-centered technology and practice, Altitude Learning’s staff literally wrote the books on Learner Centered Leadership and Learner Centered Innovation
  • Getting Smart, a prolific thought leadership in learning innovation firm, is uniquely situated to help LEAs establish your approach to microgrants, target local communities, and lead this dramatic shift in access and resources across entire states. Getting Smart provides a variety of key implementation supports from program design to communications.

The coalition is led by Devin Vodicka, Chief Impact Officer at Altitude and former CA Superintendent of the Year, and Tom Vander Ark, CEO at Getting Smart, former Superintendent in WA State, and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Other “Moving Forward Together” partners will be pulled in as needed to bring their unique expertise to bear supporting SEA plans. They include: Digital Promise, NGLC, Education Reimagined, KnowledgeWorks, former superintendents, content and assessment experts, and workforce and higher education consultants.

Unique capabilities

Due to the diversity, depth, and breadth of coalition partners, the Moving Forward Together coalition can help pursue a microgrant strategy that mitigates risk and maximizes upside potential. Specifically, the coalition can provide: Input and advice; Strategy and implementation; Technology; Design; and Talent development. 

Compliance, convenience and cost

In addition to bringing lessons from successes and failures from the leading edge of innovation, coalition leaders understand the constraints and pressures facing SEAs and LEAs. Implementing a microgrant strategy will require significant attention to: 

  • Meeting state and federal requirements that still apply to this learning ecosystem; 
  • Bringing together a diverse coalition of experts and service providers; and 
  • Doing all of this at a lower cost than high-end consulting firms typically charge. 

The Moving Forward coalition formed to bring together and apply the best thinking and learning from the field in a way that accounts for compliance-related constraints, provides a convenient, one-stop-shop for SEA leaders, and delivers these services at a competitive rate while engaging experienced practitioners.

For more information on the coalition contact Caroline.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.


Rebellion As An Act of Community and Self-Love

In 1951, Albert Camus, one of the great authors/philosophers of the 20th century, wrote an essay entitled The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. In this essay Camus laid the foundation for why rebellion is a necessary component of self-making: “Rebellion, though apparently negative, since it creates nothing, is profoundly positive in that it reveals the part of man which must always be defended.”

One of the key factors of rebellion is that it is both a service to the self and the community, a key component of many of the hallmarks we’ve noticed in innovative and effective learning models: difference making, solving interesting problems, and contribution to name a few. In this essay Camus writes, “In every act of rebellion, the rebel simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself,” as well as, “the affirmation implicit in every act of rebellion is extended to something that transcends the individual in so far as it withdraws him from his supposed solitude and provides him with a reason to act.”

Also in this essay, Camus presciently draws attention to our oneness with the earth and the importance of unity and common good: “In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing.”

In many cases, rebellion serves as a catalyst for the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice;” in this time of complexity, opportunity and global challenges we must continue to work for equity, inclusion, and unity.

How might we benefit from a student protest to make our school/system better?

  • Listen to a podcast about Portland Public Schools climate justice curriculum which came, in part, from a student protest
  • Learn how Crosstown High in Memphis embraced the lessons of a student walk out
  • Learn from Jerome Foster III who has protested on the climate crisis outside the White House for 70 weeks

How might we encourage students to cover and learn from protest?

How might we learn from parents and educators in the struggle for justice?

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.


New Standards of Quality: Minerva Baccalaureate and Debt Free College

For half a century, the initials AP and IB signified high school quality. The assessment systems are challenging and require a lot of reading and memorizing. Both have made some efforts to stress thinking skills but they remain discipline-based individual pursuits culminating in high stakes tests.

A new standard of quality was introduced today, the Minerva Baccalaureate. It’s a new interdisciplinary high school course of study designed around critical career competencies and pursued in an interactive video Forum.

There are three reasons the Minerva Baccalaureate is the new standard of quality. First, it’s engaging and demanding. In most high schools, most students are disengaged most of the time. In Minerva programs, 90% of learners are engaged over 90% of the time. It’s turbocharged engagement: it’s like TRX training for your brain. It’s as engaging and challenging as debate but less artificial.

Second, it’s work that matters. Projects and discussions are on relevant topics. “They build the skills that are most valuable in life and work–the tools necessary to be an effective change agent which include thinking critically and creatively, and communicating and interacting effectively,” said Minerva founder Ben Nelson. Third, learners receive specific real-time feedback on competencies. This is not about cramming for a multiple choice quizzes, it’s real feedback on real work in real time.

Robin Goldberg, Chief Experience Officer at Minerva, explains “The learning transcends subject matter in a way that will produce a more advanced level of understanding and engagement.”

The Minerva Baccalaureate will initially be offered by Laurel Springs School, a respected private online school. Starting today, they are enrolling a 9th grade cohort (sign up by September 1 to be part of the first cohort). The tuition of $13,000 is half of many private schools.

“We want to reimagine the high school curriculum,” said Nelson. “We want to teach young people how to think and instill quality decision making.”

The Laurel Springs Difference

Celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, Laurel Springs is a school that people trust and respect. They have small classes, supportive teachers, attentive counseling and a great track record of college placement.

Launching online in 1994, they “were arguably the first online school and have been an innovator all along,” said President Peter Robertson.

As a former AP History teacher and school board member whose district selected the IB program, Robertson notes that both were developed in the last century and that, “There is a lot of opportunity to help students integrate and make more practical use of knowledge.”

Laurel Springs piloted Minerva’s Forum in several classes with great success. “We have seen how Minerva builds skills and how Forum facilitates deep collaborative learning,” said Robertson.

Seniors in the Minerva Baccalaureate program will take the first year of the Minerva collegiate program and graduate from high school with 32 college credit hours.

Minerva Backstory

Two years after selling photo giant Snapfish to HP, I met Ben Nelson in a Latin American dive in San Francisco’s Mission District. He laid out an ambitious plan to create a better-than-the-Ivy university with tuition of $10,000 a year.

In 2011, he founded Minerva Project, a venture-backed startup that partnered with Keck Graduate Institute at Claremont to create Minerva Schools at KGI–what might be the most interesting and important higher education program in the world.

The undergraduate program features a rigorously designed curriculum that develops knowledge and skills in about 100 foundational concepts and habits of success. Learners (pre-pandemic) studied and applied their learning in seven cities.

With the May graduation of the second class of world changers, it’s safe to say that Nelson achieved his goal of creating the best university at a super low cost and featuring need-blind competency-based admissions.

Last April, Minerva offered its Forum platform to other educational institutions. In that announcement, Nelson said, “Our intention has been to enable other institutions to join the revolution.” He points to three Minerva breakthroughs: cross-contextual scaffolding for the habits and concepts, fully active learning, and a personalized platform that supports compelling learning experiences and detailed feedback.

The Forum platform supports real-time, synchronous seminars–which work equally well with a local or distant instructor and with groups up to 400. Class sessions are recorded and tagged so instructors can provide formative feedback to learners based on specific examples of learner performance.

Urban Scholars Program

Earlier this month Minerva announced a new super low-cost program with Paul Quinn College. The Urban Scholars Program is an accelerated interdisciplinary course of study for ambitious students that want to finish college in three years and are willing to work while they study.

“We wanted to offer something better than any university on the planet–better, faster, and cheaper–only $7,500 in out of pocket cost for Pell-eligible students. It’s a full Minerva education with Paul Quinn professionalization,” said Nelson.

Urban Scholars will earn a degree in Business Administration and Public Policy while addressing public health, criminal justice reform, and the wealth gap while developing relationships with national and community leaders.

Students will attend classes year-round (with a two-month winter break) for three years. There are no geographic restraints or residency requirements.

Like the famous Paul Quinn Work Program, Uban Scholars will work 15-20 hours a week after their first year.

“This is an empowerment program for changemakers,” added Nelson. “It’s a way to tilt the playing field in the right direction.”

The combination of the Minerva Baccalaureate and Urban Scholars Program will make available, in six years and at very low cost, what might be the best high school and college programs in the world.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

This blog was originally posted on Forbes. 


A Resource for COVID-Weary Parents: New eBook on Doing PBL at Home

By: John Larmer

This past spring, with schools closed, parents and caregivers may have reached their limit. Their children have been stuck at home for months. If their school was able to manage remote teaching… If their household had adequate internet access and technology… If their parents and caregivers had the time and capability to manage home learning… If they were able to work well independently… Then, students may have been able to successfully continue their education. If the work they were assigned was meaningful and engaging, they may even have enjoyed learning from home.

Those are all pretty big “ifs.”

Instead, many students may have “virtually dropped out” of school for a while. For those that hung in there, parents and caregivers may have noticed the instruction their children were getting did not engage them or teach them very much of value. And now, faced with a long summer and the likelihood that school will look very different in the fall, families are wondering how they can support children in doing more meaningful learning at home.

Think of it this way: every parent and caregiver is a homeschooler now. But it’s not an easy role to play.

In our work supporting teachers and schools this spring, we’ve learned a few things about remote learning. We’ve been reminded—and many educators have realized—that now more than ever, this is the time for project-based learning (PBL). To help meet the needs of families, we’ve created a free resource.

A Free Resource for Families

In June, PBLWorks launched a new free eBook, This Teachable Moment: Engaging Our Kids in the Joy of Learning. It’s also available as a Kindle book on Amazon for 99 cents.

The eBook features a brief overview of the what and why of PBL, followed by a set of 21 K-12 projects that can be done at home. The projects build important knowledge and skills and meet the six criteria for High Quality PBL (which, by the way, Getting Smart played a key part in developing). Importantly, young people will find them interesting, even fun. They can be done with technology or without it, which will help address the educational equity issues revealed by differential access to technology at home among students.

And the good news for beleaguered parents who found it extremely challenging to direct their children’s learning at home while they tried to work? The 21 projects in the eBook can be done by families working together or by learners working independently with minimal supervision, depending on their age and capability.

Each project comes with step-by-step directions, questions to guide the process, and suggestions for sharing the products students create with others.

Example Projects Families Can Do at Home

  • How does food connect us? Learners create a cookbook or video cooking show that includes family recipes and their origins.
  • How can we use data to reduce our family’s impact on the environment? Learners analyze their family’s use of water, electricity, or gasoline and production of garbage and food waste, then create a plan for reducing it.
  • How can we document our current reality with images? Learners learn about memoirs and documentation from past historical moments, interview people they know, and decide what images would best capture the experiences of their household.
  • How can we demonstrate solidarity with others? Learners find out how a community in another part of the country or world is fighting an injustice, then create an action plan to help.

A Useful Resource for Teachers, Too

In June, we did webinars about This Teachable Moment for parents and caregivers, who liked what they heard. Some teachers also attended, and as we expected they saw it as useful for them too.

The directions provided for each of the 21 projects can be easily adapted by teachers for classroom use—or for remote learning, if that’s what’s needed in the fall. There are several projects that address current events; they’re about taking care of others and our communities, taking action on issues facing our nation and world, and documenting our lives in a historic time.

Here are a couple of the comments we got from teachers:

“Love these ideas and lessons to try out with my own kids this summer and being able to fine-tune them to work in the classroom.”

“These are all themes we have been discussing for the fall. I love that message.”

A Window Into More Meaningful Education

We think that something else was happening this spring, as parents and caregivers were monitoring the schoolwork their kids were doing at home. They might have seen that too many of the assignments students are given felt shallow, meaningless, and not engaging—and not very effective. However, some lucky families saw the opposite when their teachers facilitated well-designed projects online; their children were engaged and truly learning.

We believe this pause on education-as-usual will allow us to hit the reset button, and both parents and educators will see the need for a different kind of education. They’ll see how important it is that PBL be a big part of the change. We hope this eBook contributes to that project.

For more, see:


John Larmer is Editor in Chief at PBLWorks. Find John on Twitter at @JohnlPBL.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Getting Smart has launched the Getting Through series to support educators, leaders, and families on the path forward during such an uncertain time. This series will provide resources and inspiration as we face long term school closures, new learning environments, and address equity and access from a new lens. Whether you are just getting started with distance or online learning, or you’ve had plans in place and have the opportunity to share your work and guidance with others, there is a place for your voice and an opportunity to learn.

We’re going to get through this together, and we invite you to join us. Please email [email protected] with any questions or content you’d like considered for publication. We also invite you to join the conversation and on social media using #GettingThrough.


3 Ways Leaders Can Create The Conditions for Deeper Learning

Project-based learning is becoming the way many educators and educational leaders are beginning to view the future of instructional pedagogy.

When teachers, leaders, schools and districts become more project-based focused, they often tend to aim their attention at targets such as professional learning, scheduling, cohorts, collaborative teams, courses, technology and graduate profiles. These are all important. However, sometimes we forget that nothing is typically successful – or least optimized or maximized – unless there is an authentic culture to support it.

In order for teachers to serve as facilitators of learning, while students own and lead their learning, a different type of learning environment is required. And that’s made possible by a discreetly different culture than is traditionally found. Here are three ways school leaders can create the conditions for deeper learning:

1. Start At The Beginning

How we start and end things says a lot about who we are. Projects, in a healthy PBL culture, typically have entry events or launches where we do something significant (field work, guest speaker, simulation, activity, etc.) in order to engage our students. If we’re not excited and they’re not excited – from the beginning – it will be tough to make it through the project design and implementation process.

Many schools have realized that the beginning of school is not a place to just start academic work, but rather to establish a mindset focused on a culture of learning. One approach, that was created at my previous school with colleague Jon Corippo, was Smart Start. Our entire first week of school was dedicated to culture building to prepare for academic work. At week’s end, we had collaboration, relationships, reduced affective filters, connections, public and professional work and true community.

Another format some school leaders are implementing is starting the school year off with a schoolwide design challenge. It will immediately introduce to students and teachers the concepts of problems solving, collaboration, risk-taking and going public with work. Several school site leader colleagues of mine have done things similar to this the first week of school to set a PBL culture from day one.

2. Promote, Push Public Work

Taking student work public by showcasing, exhibiting and sharing projects publicly is foundational to project-based learning. It connects to PBL pedagogy such as authenticity, reflection, critique and revision. It also tends to get students to buy-in more, have legitimate portfolio examples, and ultimately allows them to connect and network to professionals and the greater community.

Creating these public opportunities can be a burdensome lift for individual teachers, while site leaders ideally have the capacity. Here is a list of things that leaders can do to create public options for students:

  • Organize and facilitate school wide showcases, exhibitions
  • Invite the community to these events
  • Share and promote student work on site and district digital spaces – websites, social media
  • Schools can feature student work at any or all school events (sports events, open houses, back-to-school nights, meetings, fundraisers, etc.)
  • Leaders can work with teaching staff to implement school wide portfolios for student work
  • Encourage and incentivize students and teachers to submit student work to local, regional, national and international contests. There are hundreds of contests for students to enter media projects, writing, design, presentations and more. They may get scholarship monies or prizes. But the real intent is not winning, but competing in the real world.
  • Invite and coordinate students presenting at school board meetings, as well as other governing or leadership organizations.
  • Communicate and share student work with local media outlets.

3. Culminate, Celebrate

Beyond how we start, how do we conclude projects in a pbl culture? These should not only be opportunities for showcasing and exhibiting our best work to the public, but also an opportunity to reflect and celebrate. This can take on many shapes and forms. Leaders have the ability to set the tone in terms of how students work climates and get celebrated.

John Dewey, one of America’s original educational reformers, posited early on that “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.” What Dewey was suggesting was that real learning, i.e., deeper learning and higher-level thinking, was going to stem from the metacognitive process of thinking about what we’ve learned.

We need to create systems where students have to not only do regular presentations, but also practice reflective learning in regular semester or annual presentations. If it’s good enough for graduate students and doctoral candidates, it’s good enough for all students. Many classes, programs and schools have started to have their students do Final Reflective Oral Presentations – Defense of Learning – in order to capture this deeper learning experience. My former school – Minarets HS / Minarets Charter HS – designed a year-end portfolio presentation students would do each year entitled the Personal Brand Equity. This culminating project not only required them to analyze and assess their learning and best work, but also do the same for them as a growing, learning and ever-improving young adult (skills focus). Reflection, presenting and teaching will represent the highest form of learning these students can both experience and demonstrate.

Final Focus

Transitioning to a more project-based pedagogy can be challenging and overwhelming for all of us. But remember that beyond the curriculum and instruction, we all need to dedicate discrete time and energy to the culture that will help create and cultivate the environment where PBL can not only survive, but truly thrive.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.


Choosing the Right Tools for Amplifying Learning Through PBL

During the last few months of the 2019-20 school year, we faced a lot of challenges in planning our instruction and making transitions from our classrooms into the virtual learning space. For me, the difficulty was in deciding what tools and strategies to use and knowing whether students had access to devices or their class materials. I wanted to provide meaningful and authentic opportunities that would enable all students to engage in learning, while being mindful of individual circumstances that may have made that difficult at times. We know there is definitely not a shortage of digital tools and options available to us as educators for expanding the how, when and where students learn, however there are a few important things we need to consider, not just now, but always.

As we look to the new school year, with many unknowns when it comes to where learning will take place, we should focus on these considerations first when thinking about the types of lessons and opportunities we will choose and design for our students.

First, what access do our students and their families need and what do they have? Second, are we using digital tools in our classroom that families will be able to help support students if they must learn from home? And third, what types of learning experiences can we create for our students that enable us to work together even when apart? Experiences that promote student choice in learning, leveraging technology where it makes sense, while also making sure that we can support and involve families are good options.

Choose a method not a tool

With school closures, it was an opportunity to try new ideas and tools, or perhaps to bring back some methods that we got away from. Project-based learning (PBL) is something that I believe worked well during this time, regardless of content area, grade level, or teacher experience with PBL in the classroom. I also believe that it will allow for smoother transitions in the event we have to shift throughout the upcoming school year.

According to the PBLWorks, PBL is “a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects.” PBL is an iterative process requiring reflection, which makes it a good method to guide students to become more independent learners and to develop a greater motivation for learning. Through PBL, we help students to focus on the process of learning itself and not on a final product that serves as an end to a unit of study and is forgotten.

With PBL, the learning space itself does not matter, it simply requires that we set up guidelines and work through the challenges that may arise as we go. PBL gives students the opportunity to explore their passions, design their own problems or challenges, and have the time to focus more on the process rather than the product of learning. To best prepare students for the future and for navigating what may be a constantly changing look of school this year, we need to offer experiences which promote curiosity, independent learning, and working through productive struggle. PBL is good for this and is also a great option for addressing the 4 C’s: critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.

Tools for PBL

Moving beyond the traditional classroom time and place is easier with technology, and it only takes that first step to begin creating these opportunities for students. In my classroom, we leveraged some digital tools for students to explore global issues and broaden their cultural awareness and global understanding, which led to more meaningful and authentic learning experiences for them. The use of digital tools to connect with other students, educators and experts adds to the authenticity and meaningfulness of the work they are doing.

Through PBL, I have been able to learn more about my students and their interests and to become a learner along with them. While in the physical classroom space, PBL promotes the development of SEL skills, students also become better at collaborating and providing ongoing feedback and support to their peers. However, when not in the  same physical space, we need to find ways to foster the development of these same skills.

Tools that we can use:

1.Ideas for PBL: Students can find ideas on Wonderopolis that promote curiosity for learning about new ideas and challenges. With platforms like Thrively, educators and students have access to a project library of standards-aligned projects, including rubrics and resources such as documents, videos, and website links, making it easy to get started with a ready-made project or to start from scratch. With the tools available, students can work in real-time with classmates and teachers through the collaboration feed and also build digital portfolios to track their work.

2. Collaborative spaces: Padlet, Wakelet, Trello, LMS such as Edmodo. With these options, students can work together and interact in the virtual space and will help with the transitions we may need to make in this school year. The use of tools such as these also enables students to share their work with a larger audience, bringing in opportunities for global collaboration through these platforms.

3. Providing feedback: Being able to give students timely and authentic feedback is critical for learning. It is also important that our students be able to provide peer feedback and develop their skills of communicating and collaborating with their classmates. Some of the tools that help this give students the opportunity to build confidence in learning and be able to share through voice or video or combination are Flipgrid, Synth, Anchor, and Kialo Edu. With Flipgrid, educators can even explore topics in the Disco Library for students to use as a  PBL focus and with the  features, students have many options for sharing their learning. Through Kialo Edu, students have a space to ask questions, engage in discussions and exchange ideas.

4. Backchannel discussions: Having a space where students can continue to share their ideas beyond the class period is important. Using digital tools for backchannel discussions not only removes the time and space limitations on conversations but also helps students to build essential digital citizenships skills as well. Some tools that are easy to get started with are Backchannelchat, Padlet, YO teach! Each of these promote asynchronous as well as synchronous conversations and are good for promoting communication during the learning  process.

5. Products of learning: It is important for students to have choices when it comes to sharing what they have learned, especially for creating something to share with a public audience. Leveraging some of the different digital options out there will give students choices such as blogs, infographics, podcasts, videos, and interactive, multimedia class presentations. Students can create a multimedia presentation using Buncee and then all students can share their work on a Buncee board, with the ability to comment and give feedback. Using a tool like Nearpod, students can include additional content such as virtual trips, polls, collaborative discussion boards and more. With options such as WeVideo or even Screencastify,  students can create a video to share what they have learned and use their work as a teachable resource for others.

6. Reflections, revisions and project workflow: It is also important to provide students with a space to work through the different phases of PBL and develop a system for project management and working through feedback.  The use of tools like Google Forms to submit ideas, voice recordings within Google documents or Microsoft OneNote are quite helpful. In addition to these, there are larger platforms available for an all–in-one PBL work. Headrush is a PBL management system that enables teachers to provide a space for students to design their learning journey. Through Headrush, students have access to task boards, to-do lists, and can create a digital portfolio full of artifacts of their PBL work. Teachers can provide ongoing feedback for students and keep the discussion going regardless of where learning is happening.

Asking students for feedback about the methods we use and the tools we bring into our classroom is also important. One student shared this with me after our recent PBL experience during school closures: “Using different digital tools helped me to really understand and see what school is like in other countries. Being able to connect and ask questions directly to students my own age helped me to sculpt my project in a way unlike anything I have experienced.”

It is all about having choices. Promoting student choice and voice through PBL and leveraging the digital tools available will engage students in more authentic and personalized learning experiences regardless of where learning is actually taking place.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.


A Path to Higher Education and Employment for Refugees

There are at least 70 million displaced people worldwide. Almost half are young people–and few of them have any chance of going to college and gaining innovation economy employment. Chrystina Russell and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) are changing that.

Almost a thousand refugees in five countries are enrolled in SNHU degree programs–two thirds are taking classes and a third are in internship programs. An astounding 90% of the scholars are on track to graduate.

Dr. Russell is Executive Director of Global Education Movement (GEM), SNHU’s commitment to serving refugees with a flexible, free, applied degree pathway.

With 135,000 online learners, SNHU is one of the largest universities in the world. For the last decade SNHU has been working on a self-paced asynchronous curriculum. Working adults in the US have benefited from accelerated degree completion with the program for more than five years. A 19 year old Los Angeles learner recently finished a BA in an extended high school program using the curriculum.

By completing 60 projects, learners develop and demonstrate key workplace competencies. Learners receive expert feedback on their projects and resubmit them until they have achieved mastery. Some of the expert reviewers are SNHU graduates in Rwanda.

As outlined in the GEM Annual Report, the program is active in refugee camps in five countries: Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi, South Africa, and Lebanon.

In Rwanda, 95% of the students have graduated and 88% received job placement. Graduates earn more than double the income of their peers. Across all sites, 941 refugees have earned A.A. degrees and 491 have earned B.A. degrees. It is the largest humanitarian effort to extend higher education access to refugee camps.

Before SNHU, Russell was Chief Academic Officer at Kepler in Rwanda. She spent a decade as a teacher and founder of an innovative middle school in New York City. She credits the success she’s had since on the leadership development, the can-do attitude, and data-driven innovation opportunity she had in the NYC iZone.

Seed funding from Audacious Project over the past two years sponsored the GEM program in five countries. There is huge demand for the program, with thousands of applicants for each seat.

They are seeking funding to scale their solution to 15 countries over the next five years, lowering the cost of the degree, and enabling over 16,000 refugees across 23 sites to improve their futures.

Similarly, University of the People currently enrolls thousands of refugees and will be launching a new degree program in Arabic to meet increasing demand. This degree offering will provide refugees an American, accredited two-year Associate Degree in Business Administration, which can be their first step to earning a bachelor’s degree.

For more, see:


Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

This blog was previously posted on Forbes.


5 Ways PBL Set A Clearer Vision for My Career Aspirations

By: Taylor Silveira

After graduating from High Tech High North County (HTHNC), which is a part of the High Tech High network of public – charter schools based in San Diego, California, I frequently reflect about the invaluable lessons that are unique to the project-based learning methodology.

As a first-year undergraduate student at the University of California Los Angeles, I engage in conversations with others who attended public and private high schools. Most students are indecisive about choosing their major when they begin college, lacking information about themselves and their career paths.

Students are forced through the K-12 traditional curriculum in which academic mastery is achieved through test-taking and have much less time to pursue their own interests, instead, focusing on improving their ability to retain and regurgitate information for taking tests. Students’ time is consumed with busy work and following instructions. Students’ educational endeavors are narrowed down to a competitive based grading system, ranking a student’s performance in comparison to their peers.

High achieving students obtain great pride from shallow achievements, such as enrolling in many honors and Advanced Placement courses and earning A’s. If the implied message of our schooling system is: “if you follow instructions and do exactly as you are told,” kids who embody this will abandon developing responsibility and self-direction in their own education.

There is a necessity for the implementation of project-based learning, a curriculum design that allows for a framework with expected learning outcomes, within that design, students can achieve these outcomes by incorporating their areas of specific interest to pursue.

Many proponents of PBL in education often reevaluate how to best define common sense in academia that prepares students to pursue meaningful careers, combined with developing the appropriate skill set that benefits the economy of tomorrow. In the world of education today, pragmatic content, strategies, and guidance that’s in correlation with the realities of the workforce isn’t being imposed.

1. Learning environment that embraces failure and continues despite it

At High Tech High, when the final product for a project wasn’t completed on time or executed correctly, we would circle back to elaborate clearly on our incompetencies through the reflection process. Failure is inevitable throughout an individual’s life if the purpose of education is to learn then experiencing a lack of success is essential towards improvement.

In traditional schooling, students are taught strategies focused on preventing failure from occurring. Yet the innovation-based economy needs creative, out of the box thinking citizens to produce quality work. Innovation is derived from the process of constant trial and error to problem solve through creation. Project-based learning adopts John Dewey’s educational philosophy of failure and pragmatism, that is “failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”

2. Integrated learning curriculum

For students to answer complex questions about our world, it’s important to make connections between core academic subjects and their relation to personal experiences. Interdisciplinary understanding fuses English, history, art, science, math, and language together. The world doesn’t consequently solve problems in a discipline-specific manner. In a project-based learning setting, you can analyze the diverse sets of inquiry and methods each subject offers. Combining the approaches towards solving problems through the lens of a scientist, historian, or artist’s perspective allows for designing real-world projects that have a lasting impact.

In my coursework and involvement with organizations and companies, I understand the purposeful crossover in skills and knowledge associated with each of these steps that are taken.

3. Engaging in depth over breadth on important concepts and issues

Incorporating deeper learning is essential to project-based learning, placing an emphasis on thinking more than knowing. In order to truly learn something, it must be accomplished by the act of doing. Consuming information to prepare for a test and receive a decent grade is one proposition, nonetheless, if a student is tasked with creating something of value and importance it cultivates a “sense of satisfaction.” When depth is encouraged students can exercise their ability to think and tackle some of our most pressing issues. Students can build on research skills and strengthen their learning of the applied content which goes beyond memorizing information and facts.

4. Development of soft skills in a technical world

Ethics of oral communication that sets organizations and companies up for success relates to employees’ proficiency in soft skills. In a high-tech world, project-based learning addresses the soft skills that are lacking and in high demand, including conveying poor performance, understanding motivations, listening, talking straight, and sharing perspectives. Students have ideas that capture their attention and delve more into this by learning and doing. However, the ability to communicate and articulate the ideas and data in a way that’s understandable to others is crucial — especially to those who could use and apply that information.

5. Academic internships and work experience Throughout my time spent at High Tech High, students were encouraged to pursue internship opportunities. Students would often sort out their career interests efficiently because they were on the ground. Lessons that are integral in project-based learning can be transferred to performance tasks joined with real-world careers. Workplace experience complements your coursework and provides another avenue of learning. These experiences in the professional world can even lead to paid internships/jobs with respectable companies after graduating high school as it did so for me.

Project-based learning engages students in the journey of learning through attempting to solve real-world problems through research, comprehension, presentation, and collaboration skills. Students are called to have authentic thought, reflection, and questions to produce meaningful work. We need to equip citizens with 21st-century skills where people can work together to achieve a common goal and “make a difference.”


Scaling Active Learning: Professional Development Was Key to the El Paso Transformation

By: Shannon Buerk

On the relatively smooth transition to remote learning, “The most important factor was the active learning training for 4,000 El Paso teachers,” said Juan Cabrera, superintendent of El Paso Independent School District (EPISD).

For the last five years, EPISD has been laser-focused on a districtwide rollout of active learning, which serendipitously preceded this past spring’s unexpected turn of events. Through the relentless and wholesale implementation of the Active Learning Framework (ALF), SEL, and digital equity—powered by an investment in job-embedded coaching for every El Paso ISD educator—the ‘pain’ of transformation was spread over time.

That effort might seem like a major undertaking in itself. Now consider this undertaking in the context of 55,000 K-12 students distributed across 86 campuses. Imagine being at the helm of a large, multicultural urban school district. The challenges are many: socioeconomic, linguistic, neurodivergent. What logistical steps would be necessary to ensure a successful transition to active learning?

The leadership and staff of El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) navigated such a transition in these circumstances. When Cabrera was appointed to the role of superintendent in 2013, he arrived at a district in crisis. He immediately focused on laying the foundation for a different future. As part of the EPISD 2020 Strategic Plan, which initiated the shift to active learning, his team held town hall meetings to uncover a ‘graduate profile’—precisely what EPISD students should be able to know and do when they cross the stage at their high school graduation.

The response: “We want graduates to be creative problem solvers.”

Based on the feedback from these early community conversations, EPISD leadership defined five distinct goals that serve as pillars of their graduate profile.

Connecting the dots between articulating these goals and successfully implementing a new model in thousands of classrooms necessitated a strong partnership and that partner ended up being engage2learn. In 2015, I met Superintendent Cabrera, and he discussed the vision for active learning from the community, their Board of Trustees, and the district itself. Scaling any initiative successfully involves building internal capacity, and the processes that underpin it. e2L has experience in this area, and believed we could assist in accelerating their vision into a reality for every learner in El Paso. Our resulting partnership generated an inspirational plan for implementation:

  1. Design a framework for Active Learning.
  2. Develop a five-year responsible rollout plan.
  3. Provide training and job-embedded coaching for every EPISD educator.

Together, we worked to assemble a design team of representatives from every district department. These EPISD staff members streamlined all of their initiatives into a single, unique learning framework suited for every El Paso ISD student. The EPISD Active Learning Framework was born.

Planning efforts were thorough to ensure that the ALF was the one thing that would integrate all of the district initiatives, provide the opportunity for students to acquire the Student Learning Outcomes in EPISD 2020, would be built on e2L Best Practices for student achievement and would result in the engagement, growth and college and career readiness that all EPISD students deserve. However, in many ways, the work had only just begun. Here’s how we partnered with EPISD’s leadership to put active learning into practice.

Professional Development as a Cultural Catalyst

Cabrera and his team sought to change the El Paso learner experience through a massive talent transformation. They understood that building internal capacity and investing in enhancing the craft of the educators in their district would be paramount to this effort.

They crafted a Responsible Rollout Plan, but needed a way to support teachers, instructional coaches and leaders through its implementation. During the design of the district’s ALF, EPISD leaders recognized that one-time professional development wouldn’t usher in the intended change in classroom practices. As a result, Cabrera and his team invested in job-embedded coaching for all of the EPISD teachers and campus leaders through e2L.

They also invested in coaching active learning leaders, to build internal capacity that would support the framework’s implementation for years after our partnership had concluded. Following E.M. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation Theory, we devised a five-year plan to support EPISD teachers and campus leaders in making the transition to the Active Learning Framework through a massive professional learning effort, in which two feeder patterns of campuses (approximately 1,000 teachers per year) received training and seven sessions of individualized, job-embedded coaching to implement the EPISD ALF as the instructional model in every classroom.

As illustrated below, the majority of the coaching shifted through a gradual release process so that EPISD’s own active learning leaders coached teachers in the 2018-2019 school year.

Positive student outcomes were visible early on. In 2016—the first year of the framework implementation—learner engagement increased and there was a double-digit difference in standardized test scores in active learning classrooms. In year two, the framework feeder patterns showed enough growth that the overall district scores trend turned positive, and EPISD received the third most distinctions in the state of Texas.

This student growth was due to every teacher, leader, and mentor receiving training and individualized coaching to create an equity of learner experience districtwide. Teachers are growing in the e2L Life Ready Best Practices, which in return promotes student growth in academic and life ready skills.

Crystal Johnston, an EPISD mentor, believed that the program had a significant impact in her experience guiding teachers. “Coaching enabled me to be more intentional with my goals as a leader. It has helped me be more purposeful by integrating initiatives and collaborating with teachers to make connections.”

Infrastructure as a Driver of Change

“One of the reasons we made sure every child, regardless of their zip code or financial situation, was able to receive a laptop was because of equity. We wanted to guarantee that this playing field was completely leveled for every child in the district.” – Juan Cabrera, superintendent, EPISD

In its change management efforts, EPISD sought out other successful active learning models, including Houston’s Power Up initiative. They planned to provide tools, resources and training to support blended and personalized learning for both students and teachers. The targeted outcomes: to increase student engagement and bolster personalized learning, both of which can yield higher achievement and completion rates. The active learning model they embraced empowers students to create and curate engaging projects and experiences.

EPISD’s PowerUp movement began in 2015 with five teachers and a principal determined to change the educational landscape. In early discussions, they evaluated suitable technology and device management services to both serve students’ needs and ensure that the investment would be a lasting one. In summer 2017, the district distributed 15,000 MacBook Airs to students in grades six through nine. Now, all EPISD students in grades six through eleven have MacBooks.

Equipment aside, maintaining an equitable experience for all students required some unconventional thinking and investment outside of EPISD schools’ four walls. The district’s leadership recognized that many of its students’ homes weren’t equipped with internet access. To mitigate the lack of this resource, they placed WiFi hotspots in strategic locations throughout El Paso.

It may not come as a surprise that Juan Cabrera was recently named the 2020 Superintendent of the Year in his region for his outstanding achievements and excellence as a public-school administrator. Thanks to his leadership and to the dedication of his team, the district is now one of the most admired in the country.

In recent months, its students have thrived despite the sudden transition to remote learning—a scenario which EPISD teachers and students seemed uniquely poised to handle, given their active learning environment, fluency with technology and familiarity with project-based learning.

The road ahead has its own challenges, but Cabrera is confident in the ability of his district and the local community being able to surmount them. “El Paso is resilient and knows how to persevere.”

For more, see:


Shannon Buerk is CEO of engage2learn and has 28 years of K-12 experience. Follow her on Twitter

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.