Students Work To UnTextbook Their Learning

What happens when young people are given a chance to make a difference? We’ve seen time and time again students rising to the occasion to change the world for good, working to make a more just and equitable future.  

Recently, this global trend towards difference making  has manifested in a new podcast, UnTextbooked. This podcast, led by The History Co:Lab (formerly known as got history?), a systems change organization, brought together a group of young people and historians to have conversations that seek to change the way young people engage with history. It’s about a dynamic relationship with history, not a static one that lives inside a textbook and not a narrative largely shaped by a single culture.

The hosts are teenagers from across America, and they interview professional historians to find answers to the big questions of today. Each episode features one teen podcaster, one book, and one historian and is framed around a timely and relevant question chosen by the young podcaster, including “Does America live up to its own ideals?” and “Germany addressed its racist past. Can America do the same?”  

The future is going to belong to the people who care about it. Our nation will be what we — and increasingly you — decide it will be, and anything I can do to help you prepare yourselves to decide well is my pleasure and my honor.

General Stanley McChrystal

Got History’s founder, Fernande Raine, marveled at the talent of the production team: “Grownups have been talking about the need for better history for decades.  I’m thrilled to see this podcast unleashing the power of amazing young people to actually get it done.”

“I’ve gotten to meet so many cool people,” said Sydne Clarke during a podcast interview. “In terms of what I’ve learned from the stories of my other producers and the great people who have also been a part of this project, I’ll never forget it […] everyone, at least once in their life, should get involved with different people from different backgrounds and different stories just to gain new perspectives, because truly you do learn a lot.”

Talk about difference making and student voice!

As is the Getting Smart way, we love to ask “What If?” questions about the future of learning. This podcast brought a few to mind:

  • What if we centered history curriculum around big questions that young people were curious about?
  • What if young people were engaged with active historians who were sharing new perspectives, findings and learnings from our recent and distant histories?

“The future is going to belong to the people who care about it. Our nation will be what we — and increasingly you — decide it will be, and anything I can do to help you prepare yourselves to decide well is my pleasure and my honor,” said former Joint Special Operations Commander (JSOC) General Stanley McChrystal

UnTextbooked recently won the 2021 Spotify Next Wave Award, an award for student podcasters with outstanding platforms, podcasts and commentary. Together, this diverse group of young learners is not only “making history unboring” but leaving a more accurate, and loving history in their wake.


Real World Learning About Sustainability

It’s important that we find opportunities for our students to engage in meaningful and authentic learning experiences. There are many options for us to do this through methods such as genius hour, project-based learning or problem-based learning which give students the chance to drive their learning through the power of choice. With these methods, we promote more independence and student choice in learning while also boosting student engagement as students explore and learn about topics of interest or something that sparks curiosity.

A few years ago we started with project-based learning (PBL) in my Spanish classes and part of our focus was on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. (SDGs) which are 17 goals set forth in 2015 with hopes to meet these goals by 2030. Some of the goals focus on helping to reverse damage done by climate change, work toward the elimination of poverty, facilitate the creation of healthy waterways, develop sustainable cities and communities, to name a few. With the SDGs as a focus, students can engage in meaningful real-world projects where they learn to identify a global problem and act locally.

The importance of giving students opportunities like this is to help them understand how they can effect change in the world that will benefit them and others in the future. I spoke with Steve Sostak, educator and founder of Inspire Citizens about the importance of bringing this type of learning into our classrooms. Steve said: “Education for sustainable development and global citizenship enables learners to build the future-focused cognitive skills and dispositions that shape a healthier self, society, and planet. When we take this transformative learning and combine it with imagining our schools as local community centers, students can purposefully apply interdisciplinary learning to co-create a wiser and more compassionate world together.”

Jacob Bennett inside pod at Riverview

When students truly care about an issue, make decisions about their learning path and reflect on that learning, they develop empathy and it also fosters the development of social-emotional learning (SEL) skills. As students build social awareness by connecting with community members and learning about challenges that impact the people and the world around them, they better understand the world they live in and the importance of working together to help others. As students design and work through their own projects, it helps them to develop SEL skills of self-awareness and self-management. Our students need to have an understanding of the world around them beyond their community and by connecting them with meaningful opportunities to make an impact, it will amplify their learning potential and prepare them for whatever the future holds.

Focusing on the SDGs is a way to help students and educators problem solve, communicate, and collaborate about ways that they can implement a project or take action for the world. Every teacher in any grade level or content area can find a way to bring learning about the SDGs into the classroom for the students. In my experience using project-based learning with my Spanish classes, looking at challenges faced in Spanish-speaking countries and finding those same challenges or similar challenges locally, made a tremendous impact on students. The phrase “Think global, act local” has become quite familiar around the world. When we look at these global issues it helps us to become more aware of the issues being faced by members of our own local community and take action.

We have the means between the technology available to us to do the research to explore ideas and to communicate with one another to bring in these real-world, purposeful learning experiences for our students.. Since we are helping to prepare students for the future, it makes sense that we prepare them to face challenges that exist in the world and come up with solutions for them. To find alternate ways of providing food to avoiding poverty to having sustainable cities for example.

Caden Smith and Jacob Bennett working in the pod

Real-world learning in my school

At the start of this school year, my school, Riverview Junior-Senior High School in Oakmont, PA became involved in something that has been a truly meaningful learning experience that will benefit the community and offer authentic learning for students. A few years ago, we had a small hydroponics unit inside a classroom that students worked with. In 2019, the school applied for and received a grant to install a full hydroponic grow pod system outside of the school. One of our teachers, Mr. Michael MacConnell with the help of several students, works in the pod each day and takes care of the plants, cleaning and maintaining the pod.

With experiences such as these, students learn about sustainability through hands-on work. They learn about science and how what they are doing can impact their community and even the world. They are continuing to build on it and they have plans to grow a few thousand plants each month and potentially partner with a local food bank to donate produce. During this process students are learning about real world application of food production, working together on how to solve problems such as lack of food. Students are developing skills of collaboration, problem-solving, time management, critical thinking and engaging in something that is truly unique and more personalized to them. Principal Eric Hewitt is impressed by the work that students are doing. He adds “Work around sustainability is important to our society in general. Getting experience as a high school student puts young people in a great position to move into these careers.

Impact on learning

Educators may wonder why it is important to get kids involved in SDG projects and what the benefits are. MacConnell says that he “finds it very important that students learn about the food supply system. What they think is local and fresh can be from a different state or even country and has created so many greenhouse gasses to get to where it was located.” Looking at learning about the SDGS, MacConnell believes that the “sustainability goals set forth by the UN are a great guide for teachers to teach globalism.” He asks himself “What can I show my students that can make an impact on the world? It’s the small practices they can do in their everyday lives that will drive consumer spending and ultimately company practices.”

Principal Hewitt adds “When you work on a project in the classroom, you rarely get to see how that work is connected to anything else. The Grow-pod project allows students to see a bigger picture. They are not just growing plants but making connections to ensure that the food is being used—connecting with food service and seeing the fruits of their labor being served in our own cafeteria.  That experience expands their vision and helps them see how their work fits in the larger scale of a system.”

Rylee Singhose working with the plants

So what do students think?

Jacob Bennett, a ninth-grader – “I like working in the pod because I like planting.  I like to get my hands dirty”

Caden Smith, an eighth-grader– “I love being in the unit as much as I can.  I like working with my hands and am learning so much.”

Wendy Derry (Aide) – “The impact I see is when the students watch the seeds sprout, grow larger, care for the plant’s needs, and then harvest it for the school to use in the cafeteria.  The whole process is engaging, exciting, and educational for our students.”

Resources to learn more

MacConnell has some suggestions for schools looking to get started with a similar program. He says “We were excited to get a big project like this funded and implemented. Money is out there to help with sustainable spaces/practices. I think it’s important to start small…this year the ecology club and I will be starting a recycling program for the school that will eventually lead to composting and less waste.”

Sostak shared that for educators beginning to take first steps into understanding and using the SDGs, he highly recommends these resources: Flourish Project: SDGs for the Early Years, the Good Life Goals Pack of Actions and the Inspire Citizens Design Sprint which is an excellent tool to explore in designing learning experiences that embed concepts related to sustainability.

We can help students to look at some of the challenges that are faced in the world today and think about how they can be part of the solution. When we empower students to explore solutions, to think critically, to collaborate, and to engage in learning in which they can apply skills they’re learning from different classes, it promotes authentic, real-world experiences that will best prepare them for the future. It shows that we are all in this together.

Related Articles

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Could Be Our Standards 

Think Global Act Local: How to Embed SDGs in Your School and Community

Green School Infuses Nature-based Learning for Sustainable Education


Flipping the Script: A Case Study in Student Agency and Youth Entrepreneurship

“Artists need some kind of stimulating experience a lot of times, which crystallizes when you sing about it or paint it or sculpt it. You literally mold the experience the way you want. It’s therapy.”

— Erykah Badu

“It was the weekend and I was in the studio, and there was a blank canvas in front of me. The fear was exhilarating, and I remember being in that room and turning on Erykah Badu and being in that space alone. The song was Other Side of the Game. I hear this powerful bass line and then Badu’s voice reverberates through my entire body. It was such an important moment. It was crazy because right there I realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, this is who I want to be, I want to be in my own studio painting, telling my story. I think about that moment every day, it reminds me to keep moving, to get this for myself, to get my hustle on.”

–Eseroghenerukevwe (Ese) Faith Ovbagbedia reflecting on a moment that occurred during her Senior Capstone journey. 

During the 2020-21 school year, like millions of youth around the world, Eseroghenerukevwe (Ese) Faith Ovbagedia embarked on a very different kind of senior year. She paired that experience with a personal and educational journey all her own in the Art Culture and Community Capstone course at Hawai’i Preparatory Academy. Ese’s Capstone product was a series of two paintings titled Shades of Brown. These 70×50 inch paintings in acrylic, displayed a woman of color’s body being manipulated and molded by hands. The hands represent how society shapes and impacts how women’s bodies, especially women of color, are viewed and judged. Along with her art pieces, Ese also created a digital brand and marketplace for her work.

To me education is not as powerful if it doesn’t impact who you are as a human being, if it doesn’t give us [students] the opportunity to explore who we are and our process. We need to flip the script on schools.

Eseroghenerukevwe (Ese) Faith Ovbagedia

Knowledge of Self

Ese grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. She shared, “In Lagos, hustle is the most important word – that word really built the foundation of who I am and who I am becoming. There is this drive in my people, and this is a huge super power for me. My father is a lawyer, my mother started her own business, and I could see them grow as people and I could see that hustle-nature in my parents. This sets an example for what I can do, and that I can manifest my dreams into realities.” Over the course of the school year, Ese consistently tapped into her identity and story to develop her project. She states, “I’m still discovering who I am, but I can tell you now that I am a Nigerian, I am an artist, that we are all artists releasing our creativity in different ways. The Capstone process really helped me to do and see that.”

It was vital that Ese and other Capstone seniors were given time and space to work on their learning process. Ese was given time and a framework to engage in multiple cycles of ideation, research, project management, product development, and presentation. In a beautiful essay, Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator, writes that, “The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself… The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not ‘think up’ but ‘notice’.” Ese was able to utilize her skills and life experiences to represent two problems that impacted her directly: colorism and body shaming.This ultimately led to her project becoming so much more than something to complete for school. Ese shares, “To me education is not as powerful if it doesn’t impact who you are as a human being, if it doesn’t give us [students] the opportunity to explore who we are and our process. We need to flip the script on schools.”

Ese's painting

An Extension of Oneself

Ese writes, “Because my capstone was something I found myself working on constantly outside of class, it became a part of my life in a sense that it’s not just school anymore, it’s real. At first when I started the Capstone course honestly it was like yeah this is school work, but then once it tapped into this huge part of me and my identity it became an extension of myself. When you are creating something that powerful, it no longer feels like an educational trap.” By building out an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) that broke down the many steps that went into her art and digital storytelling, Ese was able to produce a legacy and guide for other students to follow. To coin a term used by educator Ron Berger, Ese was able to create an “artifact of excellence” that functions as an example, an inspiration, and a standard for Capstone products at HPA. Most importantly, Ese’s product and vision live on in her brand and business, and the love she has for her craft continues to grow. Ese is now at Loyola Marymount University as a Studio Arts major.

Ese’s journey is a case study in how rooting education in the identities and life experiences of learners can build up their confidence and sense of belonging. She reflects, “The whole project showed me what I can do, that I am capable of creating a life-size piece of work and sharing it with the world. It showed me that I have a voice, and I can use it, and I should use it. It showed me that people want to hear my story and want to learn more about my culture and my identity. It gave me this room to realize that a lot of people have a voice, and I have something to say, and it gave me that platform to release in a creative way. I’m proud that I was able to make adjustments, to give myself a break when I needed to, proud of my time management, and extremely proud to turn it into something bigger. I’m really proud to embody the hustle of my family.”


Bringing Project-Based Mentors into The Educational Fold

By: Patty Alper

I have developed and written about something I call Project Based Mentoring®. It is both new, and as old as time… What is it? What people does it help? And How?

Essentially, this idea, this methodology, is about knowledge transfer. But this is not knowledge from an educator, a theoretician, or a book – rather it is knowledge transferred from an expert in the field, a hands-on practitioner. The idea is simple: “learning from doers and learning by doing.”

Project Based Mentoring® puts a project at the center of an intergenerational relationship, where a student is the project’s leader, where the student executes to a master plan, where the student navigates real-world obstacles,  and presents their findings – all while having a mentor/practitioner by their side who is experienced and from a like field.

This is a win/win for each constituent.

For a Student/Mentee, they are learning to think critically in a real-world environment. They are learning to plan and forecast, and to design actionable steps to a deadline. They are learning to collaborate and to experience the pains of their hypothesis gone awry. They are learning to present and defend their body of work to an audience of peers and professionals. Essentially, they are learning how to project-lead, but with guidance. At the end of 6 months or a year, they have a true accomplishment, a new confidence, a mentor’s endorsement, and a set of transferable skills that can be applied to a 21st-Century work environment.

Tim Kautz and James J. Heckman researched what they call non-cognitive skills, such as character, motivation, and goals – considered extremely valuable traits in the labor market. They found that the most successful non-cognitive skills are taught under mentoring environments (James Heckman and Tim Kautz, “Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions That Improve Character and Cognition,” National Bureau of Economic Research (2013).) Moreover, students exposed to mentorship programs have the distinct advantage of an “experiential education,” which has been shown to engender a complete learning experience for students. (Laura Joplin, “On Defining Experiential Education,” Journal of Experiential Education, 4, no. 1 (1981): 17.)

As I report under “Relevant Research” below, NFTE has performed its own studies of mentorship programs and found students exposed to a mentorship program outperformed unmentored classmates in numerous ways, including their comfort level in speaking, career-related knowledge and skills obtained, and the perception students have of the educational program.

For the Practitioner/Mentor, they are becoming an educator; they are learning to communicate simply, to manage expectations and disappointments, to share real-world experiences and be a motivator. Within the corporate world, mentorship is viewed as a form of management training, confidence building. The HR departments have also found that a positive culture shift happens when employee mentors bring this community experience back to the work environment. As well, HR is said to gain more millennial job applicants who prefer to work at a ‘do-good’ company that is not just profit-driven. Mentorship roles are known to build pipelines not only into STEM industries, but also to build a pipeline of new employees. Essentially, mentorship is creating community connections, and community educators.

Geriatric Psychiatrist Dr. Gene Cohen suggests that intergenerational support offers clear health benefits to the mentor—even if they are older or retired. An opportunity to do something with a common creative goal, and to bring together a rich diversity of perspective, makes the blended experience uniquely rich and motivating. One benefit for the mentor is a psychological reward—for being engaged and sharing your knowledge, and another is practical—in having a purpose, a schedule, and a value. “The benefits often extend far from the origin of the collaboration,” he says. (Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D, “The Creative Age,” William Morrow Paperbacks, 2001).

How did I arrive at this conclusion and methodology?

Through philanthropic interests, I was first introduced to NFTE, where I still sit on their national board. Back in 2001, I proposed to this nonprofit a new pilot called Adopt-a-Class. The thinking was: how can practitioners like me offer insights to youth without disrupting the classroom or the teacher? The core concept was: wouldn’t kids like hearing about my trials in building a construction company as a female entrepreneur? So, I was the first guinea pig mentor.

For 20+ years now, I have continued to mentor inner-city youth on developing business plans and taking their businesses to market. I have fostered close to 1000 students over the course of that time, working with 30-40 in a class for a full year each. I have 1000s of letters from my mentees, sharing their gratitude and their motivation to stay in business as a result of our time together. To expand the model, I wrote a 200-page plan on how to operate Adopt-a-Class, and saw the plan accelerate to 12 regions across America. I brought countless mentors to the NFTE classes in the Maryland, DC, and Virginia marketplace.

I was so excited about the impact the program had on my students and my fellow mentors that I wrote a book about it: Teach to Work: How a Mentor, A Mentee, and A Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America– expanding such that projects in all fields can be applied to this mentorship model, not just business. Others have been interested in how to bring together the corporate and academic sectors—in STEM, Cyber, Communications, Design—a host of fields.

 To that end, I have written countless articles, the ideas have been covered in major news outlets, (Washington Post, NYTimes, Forbes, and Philanthropy Magazine, to name a few). I have numerous podcasts and radio interviews preaching the gospel of  Project-Based-Mentorship ®. As well, I have been a consultant to post-secondary schools on developing corporate mentorship programs. And, lastly, I have been an invited speaker/author within the corporate world, the educational sector, for non-profit organizations as well as state-run education programs.

Relevant Research

NFTE wanted to know how its mentored students fared compared to classmates that were not being mentored. In an abbreviated study only within one region10 NFTE schools and 221 students were tested (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship Survey by the Research and Evaluation Department (2014). NFTE found the following:

  • The mentored students increased their self-confidence in public speaking (77% versus 63% of non-mentored students).
  • The mentored students were more likely to want to own their own business (87% versus 75% non-mentored students).
  • 93% of the mentored students believed they had the ability to run their own business, versus 70% of non-mentored students.
  • 83% believed the things their course taught them would help them if they chose a career in business, versus 68% of non-mentored students.
  • 71% gave the course high ratings, versus 46% of non-mentored students.
  • 60% reported having higher class engagement, versus 45% of non-mentored students.

In another study, Dr. Susan S. Harmeling, who holds a doctorate from the Darden School at the University of Virginia, undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Business School, has reported similar findings. Her doctoral research has shown that students who are exposed to effective mentoring can be transported to what Harmeling calls “new worlds.” (Susan Harmeling (2011) “Re-Storying an Entrepreneurial Identity: Education, Experience and Self- Narrative,” Education and Training  8/9.) The way Harmeling describes it, many students she encountered in her study of more than sixty inner-city NFTE students (from multiple states in the Northeast/mid-Atlantic corridor) are embedded in a particular, often disadvantaged reality she calls “Place A,” and although they may be exposed to “Place B” (a more desirable reality) on television or at the movies, in their minds getting to that place is unrealistic or unachievable for them. (Susan Harmeling, S Sarasvathy (2013) “When Contingency is a Resource: Educating Entrepreneurs in the Balkans, the Bronx and Beyond,” Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice 37.)

When those students are exposed to an adult mentor, however, one with a proven track record who is also accessible to them, a bridge suddenly appears between the two realities.  A bridge between Place A and Place B opens possibilities. The mentor may be a success but not necessarily a star. The mentor is human, not superhuman, as he or she shares a personal trajectory incorporating struggles, missteps, dead ends, and painful disappointments. Once the students hear a real person’s life story, they can envision a new path for themselves. The story evokes the thought, “If he can do it, why can’t I?”

Why is this important in education today?

In its Great Jobs Great Lives study Gallup concluded that when six key factors are experienced by graduates during college, it doubled their odds of being engaged in their work and having a greater sense of wellbeing later in life. (Great Jobs Great Lives: The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report (Washington, D.C.: Gallup, 2014), accessed February 1, 2016, https://www.luminafoundation.org/files/resources/galluppurdueindex-report-2014.pdf.) Gallup’s research, in my mind, dictates new educational priorities for better preparing youth for their future. Building on Gallup’s research and my own personal experiences and research, I’ve found that four factors can make a world of difference:

1. Incorporating the community and industry to help develop curriculum, teach educators on field-related requirements, and to integrate industry to better prepare youth for the jobs of tomorrow.

2. The critical importance of youth interfacing with adults during their school years, and in particular the importance of a Mentor – an intergenerational role model whose role is to support a student’s goals and dreams. This Mentor is to be a sounding board, a ballast, and a center for values and clarity. As well, the Mentor is a true practitioner from the real world and as such, offers real-world, practical guidelines. A Mentor plays the role of devil’s advocate and gently pushes against probabilities, all the while holding a mentee to task, and to timely completion.

3. The importance of applying what you are learning to a long-term Project. This type of learning is based not just on theory but on real-world experience. Within project development, a student starts from their own understanding of the world and a need that should be met, employing critical thinking. Next, the Mentee takes ownership in seeing that concept grow to become a reality—and successful or not, the journey is owned and in real-time. Indeed, this project becomes an accomplishment that has met a deadline, has a hard-and-fast result and is defended through a formal oral presentation. These are the skills the business world seeks.

4. An Ability to Plan. I have written extensively about Project Based Mentoring® and marrying the above three critical educational facets—industry engagement, mentorship and projects. To these, I add one of the most critical skills that is rarely taught today—the ability to plan.

I contend that the business world, the management world, the finance world, the science world, the tech world, the art world—are all project-driven. As an employee, a manager, or a leader, you are graded on your promise, your actions, your outcome, and your delivery/presentation.

Rarely in education are our students taught how to think critically, and to plan.

One of my favorite books is “Homo Prospectus,” written by Dr. Martin Seligman, the Dean of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He writes, “The ability to anticipate and evaluate future possibilities for the guidance of thought and action is the cornerstone of human success.” Rather than focus on the therapies of the past, he shows how human prospection fundamentally reshapes our understandings. We are much more likely to be successful if we can anticipate and invest our time effectively and efficiently—it’s vital to how we manage in life. Two quick examples:

  • He suggests that food deprivation can give a creature hunger and an urge to eat—but anticipation can intelligently regulate enabling a creature to avoid hunger in the first place.
  • The same is true in competition: anticipating your competitor’s next step gives you a critical advantage.

I also believe Industry Engagement is critical because these are the employers of tomorrow. How can Educators prepare youth for an ever-changing economy if they don’t understand the newest needs of the 21st-century workforce? Industry and Academia need to align and revisit what requirements and skills are essential to succeed. Otherwise, educators are shooting in the dark, and youth will fall critically behind, be underemployed and unmotivated.

Project-Based Mentorship ® is a form of knowledge transfer. As learners take on new knowledge, there are myriad ways of inputs and outtakes. “Learning by Doing, Learning from Doers” taps into a practical, hands-on methodology. Here’s how, now you try. A mentor is not a judge, an authority, or a person that grades you—instead, the relationship mimics a respectful work relationship, a collaborator. A person with whom you can play devil’s advocate, ask questions and exchange ideas. In so many professional fields there are apprenticeships, fellowships; I’m suggesting this becomes a more broadened institutional method for learning –from true practitioners with field experience. Indeed, with 20+ years under my belt and countless student letters, I know we broaden a youth’s capacity to see themselves through a mentor’s eyes and to give them new confidence to try in the face of adversity. In other words, mentors are motivators.

Project Orientation is also critical. There is a whole school of educational best practices on Project Based Learning. It is designed to engage students in the investigation of authentic problems; it affects motivation in learning. Indeed, learning sticks when it is connected to something students understand to be important to their lives, something where they are truly invested. When others are always calling the shots and telling youth what to do, students feel powerless. But anyone willing to learn directly from reality, rather than complying with a widely accepted narrative, is in a position to innovate, critically think, expand on ideas, and be an active contributor.

As Aunt Addie Norton said in Singin’, Praisin’, Raisin’: “I tell you one thing-if you learn to do it yourself, if you have to get down and dig for it, it never leaves you. It stays there as long as you live because you had to dig it out of the mud.”

A mentor is not a judge, an authority, or a person that grades you—instead the relationship mimics a respectful work relationship, a collaborator.

Patty Alper

Research and Development – Why Corporations Participate

I have often been asked why corporations should expend the resources on mentorship programs—including programs that exist within their walls, and those that expand outwardly to the community. And in both cases, my answer is the same: because everyone, including the mentors, the mentees, and the corporation, will benefit. Employees will develop leadership skills and stronger working relationships, they will become part of something bigger, and they will grow professionally. And corporations will see more employee engagement, retention, happiness, and even increased community relations.

I can say this because over the course of my own 35-year career, as well as decades of hands-on mentoring myself, I personally witnessed the tremendous benefits. And then I started interviewing dozens of corporations and researching the value of mentorship within corporate cultures and communities, creating a mentorship program that was adopted nationally. I also spent countless hours researching and writing Teach to Work. I can attest to how careers and lives have been permanently changed, and how corporations have implemented programs only to find the positive ripple effect that touch nearly every aspect of the company’s business: profitability, employee satisfaction, corporate responsibility, hiring, and corporate image.

Project Based Mentoring Builds Character and Competency

Project Based Mentoring occurs when a mentor and mentee collaborate on a real-world project. And that collaboration lends itself to six important life lessons that embody the mentor/mentee bond.

One of the most important personality traits a mentor brings to the relationship is “if I did it – if I made it through all the struggles and bumps – you can, too.” A mentor shares the peaks and valleys in the road that she went through. And from that relationship, the mentee will also grow confidence in making it through peaks and valleys. To a mentee, the mentor is a tangible, humble, and accessible example of what success can look like. And nearly always, that success didn’t come without flaws and uncertainties. The ideal mentor illustrates that successful people learn how to persevere, and by sharing experiences with the mentee, the mentor builds the mentee’s perseverance.

Second, the ideal mentor suggests in some way, “I’m here to help you – you can count on me – AND, I’ll be back.” Mentor/mentee relationships last for months, years, and sometimes even lifetimes. I still keep in touch with mentees I first connected with over twenty years ago. When a mentee continues to come back for more mentoring, for support, and the mentor responds, the mentor communicates – without words – that people can be reliable. Some people do what they say they are going to do.

Third, a mentoring relationship gives direction. The mentor and mentee work together on projects, and the mentor provides the important perspective of experience: “here’s how I might do this – now what do you think?” This exchange offers skill development opportunities, and the courage to try. And it provides a map of what skills might need to be sharpened while completing the project.

Fourth, a mentoring relationship gives the rare opportunity to witness a healthy, give-and-take dialogue. When troubleshooting a project, the ideal mentor will ask difficult or provoking questions, or simply play devil’s advocate. Mentors may even probe whether a mentee has thought through certain scenarios. What the mentee learns is that workplace dialogues can have a back-and-forth, compromise, and even redirection, all while being respectful. This provides important feedback on how to interact in an office setting without alienating or harshly criticizing others.

The fifth aspect a mentor relationship offers is gentle accountability. A mentor is willing to stand in the role not as a mentee’s judge, and not as a boss. Instead, the mentor should be more like a consultant, a non-judgmental listener. The mentee should feel a slight accountablity – and his consultant, his mentor, wants to see him succeed.

Finally, an ideal mentor wants to hear what the mentee has to say. The mentor volunteers her time and resources to the relationship and through simply listening, makes the mentee feel heard. This simple act builds communications skills and confidence. It allows the mentee to be the leader in respectful intergenerational dialogue.

In summary, I have witnessed the magic that can happen when educators invite Project Based Mentorship® into their classroom. It can be transformative for the mentor and mentee, and it provides countless benefits for the educator and the corporation and the community where they reside together.

Patty Alper is president of the Alper Portfolio Group, a marketing and consulting company, and is a board member of both the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) and US2020, the White House initiative to build mentorship in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers.


Empower Online Learners: Top 10 Pro Tips for Project Design and Delivery

As we start a new school year, many of us have been thrust back into a digital space. And while it’s not ideal, it’s what we’ve got.

The question for us as we return shouldn’t be: ‘How many days until things ‘return’ to normal?’ But instead: ‘How do we best engage and empower our remote learners?’

Hybrid Learning IS the new normal. Many courageous educators have already experienced great success. And they are using meaningful, student-centered project-based experiences as their favorite weapon of choice. After working with 100+ teachers to design and develop these projects in a digital space, here are my top 10 tips for you in running yours:

Pro Tip #1: Stop Delivering Whole-Class Lessons Online: Make synchronous time for group presentations and check-ins

Simply put, we can’t engage an entire class the way we can F2F. Students have limited attention spans when staring at a screen. It’s far more effective to re-configure our online schedule to allow for ACTIVE learning experiences. We can conduct short group check-ins. Run feedback sessions for project work. Or do what Sara Lev did to gather ideas for her ‘Space Podcast’ project; follow students on tours of their home learning spaces to discover her class’ shared interests.

Pro Tip #2: Use Collaborative Tools for Group Work

Many teachers avoid group projects online because they feel they are too hard to manage. And while it is certainly more challenging, with the right project management tool, things are a lot easier. Alison Yang of KIS International used a digital Trello board for groups to post project work, divide tasks, track progress, and offer other group’s feedback on their CoVid-19 support projects. There was even a space for her to pose provocative questions to help propel each group forward. If you are a more advanced PBL teacher, you can turn over project management completely to students through Spinndle, an incredible project management system from Jacqueline Robillard and her team.

Pro Tip #3: Use Simple Digital Tools for Co-Creation

Keeping things as simple as possible for creation in the digital space will help ensure better results from students. Use platforms and tools students are already familiar with. If you are a G Suite school, keep things consolidated in that platform. If Microsoft- use Teams, and their suite of Apps. You can create BEAUTIFUL co-created products using simple tools. Alexa Lepp, a 5th-grade teacher used a simple Google Slidedeck to help students co-construct a class digital cookbook of recipes and family stories; Rob Livingston Shaw used SoundTrap to help students co-create soundtracks online for socially distanced spaces in his ‘Music for Spaces’ project.

Pro Tip #4: Co-Create Learning Experiences/Projects with other Teachers

Let’s face it, online teaching and learning can be pretty lonely and overwhelming. Sharing a project-based experience with another teacher helps things feel more connected and manageable. Make generating project ideas simple by using a collaborative padlet for co-creation. Here is a sample padlet of project ideas around CoVid-19 generated by groups of teachers according to subject. Feel free to add an idea of your own!

Pro Tip #5: Provide Hyperlinked Digital Study Guides/ Design Briefs

Many educators wrongfully assume that projects are not planned and that students magically become self-directed from the minute it is introduced. Projects require the same milestones and scaffolds as any other learning experience. Help lower the anxiety of your online learners by providing digital, hyperlinked study guides. Include the major project challenge, essential inquiry question, major deliverables, and a rough overview of due dates. Here is a sample study guide for an intergenerational playground project run by Alfie Chung of The Polytechnic University of Hong Kong.

Tip #6: Use ONE central online LMS

Imagine receiving 10+ emails daily from 10+ teachers, all with their own sets of expectations and requirements for the day. It’s no wonder several students don’t show up for online class meetings! Make things easier on students by using one LMS. A central LMS for all handouts, messages, updates, workflow, etc. in tandem with your digital study guides will ensure students don’t feel overwhelmed and stay caught up.

Pro Tip #7: Exhibit Work Regularly and Dynamically!

Several teachers begrudge the quality of work they are receiving from their remote learners. And while this may be due to online fatigue, a lot of it has to do with the fact that they simply don’t care. Make remote project work more meaningful by providing students a real, authentic audience to exhibit their work publicly to. You can do what McCall Elementary did in their ‘Black History Month’ project exhibitions, and set up Google Breakout Rooms for classroom presentations, or do what Mount Vernon High School did in their Performing Arts Project Showcase, and create a dynamic Virtual Museum!

Tip #8: Hold Optional ‘Project Co-Working’ Online Sessions

In the same way, several businesses prefer to work in dynamic, shared office space, many of our remote learners will elevate their engagement when working regularly alongside classmates. Hold opt-in project work sessions for students to work on their projects and share their work. Put on some light music in a mixed playlist that students co-curate, and hold fun ‘brain breaks’ for physical activities.

Pro Tip #9: Zoom in Project Experts

Imagine how exciting it would be for students if, during your space exploration project, they had the chance to chat with real NASA astronauts. Or in their class novel project, they got to Facetime with J.K. Rowling! That’s what Sarah Youngren, a 6th-grade Humanities Teacher plans to do to better engage and empower her students in developing their short stories. You can use experts for inspiration on student ideas, and/or use them as mentors to help critique and offer feedback on student work.

Pro Tip #10: Do the Project First!

Have you completed the projects you are asking students to do first? Doing projects first will allow you to predict the same pitfalls, frustrations, triumphs, and tribulations your students will undergo in project completion. It will also add an extra layer of credibility and trust between you and your class. For example, if you are asking students to publish their stories, try publishing something yourself first. If you are strapped for time, complete your own project alongside your students. Model the metacognitive process you go through when coming up with ideas, setting due dates, considering revisions, etc.

Where to Go from Here?

Which tip did you most resonate with? Got any tips of your own? Let me know and I will be sure to add them! And if you are looking for a simple step-by-step guide to designing, implementing, and assessing your PBL experience in the remote space, here is a simple course I created to help you get started. You can also get insights from fellow innovative practitioners in our ‘Transform Thru True PBL’ Facebook Community.

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Teaching Social Justice and Anti-Racism: 5 Engaging Project Ideas

The past two pandemic years have helped surface some glaring inequities between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ While the ‘haves’ experienced advanced medical care, the ability to work seamlessly from home and healthy meals delivered directly to their doorstep, the ‘have nots;’ a higher rate of COVID contraction, rising unemployment rates, and cramped one-bedroom apartments for families of six.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Surfacing these glaring inequities has helped move social justice and anti-racism up on the international priority list. Netflix began to feature a more pluralistic demographic in its films. Employers are embracing critical race theory and introducing more equitable hiring practices in their workplaces. And the government is offering subsidies and tax relief for lower-income communities.

But what about our schools? How are they addressing and introducing students to tenuous topics of social justice and anti-racism?

If we have learned anything, it’s that you can’t win over hearts and minds by lecturing from the front of the classroom. Only through deep learning experiences, can students empathize and contribute to social justice and anti-racism.

Here are five incredible project-based experiences teachers are using to teach these themes and five provocative questions as you consider designing your own:

Project #1: Creating More Just Laws: The ‘Broken Laws’ Podcast Project

Driving Question: How can we make our society better for everyone?

Age group: 8th grade

This eigth-grade ILEAD project began with a compelling provocation: How have laws discriminated against people on both a local and state level?

Students spent the first few weeks of the project examining their state and local laws and benchmarking them against the laws afforded by the constitution. As a result of this careful analysis, they drew up more equitable alternatives and sought out the legislators who could turn these drafts into official law. To elicit and rally public signatories and support, as a class, they edited, produced, and published a professional podcast.

Here is the website teachers used to curate the project, and here is the ‘Just Laws’ Class Podcast.

Implications/Questions for Practice:

Where is your city hall? When do they hold meetings, and are they open to the public? What local legislators/ lawmakers do you already know?

Project #2: Combatting Racism: The ‘Found Sound from the Underground’ Project

Driving Question: How might we use media to elevate marginalized voices?

Age Group: 9th/10th grade

Music is perhaps the greatest amplifier and archiver of what we as a society value. Why not use it to amplify marginalized voices in the community?

This 9th/10th grade interdisciplinary High Tech High English/Humanities project began with a gigantic class scavenger hunt. Their task: Scour their homes for records, tapes, compact discs, and mixed tapes that communicated themes of social justice, and bring them to class.

From the collection of music, in groups, students dissected lyrics spanning from 60s artists like Marvin Gaye to modern-day lyricists like Kendrick Lamar for implicit and explicit messages of social justice. In Language Class, they analyzed the lyrics for use of figurative language, colloquialisms, and idioms to communicate their message; while in Humanities, they explored broader historical movements and themes prevalent in the year they were released. In the process of completing this analysis of ‘found sounds,’ they began curating their own. In self-organized groups, they created mash-up videos, and digital listening stations to amplify marginalized voices for a public audience.

Implications/Questions for Practice:

How might you use the theme of social justice to organize the content you teach? What teachers could you collaborate with?

Project #3: Reversing Ageism: ‘Community Memoir Writing Project’

Driving Question: How can the sharing of community memoirs during CoVid help us better understand and empathize with the hardships the elderly face?

Age Group: 7th Grade

It doesn’t take an infectious disease expert to identify the way CoVid has adversely impacted our elderly.

Seventh-grade students in Australia wanted to do something about it.

In this project, each seventh-grade student paired up with an elderly member of their community to help share their life story. Through Zoom interviews, students acted as biographers, capturing insights and details into what made their elderly partner special. After completing the interviews, as a class, they carefully curated the collection of details into digital memoirs.

The hope was that by sharing these memoirs, the community would better empathize with the plight and contributions the elderly had made.

But the ‘Community Memoirs’ project did more than just engage students in a meaningful task; it also helped deliver core content. In History, students learned how historians analyze primary sources through their own photo and artifact analysis; while in language, they learned about narrative story arcs and writing techniques through constructing the memoirs.

Here’s a reflection from a seventh-grade student: “It’s beautiful. We can save the story of their lives and give them something they can keep forever.”

Implications/Questions for Practice:

What community stories might you help students uncover? How can a professional, published product help students create more empathy for marginalised voices?

Project #4: Amplifying Black Achievements: ‘The Black History Museum’ Project

Driving Question: How can a living museum to celebrate black achievements throughout history help combat racism?

Age Group: Grades 2-6

Sometimes the best way to foster social justice is to have students live out the achievements and contributions of marginalized groups.

That’s exactly what McCall Elementary did in their virtual ‘Living Museum’ project.

In this school-wide exhibition, each class hosted its own virtual museum room of prominent African Americans contributing to that category. In the virtual music room, students re-created musical pieces by famous jazz musicians; while in the literature room, students delivered inspirational poems, imitating the dialect and mannerisms of their esteemed black poets.

The entire museum was showcased via Google Hangouts, with community members and parents having the ability to visit each ‘room’ via a unique hangout link. See the museum setup here.

The result of these dynamic learning experiences?

A National Blue Ribbon award for closing the achievement gap among marginalized students!

Implications/Questions for Practice:

How might you create a ‘living museum?’ How can creating ‘living histories’ help your students honor and empathize with the obstacles minorities have overcome to make their achievements?

Project #5: Reversing Xenophobia: ‘The Community Voices Project’

Driving Question: How can sharing the stories of immigrants help reverse the stereotypes we see?

Age Group: 6th grade

In a time of heightened anxiety, with countries closing off their borders, slowing down economic activity, and introducing new restriction measures, it is tempting to look for a scapegoat. All too often, that scapegoat has taken the form of recent immigrants.

Six-grade students at The Inter-district School for the Arts thought that perhaps by sharing immigrant backstories, they could combat the xenophobia they saw prevalent in their community.

They succeeded.

In ‘The Community Faces’ Project each student was paired with a recent immigrant; tasked with uncovering their harrowing story to get to The United States; the challenges they faced upon arrival, and the contributions they made to their new community and culture. Students shared their findings in a co-created website and ‘Community Faces’ book, with proceeds from the book sales helping to fund local non-profits and even sponsor a green card.

But the project wasn’t just about reversing their own pre-conceived stereotypes; it was about transforming the community as well. Students invited members of the community to a public exhibition of their work; leading a dialogue around xenophobia and using their work to help transform thinking.

Implications/Questions for Practice:

What refugee or immigrant non-profits exist in your community? How might you partner with them to combat xenophobia? What can your students create that can be exhibited publicly?

In Closing:

With the global pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, more inequities are certain to pop up. As educators, we can choose to ignore these glaring inequities, or we can use them as opportunities for deeper learning experiences to help students address and combat them. I hope these case studies have provided you with the courage to take the first steps.

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Cool New Schools

Despite the pandemic, some really cool new high schools opened this fall–and the Getting Smart team advised many of them. Below are nine examples, the first four are new options that build on place-based opportunities. The next five are school-within-a-school models launched to accelerate real world learning.

Maritime High is a new small school south of Seattle. Learning will focus on the environment, marine science, and maritime careers working on or near the water. Maritime is a collaborative project of Highline Public Schools, Northwest Maritime Center, Port of Seattle, and the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition along with many community and industry partners. Students will supplement classroom learning with field experiences, boat-based learning, and internships.  Fall enrollment is 35 students while in a temporary facility. Like other Highline schools, every Maritime student will be known by name, strength and need, and will graduate prepared for the future they choose.

Highline has a great track record with place-based career academies having opened Aviation High School at King County Airport and Waskowitz Environmental Leadership and Service (WELS) at an outdoor education camp in North Bend, Washington.

Cajon Valley USD in East San Diego County opened its first high school by adding 9th grade to Bostonia, a TK-8 dual language academy. Bostonia Global will extend through high school with early college potential for earning an associate’s degree. The model, which will have 125 freshman and 60 sophomores, is “designed to develop the unique strengths, interests, and values of each student on their pathway to gainful employment.” Keith Nuthall, who led this exciting development, designed two of our other favorite schools Odyssey STEM (see feature) and Del Lago Academy.

Portal Schools opened its first business-based microschool in Los Angeles at electronic equipment manufacturer Belkin on August 16. The class of 35 students (from 23 zip codes) will earn high school and college credit with a hybrid schedule that includes work-based learning. Portal will open additional sites in LA tech business locations and begin expanding nationwide next year (see feature).

Pinnacles Prep, a grade 6-12 school in Wenatchee, Washington, takes a personalized approach with hands-on projects using the community as their classroom. The focus is “making learning relevant, enabling students to think critically, build relationships, and navigate systems to make positive contributions to our world.” It’s part of the Place Network sponsored by Teton Science School.

Accelerating Real World Learning

In addition to exciting new options like Maritime, Portal and Pinnacle, teacher teams in the Kansas City area are using new microschools to embed more real world learning into learning pathways and show the rest of the city what the future looks like.

Empowering Discovery of the Global Experience (EDGE) is a globally focused microschool that opened inside​​ Liberty High School north of Kansas City. After a few school visits in 2019, it started on a Google doc with a mission, vision, core values and nine signature features. EDGE serves about 115 students (see feature).

Raymore-Peculiar Enterprise & Design is a result of embedding client-connected projects into required English 4 classes. Seeing the success of authentic learning experiences, the microschool was created to provide more focus and access. Ray-Pec Enterprise & Design serves 60 students with plans to double enrollment next year.

Creating Opportunities for Ruskin Eagles (C.O.R.E.) is a microschool that started with a visit to Purdue Polytechnic High School and is focused on changing the learning experience for students. Located across the street from Ruskin High in the Hickman Mills School District, juniors and seniors engage in real world challenges with strong community collaboration. Students choose what impact they want to have and work with mentors to determine goals and craft solutions.

Ray-Pec Enterprise & Design “exists to assist students in developing their agency, efficacy, and passions while gaining valuable real-world and academic skills so they can succeed in a world of rapid and constant change.” It’s a half-day integrated studies program in the Raymore-Peculiar School District on the south side of Kansas City. Serving 50-60 students this year, it will double in size next year when it moves to a new facility. Students will do about four real world projects over the course of the year

In North Kansas City Schools, efforts are underway to support microschools at the elementary and middle school level. Maple Park Middle School, started this year with a group of 90 multi-age learners, four teachers, using two rooms. Principal, Brian Van Batavia, shared the start of the year will have an increased focus on team building and supporting positive relationships. North Kansas City Schools has a high commitment to real world learning, with career academy options for their high school students in every high school. They have leaned into their graduate profile by developing progressions for K-12 and have a strong focus on design thinking to make the vision a reality.

Consider Alternatives

The pandemic stretched our conception of school–what learning looks like and where it takes place. The crisis built demand for alternative settings–for safety, for personalization, for engagement and for learner agency.

The pandemic also accelerated skills-based hiring and a focus on social and emotional learning. For some school systems, these shifts resulted in updated learning goals–another reason to consider new experiences and environments.

It’s a great time to revisit “off-campus” learning — internships, remote locations, community assets, or collaborative pods that leverage virtual capabilities.

Check out our microschool microsite for more stories of how small spaces can lead to big impact.

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Students as Coauthors of Learning: A Resources Guide

By inviting learners to coauthor experiences we help them build the most important skills and dispositions they’ll need to succeed in a changing world. Incorporating student voice and choice in learning design builds agency and promotes ownership of learning.

“In our ever-changing and unpredictable world, learners need to master the skill of knowing what to do when they do not immediately know what to do. Doing this effectively involves the development of agency and executive function skills, which is made possible through the learner’s active engagement in experiences they typically do not encounter in today’s schools,” explains a recent Superintendent’s Association report. “In order for learners to develop these skills, they must be empowered, proactive agents—or co-authors—of their learning journey.”

Following are coauthoring resources for project-based learning, teacher tools and competencies for coauthoring, and a list of systems that are best in class at coauthoring.

Project-Based Learning

Big integrated projects build agency–the knowledge and confidence that you can contribute. They teach project management, research, problem-solving, writing, collaboration, and presentation skills. Team projects develop collaboration skills.

About 75 high schools in more than 40 systems in metro Kansas City are adding more real-world learning including community-connected projects, entrepreneurial experiences, and internships.

The Global Goals offer a great framing of project topics. They include ending poverty, decent work, reducing inequality, clean water, and clean energy–all timely topics.

Science Fairs and Capstones

Society for Science & the Public sponsors middle and high school science fair competitions and shares Science News for Students with 5,000 high schools.

Building on work by Hanover Research and guidelines for High-Quality Project-Based Learning (developed by PBLWorks and partners with support from PMIEF), the attributes of good capstone projects include:

  • Engaging students as active participants in an authentic learning experience;
  • Intellectual challenge that promotes higher-order thinking and problem-solving;
  • Emphasizes making connections across disciplines and steps in project management;
  • Involves teachers as advisors, community members as mentors; and may involve other students as teammates; and
  • Involves a public product and final presentation before a panel that evaluates the project.

Roaring Fork Schools in Western Colorado (and many in the EL Education network) have a great tradition of capstone projects. They define it as a “culminating academic and intellectual experience that: encourages students to think critically, solve challenging problems, and develop skills such as communication, public speaking, research, media, teamwork, planning, self-sufficiency, or goal setting; helps prepare students for college, modern careers, and adult life; and develops character and life skills.”

To help teachers develop a picture of what good project work looks like, Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer at EL Education, worked with Steve Seidel at Harvard to develop Models of Excellence, a collection of quality project artifacts including hundreds of exemplary works.

A few examples of California schools with great capstone project traditions include:

  • Senior engineering projects at Design Tech High School, Redwood City.
  • Senior Legacy Experience projects at Minarets High School, north of Fresno.
  • All learners in iLEAD Schools, north of Santa Clarita, have a culminating capstone experience that concludes each year in the form of a Showcase Of Learning.

Teacher Tools & Competencies

KnowledgeWorks and CCSSO published Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Environments. The competencies stress student engagement in learning design including:

  • Develop and use assessment tools that are flexible, involve students in their creation and clearly articulate standards and criteria for meeting those standards.
  • Co-construct and offer choice among multiple means of assessment for students to demonstrate mastery.
  • Encourage student “voice and choice” via strategies such as enabling students to choose and co-design curricula.

Within the domain of Teaching and Learning, a learning indicator describes student agency as more than “providing paths, but also knowing when to step back to let learners lead.”

Supporting Self-Directed Learning

The BEST Self-Direction Toolkit from four New Hampshire school districts provides resources around four learner competencies: Initiative and Ownership, Goal Setting and Planning, and Engaging and Managing. Self-Awareness and Monitoring and Adapting. Grade span rubrics illustrate growth progressions (the high school rubric is shown below).

The Center for Assessment published a series on Assessing 21st Century Skills including a post on Self-Directed Learning which outlines the benefits of giving learners the freedom and autonomy to choose the what, why, how, and where of their learning. It notes four dimensions of self-directed learning:

  • Self-Regulation is the ability to plan, direct, and control one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors during a learning task.
  • Motivation is the desire to engage in an activity that emerges from the inherent enjoyment of an activity or a sense of obligation to engage in a task. Growth mindset is a major factor influencing motivation: believing that intelligence, personality, and abilities are flexible and dynamic, shaped by experience, and changing over the lifespan.
  • Personal Responsibility (also called initiative and ownership) is a willingness to take full responsibility for one’s actions.
  • Autonomy is the ability to recognize available choices and take charge of one’s learning, and to control choices through ongoing reflection and evaluation.

“Schools that adopt constructivist and socio-cultural learning approaches, such as personalized and problem-based learning, are better equipped to facilitate self-directed learning,” recommends the Center. “By adopting these approaches, furthermore, teachers have the flexibility to personalize the level of self-regulation, choice, and independence to which students are exposed as they work toward self-direction.”

“The best way to assess self-directed learning is through authentic, performance-based tasks that allow students to demonstrate their ability to apply self-directed learning skills,” adds the Center (see a literature review on self-directed learning for more).

Assessing with Respect, a book by Starr Sackstein, outlines the benefits of co-constructing success criteria with students. Sackstein discusses the topic with Jennifer Gonzales on the Cult of Pedagogy podcast.

Systems That Support Coauthored Experiences

  • New Tech Network: 200 K-12 schools (90% in districts) with wall-to-wall team-taught integrated projects. A great set of rubrics guide the incorporation of agency, collaboration, and communication into co-constructed projects.
  • ConnectED defines its unique learning model as collaborative with a commitment to co-design, co-plan, and co-facilitation learning with students.
  • EL Education is a national network of project-based schools (as well as a leading provider of literacy curriculum). A recent book, We Are Crew, and associated resources are a great guide to building student voice and agency. The Elements of Crew toolkit include resources to build student-owned learning targets.
  • High Tech High: a San Diego network of 16 schools that share a commitment to learner-centered project-based learning. Their design principles highlight equity, personalization, authentic work and collaborative learning design. A Student Work section of the website highlights projects and publications that illustrate student coauthoring (see covers of the book published by elementary students below).

Schools in the XQ network including Crosstown High, Purdue Polytechnic, Latitude High, and Grand Rapids Public Museum School engage learners in developing community-connected projects.

Acton Academy is a global microschool network where students set daily, weekly, and session learning goals. Near-peers (middle with elementary, high school with middle) support goal setting and monitoring (see Courage to Grow by co-founder Laura Sandefer).

Lindsay USD is best in class at daily goal setting. Learning facilitators (teachers) ensure learners internalize short- and long-term goals that build toward a meaningful purpose for learning and serve as guides for daily work (see goal orientation look-fors).

Remake Learning hosts an annual event, Remake Learning Days, where student-led learning has energized Southwest Pennsylvania and now 17 regions of the country (see their podcast Remake Tomorrow).

More Resources on Coauthored Experiences

Getting Smart Books on Coauthored Learning

  • Better Together makes the case for personalized and project-based learning and describes leading project-based networks.
  • Difference Making argues that student agency is developed through meaningful work.
  • Power of Place illustrates how every place can contribute to student-centered inquiry-based learning.

Getting Smart Podcasts on Coauthored Learning

  • Ron Berger, EL Education, discusses We Are Crew, his book on advisory systems that empowers student learning. Berger also describes Models of Excellence, a gallery of quality student work that sets a standard of quality for student-directed learning.
  • Rebecca Wolfe, KnowledgeWorks, and Ryan MacDonald, CCSSO, discuss their new report Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Environments.
  • Briony Chown, High Tech Explorer Elementary on helping students do meaningful work.
  • Dr. Fernande Raine on civic and community engagement to incubate changemakers.
  • Learners from The Knowledge Society on self-directed projects after school. TKS Founder Navid Nathoo real-world learning.
  • Trace Pickering, Iowa Big, on community-connected projects.
  • Maya Ajmera on science fairs.
  • Dr. Pamela Moran, Byron Sanders and Dr. Ed Hess on the future of learning.
  • Joanne McEachen on contributive learning.
  • Michael Fullan on Leading in a Culture of Change.
  • Nichole Berg & Kimberly Howard on educating on climate change in Portland.
  • Patricia Deklotz, Kettle Moraine, on high school transformation.

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Building a Capstone Program: Rooting Education in the Growing Capacities of Youth

By: Aaron Schorn

I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe that they represent dawning capacities. Accordingly, the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator. – John Dewey, January 1897

The energy in the Zoom room changed. Human connection and goosebumps filled the space. During her virtual 2020 Senior Capstone Showcase presentation, Hawaiʻi Preparatory Academy (HPA) Senior Ivanni spoke about the power of partnering with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist based on ʻOahu. Her Capstone project was focused on climate change’s impact on the forced feminization of sea turtles due to warming water temperatures. The NOAA scientist unmuted, turned her video on, and spoke about the joy and privilege it was to work with Ivanni. She viewed Ivanni as a colleague, not a student. Ivanni’s Capstone product was taking her field research and turning it into a video series and website that would act as a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for future students to carry on her field and lab work. Then the magic occurred, the NOAA scientist proclaimed that she and her team would be using those SOP’s in the future.  The Capstone Senior had now become a coworker and educator to the NOAA scientist.

Tears were flowing (many of us ugly crying), from parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, teachers, coaches, and friends who were on the Zoom call. Many of the people (in those weird virtual boxes we all found ourselves in for so long) had not spoken to Lucia in over a year. During her virtual 2021 Senior Capstone Showcase presentation, Lucia waxed poetic on her Capstone product, which centered around translating her Spanish grandfather’s poetry and creating videos inspired by them. This was a personal story, it was authentic, and it had purpose. That false wall between education and the real world was torn down. Lucia had broadened our learning community and demonstrated the power of Capstones and student agency driven learning. She displayed her dawning and resplendent capacities to a room full of people who mattered to her.

What is a Capstone Program?

At HPA, Capstones are year-long sustained inquiry, interdisciplinary projects that serve as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students. We built a Capstone program to act as a performance space, a showcase of our students’ learned skills and capacities. We built something that would allow us to transparently see if skills were being learned. We built a Final for what it means to be an HPA student. Our goal was to create a shared culture of authenticity, entrepreneurship, confidence, and storytelling.

Per HPA’s website:

Capstone courses are distinguished by the extent to which they are driven by student interest, engagement and design. The capstone program is one form of personalized learning that our students experience at HPA.  

Capstones are driven by constructivist pedagogy including:

  • Personalized learning
  • Student-centered learning
  • Project-based/inquiry-based learning
  • Co-constructed curriculum

Some Capstone Tips and Learning Lessons 

When building our Senior Capstone program I was obsessed with backward designing the learning targets needed for a student. For us those were:

1. Ideation (Ideate)

2. Research (Research)

3. Project Management (Manage project)

4. Product Development (Develop product)

5. Presentation (Present)

6. Impact (Personal and External)

These form our rubrics, the structure of the year, the software we choose (UNRULR), and how we tell the stories of our product development, process, and project management. They also allow us to strengthen a curricular identity. I can now partner with department heads to build these learning targets into their courses in Grades 9-12.

Embrace Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke (By doing one learns). Embrace a liquid scientific method. Constantly have them build, measure, and learn. From the beginning of their Capstone journey to when they head off to the next stage of their life journey, have students (and faculty for good measure) constantly get their ideas out into the world, challenging their assumptions, partnering with external industry mentors and subject matter experts, each time iterating to the next version, the next idea. Essentially, make it real, get them out of the school building David Dunbar style, whether that be physically or through the interwebs. To do this, I took the work of Steve Blank and Bob Dorf in Lean Startup methodology and combined them with brilliant Hawaiian cultural practitioners/PBL educators (shoutout to Pualani Lincoln and NĀ KĀLAI WAʻA) to ensure our schema and curriculum were representative of Hawaiʻi and its people.

To learn more about Capstones and to join a community of Capstone educators I highly recommend the National Capstone Consortium.

My call to action to schools and other places of learning is to provide the vital opportunity of Capstones to your students K-12 and well beyond. My biggest goal as an educator is to co-design environments that create a sense of belonging, confidence, and relevance in its learners.

For more, see:


Aaron Schorn is the K-12 Capstone Coordinator at Hawai’i Preparatory Academy and Program Director at the Nalukai Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @aaronschorn.

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Microlearning – Is Small the New Big Idea?

By: Anne Olderog

Microschools and the New Learning Ecosystem

Will small, agile players or large, established players shape the education ecosystem going forward? In a world of platforms and interaction fields, who will be the nucleus and the market makers?

In a world of big ideas, sometimes small things are where growth is. As our world gets larger, perhaps consumers need the comfort of small places, or can only comprehend and digest it in small stretches.

One example is the coexistence of global and hyper-local in consumer preferences. Another is education – barriers are falling, educational institutions become increasingly larger – Liberty University hails at 75,00 students, California State University at Fullerton – 70,000, Texas A&M – 67,000. Worldwide, Indira Gandhi National Open University has over 4 million students. All have plans to grow bigger yet.

Yet the appeal of small is enduring. In CNN’s podcast on the future of education, a big deal is made of the rising appeal of microschools: “With this school year disrupted for so many, students and families are wondering what may happen in the fall. We think that micro-schools are the way to go, now more than ever.’

Even before Covid-19 hit, microschools were a growing segment, creating disruption in the US education landscape –  Quantum Camp, Prenda, Portfolio School, Acton Academy, and many others are building on small school communities with individualized learning paths such as Montessori, Waldorf, and Sudbury. Highly personalized environments on a tiny scale, these school networks resurrect the XVIIIth century model of the one-room schoolhouse, building on the Montessori model of mixed-aged studios, where children learn from peers as much and more than they learn from adults (Parents have known for a long time that friends have more influence than parental advice – something learned from another child is taken on with eagerness and viewed as valuable).

As a new generation of empowered learners is coming of age, determined to learn on their own terms, conditioned by social media and gaming to expect interactions that are slick, engaging, and smooth – technology provided a new playground. With the advent of technology, the dream of developing a bespoke education at scale suddenly became within reach. This high degree of personalization, in turn, enables deeper learning, diving deeper into areas of interest, and developing unique capabilities. Several factors make this possible – technology has removed barriers to information access, as the best learning materials and explanations become available across the globe; Big Data provides unique tracking and learning loops; adaptive technologies are built based on an understanding of how the human mind works provided by cognitive psychology. Indeed, the microschool movement is rooted in an understanding of the learning process – notably Constructivism, Jean Piaget’s work on cognitive psychology, linking learning success to experiences and creating scaffolding to help the learner develop more independence.

This fragmentation, coupled with alliance formation across the ecosystem, spans K-12 and Higher Ed. Outer Coast, the Arete Project, Wayfinding Academy and others push the boundaries on what education means and how it is delivered as part of the microcollege movement. Thoreau College, a pioneer in the microcollege movement, describes it in the following way: “At Thoreau College, we see ourselves as part of an emergent movement dedicated to the renewal and revitalization of higher education through the creation of new, humanly-scaled institutions with holistic curricula known as microcolleges. Found in diverse locales, these institutions tend to incorporate several common features: intimate student bodies, the inclusion of student labor, the limiting of technology in favor of face-to-face interactions, student self-governance, rigorous discussion-based academic courses, a strong connection to place, and an emphasis on the holistic development of the student as a unique individual”.

What is interesting is not just the growth in the formation of microschools and microcolleges – it is that these tend to shape the educational ecosystem in new ways. First, rather than individual schools, key players in this segment tend to be networks; second, partnerships are already underway with other players in the ecosystem – for instance, Powderhouse Studios in MA is forging a partnership with the local school district. In Erich Joachimsthaler’s terms, many are becoming interaction companies organized around the nucleus – learners that are increasingly at the center of the ecosystem – and facilitating interactions across multiple market participants including educators, parents, experts, curriculum publishers, and of course technology companies.

Ultimately, the education space, just like many other industries, is moving from a highly structured space with established leaders (in strategic terms, we call this the pipeline world – value generated by competitive advantage, large physical assets and fixed costs that need to be covered, functional divisions driven by the traditional value chain) to a fluid and fragmented ecosystem where new and traditional players are woven together by a web of interactions. Value is generated not by ownership of most valued assets in the value chain – in this case, access to information, top professors, and networks – but by interactions between a disparate universe of participants. A key strategic challenge is what platform can bring together this new ecosystem, establishing market standards, consistent data patterns, and creating exponential growth. Network externalities, viral effects, and continuous learning loops due to the increasing footprint and quality of Big Data will favor the emergence of interaction companies where value is created not by owning strategic assets such as buildings, study curricula, or top faculty, but by interactions created in an ecosystem, with the learner firmly at the center.

Learning in smaller, supportive communities on a human scale, in a hyper-personalized way, is not the only way the current shift to interaction fields in education is rooted in the latest findings in cognitive science. The other way small is at play in a big world is bite-sized learning.

For more, see:


Anne Olderog is a Partner at Vivaldi, leading projects on growth/innovation strategy, positioning and brand architecture.

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