An Answer to Innovative Education “Beyond the Forest”

By: Matt Piercy

Transylvania: Literally “beyond the forest,” from Medieval Latin, from trans “beyond” (see trans-) + sylva (see sylvan). So-called in reference to the wooded mountains that surround it.  (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Though the world increasingly becomes more interconnected and technologically dependent, are we ultimately leading more purposeful lives?  Andreia Mitrea, edupreneur and CEO of Colina Learning Center (CLC), is committed to the design of an educational model to do exactly this. Wholeheartedly believing that the best learning for children happens when surrounded by thriving adults, Mitrea is targeting how to “make the most of your one great-tiny beautiful life.”

The pandemic highlighted many needs, amongst these, the importance of stronger intergenerational connections. We are beginning to see intergenerational career centers popping up, however at CLC, their integrated approach supersedes a binary notion of simply career and connection. The objectives go far wider, deeper, and longer; inclusive of body, mind, heart, and spirit.

In the Heart of Transylvania

CLC is located in northwestern Romania, in the city of Cluj-Napoca; the largest city in Transylvania. This burgeoning hub of IT and academic universities and institutions is equal distance between Bucharest and Budapest. Less than a six-hour drive. Dating back to the second century, Cluj was a Roman settlement. The city has since arrived on the international contemporary art stage and its opulent Baroque architecture, Bohemian cafes, and 30,000-strong student population all attest to being the perfect petri dish for a new design of education.

Set apart not only for its abundance of opportunity, Cluj is a city of openness and purity. Openness because in a survey of the European Commission published in the Eurostat Yearbook Statistics 2014, Cluj recorded 91% of its locals having a positive perspective concerning foreigners coming to make the city their home. And purity, because according to research published by the French magazine “We Demain,” Cluj ranked first for air quality among 100 large cities in the European Union.

Furthermore, CLC’s location allows for children and adults to be immersed in nature through hands-on learning. Their vision of a sustainable campus has many green features already in place. For example, gardens for learning and growing food on campus, a recycling center, solar energy, and is part of one of the first zero-waste communities in Romania. Further, a network of bicycling and walking trails attest to the community’s interest in minimizing its carbon footprint.  “Our learners will learn to be always aware of their impact on the planet and our environment.”

Gothic St. Michaels Church / Cluj-Napoca, Photo by Emilia Morariu on Unsplash
Outskirts of Cluj-Napoca / Barajul Drăgan-Floroiu, Photo by Paul Mocan on Unsplash

Shaping a Better Society

Many schools are beginning to give credence to the importance of place-based education and sustainability. However, how many are committed 100% to develop an integrated adult-child curriculum and that is experientially based? CLC aims to be the first school in the world to do this. Kept at the epicenter is a focus on maintaining or in some cases creating, learning cultures throughout every home.

Traditionally schools are steeped in compliance and knowledge; in that order. Break students and fill them with facts. Romanian schools were not spared. If anything, the country’s communist past set the roots of pacifism even deeper. Mitrea, the learning and impact enthusiast behind CLC, does not mince words. With no pretense, nor claims of how CLC is the panacea she concedes,

“We don’t believe we are for everyone. We are for dynamic, enlightened families who want to thrive in a connected world. The families of innovators and early adopters. The ones who are ok with bringing the future by actively co-creating it with us.”  And it sounds like an initial group of families is already in place, fully behind the mission and ready to co-create. “We actually call them ‘Founding Fathers and Mothers,’” said Mitrea. Big dreams but with small steps, as she likes to say.  In the initial pilot year, the focus is on developing a learning model for children and adults; both of equal importance.  This is because, at Colina, learning is not something that happens only at school. Instead, the undertaking is to support every member in the community on their own personal journey. One where learning has no endpoint.

Cluj has experienced remarkable growth in the IT sector during the last decade. According to Culture Trip, the city has more IT engineers per capita than the USA, China, India, or Russia. Cluj IT, founded in 2012, reports that Cluj “is on its way to becoming a major digital hub in Eastern Europe, as a city driven by innovation in which creativity, professionalism, resources, and opportunities come together for the ultimate goal: shaping a better society.” This is perfectly in line with an undertaking of making “the most of your one great-tiny beautiful life.”

As the world of work allows for greater autonomy, employees/learners will require more complex problem solving and intellectual tasks. As well as a need to continually be re-tooling, in effect to always be learning. So it is only sensible for schools to make a shift and design for a more integrated, social, and experientially-based approach. Where community, connection, sustainability, and purpose are all at the bedrock.

Firmly fixed in a belief that learning should make a difference now, not later; CLC students will learn experientially through highly personalized projects. Monday, September 6th is the official opening of CLC. Like all new schools, CLC will follow a similar process of accreditation and is registered to be accredited through New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC); an organization recognized by the Romanian Ministry of Education. New York State Learning Standards will be integrated into CLC’s customized Expeditionary Learning Methodology of education.

But “Exactly How?” Remains The Elephant in the Room

Project Censored, “The News That Didn’t Make the News” reported, “The definition of ‘smart cities’ is evolving to support cities being truly smart – with an integration of healthy technology, community-based institutions, and nature-based design.” So clearly, it is more than an Education 2.0 or a 5G smart city approach. CLC gets this!

For CLC, it is not about an educational “scheme.” Because it is not about scheming! It is about life and thriving. About “being truly smart.” Not simply about encouraging interaction between people at all ends of the lifespan, but intentionally building this into the design and then allowing for it to be organic. What if the internet’s underwater cables were not the only invisible force driving our connectivity? They are not. Mysterious, dynamic, and connected pathways similarly connect plants. Kate Kellaway elaborates upon this in a recent Guardian article titled, “Secrets of a Tree Whisperer: ‘They get along, they listen – they’re attuned.’” Might our communities endeavor to become more like the forests, diverse but also connected?  “Mycorrhizal networks,” of learners, organically connected across all ages and walks of life. Families and schools actively co-creating as one.

The optimism embedded in CLC’s vision is evident in their plan to scale to multiple locations. However, a realistic approach is to focus on today and establishing a fully integrated curriculum for children and adults.” This will take some time. “We are opening only for early ages, Preschool and Early Primary and we anticipate around 20 to 30 students initially. We will have exponential development later,” says a confident Mitrea.

As could be expected of this IT and start-up-rich city, a myriad of resources is available in Cluj. Driven by innovation and creativity, CLC is in a perfect position to let learners and life ultimately be the curriculum.

A look at Colina Learning Center’s temporary campus

For more, see:

Matt Piercy works at the International School Bangkok. You can follow him on Twitter @mpiercy35.   

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The Trail to Recovery: Addressing Learning Gaps Through Project-Based Learning

By: James Fester

With summer almost upon us, schools across the country are beginning to find the breathing room they need to deeply consider the effects of a year spent online. Foremost among these are concerns regarding students lagging behind due to the complicated reality of learning remotely. A recent study conducted by Horace Mann Educators Corporation found that 97% of educators reported seeing the effects of schooling loss during the past year while 57% say that compared to previous years, students seem at least three months behind their peers in many areas, especially social-emotional growth.

These concerns have led to The Department of Education releasing a detailed handbook that addresses these concerns. Alongside suggestions for creating healthy learning environments and supporting the well-being of students and staff is guidance on addressing issues stemming from the absence of in-person schooling through in-school acceleration.

The second volume of the guide, which you can download here, recommends specific approaches and strategies for addressing the previously mentioned concerns. These suggestions form a sort of “trail” that schools and teachers can follow when considering the best way to address this issue. This trail includes; 1) project-based learning, 2) engaging students in collaboration, 3) enrichment 4) field trips. 5) experiential/hands-on instruction.

This advice makes a lot of sense. It aligns with recent research by The University of Michigan that showed project-based learning with an emphasis on experiential techniques can help address these gaps in learning. Experiential instruction like the kind suggested by the DOE aligns with new research about how the brain best learns and retains new information. And while some teachers might feel intimidated by how to design learning experiences that incorporate all five of these elements, in practice it doesn’t require a huge departure from what many already do in the classroom.

Designing for Acceleration

We should start by considering project-based learning, not as a separate item on the list, but the pedagogical approach that we can use to incorporate and deliver the other four. PBL models that are informed by research, like PBLWorks’ Gold Standard approach, already emphasize the need for collaborative experiences where students work together to support each other’s learning. For example, students might work in pairs to research a topic, then share what they have learned with others during a jigsaw presentation. Another example might be students providing each other feedback using a detailed rubric prior to the final submission of a piece of writing.

Finding opportunities for enrichment within a project-based classroom is also intuitive. Sustained inquiry processes drive most of the learning forward, allowing students a certain degree of agency as they ask questions and engaging in teacher-facilitated activities aimed at finding answers. For example, if they are investigating the effects of fossil fuel consumption on the environment, they are free to pursue all sorts of avenues outside of a single, teacher-directed lesson. They may choose to deduce what alternative form of energy is most cost-effective, or learn about the latest zero-emission car technology, or critique the effectiveness of carbon credits in mitigating human impact. Another element of PBL that can lead to enrichment opportunities is student choice, one aspect of which allows students a degree of choice in how they demonstrate their learning. In place of a traditional report or essay, students could create short films, podcasts, compose songs, or write plays. All of these activities bring with them opportunities to learn new skills that could become outside pursuits or unlock unknown passions.

PBL projects generally begin with an entry event or kick-off that introduces the topic and also piques student curiosity and engagement. Field trips are particularly powerful because of their tendency to provoke questions and because they are a shared experience that can continually be referenced throughout a project. While health concerns and logistical considerations present barriers to in-person field trips, there are an immense amount of virtual and distance programs that can be just as effective. Examples of particularly effective ones provided by The National Park Service include the many Virtual Passport Programs or their ever-expanding list of distance learning programs that can be accessed by teachers across the country.

Finally, we come to experiential learning. Project-based learning actually lends itself to experiential approaches like those recommended by the DOE. Among the many models for experiential learning, five key characteristics are commonly accepted;

  • Higher-Order Thinking: learning goes beyond a simple recall of facts, instead of focusing on the application of knowledge.
  • Depth of Knowledge: Students just don’t know something, but can demonstrate understanding through solving problems.
  • Real-World Connection: Learning is authentic and the products of learning have value outside of the classroom.
  • Substantive Investigation: students are “learning by doing” and engage in processes and activities that are hands-on.
  • Reflection: students constantly reflect on their learning process to inform next steps and critically think about the implications of what they have learned.

When put together within the context of a project, experiential learning provides important components. For example, PBL revolves around a challenging problem or question fashioned from standards or learning goals. Students must think critically and apply the knowledge they are gathering to meet this challenge, a process that will require a depth of knowledge beyond simple repetition. The final products students create don’t simply sit on a shelf in the classroom but instead are useful or accessible to people outside the classroom walls. And throughout this entire process, no matter if students are observing an outdoor ecosystem, interviewing an outside expert, or designing their own experiments based on a hypothesis, they are actively reflecting on their learning and refining the process they are following.

Research on the extent of the gaps created by the range of learning experienced by students during the COVID crisis is ongoing, and a great deal is still unknown. However, we do not need to know the final numbers and percentages in order to begin leading our students along the “trail” that will inevitably lead to better, more effective learning.

For more, see:

James Fester is a teacher coach from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) specializing in project-based learning and classroom technology integration. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, James has well over a decade of experience as both a classroom teacher and a PBL and technology coach in California public schools.

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Making a Case for Science and Social Studies Through PBL in Distance Learning

By Jenny Pieratt

As articles begin to sprinkle across our feeds with predictions about what school will look like in the fall it is becoming increasingly evident that school WILL be different in August. In my last post of this three-part series I make a case for why, during distance learning,  PBL can’t wait. And as we move toward this new era of “hybrid learning” I hope to build upon this case for PBL by reminding us why we can’t forget about Social Studies and Science as a context for learning. As we extend beyond just “maintenance learning” in these final months of school, as educators we will have to challenge ourselves to reimagine instruction so that students can master new concepts and remain engaged in their learning; and PBL driven by Social Studies and Science can provide that if we commit to it.

Rethinking what drives learning

When I co-plan projects with teachers I encourage them to start with their “Driving Standards”: Social Studies and Science. While all standards are important, these two provide a context for learning that ELA and math can easily support. Social Studies and Science standards are often written thematically which makes it easy for teachers to think about “big ideas” for which all learning can connect to when they are planning. While learning is all around us, Social Studies and Science provide a great deal of relevance to real-world topics, which is the bedrock to

designing authentic projects. When students understand the purpose of their learning they are more likely to be engaged, which is a critical element to learning that is missing right now.  As I watch my own nine and ten year old’s eyes glaze over their screen during their current virtual school assignments it is becoming increasingly clear that we must move beyond “the basics” of math and ELA and reframe the context for which students are learning in this new environment, and I think prioritizing science and social studies through PBL can help us do that.

How to make it work, virtually

Pockets of innovative schools are trying to figure out how to make PBL work virtually, but the reality is that most traditional schools that were implementing PBL prior to school closures are struggling to balance district grade level “landing pages” and best practices of PBL that deeply engages students and communities in the learning process. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for how to go about implementing PBL before, during, or after COVID-19 but there are some important components that give us the best chance of providing quality PBL to students that must be considered in a virtual setting:

  1. The context for learning, and therefore the project, has to be grounded in a real-world issue
  2. Best practices of assessment must be embedded -particularly important to the virtual setting is feedback and reflection.
  3. Scaffolding and differentiation can be challenging in virtual learning so lean on the workshop model throughout the week to help.
  4. An audience needs to see student work. Previously this may have included a large community exhibition, but in a virtual classroom it could include any of the following:

Permission for PBL-lite

On a good day before COVID-19, most teachers would tell me PBL was overwhelming and too-time consuming; so it’s not lost on me what a big ask PBL is right now for many teachers who are feeling the pressure from technology overload and “quarantine fatigue”. I also know that many teachers are feeling bored with the current model of instruction and aren’t excited about the thought of continuing on our current trajectory into the fall. So what do we do? Given the current circumstances, I hope teachers can find a way to give themselves permission to do “PBL-lite”, which is a modified version of PBL that can work in virtual learning if we rethink our entry point to teaching and learning. In PBL-lite there are some key differences and important reminders that will make it feel like an easier lift:

  • All learning doesn’t have to be collaborative. Keep projects general enough that they can be individualized to students, but don’t worry about frequent collaboration if that overwhelms you.
  • Projects don’t have to last for an extended amount of time-keep it short and manageable for everyone; two weeks seems to be the sweet spot for our family.
  • Feeling like you can’t provide feedback to students on project work? The teacher doesn’t have to be the only one giving feedback-think about how you can close the feedback loop by leaning on experts, adults at home and peers.
  • Not all learning has to relate to the project. If connecting math to social studies feels like a reach, then it probably is. Consider keeping some of those basic learning activities included in your schedule (maybe as self-paced activities, or morning assignments with “PBL” in the afternoon) if that helps ease your fears of students not getting exposure to important content.

As a nation, we can’t afford for STEM and Social Sciences to be forgotten for the extended amount of time that we are now talking about for school closures. And more importantly, our students can’t afford to not be engaged in their learning any longer. I”m not saying that PBL is the “silver bullet” to solving all virtual learning problems, but I do think it can provide some inspiration and excitement during a time when we could all use it!

Looking for more Inspiration? Check out these resources:

For more, see:

Jenny Pieratt, Ph.D. is a Progressive Educator, Author, and Speaker.  She is also the Founder and President of CraftED Curriculum. You can find Jenny on Twitter at @crafted_jennyp.

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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.

Purdue Poly: Driven By Equity, Solving Community Challenges

Over the last five years, only 38 students from underrepresented minority groups who attended Indianapolis Public Schools were accepted and went on to attend Purdue University (an hour drive away).

Purdue Polytechnic High School (@PurduePolyHS) is trying to change that. The two-year-old high school, created in partnership with Purdue, serves 260 kids in two grades. At full enrollment, it will engage about 550 learners in real-world design challenges.

Before launching Poly, Scott Bess (@ScottBessIndy) led an innovative adult education center. During many planning year conversations, Bess heard from experts and community members demanding for a school that stressed hands-on team-based learning where students worked on complex problems with no easy answers.

The school is diverse by design including location and enrollment outreach. Poly is a charter school with an innovative school agreement with Indianapolis Public Schools that allows funding and test scores to flow through IPS and allows Poly to reach out to IPS middle school students.

Purdue Poly spent this year and will spend the next in a downtown shopping mall in a space built out for a college. Their principal Shatoya Ward acknowledges some advantages, like a big food court, but a lot of distractions and space that is less than ideal for design-focused work. They are also taking enrollment for a second location north of town that will open in the fall.

Students work on big challenges introduced by industry partners. For example, Eskenazi Health asked, “How might we help deliver products or services to help all members of our community to lead a healthier life?” Big concepts that might be explored in a related project include cellular structure, heritability, healthy lifestyles, data analysis and statistics, market structures and business models. (More examples below.)

Using design thinking (illustrated below), student teams ideate, prototype, test and pitch their solutions to industry partners.

Core academic content is contextualized to challenge. Teachers work together to combine instruction across disciplines. Student schedules are a list of projects and dojos –workshops for content acquisition and application.

Students have a personal learning coach and an advisory group of 15-17 students with whom they start and end their days.

The Poly gradebook is a list of “I can” statements. Students progress as they demonstrate mastery through classwork, project demonstrations, or outside activities.

In 11th grade, students choose a path that leads to college credits and industry credentials. In 12th grade, students will complete an internship within their chosen path.

Bess anticipates that most students will graduate with a year or more of Purdue credit (an unusual benefit coming from a leading research university). Poly students are on the Purdue campus several times each year and wear Boilermaker gear to school every day.

After opening a second campus, Bess plans to open another half a dozen Purdue-connected STEM schools in Indiana.

For more, see:

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Be Anything

By: Brandon Goon and Willy Golden

Authentic learning occurs when students find meaning and purpose in what they’re learning. It is one of the most effective approaches an educator can use to engage students and develop a productive learning environment. As educators, we strive to build authentic learning experiences, but without clear components or a framework, it can be difficult to know whether or not your classroom is truly authentic. Be Anything’s Authentic Learning Taxonomy componentizes aspects of the authentic learning continuum. When using this tool educators will be able to identify why students are stuck or striving, plan for targeted interventions, and develop authentic learning experiences.

While building a learning experience with and for students, it is important to meet them where they are across the learning continuum. Structures that support authentic process-driven learning can generate scaffolds and cultivate exploration for all students. Looking through the lens of learning in professional and creative contexts, helps us recognize that learning occurs as a result of intention-driven thought patterns. Retention and iteration function most effectively as equal parts in the learning continuum, leading us towards focusing on process over content.

In order to develop a sequential view of authentic learning, one must recognize the process behind constructing and deconstructing understandings, as well as pinpoint how this process connects to reconstructing extended learning opportunities. When following the sequence of authentic learning, the terms “Understanding,” “Experience,” “Authenticity,” and “Anchor” emerge as building blocks. Utilizing these building blocks to design authentic learning experiences will aid students in constructing more responsive, actionable, and transferable understandings.


  • Need to know
  • Learning objective
  • Expertise
  • Skill
  • Content Knowledge

Understandings are processes or aggregates of information that are, or to be retained by a learner. Retention of understandings is often the most heavily evaluated aspect of learning. And while retention is important, its relationship to student context requires thoughtful consideration. Understandings become relevant to students when educators design learning experiences that allow them to put their higher order thinking into practice. This supports long-lasting habits of educational independence.


  • Activity
  • Discussion
  • Workshop
  • Practice
  • Assignment

Experiences are scaffolds that educators use to materialize the authenticity of an understanding. In an authentic learning environment, students and educators develop context around understandings to make them authentic. Opportunities for students to engage in different viewpoints and build upon their understandings can aid in cultivating a drive to learn.


  • Relevance
  • Return
  • Importance
  • Value
  • Utility
  • Need

Authenticity occurs when students and educators strive to align learning experiences with anchors. Students should be able to identify the value and importance of a learning experience. The value students identify should point to two types of returns, satisfactory or iterative. A satisfactory return might be “This learning experience helped me accomplish my goal”. An iterative return might be “This learning experience helped me reevaluate my goal”. In both cases, students develop deep understandings by connecting a learning experience to an anchor.


  • Project
  • Problem
  • Interest
  • Passion
  • Idea
  • Goal
  • Intention

Anchors are concepts or products that students are genuinely invested in. They are actualizations of students’ values. This inspires intrinsic motivation. Anchors are learner defined and fundamentally important to the learner, even outside of the learning environment. They are the foundation behind an authentic learning experience. They act as the building block that connects the learner to experiences and content knowledge through authenticity.

When assembled with thoughtful consideration, the building blocks an authentic learning experience are deconstructed and recycled. This materializes through extended learning opportunities or the reconstruction of understandings.

Reconstruction via Authentic Learning

Utility in Additional Understandings

When students experience returns, understandings that help them carry out their intentions, they progress by utilizing and seeking out more understandings.

Understandings Resurface

When the utility for an understanding resurfaces alongside new context, the student recognizes its utility and recalls their content knowledge.

Engagement in Additional Experiences

When students form understanding through experiences that were authentic, they find value in their experience and consider their understandings to be relevant and important. This increases engagement in additional activities and workshops.

Unintended Learning

Authentic learning allows students to uncover unintended learning opportunities. They reach their planned learning objectives alongside additional understandings.


Pedagogical approaches such as project or problem-based learning (PBL), are excellent ways to build authentic learning experiences. PBL reinforces the underpinnings behind authentic learning because students learn by doing and utilizing their content knowledge. Be Anything’s Project Management Platform and Authentic Learning Taxonomy are tools that are perfect for scaling project and problem-based approaches to education. These approaches have the power to prepare students for an increasingly dynamic world, all while extending learning opportunities.

For more, see:

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Brandon Goon (@brandonisagoon) and Willy Golden (@sendependecon) are co-founders at Be Anything. Be Anything is a web app that helps students work on personalized paths in school, manage their projects, gives teachers the context they need to provide just-in-time feedback. Flip the switch from learning experiences created for students to learning experiences created by students.

Platform Skills Tighten Focus on Effective Communication

In retrospect, I didn’t do a good enough job of preparing my students for their oral presentations when I taught at the project-based learning (PBL) hotspot of New Tech High School in Napa, CA.

I worked with students in groups to jigsaw the oral presentation/communication rubric in an attempt to get them to understand the assessment process. We scheduled practice presentations and used that activity for formative feedback. The students even got to score me on the rubric when I would give an intentionally inert presentation. This became such a popular fad that I once caught a team of seniors scoring the principal on one of his speeches, and it didn’t go well for any of us. Especially me.

But it wasn’t enough. That’s why I’m encouraged to see the new energy around what are now being called “platform skills.” The development of this skill category is mostly occurring in industry but I think it should quickly find its way into the education sector.

According to facilitation expert Guila Muir, platform skills are “presentation behaviors that a trainer uses to transmit content effectively. Not to be confused with skills that guarantee participation (which, in general, only trainers use), both presenters and trainers must demonstrate excellent platform skills to get their messages across.”

According to Muir, there are five key platform skills for trainers. I would argue that these five skills are relevant to classroom teachers and students, not just trainers. Teachers, in particular, focus mostly on the skills needed to engage learners in a replicable activity (training, in business lingo) but neglect the platform skills needed to effectively communicate information required to complete the task.

Skilled facilitators should:

  • Clearly communicate session outcomes, topics, goals, and the reason why the session is relevant to the needs of the audience.
  • Effectively manage nervousness (yes, even veterans get nervous) so that it doesn’t interfere with the audience’s experience.
  • Use a variety of narrative and rhetorical devices (humor, metaphors, analogies, stories) in addition to any technological aids.
  • Maintain careful control of body language, including positioning vis a vis the audience.
  • End the session with a summary and maintain a high level of energy throughout.

Many of the sites and resources focused on platform skills provide useful tips, which again are just as valuable for teachers and students as they are for professional facilitators. I endorse the guidance provided by Sheri Staak in her piece for Training Magazine. She recommends the following four steps to sharpen platform skills.

  1. Prepare
  2. Read your audience
  3. Rehearse
  4. Seek feedback

Those of us who work in PBL environments are aware that public displays of knowledge and skills are essential elements of both the High-Quality PBL and Gold Standard PBL frameworks. Anything we can do to better prepare students for success during these presentations is a welcome addition to classroom practice.

Rody Boonchouy, Associate Superintendent of Instructional Services at Davis (CA) Joint Unified School District, is in accord with this thinking: “Schools in our district that explicitly scaffold communication skills and public speaking, or promote presentations of learning, have a distinctly higher degree of student confidence. Though difficult to measure, it’s evident through the quality of student and adult interactions on campus, quality of peer to peer interactions (including conflict resolution, self-advocacy and expression), and satisfaction of parents who tend to know more about their students’ learning due to richer conversations at home or observing the presentations. These skills and the confidence it engenders translates into post-secondary success.”

This skill development will equip them to thrive in college, career and community. Witness the large number of frameworks that list communication (platform) skills as a prerequisite of success: Partnership for 21st Century Learning, OECD, Forbes, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities to name a few.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers has essentially reverse engineered the discrete elements of effective platform skills and created a nifty PDF that elaborates on key features (Technique, Problem, Strategy, and Benefit). The document, not really a rubric, focuses on platform-skill elements that are familiar to most PBL teachers (pace, body language, eye contact, flow, etc.) and then includes a few that I never even think about (hands, hips, and legs).

This is the type of concrete guidance that was missing from my classroom.

The movement toward reclassifying communication skills into the related but separate channels of training and platform has created a new form of presentation. Appropriately, it is called a “Platform Presentation” and has been adopted by the Stanford School of Medicine. In essence, a platform presentation is a 10-15 minute oral presentation in which a researcher/student shares their original research and then engages the audience and/or expert panel in a Q&A.

That typology solves a labeling problem I and many teachers have struggled with for years. I was never satisfied with using the uber category of “oral presentation” to describe the many different types of stand-and-deliver performances I assessed. Is a debate, panel, or skit the same as, well, a platform presentation?  I think not.

As described by Phil Simon in his book The Age of the Platform: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Have Redefined Business, we are indeed in the age of the platform. As a corollary, we are in the age of platform skills, and educators would do well to improve their students’ ability to effectively communicate for a purpose and to a target audience.

For more, see:

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Carnegie Learning and One Stone High School: A Powerful Partnership

This blog is a combination of companion posts originally published on LONG + LIVE + MATH, a blog by Carnegie Learning.

Meet the Faculty and Students of One Stone

By: Allison Parker and Caitlyn Scales

One Stone is a Boise-based nonprofit and high school with a mission to make students better leaders and the world a better place. We seek to disrupt the traditional education system through our radically different, student-led and student-directed high school. In line with the mission of being student-led, One Stone’s nonprofit Board of Directors is, as required by its bylaws, comprised of at least two-thirds students. Our school is independent and tuition-free, with a learning model that is real-world, relevant, and prepares students for success in a rapidly changing world.

One Stone didn’t start out to launch a school–we started in 2008 with our mission and a focus on experiential service through a platform that is now called Project Good. Over time, we grew organically in response to the needs of our student team members. Using design thinking, we developed unique engagement platforms alongside our students. Since our founding, we have launched Two Birds, a student-led creative studio where entrepreneurs are forged by design; and Solution Lab, an incubator for projects, services, and ideas. The high school is our most recent engagement platform, launched in 2016 to answer the call from students desiring a real change and ownership in their learning experience.

One Stone—the high school—is now entering its third year. We pride ourselves on our entrepreneurial, “living in beta approach,” as it has allowed us to build the school together with our students. We are learning side by side while we grow a meaningful student-led experience. Through this, we are shaping a learning opportunity that empowers students to find their purpose and their passion, while equipping them with the skills to follow both.

Our math program was born out of these same values: it is student-led and founded on empathy. When we started the school, we worked closely with students both in conversation and through a survey to understand what they wanted out of their math education experience. We quickly learned that their biggest wish was for confidence. Students said that they wished to work in groups without “being embarrassed.” They want to ask questions without “feeling ashamed.” Our students seemed to know intuitively that they were capable of more, but felt unable or unequipped to try.

After realizing that many of our students are dealing with debilitating confidence issues in math, we decided to start by addressing mindsets, and we were greatly influenced by the work of Jo Boaler. Our students were desperate to hear her message that “[a] lot of scientific evidence suggests that the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is not the brains they were born with, but their approach to life, the messages they receive about their potential, and the opportunities they have to learn.”* In response to student needs and research around mathematical mindsets, we approach our math program as our commitment to helping students become empowered mathematical thinkers who believe in their own ability to learn and engage with math as they acquire problem-solving skills and develop content knowledge.

We will explore the day to day of our math program in future blog posts, but we’ll end with an example of what our program means for our students. Allowing students to take ownership of their mathematics education has given one of our learners the opportunity to overcome her fear of math by exploring the relationship between knots in mathematics and knots in textiles. She is reading articles written by mathematicians about open questions in mathematics and is challenging herself to model the mathematical knots she’s learning about. In her words: “the way mathematicians talk about knots is like they’re talking about religion. It sounds like poetry.” What we are learning, alongside our students, is that math does not necessarily need to be explored sequentially and that there can be great value in studying math broadly. In this example, the student is studying geometry with the support of MATHia and is also exploring open questions in other areas of math. With MATHia, we are allowing students to explore math through their personal passions while also ensuring they are meeting national standards. This approach has already begun to show student growth in both mathematical application and mindset—we are excited to share more about what happens when curiosity and discovery meet the study of math.

The Carnegie Learning Approach

By: Sarah Galasso

Some partnerships are simply meant to be. Carnegie Learning and One Stone is one of those partnerships. Our philosophical approach, values, and goals for student learning are consistent across the board. We are both seeking to provide equitable opportunities for students to access content in ways that empower them to bring creativity, problem-solving, and passion to the work they do and the people they help.

Carnegie Learning believes in a student-centered approach to the classroom where students work collaboratively, engaging their prior knowledge and experiences. They develop that knowledge to grow their understanding and then demonstrate that growth. In this classroom, students are valued for what they can bring to the discussion. Every student is encouraged to use their voice and understands that their ideas are respected. It is this type of environment that One Stone provides for their students, one that Carnegie Learning wants to help achieve in classrooms everywhere.

Carnegie Learning values the process of problem-solving. It is not always about finding the solution, but how you get to a solution. We provide students with the opportunities to make sense of problems, strategize different pathways that could lead to a solution, and determine if the solution proves viable. Similar to One Stone’s desire to empower students as problem-solvers, our problem-based approach to mathematics leverages real-world tasks to help empower students to develop the problem-solving skills they will need as they move beyond the classroom.

One Stone students were the ones who decided to use MATHia, our personalized math learning software that uses artificial intelligence to tutor each student 1-on-1, which is not surprising given One Stone’s student-led approach to learning. The students tried MATHia and recognized how it could support them and help them to gain confidence as they develop as mathematicians and problem-solvers. The real-time feedback, hints, step-by-step problems, progress bar, and other tools work to build students’ ownership of their mathematical growth.  MATHia’s individualized pathways coach students on exactly the skills they need, allowing them to take their own specific journeys through math. No matter where those journeys take them, they will have developed the mathematical toolbox that will help them make sense of the world around them.

One Stone’s approach has opened their students’ eyes to the mathematics that surrounds them. The students now recognize that math is much more than simple multiplication facts, fractions, or solving equations. They see math everywhere, from the spins of a dancer to the edge of a knife blade to winning sporting events. We are thrilled to partner with them and share these stories with you as you work to bring these same core values to your classroom.

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This blog was originally published on Carnegie Learning.

Learning Gardens Provide Equity, Access and Great Food

Do you know where your food comes from? Do you know how your fruits and vegetables are grown and when they are in season? In a rush to get dinner on the table we’ve become a culture so disconnected from the food we eat. Often, we are faced with choosing cheap and processed food options over seeking out locally grown produce.

Personally, food is my love language. Its how I show people I love them and breaking bread with someone is how I feel connected. Meeting local growers at the farmers market on the weekend makes cooking even more enjoyable. From the time my daughter could stand, she joined me in the kitchen and is learning about how to eat healthily and appreciate where our food comes from. I have long appreciated community and school gardens but worried that they often didn’t connect to student learning and create a lasting impact.

When I heard about the work of Big Green I was intrigued and reached out to Kate Waller, who manages their national growth to learn more.

Big Green is ”building a national school food culture that promotes youth wellness.” Through food literacy programs and a network of Learning Gardens, students, parents and teachers are connected through robust food culture. They are currently located in seven cities in the United States, focused on underserved schools. Big Green Learning Gardens are a wonderful example of place-based education that connects community and schools with a focus on sustainability, equity and access.

Their gardens, built in partnerships with schools are ADA accessible, inviting and exciting for students, teachers, and parents. In fact, in the schools in which they operate, they have seen a 22% increase in parent involvement because of their ability to volunteer in the learning gardens. Gardening and growing food have created a bridge for parents who may not otherwise have felt like they had a place in their children’s school.

Big Green builds Learning Gardens that are “dynamic outdoor classrooms and productive edible gardens”. Because they appreciate that each school and community is unique, their gardens are customized for each location. Their gardens are 19 inches tall, allowing children to easily access the beds at eye level. With education at the center of their work, they also ensure the gardens include seating and share to make them attractive places for outdoor lessons.

At each school site, a garden educator works with teachers to implement K-8 health and nutrition-based curriculum based on the science of growing of food. In high school the focus shifts to a real food lab where students design and operate a food-based business using produce from the garden.

Big Green was started seven years ago and was the brainchild of Kimball Musk. After attending the French Culinary Institute, Musk knew he wanted to incorporate food into his profession but was not sure in what capacity. He was living in New York when 9/11 happened and was able to cook for the rescue workers for weeks. It was the way he was able to serve his community and it created a profound calling for him to use food as a vehicle to bring communities together.

After moving to Boulder, Colorado he started a restaurant group that was doing “Farm to Table” cooking before it was popularized in the United States. Musk saw a need to support building school gardens based on accessible design standards. He started Big Green as a way to build sustainable programs with schools with a focus on equity and access. Many of the school garden programs today are spearheaded by one staff member at a school that has a passion, but when staffing transitions happen the gardens often go unattended. There has largely been a disconnect between the garden and school curriculum as well. Musk and his team at Big Green set out to change that.

When Big Green starts work in a city they spend about a year meeting with nonprofits, schools, businesses and city leaders. The first step to working in a new city is to secure $250,000 in Seed Funding. This allows Big Green to conduct a 1,000-hour Foundational Seed Process that includes a Needs Assessment and Feasibility Study. However, it goes beyond numbers to build strong relationships with nonprofits, school districts, and donors. This process is key to their work because it allows Big Green to create all of the infrastructures to build an impactful and sustainable non-profit in each city.

Big Green is aiming to set up 100 school sites per city they are working in. They hire a team of people in each city that includes an executive director, program managers, project managers and garden educators that will work directly with the schools and gardens.

Big Green currently has 550 school gardens in seven cities, and hope to be in 10 cities in the next few years. They are reaching half a million kids a day in their Learning Gardens.

One way to join the movement is participating in Plant a Seed Day on March 20, 2019 by planting a seed in a local garden, your home, school or somewhere in your community.

Brain Research, Creativity and Project-Based Learning

For the last 25 years, I’ve been exploring in practice and theory models of inquiry, in particular, project-based learning. In February I’ll publish a new book, Models of Inquiry – Explained, that examines that work and highlights the commonality between the dozen or so models that dominate the K-12 landscape.

A growing body of research seems to point in the direction that inquiry is an effective method of achieving positive student outcomes in content knowledge and 21st Century Skills. But of course I would think that—it’s my job.

Most studies look at implementation and results, as well they should. But I’ve been interested in going deeper since I attended, many years ago, the Learning and the Brain Conference.

In November I was excited to read How People Learn II: Learners, Context and Cultures from the National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine. The study was a refresh of the first edition, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (2000). Both editions continue to be among the most widely known and cited reports created by the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences. The newer version includes broad-ranging suggestions for additional research that could increase the impact of quality teaching on student learning.

Among the topics in How People Learn I and II are the following:

  • How existing knowledge affects what people notice and how they are able to learn
  • The role of technology in education
  • How learning can change the physical structure of the brain
  • The interrelationship of classroom learning experiences and interactions in the community
  • The overriding importance of classroom culture and climate

I forcefully argued in a Buck Institute blog called How PBL Connects to Research on Brain Science that many of the conclusions from How People Learn II bear significantly on the arguments in favor of project-based learning (PBL). A table in that blog shows the alignment between the conclusions of How People Learn II and the tenets of high quality project-based learning. But of course I would think that—it’s my job.

During the two years I ran the Partnership for 21st Century Learning I became interested in other precursors for successful implementation of PBL. The first, and the single-minded focus of P21, was the identification of student outcomes that any good instructional method should produce. Those are codified in P21’s Framework for 21st Century Learning.

We began to do a lot of research around the Framework’s core, the 4Cs. Although collaboration, critical thinking, and communication are important, I was entranced by creativity. That led to a series of workshops and presentations at conferences such as ISTE and SxSWedu. In fact, I’ll be running the latest version at this year’s conference in Austin.

The standard argument I make in that presentation is simple: If you want to produce a student outcome such as creativity you first must build a classroom culture in which creativity can grow and then you must adopt a pedagogy (like PBL) that allows it to bloom. Worksheets, lecture, textbooks, and students in rows are not likely to produce creativity.

But does brain research support that belief?

Earlier this month, the online version of Scientific American posted an article entitled The Neuroscience of Creativity: A Q & A with Anna Abraham. The piece includes a brief introduction and then a discussion between Scott Barry Kaufman and the aforementioned Anna Abraham. She is a professor of psychology at Leeds Becket University and the author of the newly published The Neuroscience of Creativity.

The interview is long and often technical, but for the purposes of our interest in PBL there is one section that is of great interest. Kaufman asks Abraham to describe the difference between how our brains operate in a creative mode as opposed to an uncreative mode. Her response: “What is obvious is that a lot about what triggers a creative mode as opposed to an uncreative mode is situational. The creative mode is called for in contexts that are unclear, vague and open-ended. The opposite is true of the uncreative mode.”

Sounds a lot like high-quality PBL. But of course I would think that—it’s my job. The bigger task is bringing these practices to more of the 132,853 K-12 schools in the United States. According to research completed by P21 in 2017, only about 3,000 U.S. schools were engaged in some form of PBL or Deeper Learning. We have a lot of work to do.

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Community Defined Projects at Health Leadership High

Imagine a health high school that is not just a talent pipeline but an advocacy organization for a healthier community. Imagine a health high school that asks providers for input on projects of current community significance.

Health Leadership High School in Albuquerque is a small project-based high school for students not well served by traditional schools. The hands on, community connected, project based school prepares young people to become successful leaders in the healthcare industry.

“We don’t have classes,” said Executive Director Blanca López. “ We have projects. Most students work on three per day. It’s the main focus of the school.”

Each summer the staff solicits project ideas from community health providers. Community Engagement Director, Moneka Stevens, leads the effort to engage all the health care providers in the city to propose projects.

Every project must have deliverables valuable to the community. “We see where needs are. We create advocates for change,” added López.

Health Leadership serves about 180 youth from 14 to 24 years old. “We want kids to see themselves as leaders in the community,” said López.

Director of Curriculum & Instruction Amber Reno (below) explains the link between community connected projects and student supports. “We ask more than regular schools,” said Amber. As a result, they see tremendous growth between each of the three student presentations annually.

Health Leadership students participate in a paid internship. It gives the school the opportunity to backward map projects from work experiences which makes them even more authentic. Students are prepared to add value right away when they enter their internship

“Being paid helps students avoid the unfortunate tradeoff of working a dead end job now to support your family versus an unpaid internship that can position you for a career,” said Moneka.

Health Leadership students take their role of community health advocates seriously. After the Parkland shooting, students planned a demonstration to advocate for gun safety. Students have taught sexual health in local middle schools. They organized a disabilities rights project. Amber said the compassion it developed for other students was powerful.

The Practicum is a year long senior project. Last year a student developed LGBTQ group presented to the other schools in the network.

Students meet with their advisor for an hour each day. They check in on projects and build social and emotional skills using asset-based resources from the Search Institute. The goal of the advisory system is to help young people leave ready for community, work, and life.

In two years the school will relocate to a new building across from a partner clinic, South Valley Family Health Commons. With another clinic partner, Casa de Salud, students get valuable work experience.

The school has a simulation lab where students practice nursing skills and earn college credit.

The Leadership Schools Network

Health Leadership is part of a network of industry-focused schools in Albuquerque. Many of the students they serve were either off-track to graduation or had dropped out.

The Leadership Schools Network serves marginalized students by developing innovative, student centered, community responsive schools aligned to dynamic industries in New Mexico.

Leadership Schools Network Logo

New Mexico doesn’t have charter management organizations. Leadership Schools are developed and supported through an informal relationship with Future Focused Education (formerly The New Mexico Center for School Leadership), a nonprofit led by Tony Monfiletto.

The three design pillars of Leadership Schools are

  • Learn by doing: problem-solving and innovation to address real-world problems, performance assessment of learning outcomes;
  • 360 support: high expectations require high levels of student support focused on positive youth development and successful transition to adulthood; and
  • Community engagement: initiating, building, and maintaining community partnerships with a focus on creating solutions together.

The other schools in the network include ACE Leadership High School (featured hereTechnology Leadership High School, and Siembra Leadership High School.

Future Focused Education supports the continuous improvement of and knowledge transfer between the Leadership Schools.

Leadership Schools use the Imblaze mobile application from Big Picture Learning to manage student internships. They manage and document the process, Tony said, “because we want employers to recognize these credentials.”

Leading New Mexico to Opportunity

Tony Monfiletto grew up in Albuquerque. After graduating from New Mexico State, he worked in Chicago before returning to New Mexico to work on the state budget. In 1999, Tony founded Amy Biehl High School.

In addition to launching the Leadership Schools Network, Tony has been actively involved in creating a policy climate that welcomes innovative solutions for youth populations least well served.

Tony’s nonprofit, Future Focused Education, is housed in a co-working space in the old library of the recently redeveloped Albuquerque High School (below). He’s beginning to work with other cities on innovative solutions for disengaged youth.

Tony is passionate about serving disconnected youth, the kids that others gave up on. He has come to appreciate the importance of school networks. He has developed a half a dozen schools but recognizes that they plateau with no outside influence. “We grow by belonging to a network, it’s how we get better,” added Monfiletto

“I’m a finance guy, but I’ve had to rethink return on investment,” said Tony. For the last 20 years, he’s seen policy leaders take a narrow frame of reference and focus on a narrow set of goals. His mindset shift came from “spending time with people that think differently about the world.” He now appreciates broader outcomes that may occur over a longer timeframe.

While the network helps, it hasn’t solved the preparation challenge. Director López said, “Teacher preparation does not prepare teachers for this approach; it’s a different role–one of a project manager and facilitator.

The network supported the development of paid internships. “It’s a big part of our belief that our young people can make Albuquerque a healthier and more prosperous city and we need them in the game getting real experience to do it,” said Monfiletto.

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