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April 14, 2016
Harvesting a Crop of 21st Century Students

I spend a lot of time in the air, literally and figuratively. My work supporting school districts takes me across the country on a regular basis, meeting with leaders who are interested in bringing Project Based Learning to their school or district. Although our first conversations relate to their vision for making an instructional shift, the conversation quickly turns to the all-important “when and how?” questions. What are the first steps? Who should be trained and when? How should they decide?

On my 3rd flight across the United States in the last eight days, the farm fields on the ground far below inspire me. The planning, hard work, reliable tools, and perseverance a good farmer has to have to bring the crop to harvest is a good analogy to the work leaders in districts need to do to ensure a good harvest of well-educated students. Farmers also need a bit of good weather luck – and a plan in case of a disaster outside of their control, much like school and district leaders need a “Plan B” for unforeseen circumstances.

Those beautiful fields of corn don’t just grow by themselves. When faced with a large spread of land, a farmer has some important decisions to make about soil preparation, seed selection, and planting times. Farmers who want a farm to grow and be sustained start with a robust business plan. What crops are in demand now? In the future? How will they fund the venture? What seeds will flourish in the fields and what will they do if they don’t take the way they imagined? What can they learn from others in the region? District leaders would be well served to ask similar questions:

  • What is the current state of learning in our system?
  • What do students need to know and be able to do in the future? What skills are in demand? How do you know?
  • What instructional strategies will help students flourish?
  • What does the community (students, staff, families, broader community members) think of the vision and how can we partner with the community to ensure system success?
  • What have others tried? Where was there success? Where were the challenges? What failures can we learn from?
  • How will we fund the needed changes in the system to make this change lasting?

If you saw a farmer in the U.S. using a team of oxen to break up a field to ready it for planting, you would be shocked. We expect to see state of the art equipment and planting methods in use, to maximize production in each plot of land. The farmer using old agricultural methods simply won’t wind up with as big a harvest as those who use the latest methods and tools. Is your district using 19th century strategies to create high yield student learning in the 21st century? If so, it’s time to change the tools you’re using. Ask hard questions about the tools your system uses and with what impact. How does your school/ district: 

  • design curricula and make it accessible to teachers?
  • adopt curricular support materials?
  • assign teachers?
  • support all instructional staff?
  • use time?
  • ensure that professional learning is effective?
  • schedule students?
  • track student progress?  
  • report results to parents?

To use rigorous Project Based Learning in your system, you have to be willing to adopt 21st century tools. If you plan to use 19th century structures and tools you can’t expect a high-yield 21st century harvest.

Hard Work and Perseverance
Farmers are well known for being hard workers and for working through adversity. They constantly monitor soil status and plant growth. We believe that Project Based Learning helps students develop academic stamina to persevere through academic and life challenges. Your PBL implementation team may have times when you need to persevere through the hard work of changing the structures and conditions to support Project Based Learning. Is the team ready?

  • Do site and district leaders deeply own the vision for the future? How about your students, staff and community? If not, why not? How will your team get them there?
  • Have teachers been given permission to take instructional risks for the long-term payoff? What supports are they given?
  • Does the school board know what to expect in the coming months (or years)? Have you worked with them to ensure they are supported in their messaging to constituents?
  • What data points are you tracking to change course as needed?
  • How long is your team willing to take a risk? What are the indicators that you should forge ahead? What are the indicators that you should make adjustments?

Your team should engage deeply with each other and the community to conduct a fair assessment of the “soil readiness” in your district before you start providing professional development for teachers. At BIE, we like to get leaders ahead of the work, developing their knowledge and skills and preparing the community for the structural changes that high impact PBL requires. When systems do the deep readiness work, they are far more likely to harvest a crop of well-educated students who are prepared for the 21st century.

Do you have questions, tips, or stories to tell about bringing PBL to your school or district? Please enter them in the comments below.

For more information about BIE’s systemic services, click here.


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