Part 2 of our conversation with Bob Lenz, CEO of PBLworks

Here is the transcript.

– Hi, I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena. Thanks for joining us for another PLtogether Lounge Talk, joined today by Bob Lenz, he’s the CEO of PBLWorks. And if you’re just catching up on this conversation, it’s a continuation of one that we’ve already started. So make sure to watch the other video, which is available at Bob, thanks so much for joining us again. Excited to kinda dive in a little bit more together about, what does PBL really mean? Like, what does that look like? Like, I hear ya tellin’ me about it, but I wanna know what that looks like. So, let’s start today with an example. Like, PBL in the time of coronavirus, what’s an example of a topical, real-world project that somebody might be thinking about?

– All right, sure, Adam. Well, as you know, a lot of people at this time are doin’ a lot more cooking at home. And one project that we’re going to be sharing with people through a free e-book, the first of June. That, and all these projects you could, you know, even families could do these, and teachers can even enrich them even more. This one I’ll share with you is called, you know, for right now, the working title, “A Quarantine Cookbook.” Where the learner, and this can happen for early elementary, middle, middle school, high school kids, you just change the expectations a little bit about what they’re gonna create. But the question is, what are the favorite recipes or meals of our family? And the student has an opportunity, or the learner, to look at their own family and where they’re living, but then also reach out to other relatives, if possible, to find out what are their favorite recipes, or things that they’ve been cooking during this time, or things that they look forward to cooking when they’re not in a stay-in-place. And they compile that list, and then, with all the directions. And then they have to make some choices, which of those recipes are they going to actually, you’re gonna curate it and eventually publish it in something that can be shared beyond their home, with other members of the family, or maybe with people outside. And so, any cookbook, you know, you have to do the test kitchen. So they’re gonna have to, you know, choose which ones they’re gonna test out, they have to cook it and document the process, so they’re gonna include that in the piece, whether that be photos, or a video, or just written. And then the final product, which can be shared online, is a cookbook that includes the curation, an introduction that explains, you know, the context for their family and why the recipes that were chosen, why they were chosen for that manner, and then a selection of those recipes that they can share with their family.

– So, I mean, this sounds like a great arts and crafts project. No, no, no, nah. But, I guess, you know, like, take us to that conversation with the skeptical school leader or instructional coach, who’s talking with a teacher, who’s kind of taken this idea or one similar that you’ve talked about. You know, take us to that next step. Like, so why is that learning? I mean, cookbook, cool, but where’s the, like, content and standards alignment, how do we know this is what students should really be doing right now?

– So, right now, you know, and that, in actually, in what we described. We’re not worried, right now, I’ll just be frank. Like, we usually start with the standards. But right now, our primary goal is engagement and a focus on engaging in content areas. And especially on academic skills and what we call success skills. Things like, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, problem solving.

– So all those success skills are probably the same ones that are in my official content standards. So, you know, converting between metric and imperial units.

– Right, well, yeah,

– That’s

– We get into that.

– The 7th grade math lesson. Now that can be part of my, my cookbook

– Right.

– Requirements for my middle schoolers.

– Yes, exactly. So you could be looking at all the measurements and tying in the math. Those are the academic skills.

– Yeah.

– But it’s applying the math.

– Right.

– Not just learning it for a test.

– Right, right.

– The writing all has to be done to publishable quality. This is gonna be shared, at the very least, with the family. And you don’t send your abuela something that hasn’t been proofed and polished. And, so you have that piece. You also have the project planning of trying to think, like, you have to make some choices. So, critical thinking. Planning out which recipes, I need to get all the materials and supplies for this, whether that be the cooking supplies or the ingredients. Then pulling that all together, and taking all the pieces of the pictures, and the test kitchen, and then bringing it in together into a book, which is actually quite complex. It sounds fairly simple. Oh, a cute, little quarantine cookbook. But you’ve taken, maybe, you know, five to 10, and you can make the complexity get longer. Like for an older student, you might say, well, you know, for a younger student, they’re shorter recipes and there’s three to five. For an older student, you might have five to 10, seven to 10 recipes. So you’re really upping the complexity for them and the challenge of managing all of that, with the idea that they actually care about it because these are foods that they’re interested in.

– You know what I like about this is that, you know, in some respects it really challenges somebody who’s listening to this example. You know, I was kinda play challenging you there, right. But, like, it really challenges them

– Oh, yeah.

– To think like, okay, what are some of the real-world ways to apply the ideas that we say we value as an outcome of the education experience, and translate that into a quote-on-quote project. But also that has that kind of relevancy and immediacy to the world around the students today. I mean, I think, in some ways, you know, the idea of making a cookbook, and that it kinda pushes people a little bit is almost a little better, right, because it’s something you wouldn’t expect. And yet, even just hearing you describe it, right, like, the publishing, and the critical thinking, the project planning, those are all skills that we value in a workforce, in a productive set of teammates and colleagues. So, why would we not want our education experience to drive that for students. I mean, I’m thinking about the idea of that cookbook and just remembering, you know, a misstep I made as a teacher. Which was, remember my first year teaching being really gung ho that all my students were going to do science fair projects. And I gave them kinda like the plan, or who knows what. And at the end of the timeframe, not many had completed those science fair projects successfully, let’s say. And that really was a reflection on me and the supports I needed to provide students on how to do that independent investigation.

– Right.

– So I could imagine a very similar thing being true related to a cookbook project, or really any other project-based learning. And that for teachers who are adapting to so much right now, but then adapting to project-based learning as well, there might be some things that they should potentially consider. So I’m curious. And I know this is an expansive world and people go to lots of big workshops on it. But if I’m a teacher, I’m listening to this, I’m like, yeah, okay, I’m ready to, I’m ready to, you know, dip two toes in the pool. Like, what should I be thinking about before I really jump in and start wading?

– Well, I would suggest you go to our website for teachers called And even on our, our homepage, our regular homepage,, we’ve set up a microsite that has all kinds of resources for folks who are, that really is all about blending online and project-based learning. Blogs, some of the idea, like, the cookbook idea is actually from a blog, then we’re taking that, and now, actually building some more information for teachers so they can, or families, so they can use it. We have several projects that we’re putting online that are basically built out most of the way for teachers. And we’re rapidly working right now to adapt those and have tips for how you would do it online. And low-tech or high-tech, you know, because not all kids have access to a lot of technology at home. A lot of guidance for teachers. We’re piloting a project right now, it’s a project we calls, it’s about sustainable futures for the environment. We’re working with 50 teachers. And they’re meeting with a coach in a webinar style every night before the next day, and they’re given all the materials, so that they can facilitate the project. But they get some support in doing it. And that’s really great for first time teachers. We’re waiting to see whether that resonates with the teachers and we get very good results. And then the last one I would say is, we’re still holding PBLWorld in June, it’s just gonna be virtual. And so, we’ve spent the last month or, six weeks to a month, or almost two now, time flies while we’re having fun at home, to take our workshops and put them online. So, teachers now will have the opportunity, whether they’re going as a school, or individually, to do the PBL 101. Which is now, you know, as you can imagine, completely oriented to starting where a teacher, this would be a beginning teacher, they’re not really sure about PBL, and it’s not just PBL for in-person, of course, it’s PBL in this distance learning environment. So there’s lots of different places for people to get started. I always say, like, the key is, you gotta get started. Like, the only way, you know, you become a good PBL facilitator and teacher is by facilitating project-based learning.

– Well, I’m not the expert on implementing PBL, but I will add from that science fair debacle, that I just mentioned before, I would advise people, definitely think carefully about what process you’re going to give your students before you just say, go do it. ‘Cause I can imagine, if you just said, just thinking about your example before

– Oh, yeah.

– With the cookbook, right. Like, if you said, okay, go make a cookbook and you didn’t have really detailed guidelines and expectations about how they were, how success would be defined and how they were gonna make their way incrementally progressing towards success, the end products may not meet the standard that it needs to meet for it to have been a rich learning experience. And it would’ve, you know, trended otherwise toward the fun activity end of the spectrum.

– Right. Maybe if we’re–

– I know last time we talked, you called it the dessert project, right. It was really fun.

– Right.

– But maybe ya didn’t learn a lot.

– Yeah, we think it’s the main course not the dessert. So you have to structure it, you’re right. So, one of our gold standard teaching elements is managing activities, basically the scaffolding. So, how are you mapping backwards from the product. And the intellectually challenging question that sustained, the inquiry sustained. And the strategy of teaching and having kids practice giving feedback. So, in your science fair project, which can be, sort of, PBL like. If it’s broken up, or even our recipe, each of those pieces, each part that I described, the students have instructions, they have work to do, and then they’re given feedback. And then you keep monitoring the activities all through so that your, and you’ll know the students, whether it’s in-person or online, that you have to give more support to. Whether that be because of special needs or because of just the type of learner they are. The irony in it, sometimes the kids who struggle in traditional schooling, really excel in a project-based environment. And the students who’ve found out how to do school really well, can struggle at the beginning in a project-based experience. Because they’re used to, teacher tells me what the answer is, I memorize the answer, I give it back to the teacher, I’m good, keep movin’ on. But when the teacher’s sayin’, hey, what do you think? You get to answer the question. And then you have to have evidence to back up, you know, your assertion. Which is a lot different and much more challenging.

– Yeah, and then you get to the, I don’t know what’s past the gold standard, but the gold standard with two stars maybe, where you teach the kids how to ask their own questions, right, of course, which is really where we want

– Exactly.

– All students to get to. You know, I’m thinking about some of the examples you described. And, you know, I can imagine that a, a mental blocker, if you will, for some folks might be, well I hear a lot of technical this and technology that in what you’re describing. And, you know, there’s an equity and access issue here. And there’s been a lot of, I wanna make sure we acknowledge the pretty amazing efforts that school districts across the country, large and small, have been going through to try and shore up the technology that’s at home. But the reality is, is that, it is not equal and not all students will have a computer, or someone who can help them learn how to do those online research skills, or whatever it might be, right. So I wanna acknowledge that. And then ask you, like, if you’re someone who’s thinking about PBL and maybe you’re in a context where those concerns are more acute. How do you think about this project-based learning in a world where, you’re learning offline, maybe in the real world around you at your home, but you may not have the benefit of, what we think of as the resource of technology to answer a lot of those questions and do a lot of that research.

– Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And I think as teachers are designing their learning, whether that be project-based or any other learning, that sense of equity and really knowing their students is key. Because you have to be designing learning that’s actually gonna be possible. And if they don’t have access to technology, or somebody who is fluent in English at home, it’s gonna be a challenge in figuring that out. Sometimes I think it feels insurmountable. But, let’s just go back to our recipe project. And if I was thinking about this, and knowing the students that I have taught. And there was lack of access to technology, there was folks that nobody really at home who could help in English. Then, you know, maybe this project it’s gonna be done in writing, it’s gonna with paper and pen, you’re still gonna hold ’em to a high standard of production. I still have my poetry book that I wrote in the 5th grade. I wrote the poems, I made the book, I illustrated it, and I wrote it. And in it, you’ll see, like, parts where I erased because my teacher, Mr. Cooper, came up and said, “is that your best penmanship?” And I was like, “yes, of course it is.” And he’s like, “really?” And I was like, “no, it’s not.” And so, then I did it. So that poetry book was created with all kinds of stuff in my mom’s, you know, closet. With wrapping paper, and we used cardboard, and construction paper. And why not make it in Spanish? Because it’s gonna be shared with their family anyway, let’s say Spanish is the primary language, so this book’s gonna be in Spanish. And the teacher’s gonna have to figure out how they make sure that the Spanish is grammatically correct. Put that on the onus of the teacher as opposed to the student. Those are just, I mean that just comes to my mind.

– Yeah.

– But that’s the type of adaptation when you know your students and you know them well. And one of the great blessings in this, in some ways, is I think teachers are more aware of the home environment by which their students are living and coming to school with. And what resources or challenges, and advantages or disadvantages that brings with them in a way that they probably weren’t, it just, it was one of the things they probably always wanted to do and they knew was important, but they have so much other thing, I mean, we make teachers do so much. So hopefully, this is an opportunity for that type of real adaptation that takes into mind the challenges and the opportunities that kids have at home.

– I like that word adaptation. And how you, kind of, talked about the need for the teacher, you know, like, the recipe book in Spanish. Which yes, you know, saying that the student could produce it in Spanish does create that extra hurtle for the teacher, but it really respects and values the nature of the project itself, which was creating a book for consumption within their family. Which is a different context than when you’re producing, you know, a cookbook for, you know, the 7th grade team that’s gonna be shared among the students and the team at school where the primary language might be English. I like that. I think, also, there was something in there that, for me, it felt very relevant to even this conversation, which is, you know, we shouldn’t mistake the quality of the content for the polish of the content, right. So, here we are, we’re both in our home environs. Yet, you know, at least I think you’re bringing some valuable stuff to this conversation. You know, the fact that you’re at home doesn’t diminish the professional nature of the advice and perspective you have to offer. And so, I think that’s the same thing related to students, right. That sometimes the content and what they need to convey needs to be the best that they can do it in the circumstances. And they don’t need to be, you know, producing a high glossy magazine and shipping it in. You wouldn’t expect that, so why would you expect it to be typed up in formatted numbered bullets if they don’t have a computer and printer at home?

– Right.

– You just have to, kind of, you know, not overlay the content and the production values, and equate them.

– I mean, if they’re fortunate enough that they can be in contact with their students, either individually or small groups, that becomes part of the project. Like, what resources do you have at your home to produce the book? So, now you’ve added a sense of critical thinking and problem solving for them. And it might be, I got paper, and I got pens, I got coloring books, I got, I have whatever I have, and that’s what I’m gonna use. And it becomes part of the proposal. Often like in a project, you have kids write a proposal. Here’s my proposal, whether it’s individual or small group, this is the topic, this is the, what’s gonna be in it, this is the mode of communication I’m gonna use. And this is what– Like, we mentioned that project-based learning just fits, even our last conversation, so well with this distance learning, of a facilitation where you’re together and you’re apart. And you can really break the project up into those points, and then you have some opportunities to give kids individual feedback as well, or small group feedback, that, it’s very difficult in a classroom. If I was a teacher right now, if I was gonna start my morning, and we gave the team, or, you know, the group everything that they were gonna do on the project, wherever they were at. And then they got into their Zoom breakout rooms, you know, we’re gonna idealize the technological access. And they do some brainstorming together, and then that’s over, and they’re going back into their individual homes to learn. I can make one-on-one appointments for 10, 15 minutes with every one of my kids, maybe even if it’s five, just to check in with them.

– Yeah.

– I mean, how often does that happen in school, that you get five minutes by yourself with your teacher and you’re not in trouble? It’s funny that, you know, suddenly we’re taking a lot of the ways we would expect adults to interact in a collaborative workplace and like, waking up to the idea that maybe students would benefit from those too. Which, of course, you know, we’ve been saying for some time. But because you can’t, you know, because you can’t divide the day into 55-minute chunks, suddenly, and then, of course, you have no agency to say anything about what happens in that student’s learning, suddenly, you know, we have some new freedoms, right. Where, I’m just thinking about, again, real-world learning, when you do projects for quote-on-quote work, right? Or when teachers lesson plan, they don’t lesson plan for the only 15 minutes they have in the day, they lesson plan until the lesson is done. And sometimes it takes

– Right.

– 15 minutes and sometimes it take 75 minutes. And the benefit of this approach, I mean, I think it really opens students up to being able to have that kind of coming together when possible, but then saying, you know, if it takes you four hours to gather all these things, or do the really nice writing, like, that’s okay. And it,

– Right.

– It, kind of, gives ’em that freedom and, of course, we talk about student agency and student voice, like, all those things come forward. But I do think that freedom, as long as it’s defined for the students, could be so powerful in this context. When they’re probably feeling like so many of their freedoms have been taken away, right. They just get to stay at home all the time. Well, we’re almost outta time. I wanna ask you one final question. It’s the extra credit question of the series as we’re doing these talks. And that question is, what’s something you’ve changed personally since all this has started and you’ve started working from home? A new routine, a new thing you’re spending time on, you know, anything?

– That’s a great question. You know, I was actually in a similar check in for our, for a board committee meeting today. And, you know, I’ve, it’s more of a re-institution, but a deeper commitment to a mindfulness practice. So, you know, I’m an early riser. And it’s a little harder to get up early during this time, but I continue that practice so that I can have some time with mindfulness. A lot of focus on gratitude and experiencing loving-kindness, and spreading that through my practice. And it just grounds, it just grounds me. More journaling. I found myself, when I started this thing, I would go onto these Zoom meetings, and especially my first ones in the morning, and I was just really grumpy. And I didn’t like myself that way. And it’s really got me some, it’s brought me some balance. And so, it’s been a real gift to, you know, have this time to be so consistent with it. Because I’ve always aspired towards it. And it’s now becoming, you know, it’s becoming a habit. And I don’t think this is gonna go away after we get to go back to whatever normal’s gonna be.

– I’ve been hearing that a lot, about the, you know, the thing that people hope that they continue once we go back to whatever the back is.

– Yeah.

– Well, Bob, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate your time. I know that educators out there are really gonna value hearing from you. If you’re interesting in hearing more from Bob and his team, or learning more about PBLWorks, that website is Bob, thank you, again, so much for joining us and being part of PLtogether.

– Thanks, Adam. It was a lot of fun.