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Part 1 of 2 in our Lounge Talk with Bob Lenz, CEO of PBLworks

Here is the transcript.

– Hi I’m Adam Geller founder and CEO of Edthena and thanks so much for joining us for this episode of “PLtogether Lounge Talks.” Today we are joined by Bob Lenz. He is the CEO of PBL Works and he also has a background a lot closer to schools, not just in organization as he helped actually start a network of schools in the Bay area. Bob thanks so much for joining us today.

– Thanks Adam, glad to be here.

– Yeah, well for those of our viewers who are unfamiliar with PBL works, I guess give them the high level. What does PBL works do?

– Yeah, PBL works some people might remember our, family name, parent name of Bucket Stoop for Education. We’ve been around for over 30 years, We’re recognized as the worldwide leader and project based learning where professional services organization, so we create tools and resources, one of the leading leaders in the research of building the evidence base for PBL, and then we also provide, previously a lot of in-person, professional development and now, lots of online professional development for teachers, school and school district or charter system leaders.

– Very interesting, we’ll talk more in detail about what project based learning is, I’m sure in our conversation today, but before we get into that, let’s, I guess start on a high note. You know, there’s so much change happening and lots of, for lack of a better word, discomfort with how much we don’t know, but I think there’s a lot we can take comfort in. So what’s one of the things that you’ve heard about recently related to an educator adapting his or her practice, with students that’s, you know, I guess really inspiring you and exciting you.

– Well, you know, we’re, it’s not so much one educator, it’s the hundreds of thousands of folks, who are adapting as fast as they can to meet the needs of their students. And just this week we’re in our new, weekly webinars and part of the inspiration is we’ve been, we can only hold 300 in a webinar and each week we have 1400 teachers from across the world who are logging in trying to get as much help as they can to move project based learning online. This week we’re actually featuring teachers who have been doing that and you know, every time I hear their stories, you know this is emotional time I started to get really choked up because they’re working really hard to adapt what, they’re pretty damn good at and the in person to creating really engaging learning experiences that meet the kids where they’re at, it’s culturally responsive and their homes. And so we’re going to feature many stories, several stories this week in our webinar people to see, one of the things that we hear over and over again is how teachers who were already had a practice of project based learning are having an easier time right now, and transitioning because project based learning really naturally fits with this time where you’re getting a small amount of time with students and then you’re asking them to be self directed in their learning, here some research, creates some, do some design, create products, share their learning and prep for that. Making the transition, if you haven’t been doing that, is quite difficult for the PBL teachers and their students this is you know, nothing’s, sorry, nothing’s natural about this time, but it’s a little bit more natural, than having to figure out how you stay motivated doing worksheets, reading textbooks, completing packets.

– Yeah, I really liked that picture you painted of, you know, the inspiration is that, you know, I think that educators on the whole, right there. They’re not sitting by waiting for somebody to tell them, you know, this is the answer, right. Like they’re answering the call of the moment and making sure they’re as best as they’re able, supporting their students, to help continue them on their learning trajectory. You mentioned the kind of adapting of the process and a little bit about what that learning might look like and why with students at home, PBL could be a powerful tool for teachers, I mean, maybe it makes sense to kind of define what is project based learning and you know, how’s that word project in it? How is it different than just doing a project?

– Yeah, that’s great, that’s a great question. Well, when I joined PBL works five years ago, we had just launched a really seminar work for us seeing that we’re the leaders for PBL and a book, called Setting the Standard and in that book it’s, and it’s really been driving all of our professional services now we defined a gold standard project based learning design, and gold standard teaching practices. So the design, they each have seven elements with it eighth one in the middle, which is that you’re starting with learning goals, you know, what students, academic content skills, what success skills students have and what are the key understandings that sort of pieces of say of what it’s like to be a scientist. And around that, where you think about your design, so everything from that it sustained inquiry. So project based learning starts with a question. And it’s completely authentic. This is where, we’re project based learning really is a great tool for our racial equity in the sense that you can be really culturally responsive to students and thinking about the questions that you’re asking, the products that they’re creating. Their work is, it has an opportunity that question is challenging. It’s intellectually challenging students are getting pushed. It’s not an easy answer it’s not, what we call dessert project where you’re creating, a cube of the California missions or a solar system with styrofoam balls, you’re actually creating something you know, making your own knowledge, learning the real content that’s out there and answering your question, students have choice. So there’s opportunity for your kids to make choices in that, there’s lots of opportunity for critique and revision students and who are engaged in PBL and get really good at both taking feedback on their work and giving feedback using a rubric or some other standards been set, sometimes maybe an industry standard or standard outside the classroom to give each other feedback both on their research, but also on the products that they’re creating and the work is public, so we call it a public product, so now it’s, you know, it’s almost easier to make it public because everybody’s going public and you can really open up these exhibitions of learning beyond your classroom. It’s one of the pieces that I think is one of the most powerful parts of high quality project based learning is when learners know that what they’re creating has an audience beyond the classroom. They engage and invest their full selves in that. They you know, when teachers would say, well, the kids just don’t care about the work. Well they know the audience isn’t really compelling to them, it’s not authentic and they know they’re just going to get like some marks on a paper and then it goes into a grade book and it’s a way.

– Right.

– when you’re creating a product that actually matters or somebody might actually use it or has expertise most people, you know, it’s just human, you really don’t want to well look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

– Right.

– And then finally, and this is a key and all the data suggest it, is that reflection, opportunities for metacognition both verbally and writing both individually and in groups and early and often not just at the conclusion, but especially the conclusion is how the learning gets transferred to new situations. So students who are engaged in project based learning, who are in the habit of reflecting on their learning become not only self directed now they’re also self-aware learners.

– It’s interesting the idea of public, I really liked that you define that there because in my mind I was like, now is this public to the classroom? Is this public to the school? But it’s like no, beyond this learning community that the thing I’m doing and the thing I’m creating, it has an impact and value in the world and that’s why I’m investing my time and energy as a student into this. For those that are interested, I know that you can see a diagram of the kind of sphere, I don’t know what you call it, you probably have a special name for those diagrams, but I know they’re on your website.

– Yeah.

– Yes, that diagram, oh it flipped out for a second.

– Oops!

– But as I say, if people want to see it, that diagram right there . Go to pblworks.org. they’re right there on the website. So if you’re wanting to see those in more detail and use those as a guide, they’re right there and they’re available.

– You know when they’re adding like, one resource also for teachers that wanna make their work public, there is a website called shareyourlearning.org and they’re actually holding a virtual exhibition and student work and so teachers from all over the country, all over the world will be and their students, most importantly the students, will be sharing their learning through projects that they’ve been doing. They’re are truly these last couple of months.

– Got it.

– So they didn’t get a sense of what-

– Very interesting.

– what that looks like.

– Yeah. It’s not only the outlet and the end goal, but for the students, but it could also serve as a great resource to inspire teachers as they’re designing some of these new projects

– Exactly.

– For a new context maybe not for the first time if they’re experienced PBL implementers, but certainly for the first time in this context.

– Yeah.

– Well, I know we’re planning to have more than one of these lounge talks. So, you know, maybe for our final question today, you know, kind of thinking more at that kind of System level kind of, so not necessarily at the implementation level, but drawing back just a little bit I mean, I think a lot of folks are wrestling with, if you got a lot of students at home. A lot of time, like you even hinted that where they need to be independent learners. We’ve got a lot of challenges about connecting a curriculum and applying that to the real world every day of the year in a normal year but now even more so when we’re not in schools. I mean, should system be thinking about PBL and project based learning as I mean, it’s certainly not a silver bullet, but could it be a key part of the strategy that they’re developing as we plan for the potential for schools to be closed maybe on and off for some period of time?

– Well, you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this as you can imagine we’ve had our approach with districts and even teachers in schools, I would say we’ve been taking an incremental approach. We’ll say, hey, you don’t have to make your whole school PBL or your classroom all the time. Let’s start with two high quality projects a year because if that happened K-12, that would be 13 years in 26 projects we’re increased complexity and that would be a big step forward, engaging kids, getting them a sense of who they are as learners and preparing them for the future. Because we felt like you don’t, you don’t want to completely disrupt people’s education. Well, education has been disrupted completely, and I think three big tenants that we’ve used to, help kids comply with learning. Seat time, Carnegie units, not applicable right now to test in the classroom, tests for accountability, not happening right now. Grades, most schools are moving to a pass fail, no credit, so the three things that really kept kids in and then now you send them home and you say, hey, you should do this work. You should fill out these forms and read this stuff that doesn’t really matter to you. And I think we’re both experienced for the families at home, being frustrated at trying to get kids to engage in that and at school going, well, why? I guess, you know what? Kids aren’t doing their work. Which by the way, many of them weren’t doing that work when they’re in school as well, so as we think forward, I think a project, especially with schools opening and closing or even what we’re hearing a lot of is sort of a hybrid model in California where maybe you’d have half the kids come, in the morning and half in the afternoon or maybe odd even days, so they’re going to have to begin given assignments and tasks and challenges, so they need to take home and work on independently or maybe using zoom or other tools doing breakout work. So the sooner that school systems and school leaders start thinking about building capacity for their teachers to facilitate high quality project based learning experiences with a distance in mind and if it doesn’t end up being distanced, then heck, it’s going to be great for kids in the classroom too. It helps deal with the cultural responsive piece on the equity, kids are going to need their social emotional needs tended to, this has been a traumatic experience for everyone and finding a way to engage them in learning is a great therapy, putting them in classrooms and rows and pushing them to do the compliance-based work after this long break, it’s going to be really challenging unless there’s some, hook for them that’s gonna engage them, It gets them thinking, I want to learn more about that so I’m gonna do the reading. That’s where we have to go and the sooner that systems start doing this, that’s why we’re like we had three partnerships already with school districts that have come to us and said, hey, can you start working with our teachers online? Right now this summer because we want to be ready when whatever happens when we come back. And we really think that most people should be thinking whether it’s project based learning or another deeper strategy for engagement.

– School systems and school leaders need to be thinking about that right now, like starting to make the pivot from well dealing with the current crisis to sort of thinking about the scenario of the future crisis when schools are back or sorta back.

– Yeah. I think if I were to summarize, it’s almost like you’re saying, what we really need is to think about structures that enable flexible learning and project based learning is kind of out of the box, a way of planning learning that can afford you great flexibility.

– Exactly.

– That’s why they seem to almost be like a really great match in this moment because you’ve got a need for flexibility and a learning mode that supports and encourages flexible ways of learning, so very interesting to hear

– Well said Adam, thank you.

– Hey, I’m just doing the listening here. You’re doing the hard part and actually teaching me, well Bob let’s, we’re gonna go ahead and wrap up this conversation cause we want to keep these lounge talks short for folks, just like they had popped into the teacher’s lounge, of course they’re not doing that anymore. So thanks so much for joining us and we’ll definitely have you back to continue the conversation.

– All right, thanks Adam. [bright upbeat music]

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