STEM Teaches Failure as an Opportunity to Learn


This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >
With all the push for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, I think sometimes what we really want out of STEM education gets lost. STEM education came out of the need for more students in the fields of STEM. As scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, we want more students to find passions in these content areas and ultimately become leaders in the field. However, we can often get too focused on the content. We must remember that the pillar of STEM education isn’t just the content but also the mindsets behind it. 21st century skills are a critical component to STEM education. We want students who think critically, creatively, and collaboratively within the content areas of STEM. You can’t have one without the other. In fact, one of the critical mindsets that STEM education can foster is using failure as an opportunity to grow and learn.

Design Challenges
One of the key components of STEM education is design challenges. With these design challenges, students might work individually and in teams to solve problems ranging from robotic challenges to bridge designing to physics puzzles. By default, students will try out ideas that do not work completely. This is where great learning can occur. Because a STEM design challenge is set up with multiple opportunities to test ideas in a safe way, failure is viewed as an opportunity to learn. The design process takes time and therefore provides multiple opportunities to try and fail. In other academic environments, students often only get one shot at an assignment, which creates a fear of failure. With STEM design challenges, there is safety in failure.

Deeper Learning through Failure
When we “fail forward” we ask more questions—that is, we move forward and delve deeper into the inquiry process. For example, when students first design a bridge and it crashes to the ground due to weight issues, they will inevitably ask, “Why did this happen?” “How much weight did it hold?” “What new idea might I try out?” These questions require students to not just know that the idea wasn’t quite on track but also to understand why it wasn’t on track. These failures in STEM design challenges foster deeper learning through questioning. Students will then need to seek out further instructional resources from experts in the field, books and online readings, and their teacher. Failure fosters more learning; it doesn’t hinder it.

Failure in the Real World
We know that students learn more when they see how their learning connects to the real world. Often in STEM education, we partner with experts in the field to learn from them. Sometimes these experts aid in a design challenge or provide feedback and information on an assignment. For these STEM experts, failure is a natural part of their work. They are constantly failing and innovating. By working with STEM experts in the real world, our students can experience this type of failure and discover that it is just a natural part of both learning and life.

When we consider the components of the ASCD Whole Child Approach, we can see a clear and strong connection between STEM education and the safe, engaged, and challenged tenets. Students who recognize failure as an opportunity to learn experience a safe place to learn. They are engaged because failure opens up multiple paths and opportunities to learn in real-world contexts. And finally, they are challenged because STEM design challenges require complex thinking and problem solving.

What’s Your Intent? Developing Collaboration and Communication with Technology Tools


p21logoThis post originally appeared on Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), the leading national organization advocating for 21st century readiness for every student. P21 brings together the business community, education leaders, and policymakers who believe our education system must equip students with rigorous academic coursework and the skills to be successful employees and citizens. View Original >


ipadin classroom
Driving Question: How do we use digital tools to develop students’ collaboration and communication skills?

Technology is a great tool that can enhance instruction and assessment, not replace it. Likewise, when we consider classroom collaboration and communication, we can leverage technology to enhance not replace. Technology alone is not a 21st century skill, but the use of its tools for developing the skills of communication and collaboration is. As digital footprints expand and as technology permeates schooling, we need to embrace its tools as part of instruction, but with an intentional focus and purpose.

What’s Your Intention?
It’s most helpful if we know how you intend to use the tools and for what purpose in the classroom. The first distinction is to be clear whether a tool is being used for instruction or for assessment. Careful choice is a must.

If you intend students to use a tool (as opposed to having students just pick it up like a library book), it is best to know its specific use so you model, give instruction and guide practice on how to use it. To avoid taking too much time, a limited amount of digital tools can help. From the examples shared below, know your intent for each and consider using a few rather than all the tools.

Care must be taken not to overdo the use of digital tools. Sometimes we have a tendency to get “tech happy” and in the name of student choice, overload the classroom with too many digital gadgets. This lack of focused purpose will be overwhelming and very frustrating for students. You will also feel this frustration if students are making bad choices.

Digital Tools for Instruction
These are tools that lend themselves to developing students’ collaboration and communication as students pursue projects or standards-aligned lessons. They enhance instruction; they do not replace it.

Skype in the Classroom – One great way to practice communication skills is through presentations with guest speakers and experts. Skype in the Classroom can help you find guest speakers for your classroom for intentional digital communication. In addition, classrooms can Skype with other classrooms. This opens up not just the opportunities for collaboration and communication, but also for cross-cultural conversations.

Scrumy – This is a great tool for project and task management. Students can use it to self-manage their work and collaborate effectively on a task. Tasks can be sorted into To Do, In Progress, Verify, and Done. Scrumy also allows for roles and tasks to be assigned to specific students in a group.

Padlet – Students can instantly setup an instant collaboration tool which captures conversations in real time. Students color code their writing so that you can guide student’s communication and collaboration work on a writing task. Links and other resources can be embedded as well. The conversation on Padlet can even be played back so that you can see the full package of the conversation.

Remind – Remind is used by teachers to keep in constant communication with students, but also parents. It’s a free app that can be used on many devices. You can send out reminders as well as resources and even voice clips. Not only can this help facilitate deeper learning through PBL, but also helps you model what effective communication looks like.

Digital Tools for Assessment
One of the best ways to use digital tools is to use the tools for intentional assessment. Whether formative or summative, digital tools can provide documentation of learning so that learning can tell a story and track a journey.

You should select these tools so you can assess how students are learning how to collaborate and communicate. In addition, the assessment should be focused on very specific quality indicators of collaboration and communication. What exactly are you looking for when students use that tool? Perhaps you are looking for “consensus building,” or “giving effective and polite feedback.” These are specific and measurable.

Edmodo is a free and intuitive tool that brings teacher-controlled social networking to the classroom. It allows you to control how and when students enter a classroom discussion. You can comment on their work, give quizzes, and make corrective assignments. They can post work for you or peers to review and make comments. It works on any web browser and connects to Google Chrome and Adobe.

ISTE is not an assessment tool but it provides resources for technology teaching. One of the critical ways to message effective communication and collaboration is digital citizenship. ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) has excellent quality indicators for what a good digital citizen is, and teachers can use these indications to build a rubric and assess students. With a focus on Digital Citizenship, you can combine the instruction and assessment of collaboration and communication and technology usage into one package.

All in All
As you consider the use of digital tools in their instruction or assessment of collaboration and communication, you need to be intentional and focused. Digitals can enhance the great instruction and assessment that is already occurring and help foster student engagement in learning how to be effective collaborators and communicators.

Not Just Group Work — Productive Group Work!


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


We know that group work can be instructionally effective, but only if it is productive. We don’t just want busywork when students work in groups — we want learning! Work doesn’t always create learning, an idea that many teachers still struggle with. These teachers make the assumption that even with a clear task, group work will be productive. Conversely, many teachers assume that when building classroom culture, group work will be productive as well. Actually, multiple factors lead to effective and productive group work, but all must be in place to make it happen. So how do we create that structure for productive group work?

Clear Intention
The purpose of group work needs to be clear not only to the students, but also to the teacher. Do students even know the intended outcome for why they’ve been assigned to work in a group? Have those expectations been clearly set? Have students set those expectations themselves? These are questions that educators need to consider as they structure group work. In addition, there are many ways to do group work, from random groupings to teacher choice to something in the middle. All choices are good, as long as you have a clear intention. Teacher choice can be effective when the idea is guiding instruction based on assessed needs. Student choice is excellent for projects and extension assignments. Whatever drives the choice, the intention of the grouping must be clear.

Heterogeneous vs. Homogeneous
Similar to clear intention, heterogeneous and homogeneous grouping must be intentional in choice. There are pitfalls in both. Putting together students of similar ability may not always produce the desired outcome. If students in a low-achieving group do not have access to resources (teacher, materials, etc.) to complete the task, they will not reach the desired outcome. Sometimes, members of high-achieving groups fail to interact with each other, so teachers must ensure that culture is built for that. Similarly, heterogeneous teams shouldn’t just be “higher and lower kids” together, but instead carefully arranged. Sometimes the high-achieving students will take over and exclude others from the learning process. Educators need to think very carefully about their construction of homogeneous and heterogeneous groupings, and the intentions for both.

The Importance of Structure
As explained in the video about PBL, structured collaboration is key. You should not put students in groups and simply ask them to complete the task. Along with clear goals, teachers need to consider protocols and structures to facilitate effective group work. Whether it is a critique protocol or reciprocal teaching, these structures can help ensure that the group work moves along efficiently and with purpose.

Scaffolding Culture
How are you building a culture of collaboration in your classroom? Teachers should not forget the importance of scaffolding the skills needed for students to work in groups. Paired with a good collaboration rubric, where students know what is expected of them in terms of behavior, teachers need to scaffold skills such consensus building, effective communication, and the ability to critique. Educators need to explicitly teach and assess collaboration, a critical 21st-century skill, if they want their group work to be productive.

Individual Accountability
This can work in many ways. If you keep the group size limited, it can lead to greater individual accountability, because the work must be spread over a limited number of people. Clear and authentic roles can also lead students not only to value each other’s work, but also to realize that the task or project can only be completed when everyone does his or her role and work effectively. It is also crucial that an educator builds in formative and summative assessments from these group work sessions so that he or she can check for understanding and ensure that individual learning is occurring.

Productive group work creates collaborative learning, a model where all students contribute. It really builds a team where the learning and learners are interdependent. More of this shared work needs to happen in the classroom, but only when careful steps have been taken to ensure success.

How do you ensure productive group work with collaborative learning? Please tell us about your strategies in the comments below.

How Can Project-Based Learning Motivate Students Even Further?


This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

We all know that project-based learning (PBL) works, and there is research to support this. Districts leaders and individual teachers use PBL to deliver content, including content aligned to new, rigorous standards such as the Common Core State Standards or the Next Generation Science Standards. Projects integrating this learning strategy can come in all shapes and sizes; some projects are interdisciplinary while others focus on a single discipline, and each project can use varying levels of technology. Though each project can cover a wide variety of topics, there are common “essential elements,” as identified by the Buck Institute for Education, that must exist for true PBL to take place. While these elements provide a great foundation for building effective projects, educators can take project design even further to motivate all learners.

True Voice and Choice
To effectively implement PBL in the classroom, educators must first motivate and engage their students. Teachers can often accomplish this by allowing students to provide input on their learning experiences. When educators begin providing voice and choice to students, however, they often do so sparingly. Instead, teachers need to personalize each student’s level of voice and choice based on how they learn. On the ambitious end of offering voice and choice, an educator can serve as a conductor overseeing how students will shape their learning experiences, what path they will take, and how they will demonstrate that learning. Educators should continually aim for this student-centered learning style, and not adhere to a permanent practice of offering limited voice and choice.

Authentic Work
One necessary element of PBL is that students engage in authentic and meaningful activities. In order to reach this level of engagement, students must be able to envision an authentic audience that would benefit from their learning activities. Engaging students in authentic work can make it easier for them to see how their activities could influence an authentic audience by introducing them to real world challenges. Reflecting on questions such as “Who can provide us with relevant, expert feedback?” and “Who would find our work valuable and needed?” can help educators develop meaningful PBL activities. Students can make a difference, and educators should build projects around authentic purposes. When the work matters and is shared with an authentic audience, students are intrinsically motivated by the fact that what they are doing has value.

Challenge and Rigor
One major myth of student engagement is the idea that all learning should be fun. Yes, fun projects can engage some students, but only temporarily. In fact, challenging and rigorous assignments are often more motivating than fun and easy activities. We’ve all experienced times when we were appropriately challenged; we lost track of time, we thought more deeply, and we learned. Educators should seek to challenge students. When educators provide rigorous and authentic projects and give students voice and choice, students will accept that challenge. PBL doesn’t demand more work; it demands challenging work.

Educators who implement PBL using the following strategies will find that their students want to dig deeper and learn the material. Sometimes these projects “get out of control” in a good way and spawn new, authentic projects that teach important content skills. A skilled educator can see this deviation as an opportunity to harness student motivation and to further engage students in the learning process.

Getting into the PBL Groove


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


My project-based learning colleague John Larmer wrote a great blog on whether or not to start the year with a PBL project. He astutely articulates the benefits and challenges of doing it, as well as other considerations for implementation. Regardless, PBL teachers want to start the year off on the right foot to make sure that PBL is part of the classroom culture. Here are some steps that you can take at the start of the year to get into the PBL groove

Set the Tone for Collaboration
It is crucial that, from the start, students know that collaboration is a norm in the classroom. While teachers often do team-building activities at the beginning of the year, they could also be doing more authentic collaboration on challenges and problems. These activities might be around content such as math, or even speaking and listening skills in a debate on a controversial topic. Teachers need to present students or co-construct with them a collaboration rubric that is utilized and refined throughout the year. From this rubric, teachers can design or select lessons that target specific aspects of collaboration, such as coming to consensus or group time management. Students should reflect and set goals for collaboration, and these should be goals that they’ll revisit. All of these strategies help to build the culture of collaboration necessary for successful PBL.

Critique and Revision Practice
We all know the challenges of having students give and receive a constructive critique. While you can teach these skills in the context of the project, you can also start building them with students from day one so that they’ll see critique and revision as normal parts of classroom practice, as well as essential parts of PBL. From protocols and gallery walks to anonymous peer reviews like the one you’ll find in Austin’s Butterfly, teachers can intentionally scaffold critique and revision to support it in a PBL project.

Educate About or Review PBL
You will have students that come into your classroom that either have no experience with PBL or need to be reminded about what it looks, sounds, and feels like. You can review essential components and steps of PBL through video examples, project examples, or reflecting on past projects. Students can compare and contrast PBL with other teaching methods to help build a common expectation and understanding for what project-based learning is all about.

Build Questioning Strategies
PBL requires the inquiry process. While the project’s driving question can help facilitate inquiry, students need skills to design and ask their own questions. Eventually they can design their own driving questions for a project, but earlier in their journey as PBL learners, you can start by teaching levels of questions (PDF, 99KB), crafting these questions for research, and how to search for relevant information. By intentionally scaffolding these questioning skills, it sends the message that we are all curious students in a curious classroom, life-long learners who continually question and investigate.

These are just some of the steps that you can take to build your classroom’s PBL culture, to create an environment where students not only know what PBL is, but are ready to jump in. Even if you choose not to do all of these, you can collaborate with colleagues to share the load, and create common expectations that we all support PBL across grade levels and content areas. Building PBL culture is intentional and must start as soon as students walk in the door on the first day of school

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