The Tyranny of Being On Task

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 >



I remember when I was first teaching and was getting ready for my first official observation and evaluation. I was very nervous. My principal had told me she would be looking for a classroom where students were on task. Heaven forbid that any students were off task. I thought that if my classroom even hinted that some students were off task, I would never be a successful teacher, and perhaps told to leave the teaching profession.

I now know that it is unreasonable to ensure complete on task behavior from every student at all times, but back then I wanted a good evaluation, and I wanted my students to be on task so that they would learn and I could support them. Before the observation, I was told by my colleagues to have students quietly work on an assignment after I gave some instruction. “Don’t have them do group work. Don’t have them present. It’s too risky!” This advice seemed to be successful. When my principal came in, the students were quiet as I moved around to check in with them. After the observation, I was praised for my success in keeping students on task.

Many years later, I taught in a school with a focus on project-based learning. Learning was messy and conflicts emerged as students worked together to solve problems, but ultimately students succeeded. The meaning of “on task” was different there. Yes, there were times when students were off task and I needed to redirect them. Yet I struggled with the expectation of consistent on task behavior.

There seem to be forces in education that push us to make sure students are on task. Why do we attempt to meet that demand when we know it’s unreasonable? Why do we demand on task behavior when it is not equivalent to student engagement? Isn’t it OK for students to be off task from time to time? In fact, don’t students need time to be off task? To take it to another level, what if off task is really on task?

What Does the Science of the Brain Tell Us?
Adults have built executive functions of the brain, and we receive a dopamine reward when we do the right thing. Our students have not yet built up those functions. In the teenage years, students receive that same dopamine reward for very different behavior, when they take risks and explore. When a student does something that is a risk in the classroom, something we might consider off task behavior, they are doing so because they receive a dopamine reward for doing so. Science tells us that students will not only be off task on occasion but might even have strong motivations to behave that way.

What Can We Do?
Instead of working against off task behavior, we should embrace it and try to reframe it as an on task moment that is necessary and useful to our students. Judy Willis calls such moments brain breaks in her book Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning. She wants us to understand that such breaks are needed and are useful to students. They prevent the brain from becoming overloaded and give time for information to be processed and retained effectively. On a related note, Eric Jensen explains that movement gives new spatial meaning to information being processed, and increases oxygenation of the brain as well (subscription required).

We should explore ways to incorporate brain breaks more into our classroom routines and norms. Some other practical strategies include:

Be mindful of students’ attention span and chunk activities and tasks appropriately.
Break up tasks with conversations and checks for understanding.
Admit personal challenges and failures related to staying on task.
Meet with students one on one to discuss off task behavior rather than shame them.
Smile and laugh more.
Balance louder and quieter activities.
Move more.

Brain breaks are essential to classroom culture and student learning. These seemingly off task moments are truly on task because they provide a space for students to learn better, and take into account the fact that students are growing and maturing. Brain breaks are responsive to students and help us become allies of their behavior rather than punitive figures. In fact, brain breaks help us as educators to rethink the binary nature of on task and off task and to realize that all the work is on task and helpful to children as they learn and grow.

What brain breaks do you use in your classroom?

Tips for Combining Project-Based and Service Learning

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 >



Service learning is a great way to not only take meaningful action but also teach important content and curriculum objectives. It is also a chance to build empathy and compassion and have students learn from others outside of school. Project-based learning (PBL) matches well with service learning as both focus on authenticity and meaningful work. When we use service learning as a focus for PBL, we can ensure that the experience is highly effective and impacts learners and also the larger community.

Here are some tips for how to create a PBL project with a focus on service learning:

Assess Community Needs
Teachers and students can find local partnerships to help focus the service learning and project work. It’s useful to provide students with a question to answer, as a way of providing focus for the work. With a partnership, students can find ways to assess community needs. Students can decide what they want to learn and how they will use that information. This is similar to a “Need to Know” list often found in a PBL experience. They should also investigate what data or information already exists to help them and figure out how they will go about collecting more information. The are many opportunities here to address real needs, but students and local partnerships need to work together to find a focus.

Align Content and Skills
Of course, it is always important to align the project to overall outcomes. Teachers can look for appropriate learning targets and standards to address, or solicit these from students. What do they want to learn? As a teacher, you can help them navigate how their project outcomes will meet course outcomes. PBL and service learning also provide an opportunity to teach and assess success skills related to civic responsibility, collaboration, problem solving, empathy, and critical thinking.

Learn From Each Other
Service learning should be a reciprocal relationship where students are learning from their audience and the audience is learning from the students. PBL often does focus on a public audience and product, but here you might consider how students will learn from that audience as well. How will students listen? How will you scaffold listening strategies for students to build empathy and respect? How will students share learning that is reflective of deeply listening to the audience they are serving?

Reflect Often
Reflection is a key component of PBL, and can also help students create more effective service learning products. Have students reflect often—before, during, and after the project—on what they are learning in terms of content and also in terms of empathy, respect, service, civic duty, and more. Reflecting on these topics and skills can help students internalize their learning and allow students and teachers to slow down to ensure meaningful action and learning.

Create an Action Plan
In terms of management, PBL leverages student-centered tools so that students learn to manage themselves. Team working agreements, task lists, and more all help students own the process. Once needs, and ideas for addressing those needs, have been determined for the project, students and local partners can create an action plan, in which they determine small, manageable steps to take to ensure great learning and great service. This is also an opportunity to co-create benchmarks and formative assessments that matter.

Evaluate the Impact
Once action is taken, make sure you take time with students to evaluate the impact. While PBL often has a public product and audience, we don’t always take the time to see or measure the impact. With all the great work students are doing, they and their audience deserve to know the extent of the impact of that work. How much of a difference did they make? Even realizing that there wasn’t much of an impact will still be good learning for students and teachers. This step also provides another opportunity to listen and reflect.

Celebrate Success
Don’t forget to celebrate. Students will have had some impact on their community and on themselves. Carve out time to celebrate where they were before the project and how far they have come. Celebrations can be traditional, like a gathering or party, but they can also involve discussions, letter writing, and even screening photos and videos of work from the project.

Service learning and PBL are nothing new. Teachers and students have long done amazing projects that serve others. We should continue to push ourselves to make our projects more authentic and more impactful. How are you implementing projects that serve?

Tools for Student Self-Management

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 >



As educators, we have so many tasks to handle each and every school day. Student absences, assessments, phone calls, meetings — these can pile up on our plates. Classroom management is often considered one of the tasks we need to take on. While this is true to some extent, perhaps we can take some of the classroom management load off the teacher and put it on the students themselves. Management doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, something teachers decide or handle on their own. Students should be invited into the process of managing learning in the classroom. Here are some tools many teachers have used to empower students to self-manage.

Team Operating Agreements
Agreements or contracts created or co-created with students can be a great tool to help them own their challenges when it comes to self-management. While you might have class or school norms, students may not find a true attachment to them. When students create norms, they are more likely to follow them. In addition, students can create norms and agreements that are personalized. While one team might need an agreement about keeping their hands and feet to themselves, another might need one about the free expression of ideas. Norms and agreements should meet the needs of students, not simply be imposed upon them. When students help create the norms, it’s more likely that they will meet the students’ needs.

Task Lists
In addition, students may need scaffolds to organize their thinking, planning, and overall work. They can use task lists to assign tasks to specific team members. Sometimes these sheets have places for teachers, team leaders, and others to sign off when tasks are completed. Scrumy is an online tool I have used with students to organize their work — it functions as an interactive planning tool. Task lists are also great tools for assessment and conversations on equitable collaboration.

Checklists and Rubrics
Of course, rubrics and checklists are tried-and-true tools for self-management. There is nothing new here, but it’s a good reminder that assessment tools are also great management tools. They promote reflection and goal setting, as well as ownership of the work. Checklists and rubrics are more powerful when they are co-created with students, as students tend to understand and take ownership of expectations. Keep checklists and rubrics available to students and plan intentional time for students to use them to assess themselves and their peers, to help manage projects, and to keep constant momentum in the learning process.

Time Management Logs
Using time management logs, students document how long they spend on specific tasks, assignments, or collaborative work. They can do this over the course of a week or longer. The intent is to document and then reflect upon the time they spend learning and working. The log may surprise students and inspire them to use their time more efficiently.

Flexible Seating and Spaces
I’m a big fan of classrooms that have a variety of places for students to work. Some students need quiet zones while others need collaborative tables. Some students work well with exercise balls as seats while others prefer standing desks. There are many possibilities for meeting students’ needs in classroom seating and arrangement. Meeting those needs can promote student ownership of how and where they work and learn. As the teacher, you can coach them through the process of selecting appropriate spaces to work and learn, and students will learn to self-manage this choice as well.

Reflection and Goal Setting
All of the tools above are completely ineffective unless they are paired with reflection time. Just as we take time to reflect on content learning, we also need to take time to reflect on the learning process. All of the tools above provide great opportunities for students to reflect on how they have learned in targeted ways and to set goals. Learning logs are a great tool for this as well, as they promote the process of learning, not just the product. Don’t forget reflection on self-management — it’s critical.

Remember, the greatest tool for management is engagement. Even when our students are engaged, they still need tools to manage themselves. Different tools work for different students, so try experimenting with a mix of the tools above to have students take more ownership of managing their learning process.

Three Tips for More Engaging PBL Projects

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 >


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Project-based learning (PBL) is a powerful tool to promote student engagement. It allows students to investigate real-world challenges and problems and create high-quality work for authentic audiences. It allows students to work collaboratively and individually to learn the content and skills they need to be “future ready.” Books by John Larmer and Suzie Boss are great tools to get started designing these high quality projects, and educators can reinvent projects of the past to make sure they are truly engaging. Here are three tips to consider as you design and redesign PBL projects for your students to make them even more engaging and focused on learning.

Allow for Failure
In my Arias Publication Freedom to Fail, I give many tips and advocate for the power of failure as a learning experience. Many PBL projects focus on real-world design challenges, and just like in the real world, designers fail. In fact, many intentionally fail quickly to learn. As educators, we, too, can allow for failure in our projects. We can tell students upfront that they will learn and design high-quality products, and it will be ok to “get it wrong.” Students will be more likely to take risks and innovate—and then engage to learn more material.

Set Up Flexible Classroom Spaces
The classroom environment should communicate a message of collaboration and innovation for PBL. We should experiment with different spaces so collaboration is natural and easy. PBL is a great way to individualize learning, and different seating arrangements like standing desks and bean bags can allow the space to be personalized based on what students are doing in the project. Students can move in a fluid fashion and receive feedback from their peers, revise their work, or get direct instruction from their teacher as necessary.

Provide Opportunities for Student Voice and Choice
This is crucial to any PBL project. There should always be an element of choice in what students produce, who they work with, and how they work. This will look different depending on age, time of year, experience with PBL, etc. We know our students, and, therefore, can make great decisions around voice and choice. However, we should also trust our students. We might be hesitant to give them choice, but we know there are many ways to do so (e.g., time, place, products, and people). We can jigsaw content and allow students to choose their team members, the products they want to produce, when they will share benchmarks and final products, where they want to work in and outside of the classroom, etc. The possibilities for voice and choice in PBL are endless, and we should embrace these choices to empower students and create better student engagement.

There are many ways to revise and improve PBL projects to make them more relevant and authentic. Educators should take part in this revision process to create engaging experiences that encourage student learning.

Voice and Choice: It’s More Than Just “What”

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 >


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As a PBL advocate, I know how important it is to have voice and choice in the learning environment. When I work with teachers, we always collaborate to design projects with the appropriate level of voice and choice for students, which depends on factors such as time of the year, age level, content, and many others.

There is never a one-size-fits-all method to voice and choice. It’s always contextualized to teacher and student lives and experiences. However, many times we oversimplify voice and choice to what students create in their project, or we simply forget that there are many possibilities. While having students express voice and choice in their products is one great option, let’s consider more opportunities to create engagement and student-centered learning.

More “What”
While product is the vehicle for showing content and learning, perhaps we can offer more choice in the content? This may not work in all cases, but it can certainly work when we have standards broad enough to allow students to select specific sub-content within the standard or learning outcome. Maybe we’d allow students to choose topics related to the skill. I know a teacher that let students analyze a variety of cell phone plans of their choice, but still demanded that they show the same skills in linear equations. This choice works well with skill-based learning outcomes and standards, but it’s not limited to those things. I know this isn’t a new idea, just a reminder that we might have more flexibility than we think in the content that students learn.

“Who”
Students can and should choose who they work with. However, take time with them to reflect on various prompts such as:

Who do you need to help?
Who can help you?
What are my strengths?
What are my areas of growth?

Prompts like these can help students make intentional decisions in the learning partners they choose and give them a powerful range of incentives. In addition, many times students create work for a variety of audiences. While we might choose that for them, we can also ask them to whom they want to present their work or with whom they will share their work.

“Why” and Purpose
Students always want to know why they’re learning material, and we often go to great lengths to make the learning relevant through the task itself or by trying to explain connections. Instead, we could partner with students in deciding the “why.” Ask them why they want to learn this material, or help them brainstorm ideas and then let them decide why they want to learn something. Students can become the driving force in the purpose of their learning: “I will learn this in order to _______” is a great sentence starter to give them more of a voice in the “why” of learning.

“Where”
Why do students always have to learn in the same place? Why at desks? Why not on the floor? Why not in the hallway? Why not at home? Why not on a field trip? Why not in the library? Why not in another classroom? More and more schools and experimenting with flexible spaces and learning environments — quiet corners, sitting and standing desks, conference-style areas, makerspaces, and more. We can offer more voice and choice to students by allowing them to decide where they want to learn. This can meet their social-emotional needs, foster engagement in learning, and create a space where learning is physically dynamic.

“When”
If we are personalizing learning, we need to be flexible about when students are creating work, when they are learning certain concepts, and even when they might turn work in. While this might be uncomfortable to consider, it’s a great area to stretch yourself as a teacher in giving up control and allowing students to take more of that control. Teachers can coach students to pick appropriate tasks for learning material, coach them to relearn material in a way that students want, and help them plan effective deadlines for work. Allowing students control over when they learn can create an environment where time is no longer the most important variable, and instead learning becomes the driving force.

Not only can voice and choice create more engagement in learning, but giving students agency can also empower them to become self-directed learners. Voice and choice can allow students to explore their passions and feel honored for their ideas and opinions. We should all be providing more voice and choice, not creating walls to stifle these things.

How do you or will you provide more voice and choice to your students?

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