Tag project based learning

{ The Independent Project …* } What If Students Designed Their Own Learning?

A few weeks ago I posted a deeply insightful observation from John Maeda about the disconnect between thinking and doing in academia. Maeda argued that the gift of ideas is the curse of doing nothing and highlighted the stigma around “doing” in the world of pure academia. I posed the question: How might we help students become fluent in both literacies of doing and thinking? Just this morning I read an interesting article on Ashoka’s Start Empathy blog about the importance of college students taking ownership of their education by engaging with the myriad learning opportunities surrounding them both in and outside the classroom. The quote below really struck a chord with me and I thought it highlighted a potent entryway into rethinking * the harmful dichotomies we have created between thinking and doing and being students and “real” people functioning in the “real” world:

“The very best students wring the veritable sponge of their institution for every last drop of value. They assume ownership of their education by taking advantage of all the available resources. They let what they learn shape them as human beings so that when the mantle of “student” eventually falls away, a knowledgeable, prepared, and motivated person remains underneath.” – Engaged Learning, Engaged Living 

What might this process look like? How do we enable the young minds that are entrusted to us to engage with and construct their learning in a way that shapes them as human beings rather than simply as “students”–an identity which is context-specific and thus ephemeral (and far too often, is experienced as imposed and begrudged by children who are disengaged and cannot wait to shed the “student” label, eagerly awaiting emancipation from the school system)? In other words, how might we produce ‘knowmads’–lifelong, engaged and passionate learners? One fantastic initiative, which attempts to do just that, is The Independent Project, started by a high school student, Sam Levin, in 2010.

The Independent Project is an alternative student driven school-within-a-school that was started at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

The idea for The Independent Project came about from that student’s own experience of high school, and his observation of the experiences of his peers. The two main things he felt were missing from many high school classrooms were engagement and mastery. He also felt that even students who were engaged were often learning material that was not very intellectually valuable. They were learning lots of information, but very little about how to obtain information on their own, or even create new information. His intent was to design a school in which students would be fully engaged in and passionate about what they were learning, would have the experience of truly mastering something, or developing expertise in something, and would be learning how to learn. He felt that the most important ingredient to a school like that would be that it was student-driven. Research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on engagement suggested that if students have more control over their learning, they will be more engaged, excited, and committed to their studies. He also felt that it was important for the school to be focused on methods rather than specific topics, having students work like actual scientists, mathematicians, or writers. – Sam Levin’s ‘White Paper’ on The Independent Project 

The pilot for the Independent Project ran for one semester, accepting eight students ranging in grade levels and academic ability, and was divided into four parts: Orientation, The Sciences, The Arts, and The Collective Endeavor. The students’ days were broken up into collective learning in the mornings and independent, project-based, inquiry-led learning in the afternoons. Watch the two videos below, produced by the students themselves, to learn more about The Independent Project. Also be sure to check out Sam Levin’s White Paper on the project for a detailed overview of the pilot and helpful tips, ideas and insights on the project.

question, engage & rethink …*

Hat Tip: This Is What a Student-Designed School Looks Like via MindShift, published July 14, 2014

Friday Link Fest…*

Friday Link Fest...* | rethinked.org | Photo by Elsa Fridman


Why video games may be good for you ~ “Game research has tended to get sucked down into a black hole of people yelling at each other, saying either games are good or games are bad,” says Gentile, who studies the effects of video games on physiology and behaviour. “I think we are starting to move beyond this inappropriately simplistic idea to see games can be powerful teachers that we can harness.” via BBC Future, published August 26, 2013.

Debunking the Genius Myth ~ Unlike sports or music, where students can see others practicing, much of schoolwork practice happens at home, builds slowly over time, and goes unseen. “You don’t see the work others are doing, so it looks like it never happened.”  via MindShift, published August 30, 2013.

Cognitive Science Meets Pre-Algebra ~ Interleaving has become an especially hot area of interest among researchers. It mixes distinct but related problems or ideas — long division, say, and multiplying fractions — in daily homework assignments. A growing number of cognitive scientists now believe that this cocktail-shaker approach could improve students’ comprehension of a wide array of scientific concepts, whether chemical bonds, parallel evolution, the properties of elementary particles or pre-algebra. via New York Times, published September 2, 2013

Is School Enough? Documentary Film Delves In ~ “Connected learning suggests that there should be a learning ecology, and that what we do outside of school should be connected in very strong ways to what we do inside of school,” said Jenkins. “School has to respond to the informal learning that’s taking place at home and in the community.” via MindShift, published September 3, 2013.

Abraham Maslow and the pyramid that beguiled business ~ “He really was ground-breaking in his thinking,” Lachman says. “He was saying that you weren’t acting on the basis of these uncontrollable, unconscious desires. Your behaviour was not just influenced by external rewards and reinforcement, but there were these internal needs and motivations.” via BBC, published August 31, 2013.

Why Kitchens are Better Than Conference Rooms ~ Just this morning, I was reminded how food has the power to bring people together. As I sat down to write this post, a delicious aroma came wafting through the studio. I closed my laptop to investigate. Nearing the kitchen, I saw a large group gathered around a simmering pot of homemade soup. Everyone had the same instinct I did—taking a much-needed break to joke around and get reenergized. After a few minutes, the group broke up and returned to work, creative juices flowing, excited for the meal we would soon enjoy together. via Tim Brown on LinkedIn, published September 3, 2013.

Design Your Class Like A Video Game ~ While there is no single way “school is,” there are general patterns that reward compliance, thoroughness and punctuality while stifling learner-centeredness, abstraction, and play. What would happen if a student was required to unlock the next assignment in a project-based learning environment? via Teach Thought, published September 4, 2013.

Study: To The Human Brain, Me Is We ~ A new study from University of Virginia researchers supports a finding that’s been gaining science-fueled momentum in recent years: the human brain is wired to connect with others so strongly that it experiences what they experience as if it’s happening to us. via Forbes, published August 22, 2013.


Artist Collaborates with her 4-Year-Old Daughter to Create Amazing Illustrations ~ Professional illustrator Mica Angela Hendricks has been collaborating with her 4-year-old daughter on a series of wonderful drawings that pass back and forth between mother and daugher until reaching an always unexpected final form. “Kids’ imaginations way outweigh a grownup’s, and it always ALWAYS looked better that what I had imagined. ALWAYS.” says Hendricks. via Colossal, published August 31, 2013.

J.K. ROWLING: The fringe benefits of failure ~ via Zen Pencils, published August 14, 2013.

Graphic Design Tool Offers Skills To The Masses ~ Canva is a new online tool that aims to lower the barrier of entry to graphic design, allowing anyone (from professional designers to novices) to design projects including business cards, presentations, blog graphics and posters, with an easy-to-use interface and a vast library of fonts and images. The tool is not intended to replace designers, or professional design software such as Adobe Creative Suite. Rather, the platform allows users who don’t have the resources or sufficient need to purchase design software, to create more sophisticated designs than they would otherwise be able to. via PSFK, published September 2, 2013.

Grown-Up Tinker Toys Let You Build Your Own Everything ~ Turning his back on the IKEA model, designer David Graas invented a building kit called “Everything But the Manual.” It is, in essence, Tinker Toys for adults. It isn’t just for fun, though – this set is meant to build furniture, creative accents, and anything you can imagine. It consists of 260 oak sticks, each 415 mm long and 26 mm square, full of evenly-spaced holes. via Dornob Design, published September 3, 2013.

These Interactive Maps Compare 19th Century American Cities to Today ~ via Gizmodo, published September 2, 2013.

The Mµseum Is A Truly Puny Contribution To The Arts ~ The world’s tiniest museum is designed to tackle some of the biggest problems facing art institutions today: space and accessibility. via FastCo.Design, published August 29, 2013.


Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project Learning ~ Learning as adventure…* via Edutopia, published July 22, 2010.

An Introduction to World Literature by a Cast Of Literary & Academic Stars (Free Course) ~ via Open Culture, published September 1, 2013.

A Man’s Quest To Skype Someone From Every Country In The World ~ Comedian Mark Malkoff challenged himself to connect with people all over the globe via Skype, proving that you don’t need air tickets to travel the world.  via Design Taxi, published September 4, 2013.

The Critical Role of Play, Passion & Purpose for 21st Century Learning & Why Rethinking…* is Greater Than Inventing

“What must we do differently to develop the capacities of many more of our young people to be innovators?”

In this talk from the 2012 TEDxNYED conference, Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard and author of several books on transforming education for the 21st century, argues that in the new global ‘knowledge economy’, where knowledge has become a commodity, “what the world cares about is not what you know but what you can do with what you know, and that is a completely different education problem.” The question then becomes, “what must we do differently to develop the capacities of many more of our young people to be innovators?”

Wagner identifies a set of seven core competencies that  “every young person must be well on the way to mastering before he or she finishes high school, not just to get a good job, but to be a continuous learner and an active and informed citizen in the 21st century”. They are:

  1. Critical thinking & problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks & leading by influence
  3. Agility & adaptability
  4. Initiative & entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective oral & written communication
  6. Accessing & analyzing information
  7. Curiosity & imagination

Wanting to learn more about how these seven core competencies could be facilitated and cultivated, Wagner interviewed a wide range of young innovators in their 20s across various disciplines and industries as well as their parents to uncover any potential patterns in the young innovators’ upbringing and learning culture. He also asked each of the young innovators whether there had been teachers or mentors who had made a significant difference in their lives. Rather shockingly, one-third of all the innovators interviewed could not identify a single teacher or mentor. Also alarming, when Wagner went to interview each of the teachers and mentors that the other two-thirds of innovators had identified, he found that every single one of them was an outlier in his or her institution.

After conducting the interviews, Wagner did see a significant pattern emerge in how these adults had fostered the skills and motivation necessary to become innovators in the young people he had interviewed: “play to passion to purpose.”  Which led him to conclude, “the culture of schooling, as we have grown up with it, is radically at odds with the culture of learning that produces innovators in five essential respects.” They are:

  1. Celebrating individual achievement vs. Teamwork
  2. Specialization vs. Interdisciplinary
  3. Risk aversion & penalizing failure vs. Taking risks, learning from mistakes, iterating
  4. Culture of learning is about passive consumption vs. Culture of innovation is about creating real products for real audiences
  5. Extrinsic incentives for learning vs. Intrinsic Motivation

What I found particularly interesting about Wagner’s talk is the fact that while I agree 150 percent with the insights he shares about the direction education and the learning culture should be taking in the 21st century, I fundamentally disagree with his opening remark, when he says, “I would like to respectfully suggest that our schools are not failing, they certainly don’t need reforming. The system is obsolete and needs reinventing, not reforming.”  This notion that we must start from scratch, begin again or create a new foundation in order to achieve something innovative and thriving is one that keeps coming up and which we find unrealistic and detrimental, here at rethinked…*. It should come as no surprise given our name that the belief that rethinking is greater than inventing is a founding principle that underlies all of our work. So often these days, especially in the education reform debate, we hear people calling for a complete reinvention of the system–do away with classrooms, do away with teachers… These solutions are often unrealistic in terms of widespread implementation and rarely account for the wide spectrum of learning styles and differences in our students. Starting over is a luxury that we do not have. To be fair, Wagner does emphasize what each one of us can do as individuals–whether as parents, mentors, or teachers–to bridge the gap between the current culture of schooling and the culture of learning that fosters innovators (hint: model the desired behavior). And when he speaks of the need to reinvent the system, he’s talking about the underlying principles of our education culture rather than the brick and mortar educational system. Yet, the notion of sustainability does have an important place even in the sometimes abstract world of ideas. While it is disheartening to think that of all the young innovators Wagner interviewed, only two-thirds could identify a significant teacher or mentor, and that in every single case, these mentors were outliers in their fields, the fact is, they were still there–they are already a part of the system. It’s not so much about reinventing the wheel as much as finding ways to amplify, cultivate and facilitate the nuggets of potential already strewn throughout the system. I’d love to hear your take on the rethinking vs. inventing debate in the comments section below.

Play, passion, purpose: Tony Wagner at TEDxNYED | via TEDxTalks, published May 30, 2012.

Friday Link Fest…*

photo 5


Gearing Up for a Summer of Making, Connecting and Learning by Doing  ~ Suzie Boss, on project-based learning ideas for summer. via New York Times, published May 15, 2013.

Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking ~Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett is one of America’s foremost thinkers. In this extract from his new book, he reveals some of the lessons life has taught him. via The Guardian, published May 18, 2013

{ Pattern Thinkers } How an Entirely New, Autistic Way of Thinking Powers Silicon Valley ~ Three kinds of minds — visual, verbal, pattern — naturally complement one another. Yet society puts them together without anybody thinking about it. via Wired, published May 23, 2013.

Stanford Builds Strong Innovators with New “Design Thinking” Curriculum ~ via Product Lifecycle Stories, published May 8, 2013

16 Learning Strategies To Promote Grit And Delayed Gratification In Students  ~ In psychology, intelligence is not the primary predictor of success. It is the ability to persevere in hardship, persist and learn after failure, and have a resilient spirit in the face of obstacles. Intelligence is a gift that can be developed and nurtured, but continuing on a difficult path when the gratification is far away? That is an invaluable skill for all of us to learn. via TeachThought, published May 3, 2013

Technology for Learning vs.Technology for Education ~ Learn about Sylvia’s Super Awesome Maker Show and what researchers Rich Halverson and Benjamin Shapiro at the University of Wisconsin-Madison call “technologies for learners” as opposed to “technologies for education.” The latter include student information management systems, adaptive learning software, and computerized assessment tools. Technologies for learners, however, are designed to support the specific needs, goals, and learning styles of curious individuals—like Sylvia. via Remake Learning, published May 15, 2013.

How to Expel Hurtful Stereotypes from Classrooms across the Country ~ The fear of confirming derogatory stereotypes can hinder academic performance. Researchers are scaling up relevant interventions to statewide programs.via Scientific American, published May 22, 2013.

Collaborative Platforms Empower Citizens to Shape Their Communities ~ Design Thinking comes to the neighborhood: Participatory online platforms and visual tools help gauge and meet the actual needs of the population. via PSFK.

Why getting new things makes us feel so good: Novelty and the brain ~how intricately novelty seems to be associated with learning, which means we can use this knowledge to our advantage for learning new things and improving our memory. via Buffer, published May 16, 2013.


BMW Guggenheim Lab Maps the Trends Shaping Our Cities ~The BMW Guggenheim Lab, a traveling think tank/community discussion space, released their latest list of urban trends, gleaned from almost six months’ worth of workshops held in Mumbai, Berlin, and New York City. via Wired Design, published May 22, 2013.

Harvard Scientist Creates Incredible Microscopic Crystal Flowers In A Beaker ~ via Beautiful Decay, published May 22, 2013.

See The Works, And Stories, Of Renoir And Van Gogh As Comics ~ The Museum of Art of São Paulo brings the dramatic stories behind famous art works to life. via comics via FastCo.Create, published May 16, 2013.

Ernest Hemingway Creates a Reading List for a Young Writer, 1934  ~ via Open Culture, published May 23, 2013.

Boring Math Equations Turned Into Whimsical Animal Illustrations ~ In her illustrated series ‘Drawing Mathematics’, Zurich-based illustrator Kasia Jackowska turns boring math equations and concepts into adorable, whimsical animal illustrations. via Design Taxi, published May 20, 2013

{ Lucien Hervé: Le Corbusier in India } A Stunning Survey Of Pics By Le Corbusier’s Trusted Photographer ~ via FastCo.Design, published May 16, 2013.


Fostering Growth Mindsets ~ Why fostering a growth mindset can give your children the drive to succeed. Part of a discussion series between Christine Carter and Kelly Corrigan. via Greater Good Science Center, published October 2007.

How Coca-Cola Used Vending Machines To Try And Unite The People Of India And Pakistan~ Rethinking…* the vending machine as medium for exchange, expressing empathy & promoting peace: Specially designed Small World Machines placed in both countries in March served as live communications portals. via FastCo.Create, published May 20, 2013.

{ Limor Fried’s Circuit Playground } A Web Series For Kids Aims To Be The “Elmo for Engineering ~ Engineer and Adafruit Industries founder Limor Fried saw an unmet need in the educational-video space. “We looked around and didn’t see an ‘Elmo for engineering’ or a kid’s show that celebrated science and engineering,” she tells Co.Design. “Every kid seems to have a cell phone or a tablet, but they know more about SpongeBob than how a LED works on the device or TV they’re watching, and we wanted to change that.” via FastCo.Design, published May 22, 2013.

Shannon Rankin’s Gorgeous Collages Made Entirely Of Old Maps  ~ “Maps are subjective. Every map is an interpretation. We bring our own personal meaning when we view them. They can reference the physical and psychological simultaneously. They elicit our memories and become a metaphor of life and personal cosmologies.” via FastCo.Design, published May 20, 2013.

Why Our Brains Get Addicted to the Internet (and How to Avoid It) ~  via Lifehacker, published May 10, 2013.

Teaching Youngsters About Medical Science With A Game–And Killer Muenster ~ Genentech teams with Ideo to create Ralph’s Killer Muenster, which makes science weird & fun enough for kids to care. via FastCo.Create, published May 21, 2013.

Wrapping up NuVu: Reflections on Technology, Design and Project based Learning

This winter, I travelled to Cambridge, MA to co-run a two week design lab course out of Nuvu with highschoolers. This post focuses on the second week of the studio. For the overview of the first week of the studio, please click here.  For an overview of NuVu, please click here. The two weeks at the NuVu studio closed with electronically blossoming flowers and augmented reality videos overlayed on to real time objects. It was hard to believe it had all pulled together so rapidly. The headmaster of the Beaver School, which requires NuVu studio courses as part of its curriculum, along with other experts in the field, were all present at the event.


The workshop, despite all planning, and the seemingly long hours of 9-3 PM, unfolded at a rapid pace requiring constant reworking of the day’s game plan at the beginning and middle of each day. The students’ engagement moved through periods of listening, periods of making, and the hardest part of all, periods of drawing on their own insight and creativity. The necessity of having a vision to guide one’s work became apparent once the task of buckling down and getting to work commenced and the questions began–what should I do? what should I do next?

Mapping_our_cityIn anticipation of this, the workshop was designed to begin top heavy on reading, reflective writing on the multi-layered experience of being, walking and living in a city and ways of mapping and portraying that experience. The workshop pushed the students to pick a theme to focus their city explorations–the theme could be as broad as the narrative of one’s memory through space to as specific as quiet places in Central Square. The student’s blog posts became a wonderful way of tracking their musing that cumulated in their end of studio project–a collaged map and augmented reality videos overlayed on city sites using the iphone and ipad app Aurasma. The second week was a week of intensive self directed work. The students first storyboarded and then created videos. These videos were then overlayed over the real life object using aurasma. Aurasma has a wonderful Ted talk, which can be viewed here, that gives a sense of how this app works and what its implications are for school.

The activity and energy of the students while doing this work was quite thrilling. It was clear that for some the self directed project based work was easier and more effortless and for others harder and less clear. The studio model clearly taps into other forms of learning and knowledge creation.

I have continued over the weeks since then to reflect on the studio model as one that is greatly important for the future. It has led me to some different readings and to look for the support of the idea of studio based learning in other sectors.

The new TED book, Tell Them I Built This: Transforming Schools, Communities, and Lives with Design-Based Education, by Emily Pilloton explores the power of project based learning and construction paired with creativity in high schools.

The TED blog describes:

“Through the eyes of her students, Pilloton tells the story of the group’s hopes, failures and triumphs. According to Pilloton, we can dramatically revamp vocational education and build the change we wish to see in the world. And she should know: ultimately her students were given the key to the city by their mayor for initiating, designing, and building three public chicken coops and a 2000-square-foot public farmer’s market structure. In Tell Them I Built This, Pilloton offers tools for building change in communities, tips for turning a vision into meaningful work, and clear and inspiring directions on how to get it done. Tell Them I Built This dramatically shows how creativity, critical thinking, citizenship and dirt-under-your-fingernails construction can radically transform both high school education and the local community where the students live.”

The book seems to wonderfully capture the necessity of letting student’s make something as part of their educational experience. It gives them a sense of what it means to do something beginning to end. It also allows them to draw on their own ideas and imagination and create something tangible. Lastly, it requires the students to work in teams and communicate effectively to bring plans into fruition.

An article that came out recently in the New York Times, highlights why the project based, studio education could be particularly good for boys education:

“Aviation High School, and students there spend roughly half the day disassembling engines, fiddling with planes, etc. They seem to get very good results, and their website indicates that graduates go on to everything from immediate jobs to the military to average colleges to MIT, Brown, and the like. The specialized focus seems very effective at engaging students.”

The idea of rethinking classrooms to address different kinds of interest, abilities and levels of self control is compelling. The mission of Aviation High school not only connects to the rethinkED team’s work but also is part of a growing trend.  Obama in his commencement speech states states:

“Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.”

It seems there is a push to educate for applicable skills that require collaboration and creation. I look forward to seeing how the rethinkED team can continue to rethink the classroom and incorporate these outcomes and, when also hold onto to the merits of solitude and individual work–a topic for an upcoming post.

NuVU Mapping Central Square


he Nuvu City Mapping project has taken off. Despite the cold weather for walking, students in the studio have set off on their own derives inspired by Guy Debord. A derive as Debord defines it is “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” [1] The derive is a walk in which “one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” Students read Dubord’s work and used his theory to guide their own derive planning.

Students wrote invisible city narratives inspired by Italo Calvino, the Italian authors, imaginary cities based on the travels of Marco Polo. Students studied a slew of maps, including maps from the Situationalist tradition, mapping the tangible and intangible, and begun to sketch and journal about the types of maps they might take on.

NuVu is a design lab for highschool students and is based MIT, Cambridge, MA. The students come from public and private schools in the area. Please see the earlier rethinkED blog post for background details. At its crux, the lab is based around giving students advanced theories and tools to build out pre-defined projects called Studios. The City Mapping studio came out of the tradition of mapping city spaces through memory and personal experience. It draws from architecture, literature, urban theory and the post modern theory to name a few influences.

The first two days centered around exploration, both on the streets and in the studio, of the type of mapping that has been done by the likes of the situationalists and others. The students have brainstormed a host of subjects to be mapped, including their own memories and experience and have explored ways to represent the data. They have looked to poetry, music and interviewing as a way to supplement the maps. At the onset of the course they have been reading the poetry of the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and watching video projects mapping people’s responses in Cambridge in past NuVU projects. The next step will be for them to create their own poems and interviews.

Stay tuned for more in the following week! The second step will be to build out the maps into collages. The following step will be to add an augmented reality dimension to the map as well….

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