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Is project-based learning the penicillin or lava lamp of education?

Got a kid turned off to school? Maybe maker spaces, active learning, and hands-on projects can spark interest when traditional instruction fails. And, maybe not.

A debate is how we civilly do war, and nowhere is gentle war more necessary than in the arena of educational thought.

Overrun by fads and fad-masters who confuse the ideological marketplace with pablum disguised as manna, the world of educational intellectuals leaves civilians more confused than smart when confronted with potential innovations like, for instance, Project-Based Learning (PBL).

Is PBL the biggest and most promising contribution to civilization since penicillin, or is it the lava lamp of education?

Pushed to answer I lean toward penicillin, especially as a formerly bored student who prefers to actively do rather than passively receive an education. But, I’m no expert and my anecdotes are useless for you.

Enter two people with cause and credibility to speak on the issue.

Peter Hyman and Daisy Chistodoulou have debated PBL at Debating Education, a series meant to provide the stage to bright minds to bring light to complex educational issues.

Peter Hyman is a school leader, author, and current leader of School 21, a project-based learning program in the UK. He Tweets from @PeterHyman21.

Daisy Christodoulou is a UK-based educator and Director of Education for No More Marking. She Tweets from @daisychristo and blogs at

Here’s a thumbnail of Peter’s opening statement:

“It’s important to start with what project-based learning really is because there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Let’s just be precise…it’s a series of rigorous and exacting processes. An essential question that drives through the project. A grounding text of a great piece of literature or art substantial and serious knowledge content multiple drafts of work practicing those skills and learning that knowledge so that there’s real craftsmanship involved. An end product of value so we lift students work out of the exercise book and give them something that transcends the classroom and has value in the world and an authentic audience where it can it can be shown critiqued and a student can be accountable of it though accountable for it in terms of delivery. PBL contains lectures and direct instruction, particularly at the beginning. PBL…isn’t about teachers giving up on teaching. It isn’t about some fluffy ideas of generic skills. It isn’t about saying skills are more important than knowledge. It’s not a belief that knowledge doesn’t matter because everyone can look things up on the Internet. It isn’t about putting many subjects together under one mushy topic. It isn’t about pretending children are experts when they clearly aren’t and it isn’t about making posters or using glitter although a little bit of glitter always helps the project.”

Here’s the main set up in Daisy’s opening statement:

“We know for our history that there have been examples of successful project-based schools but we also know that all the research analysis; that all the evidence of how we learn; that all of the evidence from systems who have tried to adopt this at scale show that project-based learning is not an effective way of learning.I’m going to tell you that the best way to prepare people is to be able to tackle real-world problems is actually for pupils to spend most of their time doing things that don’t look like such problems. Project-based learning confuses ends and means so I think using projects as ends is great but using them as means isn’t so. There are three main reasons why I think that projects are not the best means of learning: first learning is not the same as performing, second projects don’t allow you to get good feedback about how to improve…and third, projects are not nearly as motivating as some people claim.”

And now, watch the full debate:

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Personalized Learning

Students aren’t missing. It’s the computers, stupid.

Do you need help finding those “missing students” that haven’t made it to online school yet? I can help.

A piece by ABC’s Ted Oberg follows a Houston student who hasn’t been schooled since last spring because she hasn’t had a computer or wifi access. Her name is Raquel and she represents the millions of kids nationally who have been “missing” from school district rosters, and falling behind.

These are the stories that break my heart. In a nation boastful of our economic power, we can’t get kids all they need for an education. We used to be able to put a man on the moon. Today we can’t get a Chromebook into a child’s hands.

A laptop during a pandemic. Apparently that’s too much.

Here’s the story:

The last time Raquel was in class was in March, just before Spring Break. After that, HISD shut down in-person learning and classes went online. Raquel didn’t follow there, “I don’t have no computer to use at home.”

Without a computer and without Wi-Fi, Raquel was one of the thousands of HISD students who just disappeared last year from online learning. At its worst, nearly one out of four HISD students was less than fully engaged. State figures show 49,514 students like Raquel either lost contact or were less than fully engaged.

It may be far less now. Thousands of the missing students have been contacted and HISD handed out nearly 100,000 tablets and computers, but thousands more are still waiting.


Like many parents, Raquel’s mother, Monique Smith, was anxious to get her daughter a device. “I am just worried about if she can get a tablet this year, so she could be doing some things, exercising her brain and staying positive.”

When Smith walked to school to get Raquel a device on Tuesday, she was turned away. Smith told 13 Investigates she informed the district she needed a device during a home visit in June, but on Tuesday the district initially said paperwork indicated she already got one.

Smith was in tears as she told ABC13 it wasn’t true.

Raquel didn’t have time for tears as she said, “I don’t want to be far behind because I don’t have a laptop.” Raquel is the kind of student the district is worried about.

“Very worried,” Dr. Lathan said. “And will continue to be worried until we know we’re back face to face and we’ve been able to engage with all of the students that are assigned on an HISD roster.”


Tuesday morning, the district opened some 36 distance learning centers so students without devices could sign on somewhere, but HISD didn’t announce that until late last week.

Smith said she wasn’t even told about the centers specifically for families like her, until Tuesday afternoon, and her school is one. We suggested they go back and ask.

Raquel was optimistic, “I was hoping I’d get me a laptop so I can go to school and be in my classes now, since it’s a new year.”

How many Raquel’s are there?

As my friend Dirk Tilotson points out regularly, the digital divide is actual an injustice canyon. It’s estimated that as many as 40 million Americans are without the reliable internet access that is critical to getting an education. Tens of thousands are without laptops.

These aren’t missing students, they’re victims of incompetent leadership nationally and locally.

And, guess who is most hurt? According to a McKinsey report, “only 60 percent of low-income students are regularly logging into online instruction; 90 percent of high-income students do.”

In schools that are predominantly Black and Brown, just 60 to 70 percent are logging in regularly.”

Something is wrong with us.

I don’t care what else we do as a nation, whatever else we tout as evidence of our being “great again.”

We ain’t shit until Raquel gets a laptop, WiFi, and teachers who can teach.

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Personalized Learning

HANNA LEONE: Chicago Public Schools aren’t connecting with thousands of students – still

A story in the Chicago Tribune says that as many as 44,000 students have been out of touch with the Chicago Public Schools’ remote learning scheme.

As you should expect, the problem hits black and Latino students harder than others.

Hanna Leone writes:

More than two months since schools statewide closed their doors because of COVID-19, Chicago Public Schools has been unable to contact more than 2,250 students to determine whether they have digital access, according to newly released data.

And though the district is requiring schools to make contact with each student at least once a week, no school contact was recorded with 15% of students for the week of May 11, the only week broken down in data provided by CPS. That’s about 44,000 students whom schools didn’t hear from that week.

More than 93% of students in district-managed schools have digital access and have connected in some way, according to the district. That’s a long way from where things stood at the start of remote learning, before 122,000 Chromebooks or similar devices were loaned to students.

But that still leaves out thousands of students, who still need access to computers or reliable internet. About 5%, or 15,600 students, have made contact but are considered nondigital.


African American and Latino students, whose communities have been hardest hit by the coronavirus, were least likely to use Google Meet or Classroom, based on data for the week of May 11. About 70% of African American students and 78% of Latino students accessed the platforms at least once, compared to nearly 87% of both white and Asian students in first through 12th grade.

The gap was similar when looking at graded assignments, with grades recorded for 77% of African American students, 85% of Latino students, 89% of multiracial students, 91% of Asian students and 92% of white students in first grade through high school. (Preschool and kindergarten students use a greater variety of platforms and less Google, and don’t receive graded assignments, so they weren’t included in some calculations.)

Read the whole story here.

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Personalized Learning

Suddenly homeschooling? Khan is here to help

Having trouble staying organized with your kids home learning? Khan is here to help.

Sal Khan's platform helps millions of homeschooling parents

COVID-19-related school closures have left many parents suddenly homeschooling their youngins. More than half of the nations kids are our of school.

That’s a lot of kids. When will they go back to school? Can’t say. How will we keep them on track? Dunno. Are there tools to help parents support their students at home?

Yes. Here it is. Our friends at Khan Academy are doing an amazing job of providing usable information to educators, students, and parents.

Today, they’re publicizing several webinars you might find helpful:

  • Wednesday, April 29: How to motivate and engage your kids in learning (3 PM PT / 6 PM ET) One of the most-asked questions we’ve heard from parents is: how do I motivate my kids to learn? We sit down with Conor Corey, a teacher, Khan Academy Ambassador, and parent of 4, to learn his student motivation tips and strategies. RSVP now.

If you missed previous parent webinars, you can view them on YouTube here. And you can find all of Khan’s remote learning resources for parents and teachers on this site.

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