Intelligent Thinkers

We Blog to inspire teachers. “The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think.” James Beattie

Sunday, December 21, 2014

How PBL Lessons Work as Formative Assessments

Project Based Learning (PBL) is not an idea. It's a process placing the focus of instruction on content rather than on test taking skills. New assessments and ways of measuring effective instruction, teaching, and education are needed, but standardized tests are here to stay---so why not use a type of instruction proven to be effective, and adapt standards criteria to the instruction rather than adapt the instruction to the test? When PBL lessons are aligned to academic standards, they improve lower-level skills as assessed on standardized tests and bump students into the higher-level thinking that is missing in typical teach-to-the-test criteria.

Project Based Learning lessons are structured like formative assessments. The assessments are formed according to the content taught within each lesson, and by default, the effectiveness of the PBL lesson is also assessed. If students are successful on the project outcomes, the process and progress within the lesson is working. The lesson then provides data to inform instruction and helps form a rationale for the specific changes needed.

Formative assessments of student progress within a PBL lesson can be informal observations, holistic rubric assessments, and formal evaluative documented types like status-of-the-class monitoring, and checklists and formal tests. The final assessment in a PBL lesson is the final outcome as assessed using a set of questions similar to these:

  • What is produced, solved or created? 
  • Is it effective? Is it beneficial? Has the problem been solved?
  • What processes were taken to lead to student success?
  • How well do the students measure up to standards?
  • What evidence shows student learning?

In developing these PBL lessons / formative assessments, some backward planning, creating and/or gathering of similar assessments, and criteria for expected outcomes is required. Of course, standards alignment criteria needs to be analyzed assuring skill requirements are covered.

Formative assessments can be done within the PBL instructional processes of lessons saving time and money by utilizing school-site assessment teams to evaluate the effectiveness of it all. By doing this, instruction can be better differentiated to meet student academic needs at a particular school. What it takes to make it work are organizational structures that allow PBL to happen, budgets specific to funding the materials needed, and administrative personnel at the national, state and local level who have flexible mindsets and believe in the expertise of teachers. It also takes a set of positive, forward-thinking teachers who love inquiry rather than following programmed pacing guides that guarantee instruction only gets differentiated  at the lowest level.

Project Based Learning (PBL) as formative assessment works well at a school district level, but formative assessments in general often fail at the national level because of the high cost involved in hiring professionals to score them, the time it takes away from instruction to administer them, and the slow turnaround in getting the results in time for the teacher to make productive use of them. The results then become an over-priced stack of paperwork showing only that an assessment has been made.

If formative assessments are part of the instructional design, then less time is taken away from instruction, results are quick, and money is saved. Money spent on standardizing formative assessments can be put toward authentic assessment types at the school site level, monitored by school districts who report findings to state departments of education, who then report results nationally. PBL is the perfect vehicle for this type of assessment. It's good teaching with built-in assessments that prepare students and provide rapid results on all levels. At a minimum, it enables the spending of funds on the study of instruction that actually works rather than on developing more testing materials that lower expectations.

National education policymakers want an expedient, efficient way to evaluate learning. They look only at results. So let the policymakers have their tests that measure lower-level thinking. Leave the formative assessments to the educators.

Formative assessments measure higher-level thinking. When they become part of the instructional design, they help improve learning because the educational focus is based on actual student need.

Project Based Learning is an instructional model that covers both content and assessment at the same time for all levels of learning. Results from this type of instruction show academic growth in higher-level content knowledge as well as improvement in standardized test scores.

For materials to use to get started, visit Kate Parker's TeachersPayTeachers website for Project Based Learning units. These units are filled with lessons designed to educate students and assess learning.

Recommended Reading:

Edutopia -"Put to The Test: Confronting Concerns About Project-Based Learning"
Andrew K. Miller "PBL and Standardized Tests? It Can Work!"

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  3. Business2Community

Sunday, November 16, 2014

3 Underutilized Classroom Teaching Techniques

Three of the most powerful classroom techniques are often underutilized because they don't seem like techniques at all. They often appear as categories because several strategies are used to facilitate them. They do, however, qualify as classroom techniques, because using them facilitates depth of learning. These three classroom techniques can be used independently or in combination, and they apply well to any kind of lesson or unit of study, especially in Project Based Learning activities, lessons and/or units of study; however, to be effective, they need to be explicitly taught and strategically directed. 

1.       Conversation
Conversation as a classroom technique is more than just chatter. It is focused, directed and purposeful, and it’s monitored for effectiveness. Structures enabling focused conversations include cooperative learning strategies such as Think-Pair-Share and Numbered Heads Together, where students share findings in partners and groups. These types of conversational strategies allow students to refine their own understandings and learn from others what they might not have discovered themselves.

2.       Silence
Silence facilitates thought and reflection. It’s where verbal conversation stops and metacognitive interior contemplation begins. It’s the listening phase and sometimes called “inner talk” or “inner voice”. It’s where students take what they have learned and make it relevant to their own lives and experiences. One way to use silence as a technique is during whole-class student question/answer sessions. When students volunteer or are called on to answer questions, give them time to think of answers---quiet time---and encourage the class to remain patient and allow these students time to think. Thinkers need time to envision what they are asked to do or say, compare what they already know to what they have learned, analyze it for relevancy, and then synthesize it to produce a vocal utterance that makes sense. No small task when asked to comment on content newly learned.

3.       Movement
Movement is critical. It connects silent contemplation and intellectual conversation with physical, tangible realities. It is the application of learned concepts. It turns learning into a physical response which is perfect for most learners, especially second-language learners. Movement works well when applied to the sounds of language and the physical expression and characterization of emotion, and it motivates students to want to learn more by bringing significance to the learning process. It also provides a mental and physical release for those who patiently waited for their classmates to answer questions.

Make These Techniques Explicit

These three techniques get overlooked because they are part of the natural learning process, but they are powerful when used as to facilitate understanding---and they are absolutely necessary to help students develop critical, intelligent thinking patterns that enable them to understand abstract concepts well enough to create useful ideas and solutions. Teach students how to use them to their advantage, and they will thrive. 

Be sure to visit Kate Parker's TeachersPayTeachers website for Project Based Learning units. They are filled with ideas for how to implement these techniques.

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  3. Today’s Zaman


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Essential Information About Project Based Learning

Who doesn't like to feel amazing? We live to be helpful and to be relevant. We evaluate and validate our usefulness through our interactions with others---

So why not bring these kinds of interactions into the classroom?

Project Based Learning (PBL) is the best pedagogical approach available to facilitate interactive curriculum and validate a student's self-worth.

Within PBL structures, students collaborate in groups applying what they know and learn to assigned tasks, comparing and analyzing alternative ideas for strength and validity, and blending and synthesizing findings into something useful to others.

Students amaze themselves when experiencing success. With enough collaborative projects, they come to believe they are amazing without always relying on validation from peers.

They learn to trust themselves and their work. 

As a result, they become intelligent thinkers and self-confident individuals able to make things happen for themselves and others. They become leaders with the best of intentions not only for themselves, but for the well-being of others, too.

The Origins of PBL

Project Based Learning (PBL) began in the 1960s at the McMaster University School of Medicine in Canada. The structure enabled flexible thinking and problem-solving within collaborative groups, and enabled a deeper understanding of content while also developing an intrinsic level of self-confidence and self-worth.

These same concepts are applied to PBL structures in K-12 education because according to Jane L. David,  in her article published on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ACSD), "the core idea of project-based learning is that real-world problems capture students' interest and provoke serious thinking as the students acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context."

The PBL model has become one that transfers well to any learning environment. Use the information below to begin or update an understanding of PBL, and help move learning into the 21st century. 

Edutopia - The PBL Authority For K-12 Education

The quest for how to implement PBL structures within a district, school or classroom begins with Edutopia. They have developed every "How-to" scenario thought of or asked about by education professionals, and they have initiated many of their own.

These links on Edutopia are great places to start.
  1. Project-Based Learning
  2. Project-Based Learning - Professional Development Guide
  3. Project-Based Learning Workshop Activities

PBL Lesson Structures that Work 

Many lesson plan sites, including Edutopia, offer resources useful to teachers; however, the most comprehensive PBL units of study have been designed by Kate Parker, CFO of GoTeachGo. Kate's units make implementation  of content within the PBL structure easy. You can find these lessons at Teachers-Pay-Teachers. The units provide the essential elements of what makes a PBL unit work:
  1. Thematic with Integrated Curriculum Options
  2. Each lesson driven by an Essential Question
  3. Exhaustive lists of references from various media
  4. Rubrics for peer, group and teacher evaluation
  5. Visuals such as graphs and photos to accompany each lesson
  6. Critical thinking activities 
  7. Team building activities 
  8. Lesson assessments used as formative assessments of progress toward unit objective
  9. Summative assessments both paper and product
  10. Product analysis as evaluation success level

The Vocabulary of Project Based Learning (PBL)

The following websites provide comprehensives vocabulary lists particular to Project Based Learning.
  1. friEdTechnology: This site provides the following PBL vocabulary with definitions and usage suggestions.
     2.  Quizlet: This comprehensive list of terms has some of the words listed on friEd Technology and more.

Innovations in PBL and Technology

Further innovations and ideas and for technology applications can be found at these two sites.
  1. MindSight: How to Reinvent Project Based Learning to Be More Meaningful
  2. New Tech Network: Project-Based Learning and New Tech Network
Recommended Reading
Graphics obtained from

  • Bethany Guillon - LinkedIn
  • Edutopia

Be sure to visit Kate's TeachersPayTeachers site for lots of great PBL units.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Use This 3-part Process to Improve Reading Comprehension

These six proven reading comprehension strategies from Strategies That Work, Mosaic of Thought and Reading with Meaning, work well when taught explicitly to students.  

The Six Reading Comprehension Strategies

  1. Making Connections
  2. Questioning
  3. Visualizing
  4. Inferring
  5. Determining Importance
  6. Synthesizing
When practiced and applied to reading all types of content, students internalize what they read and begin to read better on their own. Teaching these strategies is especially important for young readers, for struggling readers and for ESL students. They also enable critical thinking and help all students understand on a deeper level what they read.

But what about those students who do read well and are looking for a way to comprehend large chunks of information in a short period of time?

Try using these reading strategies within this 3-step process. The process works well when trying to remember historical figures and the significance of their contributions throughout history.


1. Read the character’s name.
  • Read it out loud. Sound it out if you need to. Look for phonetic markings next to the name in parenthesis, in footnotes, or in indices. 
  • Make a connection. Ask yourself if you have ever heard a name like this. What sounds familiar? What makes this name different than anything you have heard? 
  • Question the origin of the name. Is the name a family name? Look for prefixes such as Mac or van or von; and suffixes such as son. Is this name from a royal family? Look for roman numeral indicators such as IV and XII that suggest lineage. Does the name indicate a warrior type? Look for descriptors such as The Lion-hearted and The Impaler following the first name.

2. Read what the character does.
  • Question the significance of the actions. What affect do they have on others, on countries, on changing the course of history? Determine the importance of the actions. How did the actions help or hurt others, countries, and the course of history? 
  • Make inferences about how opposite actions may have changed others, countries and the course of history. 
  • Make connections. Think about what you see in society today that may be similar to the actions of this character or how your own behavior has been affected by these actions.

3. Imagine the character doing it.
  • Envision what the character actually does. Imagine him/her leading a charge into battle, taking a stand against injustice with a sit-in or a boycott, and visualize character interactions who followed these characters or fought against them. 
  • Use your five senses to smell the sweat of the horses, hear the galloping on the fields and the clanking of swords, firing of guns and cannons, and the agony of  injury; smell the fires burning, feel the fire hose spraying water, hear the hateful shouts and terrified screams; or feel the exaltation of group consensus and the thrill of victory, or hear the applause of recognition and the rallying cries for freedom
  • Make connections. What have you seen, read about or been a part of similar to some of the actions taken by these characters. 
  • What is the significance of these actions on the world today? Reenact these actions in your mind step-by-step. What could have been done differently? Better? Why are these actions important to know about today?

Following this 3-step process holds knowledge in short-term memory long enough to use the six reading strategies to plug the information into long-term memory. The process will help students learn a lot of information fast, but it will also help develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for the relevance of how historical characters and events have shaped societies and world events.


Adapt this process to fit with the Project Based Learning (PBL) unit from GoTeachGo, Comic-con; A New Series of Comics for the Sunday FunniesIn this unit, students apply what they learn in literature about characters and their actions and generate their interpretations within a comic strip structure. The unit can be adapted, however, to include historical characters as well, covering the nonfiction requirement of ELA Common Core State Standards. 

This PBL unit, like all those from GoTeachGo, can be purchased on TeachersPayTeachers.

Be sure to visit Kate's TeachersPayTeachers site for lots of great PBL units.

Recommended Reading:
Strategies That Work, Mosaic of Thought and Reading with Meaning

Illustration credit: St. Joan of Arc School

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

8 Useful Links That Make Formative Assessment Easy

An interesting discussion is happening on LinkedIn. Pablo Garcia, entrepreneur, engineer and educator, starts the topic with this question: Formative Assesment: Why don't we all use it?

One answer is another question: Don't all teachers use it?

Another answer: Most teachers do use formative assessments on a daily basis, but some may not know to call them formative because the jargon of education swaps out synonymous terms every 7 to 10 years.

A solution: Project Based Learning (PBL) structures provide for lessons that enable teachers to observe student learning while they are in the process of learning. This is formative assessment.

In the LinkedIn discussion, Pablo asserts that "one learns largely through observing behaviours on the fly." Formative assessment helps teachers monitor the effects of their instruction on student learning in a similar way through observations and documentation. It provides rapid results to inform instruction, and teachers can alter techniques to fit student needs the next day instead of waiting for data analysis from the prior school year.

It's real-time assessment of instructional effectiveness and academic achievement, and Project Based Learning is the perfect structure for its implementation.

Pablo also shares an important formative assessment of his own: "When I look at what teachers actually spend time doing, I also see far too much time spent in analysing and reporting." Often teachers get pulled out of the classroom to do just that --- analyze and report. It's part of the test climate. In the classroom, however, formative assessments go on all the time. It's a matter of using running records, or formalizing the process a little more --- formal in the sense of having checklists, rubrics or student work that shows evidence of learning, and documentation that relates. Not every time, of course, but at least once or twice per lesson such as pre- and post-lesson assessments with notes on the process.

It is the issue of time in planning, and it is unbelievably disconcerting how much teachers are taken away from planning and class time to go over information that correlates with what they already know.

There is a misconception that formative assessments have to be formal and paperwork intensive. Formative assessment relies a lot on intuition, and teachers need the time in teaching ---  in the classroom --- to enable the observation process to work well. If teachers are to use more formative type assessments, they need more leeway from local and national education leaders, more curricular options that enable the implementation, and more time-saving ways to document formative assessments. Project Based Learning provides for ongoing formative assessments both formal and informal, and the structure itself is a formative assessment process.

PBL Units from GoTeachGo

Visit TeachersPayTeachers where GoTeachGo offers comprehensive PBL units. All these units provide time-saving materials and assessments for each lesson, and each lesson supports the unit objective as a whole.

Here are some other great places to find ideas for formative assessments.
  1. Project Based Learning Units (PBL) from GoTeachGo
  2. 54 Different Examples of Formative Assessments
  3. 103 Formative Assessments
  4. Examples of Formative Assessments - West Virginia Department of Education
  5. A Sampling of Formative Types of Assessments
  6. Reading A-Z: Running Records and Benchmark Books
  7. Teacher Vision - Printable Running Records Forms
  8. Running Record Images and Links

Recommended Reading:

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

6 Common ESL Grammar Errors Conquered by Project Based Learning

Many activities help ESL students learn English, but collaboration helps bridge conversational learning with academic content. Project Based Learning (PBL) enables collaboration by requiring students to engage in partner and group structures that promote total participation and enable opportunities for differentiated instruction.

In PBL lessons and units, ESL students move more quickly toward academic language acquisition because the conversation moves from the school grounds into the classroom with instruction that promotes the inquiry process
  • questioning and investigating, 
  • comparing and interpreting information, 
  • and reporting findings
where students work in partners and groups. How these pairings and groupings are structured depends on the number of ESL students in a classroom and their English language acquisition levels. Keep the following list of grammar problems in mind when structuring your PBL lessons and units.

6 Common ESL Grammar Errors

Some native English students struggle with these grammar concepts, but all ESL students struggle with them. It takes a long time in repetition and practice to overcome these errors, so the more options available for practice and usage, the better. This is why collaboration is so important. The understanding of these grammar concepts may be learned, but usage and practice is limited unless English is also spoken at home.

The following list of six errors also includes examples taken from "Editing Line-by-Line", a chapter written by Cynthia Linville, California State University, Sacramento, for the book ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors.

Use this list as a reference to plan your own PBL lessons and/or units.

1. Subject-verb Agreement - subject doesn't agree with verb in person or in number
  • He walk every day.
  • Ever teenager knows how to choose clothes that flatters her figure.
2. Verb-tense - incorrect time marker used
  • I was working on my paper since 6:00 a.m.
  • Even though this is my first day on the job, I have already found there were some different people here.
3. Verb-form - verbs incorrectly formed
  • I will driven to the airport next week.
  • I was cook dinner last night when you called.
4. Singular and plural errors - confusion about nouns that are countable and ones that aren't.
  • I have turned in all my homework this week.
  • I set up six more desk for the afternoon.
5. Word-form - wrong part of speech chosen
  • I'm happy to live in a democracy country.
  • I feel very confusing this morning.
6. Sentence structure errors - Many things---verb left out; extra word added; word order incomplete; clauses that don't belong together are punctuated as one sentence
  • As a result of lack of moral values being taught by parents and the reemphasis by school many children have little respect for authority.

Check out the Critical Thinking Unit from GoTeachGo

Add grammar practice to the lessons in this unit. These lessons provide a perfect vehicle for grammar practice in pairs, groups and the student reflection journal sections. Students have options to discuss and share concepts individually, in pairs, within groups and for the whole class as well.

Recommended Reading
 The Attitudes of Secondary Students Towards Learning English through Project Based Learning

Visit Kate's TeachersPayTeachers site for lots of great PBL units.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The High Art of a Successful Project-based Learning (PBL) Unit

Project-based Learning (PBL) is a journey into cognitive awareness that produces results. If you're looking for successful PBL units to use in your classroom, look to Kate Parker, CFO of GoTeachGo. Her PBL units on TeachersPayTeachers cover everything needed to facilitate successful PBL instruction and engage students.

This week's blog examines the outline of one of Kate's PBL units:

Drawing the Line: Global Theme Park Design.

This unit, as with all of Kate's PBL units from GoTeachGo, begins with an explanation of what PBL is and what it is not.

As Kate says:

"Our Goal is Simple: Be the Bridge"

It's best to let Kate do the talking on this one:

"Project-based Learning (PBL) is an approach that challenges students to learn through engagement in a real problem. It is a format that simultaneously develops both strategies and disciplinary knowledge bases and skills. It places students in the active role of problem-solvers confronted with an ill-structured situation that simulates the kind of problems they are likely to face in real life situations.

Many teachers want to introduce special projects or group assignments that will engage students and motivate them to take practical steps in applying knowledge. Unfortunately, many problem based learning units require too much of the teacher's time in preparation and management. Other times, project-based units are incomplete, unfocused or uninspiring.  The soft skills, like critical thinking, are neglected---thus rendering the unit to the category of project centered, which is not project--based learning."
Kate's units put students into problem-solving situations that inspire them. She also incorporates critical thinking skills for students to use while solving the problems, and offers in each unit a well-outlined, well-designed format for teachers to use.

Her PBL units are time savers, student engagers and adaptable to instructional needs. One of the many great things about Kate's PBL units is the amount of research done. She has already found resources such as videos, photos and print sources for reference, and she has created poster displays, handouts and forms necessary for collecting data, assessing progress and evaluating outcomes. Kate's research, references and resources save teachers enormous amounts of time so they can spend more time engaged with students.

All of Kate's units provide integrated curriculum structures. In the unit Drawing the Line: Global Theme Park Design, the skills emphasized are "math, visual arts, geography, social studies, strategic planning, strong collaboration skills, critical thinking skills, critical thinking and problem-solving elements." Every lesson begins with a review of the critical thinking skills used for learning, the critical thinking skill used the day before, and an introduction or reminder of the critical thinking skill that will be used during the current day's lesson.

Included also in Kate's PBL units are team building lessons for instruction and review. Her units are so comprehensive they consistently receive high rankings on TeachersPayTeachers, and the feed back she gets is stellar.

Anatomy of  Drawing the Line: Global Theme Park Design

This is a typical look of the table of contents in one of Kate's PBL units:

Here is just one page of resources Kate provides in this unit, and all of her units include page after page of useful tools.

Here is an example of a data gathering handout from the unit.

And here is an example titled "Team Presentation Rubric".

Kate's units are so intensely comprehensive that each one could be taught for an entire school year. The great thing about her units is their adaptability to different instructional needs, and teachers will have a deal of time trying to find Project-based Learning units as well put together as Kate's PBL units. She has spent time preparing for teachers a means to help them educate students for the 21st century. Thank you Kate!
               Visit Kate's TeachersPayTeachers site and take a look at her work. 
She has truly brought the writing of PBL units to a high art.