Project versus Problem Based Learning

I’m really excited to be part of the group facilitators over at Edutopia.  This week. we’re having an interesting discussion about cross-curricular project based learning which, in my mind, is about trying to get teachers in different subject areas to collaborate and create  projects that cross over between subject areas to help kids see the connection between english, social studies, science and math.

One person brought up an important point, that I think needs to be addressed when we shorten this kind of thing to PBL.  Project based learning and Problem based learning are often used interchangeably and I think it causes confusion.  For example, project based learning may be thought of as any long term learning project in the classroom that ends up with a diorama or poster or classroom presentation, at least by parents.  However, in education there’s a deeper meaning, where project and problem based learning are really about getting to essential questions and authentic questions that need asking and answering.

I initially came to this discussion thinking about project based learning as being more like what Sally Smith developed at The Lab School in Washington DC.  At the end of the day, students in the same grade/level belong to a theme based club.  In that club, they may be studying the rainforest, or the renaissance or other themes that fit into their academic classroom work.  However, in the club, kids may  use their math skills while constructing models of different layers of the rainforest, or grow plants while noting their daily changes, using their writing and scientific observation skills,  or work together to research and portray a specific scientist or part of the rainforest community through role play based on research and writing skills.  This sort of Project based learning is designed to use and consolidate skills kids are learning in core academic subjects, rather than necessarily answering a novel question.

By contrast, in the lingo today, Problem and project based learning is inquiry driven, which means that the students are trying to answer an essential question that drives learning.  For example, most problem based learning starts with a question, often sounding like a debate point, such as “Does Money Buy Better Education?”  or “How can we improve communication in our school?” Ideally, the question is a real, authentic task rather than one isolated to the classroom.  (I think the easiest examples of problem based learning in action are the TV shows, Project Runway or Top Chef.  Each week a new problem or challenge is presented, such as “Design a red carpet look for this specific person” or “Cater a wedding for these people only using 5 ingredients per dish”)

Problem based learning starts with having students explore the issues, listing what they know and don’t know.  They need to develop and write out a problem statement, and then start to list out possible solutions, actions to be taken, and a list of what they need to know.  Research and experimentation will be required to answer the “need to know” portions, and the end is a solution, complete with anything from written work to posters to models that support and/or defend the solution in a convincing way.

Project learning might not start with the essential question at hand, and often, it may not be an authentic task, ie. one that could actually make a difference in the world or the community.  Every project is not project/problem based learning.  So that model of the cell your child has to do for biology is a good project and helps them better visualize a cell and its functions, but it wouldn’t qualify as “project based learning” even though plenty of learning is going on in the process.

This differentiation is more important than it seems, and its easy to get problem and project based learning jumbled up.  In fact, I think many educators use the terms interchangeably, which adds to the confusion.  (For example, this blog refers to problem based learning as project based, as does ASCD  and the Buck Institute for Education, calling for the ‘essential question’ type Project Based Learning.  However, if teachers and parents aren’t clear on the differences, it’s very easy to assume if you are making kids do projects, it’s project based learning, even though it may never enter the realm of authentic, real world problem solving.

Is this a problem with the language being used?  If what Sally Smith has used so successfully with kids who struggle in school with her program is not Project based learning, what is it?  And how do we help teachers understand that project based learning should be problem centered, and not “show and tell” end product centered?

We’re going to have to find a way to clarify this language issue if we really want inquiry based PBL to take hold across classrooms, and we’ll need to help everyone, from parents to teachers to administrators really understand the difference.


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Website Design and Healthcare.Gov- the Silver Lining

The roll out of has been bad.  But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud for folks in the digital space.  We might finally have the best example ever to demonstrate how important User Interface and Experience is to the success or failure of a business.

When I talk to clients about their website, people often get defensive.  It’s been their baby.  They have often sunk a lot of money and time into it.  Just like a paper that comes back from a teacher with red marks all over it, even if they know it could be better, it is depressing to contemplate a re-write or refresh.  But when a website doesn’t work or answer the basic questions people want to know when they get there, it fails in its basic purpose for being.  It frustrates people and the leave.  They are left with a bad initial impression of your product or service, no matter how important or terrific it is.

I heard a great discussion on NPR this morning about the site, and one of the main problems being that there was no gist or browsing capabilities before they required lots of detailed information and creating of accounts.  In the business world, this is like making your website visitor give you their email or sign up for an account, mandatorily rather than optionally, before they can even see your home page.  Some people will opt in, but many won’t.  You lose business before you even had a chance to earn it.  It’s like meeting someone for the first time and requiring a background check before you exchange business cards.  It requires too much effort up front and no flirting before people decide to commit to a sale, an email newsletter, or even a cup of coffee.

This bad first impression is going to be tough for people to overcome.  It means that many of the fantastic things in the healthcare law, such as provisions for people with pre-existing conditions, is being lost in the sea of bad, governmental style, administrative interface crap.  But the upside for me is that this will become the best case study ever when I try to help a business look at their website with new eyes.  The importance of user interface is now front and center.  The public critique of the government site is no different than the critique they should be giving their own site, and how their friends and neighbors interact with their business online.

Digital media and marketers have a great opportunity in the Healthcare debacle, and that’s to help people put good design and useability front and center in a way it’s never been before.  We can point to something and say “Here- look at this vitally important thing- love it or hate it, millions of people have to use it, but bad design and difficulty navigating the system are killing it.  The inability to get the core question of “How much is this gonna cost?” answered or at least ball-parked is causing people to lose faith in the underlying program and product.  What do you think we can do to make sure you’re not in this same boat with your web presence?”

I am so excited to have a big example on how important good designand navigation is to the success of a business, that I’m almost (just a little) glad this has been a problem for the Government.  It pains me that the contractors and IT guys forgot about the real people before the rollout, and apparently did very little “person on the street” testing before it went live.  Working with IT guys from time to time, I totally get it- they are the code guys, not the marketers and designers.  And I will bet you user interface specialists and designers for websites will be getting calls soon like never before, from government and business alike.

We finally have a way to prove to everyone how important a well-designed website and access to information is, versus any old thing that someone’s kid did on the weekend.  There is a new value proposition out there, and we’re just the people who can help.

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When Is It Corruption?

I’ve long thought the money in politics is obscene.  When I heard that Congresspeople spend 20 to 30 hours a week trying to raise money for their next campaign, is it any wonder why they never get much done in DC?  (The Boston Globe did an article here saying new members are told they need to spend four hours a day raising money or they will be gone.)  When the Supreme Court decided that Money equalled Speech back in 1976,  things began to change with how money influenced our politics.  (See Columbia Law School’s timeline on all of the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decisions  to date here)  In this term, the Supreme Court will be looking into unlimited contributions through PAC’s in McCutcheon vs. FEC , which could mean all bets are off regarding curtailing contributions to candidates.

What does that really mean for those of us without unlimited resources?  I think we saw that yesterday, when a plan was about to go to the floor of the House to solve the government closure and debt ceiling issue, and there was a call made from Heritage Action that kept the Speaker from bringing the bill to the floor for a vote.  The representatives in our government are being threatened and blackmailed by outside groups, funded by a few very wealthy individuals, including a $500,000 donation to Heritage Action this week from the Koch Brothers. (Note: The original article I read and referenced from Newsmax is no longer available online, but the same donation   is reported here by Politico.)

If a political action committee can call the Speaker of the House and prevent a bill from coming to the floor that is vitally important to our economy, what is that other than corruption?  This is how money is fundamentally affecting and crippling our government, and I don’t think there’s any other way you can see this.

Money is Power.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Lord Acton 

Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.

John Adams 

The question now becomes, once we have seen the absolute corrupting power money has to dictate what happens in our Country, what are we, the people, going to do to reverse the course and bring Democracy back?


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7 Things to Improve Your Business Today

1.  Make sure everyone understands they are part of the team.  Whether it’s a receptionist, a stock boy, a manager, or anyone in the store, make sure they know your mission and what you’re trying to get accomplished.

2. Everyone on the team should be empowered to help your customers.   Now, not everyone can help, but they should know who to hand someone off to so they get the help they need.  One example- when we were at Disney one time, we got a call that our dog died.  We were off by some restrooms, crying, and the guy sweeping the streets came up to us, asked what was wrong and what they could do to help.  He made some calls and got us some VIP seating to a show.  That certainly didn’t take our pain away, but it was a gesture that was very kind when we were upset, and initiated by someone who was one of the lowest guys on the totem pole.  As a result, I still tell this story of great customer service, and how much it means to customers when everyone is empowered to help when they can.  

3.  Pay Your Employees Enough So They Don’t Hate You.  I get that employees are becoming cogs in a larger machine.  But I also can tell you that the minimum wage folks I deal with in major retail establishments often care so little about where they are and what they’re doing, that it reflects badly on the store, its managers and more.  People should not resent coming to work any more than anyone does, getting up on Monday morning.  Try making it a place where people don’t feel like indentured servants.    They pass this stellar feeling onto your customers.

4.  Make Sure Taking Responsibility, Even For The Dumb Stuff, Is The Name Of The Game.  I recently spoke with a manager at a large retailer about a problem, and they simply tried to blame the other people I had dealt with first, telling me what they should have done.  As a customer, all this tells me is that a) you don’t train your staff well and b) you are more interested in placing blame than taking care of my problem.  Staff should feel like they can say to a customer “I am so sorry you are having an issue- let’s what I can do to help you.”  That puts the business and the customer on the same team.  This is a much better dynamic than having a customer feel that what’s really to blame is your overall business ineptitude.  Customers won’t always be right, but attending to them is better than blame shifting which only makes everyone look bad.

5.  Live up to Your Promises, and Communicate Frequently.  I try to make it my policy to underpromise and over deliver, so things are done faster and better than my clients expect whenever possible.  This also builds in some space for delays that creep up on everyone, and builds in a buffer.  That said, I’ve found keeping in contact with a client about the progress on a project proactively makes them feel well cared for and that they are a priority for me, and then they are much more likely to understand and work with me if any problems arise.  A quick email or call or even text is usually enough.

6.  Apologize when you need to.  Things go wrong.  Mistakes happen.  Sometimes, the mistake may not even be yours.  But a quick apology followed by a plan of action works wonders.  It even works when trying to solve problems with my teenager, so miracles can occur.


7. Remember All These Things Contribute To Your Most Valuable Asset- Your Reputation.   All of the things here are pretty straight forward.  Building your reputation of being a decent and caring person/business goes a long way towards customer loyalty and word of mouth.  We’re in an age where the internet makes it almost too easy to find someone else to work with or buy from, so your reputation is even more important than ever.  In the end, you’ll never regret doing the right thing and caring.  Even better, your caring shows through to your clients and customers, and they will never forget.

Being nice is more than a good karma act.  It may be your single best competitive advantage.

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The Entrepreneur’s Creativity Box

Gumption, from the Brooklyn SuperHero Supply Store

Gumption, from the Brooklyn SuperHero Supply Store

I’ve been a subscriber to several “care packages” ever since they became available.  These curated packages of the unique and unusual appeal to my sense of exploration and surprise every time.  There’s often a sense of utility-meets-whimsy in every box that I find inspiring.

Over time, the various items have come into good use, but moreover, together they’re adding up into what I would call an entrepreneur’s Creativity Box. Along with a few of my own curated items, my “bag of tricks” now includes:

-Pencils and notebooks from Stanford Design School

-Rapid prototyping materials from True Ventures (Legos and a spirograph!)

-Ideas on how to run rapid idea iteration sessions from Stanford D. School boxes, including principals of good design

-Organization and Plan of Action kits from Unclutterer and Scott Belsky.

-”Toys” including a rubber band gun and yoyo from Gretchen Rubin and the Happiness Project, and a yoga deck for relaxation

-Books including: Business Improv, The Startup Owner’s Manual, Back of the Napkin, Made to Stick, Design of Sites, Visual Meetings, The $100 Startup, The Knack by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham, Amazing Things Will Happen by CC Chapman, Ship It journals from Seth Godin to mention a few.

-An Evernote Moleskein to capture ideas on paper, but also let them live on the web as needed.

-pens, pencils and markers from my office supply collection;

-A folding pocket whiteboard from Think Geek.

-My various super hero supplies from 826 NYC’s Super Hero Supply store, because who can’t help but be inspired by a flask of carbonated future or a can of Intelligence?

I’d also include my ipod Touch and Zoom audio and video recorders to help document and record the process as well.

All of these things together help create a sense of the possible, out of the box thinking, along with pathways to help the idea generation and rapid prototyping.It helps me remember that ideas are one thing, but moving them from ideas into reality is ultimately what counts.  Having the tools and source materials to help guide you and stay on track is also important. and the various boxes I’m subscribed to have helped to create a fantastic pool of materials to fill by Entrepreneurial Box.

What’s in your box?  What would you add to mine? What kind of boxes of things would inspire your creativity and help make it happen?


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