Tuesday, 24 June 2014

#7 Day 2 @ PBL World: Sam Seidel - Keeping it REAL and empowering teachers

A fascinating day #2 @ PBL World 2014 

Today's blog update will focus on the keynote speech by Sam Seidel about how we can KEEP IT REAL through PBL and empower teachers to make a difference. 

One day when I was chillin' in Kentucky Fried Chicken, 
Just mindin' my business, eatin' food and finger lickin',
This dude walked in lookin' strange and kind of funny,
Went up to the front with a menu and his money
He didn't walk straight, kind of side to side
He asked this old lady, "Yo, yo, um is this Kentucky Fried?"
The lady said, "Yes man", smiled and he smiled back
He gave a quarter and his order, small fries, Big Mac! 

You be illin'... 

I have to admit, I did wonder how Sam Seidel would follow yesterday's inspirational speech by Steven Ritz, but opening up with a rap from (the highly under-rated) Run DMC complete with crowd participation just about did the trick. So why Run DMC? What does KFC have to do with Project Based Learning? Or even education? Am I actually in 1970s Parkchester, NY and not Napa, CA? Well... Here is the method in the madness...

Students Need Real Projects

Sam Seidel's point is smart, simple and genuine. The reputation of the hip-hop artist is founded on authenticity: "what you have and what you do has to be real" says Sam and "... just as the rap artist relies on keeping it real, so too should we" as PBL educators. He then proceeds in 180 seconds to outline four clear reasons why. These are the soon to be widely circulated "Hip Hop Essentials of PBL" that will make sure you keep it REAL in your classroom:

1. Real World

Projects need to be real world and involve students "getting out of the building" to make a connection with people and places beyond school. This drives up student engagement as they see, hear and experience the connection between their learning and real life.

2. Real Work

Rather than pretending to be a scientist or placing themselves in the shoes of an architect, they need to go and meet with an expert in the field, interview a member of the profession or work alongside an established employee. This gives students a sense of what is possible and also drives up the standard of their work as they are held to account by real-work standards.

3. Relevant to Student Lives

Projects need to be relevant to the culture, interests, communities and lives of students. PBL can give students voice and choice, thus making learning relevant to who they are and what they are passionate about beyond the walls of the school. This can be powerful, particularly for those students sometimes marginalised in a regular 'factory-style' school environment.

4. Real Issues 

Finally, students should have the opportunity to tackle real issues that affect their lives, schools and communities. These problems could be global in scope, however, as Seidel points out the issues that often mean the most to students and serve to 'respectfully engage them' are the ones on their doorstep. 

PBL projects of this nature can often lead to projects where students have a tangible impact on their schools, communities and even governments. Sam himself has been heavily involved with community projects in including Get Your Green, a project at High School for Recording Arts in Minnesota. Students at HSRA are "... using their musical talent to promote a movement. Improve the health and well-being of all communities through environmental activism, eco-entrepreneurialism, and math, science, and engineering." Its a sophisticated piece of work, impacting positively on their community by raising awareness about real-world issues whilst also driving up student engagement.

The 'Flip': PBL to tackle real-world problems and challenges

So, to get back to Run DMC. What on earth does '...you be illin' mean anyway? 

Sam proceeds to inform a the room of 600 teachers, and, though I may be making a bold and general assumption here, a room with a low proportion of people educated in hip-hop culture, that: "'Illin' is an example of what in hip-hop has become known as a 'flip'". A 'flip' uses a phrase with usually negative connotations to denote something positive ('sick' actually meaning 'good' is another example). This, according to Sam, is another important lesson from hip-hop culture. Rather than sinking into the abyss of unemployment, poverty and neglect, the community of The Bronx during the 1970s (one of the birthplaces of hip-hop), gave birth to a genre of music that has been dominant in pop for the last 40 years. In the same way says Sam, "... what if we flip it, what if teachers could actually be using a PBL approach to tackle real issues in their classrooms, schools and communities?"

In Rhode Island students have already started to do just that, designing their own school, which the state department have agreed to open when the design is complete. Now that is a real-world project. They have not 'adjusted' to regular high school, but have instead taken the initiative through a creative PBL project to alter the status quo permanently.

Teachers too have taken on the challenge through the Business Innovation Factory, utilising their expertise as professionals in tune with the challenges and opportunities facing practitioners in the classroom to develop solutions to these problems. Adhering to many of the principles of effective PBL, the Business Innovation Factory uses design thinking and gives staff space to collaborate, explore, problem solve and effect change through sharing their solutions. See a video of all this in action here.

Sick Lessons
It turns out then that hip-hop has some 'sick' lessons for teachers and leaders interested in PBL. Effective PBL is not convoluted, teacher-driven, couched in the language of curriculum standards or motivated (only) by the need for students to pass tests. Whats more, PBL can be so real-world, that it could even permeate how teachers plan and undertake professional development and how they go about solving the problems that face practitioners every day in classrooms and schools. Effective PBL is real-world learning. So real world that students and staff could, in Sam Seidel's words, "work together to re-design the very system they are part of." So, keep it real people.  

Watch this interview clip for more of the thinking underpinning Sam's speech:

 More from #PBL World Day 3 tomorrow!

Monday, 23 June 2014

#6 PBL World Day 1: Inpsirational speech from Steven Ritz and key learning points from PBL101

As the sole representative (as far as I could tell!) of the United Kingdom at PBL world 2014, I thought it vital to communicate some of the key learning from day 1 to all the practitioners out there currently in the process of planning projects for 2014-15 or looking to experiment with PBL in their own classrooms.  
Day 1

Today kicked off with a hilarious little skit from the students of Katherine Smith Elementary School who outlined (with real comedic genius) some of the major advantages of Project Based Learning. The confidence and clarity of communication these students showed really confirmed why I had signed up to this conference. However, I was about to be further inspired.

“PBL is not just for the wealthy”

Nothing can prepare anyone for Steven Ritz live. Like most PBL advocates worldwide I had watched the TED talk and been blown away, live however Ritz’s enthusiasm is infectious. He really is ‘the oldest sixth grader you will meet’. 

The impact Ritz has had on his students through community oriented PBL in the South Bronx is really jaw dropping. A project that began with the planting of a single seed has turned into a social enterprise that has transformed the physical appearance of the South Bronx, reduced the dropout rate in his class to 0%, increased the graduation rate from 30 to 100%, ensured that 100% of his kids have progressed onto college courses and fed his school (and community) with healthy home-grown food. Many are also earning a living wage managing the projects started in his classroom. Now that ladies and gentlemen, is an authentic project. 

Ritzs' passionate belief that students “... should not have to leave the community they live in to live, learn and earn in a ‘better’ one” will strike a chord with all educators who work in challenging circumstances. However, it is his incredibly positive ‘glass 100% full’ attitude that has been instrumental in achieving what he has in a community that many have written off. Most people filed out to workshops a) smiling b) muttering one of his many catchphrases: YES WE CAN!

I would encourage everyone, PBL advocate or not to check out his remarkable achievements by going watching this clip & taking a look at Green Bronx Machine

Workshop time: PBL 101 Key Learning from Day 1

As you can see from the picture below, we started with plenty of questions ("need to knows"), but here are 3 things I took away from day 1 of PBL 101. 


1.    PBL must be the ‘main course and not the dessert’

This will be a familiar phrase to anyone who has been to a PBL Professional Development session but still an incredibly important one. A PBL project is not a board game at the end of a unit on the digestive system, a poster at the end of a scheme of traditional lessons on algebra or a model of a Catholic mission after a social studies unit on the history of California. Sure, these are “projects” but they are not PBL projects. 

A PBL project is the main course. That is, the learning takes place through the completion of the project. It is engaging, but also rigorous as the curriculum content and 21st Century competencies are learned through the completion of the project. 
2.    Effective projects have 8 essential elements 

1.     Public Audience
2.     In-Depth Inquiry
3.     Driving Question
4.     Significant Content
5.     21st Century Competencies
6.     Critique & Revision
7.     Voice & Choice
8.     Need to know

Used by many schools across the states, these 8 elements will be present in every effective PBL project to some degree.

One vital component of this checklist is the explicit teaching and assessment of 21st Century skills. If we are to expect our students to develop the competencies needed for success in the wider world, we need to teach them and check that they are making progress. This is often done by building in opportunities for students to pause and reflect on their learning (not just their academic progress). 

I had a fascinating discussion with two teachers, reaching the conclusion that building in time to teach and assess these competencies had a number of benefits:

a) Preparation for life beyond the classroom - i.e. Students will be better prepared for university and employment if these skills are taught and assessed. 

b) "Positive spillover" - students take the competencies learned and developed through the project and apply these in other subject areas and in more 'traditional' learning scenarios in the future. 

c) "Metacognitive awareness" - through the focus on process and not just outcome, we can develop students who are aware of how they learn and therefore become more effective learners.

 3.    Designing an effective Driving Question

The Driving Question (or "DQ") is a vital part of the planning process that can be the difference between a rigorous and engaging project and one that falls flat. An effective DQ will: 

a) Capture the projects main focus  
b) Be open ended to allow students to develop more than one (often complex) answer
c) Be inspiring, understood and often remembered by students
d) Ensure that through answering the DQ students will have to acquire the knowledge, skills and understanding that will be learned through the project. 

For more tips on effective DQ's check out these resources: 

So there you go! A full and inspirational day 1 at #PBLworld. 

More news tomorrow! 

#5 NuVu: Video Entry - Creative PBL in action

As in blog #2 NuVu are an innovation school from Cambridge, MA doing creative PBL based on their experiences at Architecture School. 

After being blown away by their student exhibition I have made a short project of my own! A 5 minute overview of NuVu showing some of the great stuff that is happening there. Enjoy! 

Saturday, 14 June 2014

#4 "Tech Crew": Intensive 21st Century Learning @ YWLS, Astoria

Whilst other students are working independently on various PBL projects with their advisor, Andrea and her ladies are busy winning national competitions. Globaloria Educator Inspiration Award winner and Languages/Technology teacher Andrea and her students of various grade levels at Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria NYC have started “Tech Crew”, a group who source their own tech-related projects, work collaboratively and self-manage to deliver high quality products good enough to compete with anyone.

Tech Crew: National Competition Winners
"Tech Crew" are adept at creating digital content, from professional video clips to student friendly games such as their impressive finalist entry to national MIT "Dream it. Code it. Win it." competition: an interactive educational game "Code Green". Perhaps their biggest achievement however, was winning a national competition to become an Apple distinguished school in NY state through the creation of an incredibly professional iBook and promotional video for their school. Unfortunately I cannot share this example with you as Apple have asked the "Dream Team" (as I am now calling them) to collaborate with them before the release of this content.
"Tech Crew" have evolved into a creative and efficient machine. Dividing responsibilities between all members to maximise their output to ensure high quality, industry standard products, it is no exaggeration to say that their drive and talent is something most businesses would envy. They have a designated project manager, who has become adept providing a strategic overview, holding Crew members to account for delivery of products; a team of coding experts capable of creating anything from games, to websites and mobile apps; a video editing department who have both technical skill and evident eye for aesthetics; a visual team so skilled in the use of Photoshop that they have started an instructional website for use by educators. This is a real example of what is possible when students are provided the freedom (in terms of time and space) to work on real world projects, combined with skillful facilitation and technology.

"Tech Crew". From back line to front line, from left to right. Back row:
Valerie De La Rosa, Misbah Awan, Gabrielle Lopez, Noran Omar, Angela Diep, Tahsin Islam,  Hemanjali Jagnanan
Middle Row:
Leslie Miranda, Saima Rehnuma, Andrea, Daniela Leguismo, Yennifer Posada
First Row:
Emily Arlantico, Geraldine Agredo, Reyhan Ayhan

Intensives: Making room for real-world learning

Tech Crew have also played a vital role in teaching fellow students of YWLS, Astoria during 2 week intensive PBL blocks. Organised for the two weeks prior to Christmas and Spring Break, intensives are a period in which the traditional curriculum is collapsed to enable the whole school to participate in an integrated, real-world and rigorous project.

The latest triumph of the 'Intensive' model was the YWLS Astoria Ecological Fashion Show where all students worked to create, organise, advertise and host one high profile event in the community. Tech Crew members taught intensives to younger students on Photoshop, costume design and video editing. They clearly took pride in their work as teachers during this two week block, as Geraldine puts it: “I wanted them to be proud of what they were learning”. With a rigorous planning process that began two months prior to the intensive and daily team meetings to reflect on their practice, the Tech Crew girls took the challenge of teaching extremely seriously.

Intensives are also directly linked to the Shared Learning Outcomes (or “SHOUTCOMES” as they call them at YWLS), meaning students develop their capacity as 21st Century learners and are assessed in line with the whole school approach during these 2-week blocks also. As a result many students continue to apply the skills learned on returning to their normal curriculum.

One of the primary skills developed according to the students was the ability to problem solve (and also the resilience that is required to do this). “Our students built up their patience” says Angela, a Photoshop expert responsible for delivering the intensive in order to create industry standard advertisements for the show. She notes how her small group of 6 students had to "... really know what it meant to become problem solvers" as they grappled with the difficulties of creating and modifying images on Photoshop.

Intensives can also help to build a sense of community across the school. At YWLS Astoria, all teams worked towards a shared whole school outcome that brought everyone including those in the wider community together. As Tech Crew member Saima says, the ecological fashion intensive helped to “break down barriers between grades” bringing together “lots of different students to learn real-world skills”. 

Being part of the group has had benefits for the Tech Crew members too. They have become adept at both the technical and strategic facets of running a 21st Century technology business. Geraldine perceptively states that “students are not encouraged enough to be independent" and that "Tech Crew and our work in the intensives really allows us to learn how to work without the teacher telling us exactly what to do". 

Real World Projects: Is there room in the curriculum? 

At YWLS, Astoria PBL is a fundamental part of the practice of many educators (more to come on this). However, most interesting about this example is the way that space is created in the curriculum to either run projects during a daily advisory period ("Tech Crew") or temporarily collapse the main curriculum through two-week intensives to make real-world projects happen. The learning that takes place during these times is quite clearly of immense value both to the Tech Crew and those students who have benefited from their intensive sessions. These ladies have a full repertoire of 21st Century skills incredibly relevant to almost any job in the modern labour market and a confidence to seek out and grab such opportunities.

Indeed, I had the pleasure of meeting the YWLS girls at NYC i-Zone where they were speaking about their role at the school and the innovative intensive sessions to a room full of NYC educators and students. They showed absolutely no sign of nerves. They were articulate, confident and highly skilled mini-adults.  When asked what their least successful project has been they replied: “we have never really had any failures". 

YWLS, Astoria "Tech Crew" & Andrea at the iZone 2014 Conference
It seems they don't have time to dwell on results that do not go their way, they move on so quickly to the next challenge, sourcing projects and competitions for themselves. As facilitator Andrea mentions "...This is all them. They find the projects, they work together to complete them. All I do is demand that they push themselves to do better and better".

Tech companies and online start ups of the future I hope you are paying close attention. Your competition has arrived and they never lose.

Monday, 9 June 2014

#3 Learning for the 21st Century: 3 Lessons from NYCiSchool

Tucked away on the top two floors of a non-descript 18th century building in South West Manhatten there are brilliant things happening. NYCiSchool is a small school of 460 students catering for 120 at each grade level K9-12. Though from the outside, it looks a lot less 21st Century than it sounds, Isora Bailey and her staff are developing students with the confidence, independence, skills and knowledge to become the leaders of the future. So here are three lessons from NYCiSchool on how to do it:

Lesson 1: Personalisation & Real-world Learning

The curriculum is structured around five different components including: online learning, challenge-based modules, core experiences, field experiences and advisory. This mixed model is designed to be individualised and foster the development of 21st Century skills. The effect on student engagement is dramatic. Here is an insight into some of these different elements.

Blended Learning

Online learning helps students to work at their own pace, to catch up missed work due to absence or to develop in areas of weakness in preparation for the Regents Examinations (standardised tests in NY state). All mathematics teachers have uploaded videos of the lessons that can be accessed by all students at any time through the D2L online platform. 

Online resources are also used in language learning, with students completing independent work through Powerspeak in addition to face-to-face teaching. This has reportedly enhanced student engagement as learners can work at their own pace, with teachers offering additional guidance as necessary. There are face-to-face traditional classes each week to build on the skills developed through online courses. 

This use of both online resources and face-to-face classroom instruction has become known as Blended Learning. Rapidly becoming the norm in U.S. classrooms, over 3 million students in K-12 took an online course of some description in 2009. It is estimated that over 50% of K-12 students will have taken an online course by 2019 as part of their school experience.[1] At NYCiSchool they have embraced this innovation but Isora Bailey is clear that though technology is used to “ … further the study of mathematics, science and humanities” it is not designed to replace face-to-face instruction.

Challenge-Based Modules

At the heart of real-world learning at iSchool are ‘modules’. These are interdisciplinary Challenge-based Learning modules centered around a real-world problem. Successful past projects include the Build a Green Roof challenge, which involved students of biology and environmental science campaigning to transform their roof space into a garden. This has now grown into a project involving partnerships with local politicians and other schools to help make changes to other parts of the community. 

3D design of the iSchool Roof Garden created as part of a Module.
Challenge-Based Modules develop 21st Century skills as students work in teams to solve a difficult real-world problems through use of technology, collaboration with peers, teachers and experts in their community. The depth of learning is evident in the final products from past student projects such as Think Before You Frack and The Sixteen Project. The authenticity of these projects is also recognized by the students: “I like applying what we learn to the real-world. It gives a real depth to the curriculum that I did not get at my middle school”, says Tom. 

Core Experiences

A student display showing some of learning from one the Core Experience classes in literature.
Still underpinned by the constructivist philosophy, Core Experiences are distinctly different to Modules as rather than structured around a single real-world problem, these are planned around a unifying theme and address a coherent set of learning objectives. Core experiences aim to develop the academic skills and experiences necessary for college acceptance, college success and high school graduation. These could include literature seminars, writing workshops and laboratory experiments. 

The planning process is rigorously scaffolded (see full planning guide here), taking teachers through 7 steps in designing a well planned Core Experience. Before even beginning the planning process, teachers have to prepare an "Elevator Pitch" 2 minutes in length to get the go ahead to run the unit. This may seem over the top, but the result is a set of Core Experience classes that are of a high standard and serve to prepare students for High School graduation or College.

The Key: Student Choice

Though a "huge logistical operation", as Isora called it, students choose their Modules & Core Experiences based on their interests, aspirations and credit requirements. This is more akin to a University than a High School. Students complete a Google form to express preferences for 5 Core Experiences and 1 Module per 9 week Semester.

The process of students choosing their Modules and Core Experiences drives engagement as the students feel that they have ownership over the curriculum. As Jack says "Coming from a 'cut and dry Middle School' to a place where you can choose your courses like in College means you are really interested in the content and skills you are learning".

Also, this flexibility and choice allows time and space for students to begin to identify their own passions and interests. As Katie puts it “… they all offer different classes every quarter and this helps you to really figure out what you want to do in the future”. This process is certainly not easy for administrative and teaching staff (460 personalized timetables), but the pay-off in terms of engagement may just make it worth it. 

Example student schedule. Note the Core Experiences (Critical Thinking in Science, Algebra, Earth Science B, Spanish IBA), Module (The Future of Teaching the Past), Advisory periods, Independent Work periods and timetabled office hours.

Lesson 2: Assess student mastery frequently and communicate to parents

At the end of each class (Core Experiences and Modules) students carry out a ‘Mastery Demonstration Task’, where they show their understanding of the class content and present a final product. 

Social Studies teacher Jay Finkelstein makes the point that this should be the ultimate demonstration of student understanding and knowledge, both of the content and skills developed over the module. As part of a unit in world history, Jay had students study a significant development or period in history (everything from the Vietnam war to the life of Ghandi), write a song about it, record the song, record a music video and accompanying explanation. You can see these online at www.youtube.com/leadershiphiphop 

This is peer assessed using a class rubric specific to this project task and teacher assessed to give a final grade. Rubrics are developed by individual teachers and designed to assess the core content and skills from the Module or Core Experience.

An example rubric from a Core Experience English class

Student progress is tracked using an online system (JupiterAssessment) that is accessible to staff, students and parents. Each course unit is broken down into ‘Mastery’, ‘Productivity’ and ‘Contributing Factors’, with each component accounting for a percentage of the overall final grade (click to see full grading policy). 

This system of assessment therefore incorporates a full range of factors that may affect student performance and helps students (and parents) to identify weaknesses. Rather than a flat 'D' grade, students have a % score for the three components that is consistenly accessible to them and updated every Thursday, with many teachers choosing to update even more regularly.
Lesson 3: Get the right people

An engaging real-world challenged-based curriculum that is constantly re-planned and re-modeled based on student interests coupled with rigorous weekly formative assessment and feedback for every student. This all sounds a lot like hard work. And indeed it is. Principal Isora Bailey makes no excuses. “They need to really want it and we like to put them through their paces.”

The recruitment process at NYCiSchool, featuring five separate stages, is so rigorous it is no wonder the staff in the building appear to be so passionate, positive and dedicated to what they do. Following an initial application and phone interview prospective staff are invited (all together) to a "Hiring Night" where they pitch a module idea, receive and give formative feedback on these ideas, carry out a case study exercise about a student and have an interview speed date with administrative and teaching staff (a five minute grilling about one specific aspect of the role at each station!) If, after all of this, they are successful only then are they invited in for an interview and to teach a taster lesson. They really have to want it.

However, this pays off. Teachers at iSchool have incredibly positive relationships with students and have established a clear mutual respect and clarity in expectations. “Our advisors are amazing. They are always there for us” says Senior student Kelsey. Every teacher in the building has office hours, making themselves fully available to students every Tuesday and Thursday 3.20 - 4.20pm. Junior Martha added: “The accessibility of teachers is really important. They all work hard to offer different classes every quarter and also to help you work out what you want to do in the future”.

Having a talented and hard-working staff also helps to create a culture where the Principal is open to discussion on a whole range of issues. As Isora states, “… It’s not a top-down thing. Ultimately I have to make tough choices but I am happy to discuss things ad nauseum”. 

Caveats and Takeaways 

It should be noted that NYCiSchool is not an open enrollment school, with admissions dependent on 7th grade report card test scores, middle school attendance and a qualitative online assessment much akin to a job application. Online applications, featuring questions such as ‘Why do you want to attend the iSchool?' Are rated on a scale of 1-4 according to their suitability for the school. With 1500 applications during 2012/13 the school clearly has an aspirational intake of students with a strong commitment and desire to attend.

This should not however take away from the achievements of NYCiSchool over the course of its brief history since 2008. Indeed for some students their experience on floor 4 and 5 has been transformative. Senior student Kelsey was quite clear that the choice of courses, vertical class structure and consistent support from teachers had a significant impact on her. “I was a different person in 9th grade. I quickly felt like I was part of the iSchool community and the courses offered really helped me to figure out what I wanted to do in the future.” Kelsey, just like most of her peers is about to graduate iSchool to enter into a four year college course. 

So, to all the progressive Principals and teachers out there, these three lessons are anything but easy to implement. However, if we are to re-design our institutions for the requirements and learners of the future we may wish to take a few pointers from Isora Bailey and her team.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

#2 Nu Lessons on PBL & Creativity from Cambridge, MA

Nuvu Studio, Cambridge, MA

Can creativity be learned? Yes is the unequivocal answer from NuVu Founder and Chief Excitement Officer (brilliant title) Saeed Arida.

Started as a partnership with progressive private high school Beaver Country Day School, NuVu offer an opportunity for students to undertake a series of creative interdisciplinary projects inspired by the pedagogy of MIT architectural engineering courses. 20-25 students of varying ages opt to attend Nuvu from their conventional middle or high school some for a Semester, others for an academic year, with their original school picking up the tab for the fees, 

Driven by the potential for creative interdisciplinary Project-based Learning to cultivate vital 21st Century skills: creativity, problem solving and analytical thinking, NuVu run PBL projects focused on the toughest real-world problems with the broadest design briefs.

The Creative Struggle

During his PhD studies he became interested in the notion of creativity, how it can be defined and taught. For Saeed, having an idea is only 5% of the creative process. The rest he says is the capacity to "... look the idea from many different perspectives. This means, when you have an idea for a solution, a really creative person will be able to see the potential problems and limits. They are able to think several steps ahead, like in a game of chess. The faster you can do this, the more creative you are." With a PhD in Design and Computation from MIT Saeed has been through the often painful part of the creative design process more than once.

This type of creative capacity, he says, is a real weakness for many students who are used to being guided through worksheets and textbooks. Therefore, NuVu was set up to teach students "creative thinking", in particular how to navigate the "rigorous, intense, iterative process that happens next" (after the initial idea) as a design is refined, prototype made, tested, revised, re-tested, until eventually a final product of real quality is created. This informs the approach to designing the PBL projects at NuVu. 

'Messy' problems & creative projects 

Saeed is clear that when choosing a project theme they pick a problem that is ‘open ended allowing for multiple solutions’. This ensures students have to go through the ‘painful’ part of being creative as they grapple with the problem, make constant revisions and undergo honest critique to eventually arrive an innovative and original solution. 
Projects are taught in two-week blocks and are inspired by a whole range of real world problems and scenarios from global warming to re-designing the Boston subway system. Students are first given a design brief, before working mostly in groups of four or five to solve the real-world problem and create a final product that is subject to a final review by peers and sometimes the community. 
However, the 'messy' process of refining, building prototypes and undergoing constant critical evaluation has to happen first.

Coaches + Critique = Quality Products

Coaches play an essential role in the studio process. Coaches, like Saeed, have all been through a creative design or architectural degree. These courses were often "highly pressurised" with "very open ended" problems to be solved. Saeed, Andrew (architect) and Saba (architect and urban designer) work with the students to refine their ideas, providing honest constructive feedback.

Students receive feedback on their initial ideas, designs or prototypes every 30 minutes to one hour due to the nature of the work. This makes the effectiveness of the coach vital as students navigate (often for the first time) the difficulties of creating a high quality original product that needs to go through several iterations.

This is why Saeed is clear that an effective coach will:  
  • Know the material and subject matter well
  • Be a 'creative' person (as defined by Saeed - see earlier)
  • Establish a common understanding with the student so that they act on feedback
  • Find something in the project that is interesting
Students do find the feedback process difficult at first. One NuVu student Katie found that the feedback at NuVu was nothing like her previous experiences in High School: "We were not used to it. I was not used to getting feedback that didn't say 'this is awesome, well done!'" Saeed agrees, stating that "... at first students cannot take the critique very well. There is a lot of crying… but after one or two years of this process they understand what it means to receive critical feedback and improve their work." The impact of such coaching is evident in the high quality products that impressively are completed within a two week studio (examples below).  

Incredible student documentary on Homelessness in Boston

Portfolio based assessment

Students document their journey through the project daily using video, photography and journals. To facilitate portfolio based assessment, NuVu have developed a slick online platform, which is beginning to garner some interest beyond their studio from top universities including MIT.  All past projects (along with the vast array of impressive and creative student products) can be found on the NuVu site and including final products in answer to problems around broad themes such as ‘fantasy’, ‘cities’ and ‘illusions and the brain’. Students create a curated version that becomes their portfolio piece. This helps students to see how far they have come and better understand the rigorous and 'messy' process of creative design that takes place in the real world. 

How does this relate to schools?

Being at Nuvu makes me wonder if a focus on the rigorous creative process is possible in mainstream schooling given the constraints of knowledge-based high stakes testing common to public school education on both sides of the Atlantic. After all Nuvu ‘operates outside the system’ to an extent, with no public examinations to worry about. 

However, as Saeed mentioned, when making decisions about curriculum the big questions we need to be asking are: “what is the value proposition? What are we getting out of this?” If we wish to see the development of critical thinking, problem solving and creativity amongst students in our schools then we will need to prioritise it. This necessitates some deep thinking about what we want our students to get out of their time at school followed by some tough decisions around curriculum breadth and depth. 

For those schools already moving in this direction there are many practices at NuVu that will be of interest to teachers at Studio Schools in the U.K. and progressive PBL centered schools in the U.S. Judging by the impressive array of final products that display a level of creativity, innovation and technical knowledge far beyond the years of these high school students, constant critique, skillful coaching and guidance, portfolio based assessment and a relentless focus on quality are vital ingredients to true real-world PBL for deep learning.