Thursday, July 25, 2013

Stereotype threat in 20% projects, or just more "wall candy"

As I keep planning for our 20% project, some ideas of possible difficulties keep bouncing in my head. What about my students that do not see themselves as scientists or innovators? What about those that already believe that they cannot accomplish the goal? How can I counteract these fixed mindsets?

I just finished reading "Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do to" by Claude Steele, and came away with some big ideas that I wish to share:
"The identity contingencies that made the biggest difference in our functioning seemed to threaten or restrict us in some way... Remind test takers of identities that counter the relevant stereotype"
Steele's studies suggest that environmental cues could have a lasting effect on the performance of individuals under stereotype threat. In this case, "Would an environmental cue, like the one that follows, overcome the influence of the negative stereotype associated with minorities in Science, by reminding students that all ethnicities present in my classroom have accomplished greatness?", or will it just become one more piece of wall candy?

The hope is that this information will enable my students to create a more hopeful personal narrative, by allowing them to see themselves in the faces of the individuals.

The second big idea, critical feedback is well, critical. How can I ensure that my feedback is not seen as alienating, but rather as an opportunity for growth?
 "By changing the way you give critical feedback, you can dramatically improve minority students' motivation and receptiveness."
Steele suggests using what he dubbed "the Tom Ostrom strategy". Basically it boils down to the feedback giver explaining that  he/she used high standards in evaluating the work, and that he/she believed the student could meet those standards. This implies that any criticism is offered to help the student meet the standards, and not as a critique of the individual or a confirmation of a bad stereotype.

With this in mind, and Carol Dueck's research on growth mindset, I need to work towards fostering in my students the idea that the 20% project is an opportunity to practice, and train ourselves to become more intelligent than we were before. It is not a confirmation of intelligence reserved only to those bright enough, but rather a way to develop the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even if things do not go well.

100% of my students will achieve greatness, now let's get started.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Brainstorming for 20%

One of the things that scares me the most is guiding students through the choice of projects. How do I ensure the value of the time, while avoiding project jumping?

Two of my students actually live with me, (yes, I have both of my children in my classroom) and as I have been thinking about this project, I have shared with them the ideas behind it, as well as the challenges I envision. As kids often do, they immediately started thinking of ideas of what to do during 20%, given my boring constraint of "It has to be related to STEM in some way" (after all, that I know of,  Google does not support starting a garage band as part of their 20% time). So my son comes up to me and states, I am going to become a "Call of Duty" Master; it is a video game so it is STEM related. Although we did have a discussion on how this is not a good investment of his time and the like, I started thinking about how many of my other students would try something like this.

Enter two articles that I ran across almost by chance:

First "We don't Like Projects" (, which gave me some questions to ask the students as they embark on this project (or any of our PBL units):

"Before granting resources to our students to begin working on their projects, we ask the following:
Is this something you'll be proud of in five years? Or will you at least be proud of the younger you for taking this on five years ago?
Does this combine two or more disciplines?
Will you work on this when no one is watching over you?
Who else cares about the results of your project?
What content do you think you'll learn? "

This first step gives me some guiding questions . I particularly like the third and fifth as a way to further put the learning at the fore-front of the students' minds as they tackle project selection.

Then, and almost magically "How to actually use Wikipedia in the Classroom" (, which I envision as a starting point for students that might be mired in the "Just tell me what to do". If they first read an entry or two about a topic that interests them, they can jump to a series of questions related to "What is missing from this Wikipedia article? What do you think should be added? How can you ensure its reliability? Can you Google the answers to your questions, and what other questions then arise?" or something along those lines.

Will it work? I am not sure, but it is definitely worth a try :)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

From motivation to volition

The topic of grit and motivation has been in my thoughts lately. My students do not necessarily lack motivation. They are motivated to succeed, they want the grades; they want the pride; they want the status. What is it then that is keeping them from achieving?

In search of an answer I have been reading Paul Tough's "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character". While not actually a road-map, this book has brought to the forefront the idea of volition as actually more important than motivation, and the question "How to teach students to choose to achieve instead of just want to achieve?"

Don't get me wrong, wanting is great. Unfortunately wanting is not enough. For example: I want my students to succeed, and therefore, I spend hours souring for and developing lessons that will engage them and motivate them. I look at standards, set goals, develop rubrics, include interesting videos, games and simulations. This approach has worked for me and my students report loving my class. Together we have done some good things.

However, if instead I had "chosen that my students succeed", the framing of those good lessons would have been different. Tough states, "Choosing creates the bridge between the present and the future reality. It identifies obstacles and leads to the creation of specific implementation plans which allow you to overcome said obstacles." With this in mind, I would have delved more deeply into what they actually need to succeed,  identifying obstacles in the process, and leading me to develop not only the Science content that I teach, but also the related skills in ELA, Math and Social Studies. How great could my Human Body 2.0 project be, if I tie in social structures, ratios and public speaking? If this is true, I need to go back and move things from good to great.

In this context, then I also need to let the students experience the change. In the 20% time that I am planning, I need to explicitly model and have students move from the motivation of "I want to become ..." to "I choose to become ..." The Ted Talk pitch will need to reveal the choice, and the action plan will need to precisely identify obstacles and ways to overcome them. This is where I see the mentors as a key piece in the puzzle.

With this goal in mind, "I choose to become better at my craft." Now, I need to go develop my action plan!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Project Based Learning

Aside from the 20% project, I have also been updating my PBL units. When I started, these read like webquests, but as I have become more comfortable with giving students choice, and becoming more familiar with  PBL, some have become entry documents.You can take a look here: Project Binder.

I have run all of these projects in my class, some more successfully than others. Human Body 2.0 (geared towards 7th grade) for example, was one of the ones that ended up having mixed success. The students were definitely engaged and came up with wonderful ideas. However, they had trouble with the end products as they had a hard time conceptualizing that when you change one system, there are others that need to change too. How will I run it differently? I am still thinking about it, but I will definitely run it again.

On the flip side, Evolution, gave rise to great connections such as the cladogram created by one team that tied in the learning about evolution to the evolution of video games:

For more exemplary projects visit us at AdVENTURE.

Monday, July 1, 2013

From the beginning

A couple of months ago I stumbled upon the 20% project. I thought I was alone, and by the way brilliant, in thinking that I could adapt it for my classrooms. Never did I think that this is more or less old news and that brilliant teachers before me have already done such good things. In any case, I am planning to implement it starting this fall as a combination of Genius hour (first semester - student focused) and 20% project (second semester - human and/or product focused).

I teach at a Science to 4 groups of students (5-8th grade), and a Flash "elective" at a STEM program, therefore my class is a PBL learning environment where my students have created some wonderful things, However, all of these projects are mostly teacher driven. We study the standards, come up with the questions and develop projects/problems for the students to solve. Students then decide what they need to know, do some research to learn the content and set about solving the problem or creating the products to come up with solutions. What is oftentimes missing from this equation is the passion for learning new things. The quest to study outside of class and to bring in new materials to study, not for the sake of getting a grade, but because there is a real investment in the outcome. This is what brought me to the 20% project.

In the interest of paying it forward (and backward), and with the disclaimer that I have borrowed a lot of material from the amazing trailblazers behind


For over 20 years a trend in education has been gaining momentum that suggests the role of the teacher ought to shift away from an industrial model where the teacher stands in the front of the classroom to dispense knowledge through lectures, and the students sit to consume the information. Rather than being the “sage on the stage” as some pedagogical experts maintain, teachers increasingly ought to play the role of the “guide on the side.” In this role, the students play a much more active role in how the content and knowledge is acquired. In this model, teachers provide resources, ask questions, and allow students to develop projects  to explore the content. 

The goal of AdVENTURE's 20% project is to provide students with the space and time to explore their passions and take control of their own learning. Why? Watch the following videos that put it much more eloquently than I ever could.






Who started this?

3M started it in the 1950’s with their 15% project. The result? Post-its and masking tape! Google is credited for making the 20% project what it is today. They asked their employees to spend 20% of their time at work to work on a pet project…a project that their job description did not cover. As a result of the 20% project at Google, we now have Gmail, AdSense, and Google News. Innovative ideas and projects are allowed to flourish and/or fail without the bureaucracy of committees and budgets.

How does this tie into the standards?

Although the connections to CCSS are abundant, here are some of my favorite:

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

“Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.”

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis reflection, and research.

Range of Writing
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Science and technical Subjects

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multi-step procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.

Standards for Mathematical Practice
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
CCSS.Math.Practice.MP4 Model with mathematics.

My Top 5 Reasons

1. Depth of Knowledge

By participating in the 20% project, students will become experts in their own topic. Along the way, they will learn the skills necessary to acquire, manipulate and communicate information effectively.

2. Passion

Passionate people are successful people. Students need time to find their passions. Oftentimes students struggle to communicate what their passions really are. They need time to explore their wonders (and often need some guidance with this, too) so that they can figure out what they love to do.

3. Inquiry based learning. 

Students will form their own inquiry questions to investigate. Being able to ask questions is a key competency that we need to develop.

4. Teaches resilience. 

Students will fail during 20% time. And they will problem solve and figure out another way to look at the problem. In real life failure happens, but we learn from our mistakes. Think Post-its, synthetic dyes, Teflon and penicillin.

5. Positive peer pressure

Students will get to share with the entire learning community what they are working on. Publicly announcing what they are trying to accomplish makes the goal real.