LISTEN — Class Disrupted Podcast Episode 4: Why Are We Doing School?

Photo courtesy of Class Disrupted

Class Disrupted is a weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every Tuesday).

As parents nationwide have been thrust in the role of distance-learning support staff, they’re questioning the real purpose of school. Should it just be about “playing the game” to get to college? We talk to a parent who asked this question and went rogue on her daughter’s distance learning plan, creating a project around her daughter’s interests instead. But as she learned, that’s not easy, either.

We then look to Marshall Street’s Adam Carter, who breaks down project-based learning to differentiate between the “dessert” variety that offers a bunch of empty calories and the “main course” type that offers intentional and interdisciplinary learning. With main course projects, we see how students use their curiosity to drive their work, asking questions that Alexa or Google can’t easily answer, and how feedback from peers is a critical piece of the learning process.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Michael: Hey, Diane, I was really looking forward to talking to you this week to get your take on the big news from the University of California system. They dropped a big bombshell, which is that the UC system is going to suspend requiring the ACT and SAT for admission, and they’re eventually going to do away with those tests completely and replace them with their own assessments.

Diane: Michael, this is huge news, obviously, not just in California where I am, but around the country. I don’t know if people realize that the UC system, in many ways, really made those tests. They were one of the first big elite systems to take them. And I’m seriously wondering if they’re going to be the system that starts to dismantle them.

Michael: It certainly looks like that is a very possible outcome right now. And we could fill up an entire podcast just on this question, but I think what’s particularly interesting for this set of episodes that we’re doing right now is that it actually puts the work of high school and K-12 school more generally in a new light. For so many, the idea has just been sort of simple all along. It’s: “You do well in high school, you do well on the SATs, you get into college, and then the world magically opens up for you.”

Diane: There’s a formula. Grades plus scores equals college.

Michael: Exactly. And a lot of people in society, not all, but a lot of people just sort of get this, but all of a sudden, without this brass ring, if you will, to reach for, more and more of us, I’m finding, are turning into pseudo philosophers and wondering, why do we send our kids to school in the first place? Like, what’s the real purpose?

And it’s certainly a question that the two of us have been asking and talking about for a long time, but what I’m finding is that far more people are thinking about it now in one shape or another.

Diane: I think that’s totally right. And you know, I’m thrilled that people are thinking about this and asking this question, “What is the purpose of school?” It’s something I care deeply about and work on all the time. And the reality, Michael, is one of the reasons people are asking the question right now is they’re realizing that one of the reasons they send their kids to school is for child care.

Michael: As you’ve actually pointed out to me, the custodial role — keep my kids safe during these certain hours — that’s obviously an important aspect of schooling, you might say. But if that was the main purpose, it’s a terrible design for it, right? Because what plan has children just in school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. only five days a week and then not at all in summer? And now increasingly districts are saying, “Oh, we’ll just do half day, once a week, and we have professional development days dropped in.” I mean, that’s not ideal for any of the families I know with working parents.

Diane: No, it’s totally not ideal. And so that’s obviously not the only reason that we’re sending kids to school. And so as we pointed out, one of the reasons that a lot of people go to school now is to get accepted to college. So it’s like this golden ticket you’re going after into adulthood and everything leading up to that is just getting to try to get that golden ticket. And not having the SAT or ACT there now really throws people for a bit of a loop like, Oh, well, how do I go after that now? And then they ask, well, is this really what I’m doing in school?

Michael: Yeah. And you know what’s interesting about the SAT game and so forth is just that. It has rules and it feels like a game and it reduces the whole schooling experience to a game. I mean, some of my friends often joke about, like, what if you could design a video game called “School”? And it would have demerits and things like that, and you would just try to aim for certain scores? And look, I’ll be honest, right? I played the game in high school. I did the minimum amount of work to get the grade. I knew exactly what I needed to do just so I could get to college, and I actually even remember when I set foot on college for the first time, I was like, OK, deep breath. Now I can actually learn what is really important.

As I’ve gotten to know this field, what I’ve seen is that obviously a lot of families know this game. They play the game, their kids know the game. But what’s so interesting is that a lot of families and their students don’t know the rules of the game, Diane, right? It’s opaque to them if their parents didn’t go to college, and so they don’t understand what matters. They don’t understand in what proportions it matters. And what was so interesting for me in writing Choosing College, my most recent book, is so many students, they go to college just to fulfill someone’s expectations of them. And the outcomes from that were miserable: 74 percent of students transferring or dropping out. And then there was another set of students who go just to get into their best school — according to these rankings and scores and so forth — for its own sake. And what we saw there is like, yeah, they, they might get through college, but at some point they have to ask this larger question of, so what? Like, what’s the purpose? Otherwise they just drift off into this sort of unhappiness.

Diane: Michael, what you’re saying makes me really sad, quite frankly, because it suggests that we’re basically delaying the meaningful part of life for our kids until they’re not kids anymore and that they’re spending huge, enormous parts of their adolescence and childhood going after something that they don’t even really know why they’re going after it. And what’s really hard for me is, for a while, let’s be clear, I built schools to help the kids who don’t know how to play the game get into college.

Michael: And we should be clear. I mean, college is important. It will help those who complete it do well in life.

Diane: Exactly. And you know, from an economic argument, there was for a long time no better way to have a better economic opportunity in America than to go to college. And that is still true on some levels. But as the debt and the cost start to come to bear, things like that…

Michael: That will totally change.

Diane: Which brings us back to this question of, isn’t there more that we should be going to school for? Don’t we want more? Can’t we expect more for our kids?

Michael: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I mean, aren’t we trying to build successful adults ready to navigate society?

Diane: That’s what I think. That’s what I want. And here’s the question I always ask myself: What do I want for my own child? Because I can’t think about doing something for other kids, other people’s children, if it’s not something that I would want for my own child, and every parent I know wants their child to be happy.

They want them to have, you know, not only a good future life, but they want them to have a good childhood and adolescence. They want them to learn things. They want them to feel purpose and meaning and be motivated and like what they’re doing, and have a community, and all of those things. And the way school is designed right now, it’s really like wringing those things out of the experience.

Michael: Yeah. And so many of the parents that are just nagging their children to do the work in order to play the game, I don’t think they feel good about it often. There’s some voice in the back of their head that says this isn’t right. A high schooler that I was talking to recently articulated that when they went on this break — he’s a student in D.C. public schools — and he said, “You know, I, I just felt this relief when COVID hit, in the sense that like I was being fed” — and this was his language — “the doughnuts and Pop-Tarts of knowledge instead of the avocados and strawberries of curiosity and inquiry.”

I thought, holy cow. And it’s not just students, right? Parents are noticing this now too. In March before distance learning started up, one parent I know told her daughter to research something that she was actually interested in, and her daughter ended up doing this deep dive into black holes. And then it was interesting, parents were pretty disappointed when formal distance learning actually started up. And to be totally honest, we had the same experience in my own household. We actually thought we had built a pretty cool schedule where they had opportunities to do real projects and multi-day explorations, and then all of a sudden it was replaced by Zoom school.

Diane: And you’re not alone. You know, my brother-in-law is having this experience with his 8-year-old where he as a parent is feeling really guilty because he was doing the whole thing where he was fighting her to do the Zoom call and the worksheets and all of that stuff.

And what he figured out, kind of stumbled on, was that she was actually interested in cooking. And this is interesting for her, because she’s not a big eater. She’s not very adventurous in her eating. They’re always trying to get her to eat something. But something triggered and she wanted to learn how to make banana bread. And next thing you know, they’re researching recipes and looking at ingredients and measuring and cooking and tasting and all of this. And he couldn’t even enjoy how amazing that was and how excited she was because he was too busy feeling guilty that she wasn’t doing the math worksheet from the math that she had learned earlier in the year that they were supposed to be practicing, which is just so messed up.

Michael: I can speak as someone whose wife is in the world of culinary arts. I am just always blown away by the amount of chemistry and math she knows through cooking school, not the engineering degree that she got, Diane. So I totally get that.

And you know, what’s been so interesting for both of us, I think, during this experience, is that Jenna Free, the writer who’s been supporting us throughout this podcast, she actually saw the limitations of her school’s distance learning as well. And she decided, with a lot of help from you, that she would start to try something different. And so I’m really excited about this because we asked her to come on the show directly and talk about her own experience. But then we did one more step, which was, we invited a former colleague of yours, Adam Carter, who’s the director of an educational think tank, Marshall Street. And Adam is really — as you’ve told me — one of the world’s foremost experts in thinking about how to design really meaty, purposeful projects that grab students’ interest and really pull them through. And we thought we’d have him on to sort of respond to the challenges Jenna has had as she’s gone this route and have them in dialogue with us.

Diane: Yes. And I’m so excited to have them both here and talking about this, because Adam’s a dad as well. And I will just have to on his behalf say, I wouldn’t call Marshall Street a think tank. He might be offended if we said that because they are actually a “do” tank in a lot of ways, in that they take real problems that real educators are facing and try to solve them. They think a lot too, which is one of the things I appreciate. They really bring the science to bear on education, which is super hard for educators because education’s a full-time job and integrating the science is really difficult. And so Adam’s one of the best at doing those two things. I’m super excited to have those two get into conversation.

Jenna: I have a sixth-grader and she is not one for doing things that she’s not all that interested in doing. And with homeschooling, with the distance learning that her school put together, I kind of threw up my hands a few weeks ago and just said, screw it, we can’t do this because all it was was me saying, “Have you done this yet? Have you done this yet? Have you done this yet?” And she had absolutely no interest in reading about ancient history and writing two sentences about it, and I had to be on top of her and we were arguing, and I’m working, and it was all very just stressful.

So I said, forget this. And I asked her: Well, what do you want to learn? What are you curious about? And if you study something, what would you want it to be? And she landed on the Renaissance. And it was incredible the difference between the one day, me having to fight her on everything, and then the next day she woke up and she was like, OK, I’m going to do this today.

And we put together a list of a bunch of stuff that she would do, including cooking a Renaissance meal, reading all of these articles, reading a couple of novels, watching a movie, and you know, she was really into it. So I wouldn’t say that the Renaissance project was a total failure. I mean, she had a good time and she learned some stuff. But at the end, I did find that she just had all of these random facts about the Renaissance, and I had to wonder, what did she actually learn? And you know, I’m not a teacher. I don’t know how to do this. So that’s kind of where we ended up.

Diane: Oh, Jenna. You know, I invited Adam Carter to join us in this conversation because when I think about who knows a ton about products in the nation and who brings the science of learning together with real teaching in an incredible way, it’s Adam. And so I’m super curious, Adam, as you’re listening to Jenna and her experience, maybe the place we should start is just like: What is a project?

Adam: Well, thank you for having me. And I feel Jenna’s pain on this, very much so. It sounds like you were able to do a lot of things really well, actually, including choice for your daughter and following her curiosity and motivation. But what is a project? In a nutshell, a project is authentic problem-solving and performance. It’s mimicking what professionals do every day. And if we want to get a little wonky about it, it’s the main course, not dessert. And what that means is, often projects are marched through a series of very standard instructional activities. You have something to read, something to write, and a unit test, and then that’s kind of it. It’s all about say, amphibians. And so you’ve written your piece on amphibians, and then at the very end you do this project and that project is where you create a really pretty poster with three other students and you draw frogs all over it and the salamander with a bow tie and you show it off to your whole class and voilà! Projects.

That would be a dessert instance. And we’ve all experienced projects as dessert.

Diane: Because there’s, like, nothing there. There’s no substance. It’s not healthy. You’re not actually learning. It’s just like whipped cream.

Adam: It’s ultimately unsatisfying. Even if a little fun sometimes. The main course example is something that doesn’t have an answer readily available. You can’t “OK, Google” or “Alexa” this, and you work through a series of problems toward some sort of authentic performance — and by performance, I don’t mean standing on a stage and dancing, although you could — often it’s writing something. It is offering a presentation that will gain feedback. It is some form of a dramatic re-enactment, something that has an audience to it.

And that’s the essence of project-based learning. The same way that many professionals give presentations to their colleagues to move work forward, we should be asking students to give presentations to their peers to move work forward.

Michael: So I just want to call it out, because you actually just tackled one of the complaints I often hear about projects, and that I see myself when I travel around, which is, it becomes all about the performance as opposed to the knowledge and skills culminating in a performance. And so you see that someone made a video — isn’t it amazing that they can make a video in this era and it’s sort of like about nothing, if you will. It’s just they made a cool video with lots of special effects. I did that a lot in my schooling career and impressed people, I think, but it wasn’t about anything. But you’ve just addressed that, I think, which is, it’s really very conscious that all those skills and knowledge and so forth culminate, if I understood it correctly.

Adam: Yes. So on one end of the spectrum is the class we’ve all been in before, in which we’re just learning facts and figures and numbers, and we’re memorizing the Pythagorean theorem. There’s that class, which we know is not effective. It teaches some things, but it’s not ultimately satisfying. There’s the other class in which we’re doing lots of fun stuff. There’s posters and there’s cool stuff on the wall and there’s dioramas. There’s all kinds of stuff and it’s kind of fun. But it’s ultimately unsatisfying also because it’s like, what does all this stuff add up to? Like, what have I actually done here? Project-based learning is neither of those things.

It is merging high-quality, rigorous content with a set of skills that culminates in some type of a performance. And in that way, I think the best mental model really is professional work environments.

Diane: What’s so interesting to me is that performance is a really key part to it. It has to have meaningful feedback so the student is getting better and that the next time they’re performing, they’re getting better. And Michael, one of the super-awkward things I find when I go out and look at dessert-type projects is, here’s this kid who’s performing, and it’s not good. Like, it’s just not quality, right? And yet as the audience, you’re kind of like, you feel bad. You don’t know if they got the right coaching or the right instruction, and so they don’t actually get good feedback. I feel like that piece of what happens in that performance, and then what happens after that with the feedback, is really important, Adam.

Adam: Yes, very important. I think another misconception about projects is that they are very sexy, and I just want to dispel that myth. There are some sexy projects. I know we have one, for example, in science, in which students go out and get seafood from a grocery store and then they test it to see what it actually is. And so you’re actually seeing that some of the stuff you think is squid is not squid. So I’m sorry to anyone listening if I’m ruining your lunch.

Michael: I was preparing squid. But keep going.

Adam: Yeah, that is a pretty cool project and requires some really specialized equipment. A really great project, I think, for an English class is something called a narrative essay.

And this has been done for many years, but it’s telling a story that has a point that’s personal to your life. It taps into students’ innate knowledge and interest and curiosity. And yet it builds to this culmination of an essay, which couldn’t be more sort of unsexy. You can build a whole culture of feedback in the classroom around it, to the point at which students are reading parts to each other and offering feedback. How do I make this more interesting? How do I make this more purposeful so that the pieces really do add up and it’s not just, how do I jam an image into this document, but how do I use imagery to communicate the point that I want my audience to understand?

Michael: There is more intentionality in there, I’m hearing. It’s more that spark, that interest as the entryway into a much larger set of explorations that are going to be very intentional around not just the knowledge, but maybe more importantly, building the skills and the habits of how you actually engage in this. Am I starting to catch that?

Adam: Absolutely. Yes. And on top of that, what we ask of students has to be something they can do with success. Project-based learning is a really great opportunity for identity formation to show, because we’re mimicking the work of an expert. We’re just doing it at a high school or middle school or an elementary school level. You know, we are mimicking the same type of thinking, the same type of intellectual activity, but it’s scaffolded.

Michael: In other words, you’re not asking someone to be Isaac Newton and develop some principle of whatever.

Adam: Right, right. And, and so like, we don’t ask students in ninth grade to write a collection of narrative essays. We don’t ask them to write a novel. We can ask them to write a narrative essay in about six to eight weeks. And that, they can do that very well. And I mean across the board, students can do that very well. I think often we try and bite off too much and instead of scaffolding in a way that we know we can get all students to a place of success, we try and bite off something enormous at the outset.

And then that doesn’t lead to feelings of empowerment. That leads to feelings of defeat. And that creates a cycle the same way that getting successes creates a cycle of success.

Diane: I think the key point here is, like, there’s this step-by-step approach where kids are getting feedback along the way. So often what will happen in a classroom is a teacher will assign an essay and literally not give any feedback until the entire thing is done, turned in, and they’re just putting a grade on it.

But I think in a project, the students just practice like literally the first sentence for a day in a workshop. And they’re looking at models and then they’re getting feedback on that practice. And then they’re doing a paragraph and then they’re using a particular device and getting feedback on it. So they’re constructing it along the way with all these skills they’re learning. So actually when I’m a teacher who’s taught a good project, by the time I see the final thing, I’ve seen that thing so many times and in so many ways, it really is not like I’m sitting down for the first time to read this essay.

Adam:Yes, and you probably enjoy it. You’re able to appreciate what the student’s been able to accomplish. I’ll just add one other thing, another characteristic of a good project. It’s something that doesn’t feel like drudgery for anyone, although it’s hard work. The second thing I just say as like a litmus test is it’s something that if done right, you’re not, as the teacher, as the parent, the sole arbiter of feedback — you have a community of people who are also working to do it.

And if there’s only one right way to do it, then you’re trying to minimize feedback because that’s called cheating. What a project allows you to do is, everyone’s working on that narrative essay, that persuasive speech, whatever, and so you can make that work public. Colleagues in a work environment have the opportunity to support, to critically analyze, and they’re doing it in the spirit of, let’s make this thing excellent.

Diane: Adam, I think you’re pointing out this really important point, that the person who’s getting this feedback from this whole community of people is benefiting. But the other thing that I have really appreciated and noticed is how much better the feedback givers get at the skill, and this is what we forget. You know, when we have a single teacher who’s the only person who’s giving feedback to a student, we’re actually robbing all the other kids of the opportunity to really understand what it is that they’re being asked to learn and do through the act of looking at someone else’s work and advising them how they could get better and giving them feedback on it. And not surprisingly, oftentimes the feedback that really lands with kids is the feedback that comes from their peers, not their parents or their adults or the teacher.

Adam: Yeah. That is exactly right. Think of all the barriers we all encounter when we receive feedback. Is it, are they right? Like, does this person actually know anything? Should I even trust that this feedback will make my work better? Do they get me, do they get what I’m trying to do? The defense mechanisms go up quick. So receiving feedback’s powerful and important. Being able to give feedback is a skill set is in its own right, something we should be incenting and teaching more. But to your larger point, you’re also becoming a better writer. You’re becoming a better speaker when you encounter the writing and the speaking of others, and you put on that analytical brain and you think about: What is great about this? What is not great about this? What’s working here? What’s not working here? And so we talk a lot about independence and transfer. We want all students to be able to write that essay independently, give that speech independently, and we want the skills behind that speech, that essay, that project, whatever, we want those skills to transfer outside of it, so that the same way you’re using imagery in that narrative essay, we want to make a bridge to being able to use imagery effectively in the persuasive speech that happens two months later, two years later, three years later. And so these spiraled skills come back again and again and again, like being able to use imagery to make a point. These are things that are enduring all through life, and school is such a great place for them.

Michael: I think what you’re pointing to, Adam, is that projects aren’t something that sort of happen, and then we never visit the concept again and like, “Oh, we’ve covered X and now we’ll go on to Y.” Right? But there’s something more subtle that I also hear you saying, which is, they’re often interdisciplinary, right? They’re cutting across what we think of as siloed subjects. Am I catching that correctly? And how critical is that to doing this well?

Adam: You’re catching it correctly, and it’s critical. Since we’re in a wonky place anyway, I’ll meet your wonkiness and go one step further.

Michael: Awesome.

Adam: I’ll just throw this quotation from Jerome Bruner at you, which is that intellectual activity anywhere is the same; whether at the frontier of knowledge or in the third-grade classroom, the difference is in degree, not kind. Which really means that the work of a scientist who is at the forefront of the field trying to create a vaccine that’s never been created before is the same basic intellectual activity that third-graders are doing in that science classroom.

And it’s not just about science. There’s all sorts of skills wrapped up in it. You have to work in teams. So you have these sort of social-emotional skills or habits of success that you’re trying to use to do something big and important as part of a group, and projects are perfect for that idea of spiraling skills of intellectual activity that sort of grows over time. So in many cases, what you’re doing through project-based learning is becoming a clearer thinker, is creating a better producer and a more engaging producer of materials. And becoming a better collaborator and a more self-directed learner.

So the three things I would call out there is you’re building knowledge, some of which will endure and some of which will be forgotten. You’re building skills which will be spiraled over time, so that would be like you’re becoming a better writer over time. It takes so many repetitions over so many years to become a really strong writer. And you’re becoming a more self-aware and collaborative person, a better citizen, really, if you will, like, whether that’s in a classroom environment or part of the scientific community or part of a democracy.

Michael: And I’ll just jump in and amplify one thing really quickly, which you said, you know, skills, I think the flip side is that they often don’t exist in a vacuum. As in my ability to think critically in a computer science environment is nil, because I don’t have any knowledge, but if you make it explicit, make the skill set clear of what you’re building in terms of critical thinking and what are the steps involved in that and so forth, so that as I build content knowledge in a domain, I can then leverage those skills in these ways. And so it’s not osmosis, and it doesn’t just magically happen. It’s that clarity and crispness about what are we building and making sure that the student actually understands it’s being built in him or her as well.

Adam: Absolutely, and this is the essence of what great teachers want to do anyway, that you get to work together, often across disciplines, in order to create an experience for students that is inherently engaging, inherently productive, inherently about the heart of why we all got into teaching in the first place, which is we want to be a part of kids’ lives in a way that is long-lasting and meaningful. And so the heart of education is relationships, and project-based learning allows us to form relationships across disciplines and across the school community as adults. To construct learning experiences for students that aren’t just about ninth-grade English and they aren’t just about algebra, but bring together the disciplines in a way that enables students to create things they’re proud of and that allow teachers to do the teaching they’ve always wanted to do, so that when you sit down at that stack of papers at the end of a project, or you watch or listen to the products the kids create at the end, you have a feeling of pride that transcends just being able to put A’s on papers, or that you have really good stuff in front of you, but you get to share that feeling of pride with another teacher or a group of teachers who worked collaboratively around the student experience to make sure that all students could be successful and had access to the tools they needed to be successful.

Michael: Diane, it occurred to me that as we listened to Adam, Jenna did so many things right, and so many parents right now are doing so many things right around grabbing things that actually interest their children and pulling it out into a strand that has larger purpose to it and so forth. But the other takeaway is, it’s really hard as just a parent because you may not have, you know, for example, we talked about performance and the need to have an audience to give authentic feedback. You might not have that community right now to give that sort of feedback, nor, frankly, the time to build all that intentionality of knowledge, skills, habits of success. And then do it over and over again, not make it just one shot. You know, even if it’s for one moment, the main course, it’s gotta be done over and over again across grade levels, across subjects, really a schoolwide effort, and that’s a lot of work, Diane. But I guess what I’m excited about is, for folks like Jenna, I think they’ve sort of taken a really important first step, and it’s a beginning, where parents can start to see the possibilities of starting with an interesting question or an interest of their child in a problem that doesn’t quite make sense. Some sort of project that then they can actually tackle and dive into all of the things that Adam started talking about.

Diane: Michael, I totally agree, and I love what Jenna is doing and I love the idea of parents spending the time that they have with their kids at home really digging into what they’re interested in and what they care about. I love that so much more than them sort of in a military fashion, driving their kids to practice for SATs or tests or things like that and fighting over homework. So that’s super exciting to me. And then the other reality is, it really does illuminate the critical importance of school and suggest to me that school has a really important purpose. And I’m glad we’re asking what that purpose is.

And you know, I will just say for me, the way I answered that question is: School is to prepare our kids to be adults, but like whole human being adults who have, yes, the knowledge and the skills, but they also have the habits to be members of society and members of a community and to be, you know, good parents someday and good neighbors and relations and all of those things.

And to be happy. I want my child to be happy.

Michael: I think that’s right. And with purpose and passion and a sense of how they can contribute to the world, we’re using school to get students ready for life. Parents and society in general, we’ve made the decision that sending kids to school until they’re 18 is a good plan to get this done. And then the conversation we were having here and that we need to be having as a society is, OK, what do they need so they will be ready for that life that you’re talking about?

Diane: Yeah. And today is a good start of that conversation because, Michael, as a society, we make a massive investment in our children. Why do we do that? It doesn’t make sense that it’s literally only to get them to a ticket where then they start the learning or they start the engagement and, you know, we have to take this opportunity that we have and make the most of it and make it really meaningful while they’re with us.

Michael: I think that’s exactly right. And I was just so struck when Adam was talking about the intentionality and the investment and the interdisciplinary nature and the schoolwide nature of projects. And then his macro statement that echoes a finding that we had in Disrupting Class and Blended, which is that students just want to be successful, and it’s not that they want to be successful at the end of the game. They want to be successful every single day and feel like they’re making meaningful progress. And I think that’s the big message in all of this, Diane, which is that things should be purposeful toward the next step, sure. But they should also be enjoyable and purposeful during the moment as well. And it’s not to say like every single second will be just like, you know, butterflies and rainbows, but you wake up and you’re like energized by the task at hand and you feel that passion and purpose in it.

Diane: Yeah, I think so often we don’t give kids and young adults enough credit. They are willing to work hard. They care about our world, they will get in for that. But what they don’t go in for is when they know it doesn’t mean anything. And they know it’s not leading anywhere and they, there’s no one who can explain why they are doing what they’re doing and it doesn’t make sense. One of the things that Adam helped us see was that projects make space for not only those academic skills and knowledge that people traditionally think about as what we’re going to school for, but they make space for all these really important habits. And you know, when you talk to parents, Michael, they always talk about how “there’s all these skills I have or don’t have that make me a successful human being.” We call them the habits of success, and I’m so excited because next week, Michael, we get to talk to Angela Duckworth, who’s the author of Grit, about how those habits of success come and join together in a project-based environment with those academic skills.

Michael: Yeah, it’s going to be terrific, right? We’re going to bring the knowledge that we covered in the digital tools from the beginning now, with the projects and the skills you develop there, and then the habits of success built in there with Angela Duckworth, not as the dessert, but the main course, if you will, and that will all be next time on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator and innovator and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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