Get the most out of the WASB Convention


By Barry Golden – ISN Consultant

In another week, several thousand administrators and school board members will travel to Milwaukee to attend the 95th annual WASB Convention. This conference is the premier conference for school district leaders and decision makers! It is a conference where hundreds of vendors from book companies, technology companies; companies specializing in insurance, jewelry, financial investments, gym floors, architects, bleachers, banks and numerous other vendors engage attendees to purchase various good or services. It’s an experience that nearly overwhelms me as I venture around the various venues while seeking the vendors I want to meet. I have been one of those vendors on several occasions and it was exciting to meet board members and leadership personnel and learn of their challenges in delivering a PK-12 education to students, some who will enter a society and economy that we can barely predict 10-15 years from now.

Previously the owner of a K-12 educational technology, I was amazed back in the 90’s and early 2000’s how little school boards and administrators knew about technology. A principal with whom I worked actually advised his fellow administrators not to jump into technology until it “settled down and stopped its rapid change.” While we focusing on “college and career readiness” we have seen many, many school districts literally dismantle their technical education programs, many of which were replaced by “at-risk” programs since there were few options in the trades to achieve “career readiness.”

Looking forward, we know we can’t continue “doing what we’ve always done, as it will only get us to where we’ve already been.” The legacy PK-12 system of old produced the world’s greatest scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs, business leaders and world leaders. If we look closely at most current school systems they have changed little in the past 40 years. Oh yes, we have more technology but the students in our classrooms are frequently learning more “outside” the classroom than inside. Why? Because they have choice and voice in what they want to learn on the “outside.” Our legacy system dictates what students will learn or must learn what “we” decide they need to learn to graduate and yet most educators will agree we are NOT properly preparing students for the future. Why? Because we need to develop two or more models of K-12 education. Our current system should continue as is since it is still successful for about 50% of our students. A second model should allow students more experiential or hands-on learning that we refer to as “project-based learning” or PBL. It is actually becoming quite popular in the K-12 sector however, I see most school districts doing what we’ve usually done, trying to squeeze PBL into our existing system and it’s rigid schedules; use of staff at specific times during the day for specific content courses will squelch most attempts at implementing PBL but many districts do so anyway. And who is at fault when they fail? It must be the model or the teachers! PBL learning models must be available for students who learn best through such an approach. This might include science, STEM, welding, community/collaborative learning, internships, engineering etc. We are ill preparing students for the futures they will eventually face and most of us don’t recognize it.

As our state’s educational leaders and administrators move to Milwaukee for three days of professional development, I would like to suggest a few priorities as you browse the exhibit area and the sessions you consider attending:

  1. Sessions on project/inquiry based learning or experiential learning
  2. Teacher shared leadership models in school buildings
  3. STEM sessions using experiential learning
  4. Sessions on career and technical education training, again with a hands-on emphasis
  5. Sessions on building positive school culture
  6. Place-based learning that incorporates the community in student learning

In closing, I’ve been involved in tsunamis of “school reform” efforts over the past 40 years and I think most would agree, few have really taken root and transformed a several grade level building let alone a medium to large school district. One last suggestion to learn more about creating “innovative schools,” visit the Innovative Schools Network booth in the exhibitor area and learn how to transform education, “one school at a time.”

The Nature of Inquiry: Reflection


By Sara Krauskopf

A key component to any project is reflection.  Teaching students metacognitive skills so they become aware of their own learning process is where some of the most meaningful growth occurs during the course of a unit.  Reflection helps them become critical thinkers and problem  solvers–skills we all value for the long term and want to build in our students. There are a number of points during a project where it may be appropriate to ask students to stop and reflect.  Longer projects may require multiple reflections, whereas shorter projects just one. This blog entry will provide some examples of ways to have students reflect.

1:  Improve group work. Group dynamics are some of the biggest challenges to project completion.  This is an early intervention which asks students to pause and consider problems with their team.  What obstacles do we already see with our group dynamic and how can we overcome it?  I usually share these reflections with the class so students see multiple ways they can improve their process.

Group Question

2:  Daily check-ins.  Mentioned in my previous blog entry, this is a way for students to examine daily progress within their team.  They can celebrate success, think of what took their work off course that day (positive or negative developments), and decide what adjustments they should make as a result.

Sample Daily Check-in

  • Did we meet our responsibilities for today? Why or why not?
  • What do we need for tomorrow?
  • Do we have homework?


3:  Mid-project reflections.  This is a more formal way to consider progress towards the project goal and make mid-course modifications.  Again, this should provide an opportunity for positive reinforcement of current systems and behaviors; or time to make adjustments to get back on track.  This individual writing assignment is turned in, helping me understand where individual students may be having trouble so I can jump in to facilitate changes where they are most needed.  

Sample Mid-project Reflection

Students were challenged to design, build and test a solar box cooker to melt chocolate during a Wisconsin winter.  We stopped to reflect after students tested the first iteration of the cooker.

  • What went well with our design stage?
  • What went well with construction and testing?
  • How well did our team work together?
  • What specific improvements need to be made?


4:  Final project reflections.  Never skip this type of reflection.  It is the most important part of the project and helps students review what they learned: not only related to the content of their project, but also about how to plan and implement a complex activity.  This is a formal individual writing assignment given after all of the products are constructed and presentations are given.

If this were a straightforward science experiment I might ask students to reflect on experimental error and to suggest additional investigations they would try to further their understanding of the processes involved.  However, in project-based learning, I ask them to think beyond what they learned from the content.  They consider the impact of their work on others; and most importantly think back on what it took to complete this project and assess what they learned about navigating a complex process.

Sample Final Project Reflection.

For the waste management project discussed in my last blog, students were given this prompt along with a detailed outline of questions to consider.

You just finished an intensive group project to create a solution to the question, “How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?”

  • What did you do?
  • Why was your project important?
  • How could this project be changed?


One of the reasons students at PBL schools get better and better at conducting projects is because of this reflective process.  They learn the importance of planning, the value of good partnerships, the need to stay organized and on task, and myriad other skills.  They are able to transfer those new skills to the next project and to their daily lives; and develop the ability to design more complex projects and solve more involved problems.  

As teachers, we always run out of time on units and need to cut out certain activities, but I strongly believe that you should leave time for reflection.  It is better to cut the project short and ask students, If you had more time what would you have done?  Without giving them time to reflect they will not develop critical thinking and other lifelong metacognitive skills that will help them successfully navigate the world as adults.

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at


The ISN is Thankful For Brave School Leadership

By: Barry Golden – ISN Consultant

As we approach Thanksgiving Day, ISN staff and several members of our Board of Directors have been reflecting on our service and impact on education in Wisconsin since our inception nearly four years ago.

We all concurred that innovation must continue to be our focus and passion.  In that spirit, we asked ourselves,

“what is the ISN thankful for in this season of gratitude?

There are a lot of innovations occurring in some 4K-12 classrooms and school buildings in Wisconsin, but we are still waiting for the inspired wave of risk taking leaders to establish zones of innovation within school districts across the state and the country to establish schools that “Do Different.”  There are some great examples of such schools and we want to express our appreciation and to honor those educators who are truly bending the curve of innovation by challenging the “one size fits all” mindset that seems to have hijacked our educational system.

We wish to honor and pay tribute to those leaders, staff, school boards and community members who have found a way to foster and empower teachers to assume a more active role in how we educate students differently; not only for students with differences, but with structures that recognize and educate students based on their strengths and interests versus trying to fix student weaknesses so they can fit a “proficient or advanced” factory model where individual differences are seen as being abnormal.

So, to those individuals who are doing education differently, be they board members, administrators, teaching staff or community groups, we thank you for your creativity and belief that guiding student learning fosters and supports curiosity which is what drives all humans to be different.

The Nature of Inquiry: Scaffolding Projects

By Sara Krauskopf

If you have never led an open-ended inquiry or project-based learning (PBL) unit before, it can be an intimidating experience. Diving into the unknown in terms of exactly what students will be working on and what they will produce creates a certain amount of anxiety and presents new challenges to the teacher as a facilitator of learning.  In my last blog entry, I described ways to get students to ask questions and narrow them down to that one “good question” that they will focus on for their project.  Now you are faced with helping a room full of students with different inquiries move through the process of answering their questions. This requires a series of steps and a certain shift in mindset as an instructor.  In this entry I will try to provide some tips and resources for working through facilitation of the planning and implementation of a set of projects.

It is important to model project design for students and build independence over time.  I often walk students through a behind-the-scenes look at how I planned a unit or set of experiences for them.  Who did I call?  What resources did I gather?  What did I have to test out in advance?  How long did it take me to do each of these steps?  Where did I run into stumbling blocks?  Did everything go smoothly or did I have to make adjustments?  This type of transparency in the teaching process not only helps students gain a great appreciation for the amount of work that goes into lesson planning , but more importantly demonstrates that they need to plan out their strategy and be prepared for it to change.  No projects ever go exactly as planned, and hurdles, failures and re-adjustments are par for the course.

For your first open-ended inquiry, I would suggest restricting the range of projects students choose.  This will help you anticipate the types of resources students will need to complete projects, making it easier to provide a certain set of equipment, limited list of experts and vetted starter informational resources.  Allowing them to work in teams of 2-4 also provides students with built-in support and gives you fewer projects to facilitate as you navigate the changed work load with this type of learning.  With science experiments it is fairly straight-forward to guide students to a narrow, yet original set of project questions (eg.  How can we speed up rates of seed germination?).  As I mentioned in my first blog, my class investigated the question What type of waste does our community produce and where does it go?, and then students designed their own projects focused on the question How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?  This was a broad inquiry, but narrow enough for me to anticipate a set of community education campaigns, composting experiments, and sewing projects to repurpose fabric.  I did have one group that chose to refurbish an old computer, which I had not anticipated, but they were so motivated that they got all of their own equipment and did not require my assistance very often.

I scaffold my planning process using the attached resource, based on one I received from Valley New School, which does all learning through a PBL model.  Students can complete this individually or in teams.  The planning stage will be the loudest, least organized, scariest part of the process.  Some students won’t know exactly what to do, will argue with one another and beg for your attention.  A few will plunge in, creating a product without planning anything and will need to be held back; others will struggle to come up with a viable idea; some will need help formulating the wording of their problem.  As a facilitator and not a lead teacher, you need to let students struggle.  Many times the groups that have the most trouble at the beginning have the best projects in the end.  They wind up taking more time in the planning phase and therefore everything else proceeds more smoothly.  Certain students also need reassurance that if their original plan does not work out, they will not be penalized.  A project that does not produce the desired results is not a failure, but rather a learning experience and an opportunity to try it another way.

I require students to get my approval of the planning document before they can proceed. Because of this, I expect to be pulled in ten different directions at once as everyone vies for my time and attention.  This is exhausting, but good!  I steel myself for these days and know things will settle down as projects are chosen and planned out.  Once students have created their plan and a tentative calendar, your days will run more smoothly.

Students learn time and task management through PBL.  Once we are in the actual research and action phases of the process, I ask students to do a self check-in and check-out process every day.  What are my responsibilities for the day?  What do we need?  And then, Did we meet those responsibilities? Why or why not?  What do we need for tomorrow?  Do we have homework?  The Buck Institute also provides an excellent set of student handouts to help teams set up their process and keep track of their work.

The hard work now falls to the students, and your job is to check in regularly to monitor progress and help facilitate overcoming challenges as they arise. You are now on your way to open-ended student inquiry!  Next topic, reflection.

Suggested Resources:

  • Short stories about real projects you could analyze with students from beginning to end as an example of PBL:  
    • (2007). Heroes of the Environment!. Harriet Rohmer.  
    • (2004) Voices of Hope (Heroes’ Stories for Challenging Times) (Readings from the Giraffe Heroes Project)

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015

What is Your Path to Educational Innovation?

by Barry Golden, ISN Consultant

ISN Innovation Zone

What is Your Path to Innovation? Charter Schools or Zones of Innovation?  

Act 55, passed by the Wisconsin legislature and signed by the Governor in July 2015, created a new process for outside “authorizers” to establish “independent” charter schools across the state of Wisconsin. In the past, local school districts, with the exception of Milwaukee and Racine, were the only entities allowed to establish a charter school within a school district.

In Act 55, there are 9 entities that can now authorize charter schools in regions across the state. The following chart identifies the authorizing agencies and the regions of Wisconsin for which they can authorize a charter school.


Charter Authorizer


School Location Pupil Residency Number of Charter Schools
City of Milwaukee (2r) Statewide Statewide Unlimited
UW-Milwaukee (2r) Statewide Statewide Unlimited
UW-Parkside (2r) Statewide Statewide Unlimited
MATC (2r) Statewide Statewide Unlimited
*Gateway Technical College (2r) Racine, Kenosha, Walworth (only high school grades and provides curriculum focused on STEM or occupational education and training) Racine, Kenosha, Walworth, Milwaukee, Waukesha, Jefferson, Rock Unlimited
*Waukesha County Executive (2r) Waukesha County Statewide Unlimited
*College of Menominee Nation (2r) Statewide Statewide No more than 6 schools between these two authorizers
*Lac Courte Orielles Ojibwa Community College (2r) Statewide Statewide
*Office of Educational Opportunity (UW System) (2x) In districts with over 25,000 pupils Statewide Unlimited

 Independent authorizers may not establish a virtual charter school.

A summary of the new charter school law, 118.40 can be found at the following web site: Now local school districts should be(?) asking “can this law potentially affect our school district? “ This simple answer is “yes!” In the interest of establishing competition in 4K-12 education throughout Wisconsin, there are now 9 agencies that can authorize charter schools in addition to your local school district.

Most of the districts the ISN is working with either have their own charter schools or are investigating how they can establish an “innovation zone” within their district that will not only foster and establish innovative schools, but will prevent other authorizers from establishing charter schools outside of local control.

Several local districts are collaborating with the ISN to investigate how to establish an innovation zone that has the freedom to innovate within the existing framework of their local school district while offering optional learning models to better meet the varying needs and interests of students and the local community. Essentially this involves establishing schools or programs where students work and learn differently. Most of the options being created center around some variation of “project based or problem based learning”. These practices are well established in Wisconsin where many schools are already operating either a charter school or project based learning within a quasi-independent innovation zone. Such a school provides significant student autonomy and fosters strong leadership, curiosity, independent learning and critical thinking, and social skills.

The ISN is on the cutting edge of creating these types of options within school districts. If you have concerns that someone might establish an independent charter school in your district, we welcome the opportunity to work with any district that is serious about establishing an “Innovation Zone” or their own charter school.

Next week, I will further discuss the financial impact of independent charters being established in your district. I’ll also discuss how such innovation zones can be established that would achieve levels of innovation while still maintaining the existing model.

Learn more about Innovation Zones: Innovation Zones Explained


UPDATE 6-3-16

Follow-up resources from Dan Butler with the National Charter School Resource Center

Case Study: Indianapolis Mayor’s Office

Case Study: AppleTree



The Nature of Inquiry: Asking Good Questions


by Sara Krauskopf

“There are no bad questions.”  I hear educators say this all the time, but do we really mean it?   What is the nature of a “good question?”  How do we lead students through quality inquiry?  As someone trained in science education, I spent a great deal of time helping students develop “good” scientific questions.  When I formally began teaching with project-based learning (PBL), similar challenges emerged.  How do we help students develop and recognize good questions for inquiry and how do we facilitate them as they investigate the answer to that question?

Designing an inquiry project varies surprisingly little from subject to subject when you consider the skills and scaffolding needed for all of the steps of the process.  Obviously, investigating an inquiry into comparisons of insect diversity in different local habitats may require a different set of equipment and data analysis in comparison with a PBL project to start an after school program to keep students out of trouble if noone is at home. But the guidance and skills we would lead students through to design, plan and complete a true inquiry project in either case is very similar.  In this entry I will focus more on developing good questions, in the next installment we will look more to the process of answering the questions.

In science, a “good” scientific question is one that has never been asked before.  It should not be one you can look up the answer to online (What is the melting point of silver?); it should not (generally) be one that someone else has already researched (Do Sandhill Cranes mate for life?).  The question should be creative, yet explorable with realistic constraints.  Ideally, it can be answered through a series of focused experiments or observations.  Of course, as instructors we may still present students with a question with a known response because we want them to figure out how to find the pattern, or we recognize that they will understand the concept better if they run an experiment themselves and analyze the results (How does adding salt to water change the freezing point of the solution?). This is still inquiry and a valuable question to investigate.  It leads the students to discover new knowledge (to them) to discuss the scientific principles behind why something occurs.

Students in the field

The goal, however, of this narrowly-guided inquiry with a known outcome should be to lead students to more open-ended, original inquiries.  For example, after learning that salt water reduces the freezing point of water my students walked to Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin for some water quality testing in winter when the air temperature was below freezing (yes, I’m a bit crazy).  We happened to pick a dock near the outlet where a creek empties into the lake.  Students who had wandered over to the creek noticed that while most of the lake was frozen, the creek was not.  They began to wonder why the creek stayed open and why certain parts of the lake were not solid at this time.  The observation, subsequent questions and possible explanations originated from the students.  They suggested many possible explanations for this:  the water was moving quickly and therefore the molecules could not attract one another, get close enough and solidify; perhaps there was warmer groundwater seeping into this site; or maybe there were contaminants dissolved in the water that were keeping it from freezing.  Testing the validity of any of these ideas is good scientific inquiry.  It is unlikely anyone had tested the chemical composition of the water at that location on that day and an investigation of the water might reveal contamination with road salt, phosphorus, soil or other substances that would prevent freezing.  Did I set students up to ask these specific questions?  Not exactly, but I provided them with enough background knowledge to inquire about what they were seeing and ask good questions to seek new knowledge and understanding.

In my experience, teachers need to ask good questions to get students to ask good questions.  Providing a set of experiences, asking students to make observations of a situation that is somehow out of balance, or the presentation of a troubling scenario via video, guest speaker, or newspaper article are some of my favorite ways to lead students to write good questions for PBL or scientific inquiry.  If students perceive an injustice to a group of people or to a habitat it is easier for them to get involved and ask more questions.  Our students watched “Frogs: The Thin Green Line” from Nature on PBS about research into declining frog populations around the globe.  After seeing in the video that Minnesota students found frogs in a pond with three legs due to pesticide pollution, they wanted to learn more about the situation in Wisconsin.  Groups of students chose to research the status of frog populations in our local area, contacted researchers at the University of Wisconsin and read up on the situation here.

As a teacher at Badger Rock Middle School, we used essential questions to guide students over the course of a quarter or semester.  For example:  What type of waste does our community produce and where does it go?  How can we reduce the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill?   Using that broad, overarching theme, we ran a series of guided field trips and investigations of recycling centers, landfills, compost methods, repurposing waste, e-waste and other topics.  At the end of the unit, students designed their own projects to reduce the amount of waste going to a landfill.  Because they were exposed to such a broad range of topics, they could develop many original ideas to address our unique situation.

Leading students through a “think, pair, share” brainstorming process brings out a plethora of ideas for student projects.  To accomplish this I will either present a scaffolded set of open-ended questions or create a Frayer model. This will help students summarize what they already know about a topic and sets them up to generate questions they still want answered or describe possible solutions to the problems they encountered during the first part of the unit.  The Frayer model divides the paper into four boxes with a central theme.  In one box I might ask them to list the locations we visited and activities we did in our waste unit, in another list all the types of waste generated in our community; in the third box, describe the weaknesses in the systems we investigated, and in the fourth, write down ideas they have to reduce waste going to a landfill in our community.   I always ask students to complete a Frayer model or answer brainstorm questions on their own first or in pairs rather than completing it as a group right away.  It takes more time to do a “think, pair, share”, but you get many more ideas and the activity becomes far more inclusive.   Students spend time writing on their own with no restrictions.  I assured them there were no wrong answers for final suggestion question, and for the most part, the ideas pour out without hesitation.

Frayer Model

Adapted from the Frayer Model of Concept Learning
Dr. Dorothy A. Frayer

The next hurdle was whittling down ideas.  Students shared ideas in a small group, round-robin style.  They were only allowed to listen or ask clarifying questions, not comment on the plausibility of any idea.  From there we asked them to choose an idea that they might want to tackle.  Each group chose their favorite two or three ideas and shared them with the larger group while I kept a running list on the board.  Again, no critiques were allowed during brainstorming, only clarifying questions.

At this point I asked the students to list and consider some constraints.  What is their time frame for conducting the project?  What types of resources will they have at their disposal (money, space, human capital, equipment, etc)?  Can they complete this activity at school?  If they want to leave campus, do they have an adult available who can help them?  This helps them decide if this is a “good question” to investigate.  They came to realize there are practical constraints that make for a good question.  Their job then was to frame the actual problem they wanted to solve.  A few sample questions our middle schoolers decided to investigate included:  How can we help students at our school put waste in the correct bins?,  What would it take to refurbish a computer to reduce e-waste?  How do we make new items with old clothes to repurpose the fabric?

As an educator, do you have to plan in advance to have good inquiry?  No! Be spontaneous.  Sometimes the best questions arise from the news, a student experience on the way to school or something discovered on the playground.  Are you abandoning your curriculum if you let students pursue this spur-of-the-moment question?  Perhaps.  But will students learn and retain more if you let them investigate what they find engaging? Yes. It’s important to find the right balance.  It is our job as educators to champion good questions, but also to help students focus on taking the time to uncover the answers to their inquiries.  We can let them investigate whatever they want, or we can narrow the focus and target their inquiries within topics of our choosing.  It depends on your comfort level as a facilitator how far “off the mark” you are willing to go.  Be honest with them about what makes a good question and what constraints guide your decisions, and that will help students guide their own.  Encourage curiosity and creativity and those “good questions” should start emerging in your classroom.

Suggested resources:

  • NSTA Statement on Scientific Inquiry  
  • Galileo network:  A good explanation of inquiry with classroom examples in many K-12 subjects
  • Unboxed” A journal containing reflections and project ideas primarily from teachers at High Tech High, the school featured in “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Sara Krauskopf is a secondary science and math teacher and educational consultant.  For questions or comments, contact her at

© Copyright Sara Krauskopf 2015

Guest Blogger, Matthew Scott, Blog Three: A Visit to Valley New School.

Blog Three: A Visit to Valley New School

I’m not famous for my sense of direction. Nor am I very good at finding things. And that ‘not very good’ becomes borderline hopeless if said thing is behind another thing in the fridge. Still, education is something I’ve been involved in almost all my life so I felt pretty confident about finding a school. For a start I know what they look like: big, purpose-built buildings accompanied by various plots of playing field that are circled from above by hovering property developers. This is why it took me a while to find Valley New School: it’s quite unlike any school I’ve ever seen before.

Firstly VNS is in a civic-administration-and-offices-type-building with a mall and even a food court. Secondly, once I’d found it, the majority of the school consisted of one large, open-plan space with highly personalized, cubical-esque workstations. However, I then noted the sound – not barely contained bedlam nor coerced and fearful silence but that grail-like hum every teacher yearns to hear: learning. Yes, this was a school, and by the sound of it a very good one.

As a small, visiting group of teachers from various schools, it was appropriate to begin with a discussion of the educational cultures from which we had come. As usual, my being from a different continent caused a few raised eyebrows and quizzical looks but I think I managed to convince people that what I was doing was a good thing.

I was also glad that we began with a discussion of culture. As I mentioned in my last post, culture-building is something I am particularly interested in because I’m sure it is the ‘magical’ ingredient necessary to begin doing Project Based Learning. I was soon to change my mind. Culture-building is the secret ingredient necessary for any quality learning experience to take place at all. If you’ve got a good classroom, you’ve built a good culture; even if you’d never consciously thought about it, or planned for such a thing to take place.

But imagine if you did?

The first thing to note at VNS is that the teachers are known as advisors. This is a subtle and necessary shift. In a document produced by VNS staff there is the following paragraph:

“A coach is ineffective if his players do not trust him; likewise an advisor’s advice will not be accepted if a trusting relationship is not formed first. New students transitioning from traditional teacher-as-authority settings may be especially wary…”

(Raising Hope: A Guide To Advisory, Nicole Luedtke and Jennifer Plamann)

The second sentence in that paragraph felt especially relevant to my essential question of how to integrate PBL into a traditional school setting. In such a school every learner would be transitioning in the way described above. If we can create these trusting relationships, maybe we would be well on our way to making such integration happen?

Before we go down that path, it’s only fair that I provide a little context as there is much about VNS that isn’t simply a question of culture-building. VNS has a population of fewer than 120 pupils. There is an advisor to student ratio of between 1:15 and 1:18. It is a multi-age environment with no streaming or setting and pupils in different grades work together. Curriculum is based on standards produced by the school itself that have been ratified by the local school district, and content for the curriculum is as non-prescriptive as it can get: the students create it.

Anyone from back in the UK could be forgiven for wanting to stop reading at this point. Our schools are more likely to have over one thousand pupils with class sizes of thirty plus. We group by age and often ability. We have a centralized National Curriculum with very clear guidelines on what must be taught. For the final two years of their formal education, our students are likely to take around ten different subjects based upon one of four or five national, government-approved syllabuses. Each of these pupils will then be assessed by at least one externally marked exam in each subject. The results that follow will largely decide what that student can hope to do next, and also how that school is judged to have performed by the local authority.

But do read on.

Yes, this is not an ideal comparison, but there are things done in VNS that are instantly translatable to the traditional setting. There are things we are doing already. Some others take a little imagination. Certain things, at this moment in time, seem pretty impossible. But I’d like to concentrate on the things we can, and may already do:

– We can create an environment where students are helped to be autonomous, to take responsibility for their learning and their role in the community.

– We can focus more on process than product, where assessment is continual, reflective and collaborative rather than only final and summative.

– And we can make the switch from teacher-as-authority (not to say that the teacher doesn’t have authority, just that this isn’t the over-riding trait on display) to teacher as coach or advisor.

But does it work?

Following our opening discussion, the rest of the day had learners involved at every point. We could speak with students, were taken on tours by students, and even had the privilege of spending a half hour block one-on-one with a student where we were taken through the day-to-day experience of being at VNS. This wasn’t a sales pitch. The atmosphere was completely honest and open – sure, some young people have come to VNS and this style of learning wasn’t for them, but they had a choice: the option was actually there.

The students themselves seemed almost entirely on board with their responsibilities and functioned as such. Projects were self-determined, stringently planned, logged (the role that Personal Learning Plans or PLPs played in this cannot be underestimated but probably deserve a blog post of their own), and students had to prove which curriculum standards were being met by their project.

During projects, if certain areas of study that might need improvement cropped up – the nitty gritty of a certain grammatical rule or mathematical formula, for example – pupils recognized this and sought guidance either from an advisor who might then run a masterclass on the matter or by other self-directed means. Many looked to online tutorials – online lectures even!

Yes, people can still learn from a lecture; a lot of it has to do with whether they have chosen to sit in on the lecture in the first place. One student spent an entire weekend watching online lectures at home with a bowl of popcorn; she was able to recognize a learning need and make a choice to do something about it. In fact, the level of reflective prowess on show was astonishing – some pupils made insights about what makes them tick that put many adults to shame.

As for assessment, we often equate ‘rigorous’ or ‘high stakes’ with ‘high-pressure’ or ‘regurgitation’ but these, as we teachers know, are not synonymous. I had the privilege of sitting in on one end of project assessment. The project had taken six weeks to complete and so was akin to a piece of coursework, or an assessment at the end of a unit of study. The finished product had to have a non-written as well as a written element. However, instead of the teacher taking this work home and spending twenty minutes marking it, the same amount of time was spent with four advisors, the student and an outside audience (from that ‘real world’ we keep talking about as if we should accept schools as outside of it). They then discussed the work and used a rubric to collaboratively come to an idea of what had been achieved. Grading was descriptive (although for the sake of external assessors each description could also be given a letter or number – importantly though, the student never even asked for this), and the descriptor chosen was one suggested initially the student. The student knew what she had achieved, areas to look at next time, and younger students even sat in on the process to learn from it. When I think of all those essays I’ve handed back with some comments in red pen and a circled, capital letter from A to F, my heart sinks.

So yes, it works. And it works because the pupils and advisors have bought in. They believe in it. There are practicalities that are huge factors in it working so well but without the staff and students buying into the ideal, it couldn’t work at all. The ratio of staff to pupils is important but much more important is the ratio of time spent building and maintaining the culture of the school to the business of ‘teaching’.

This is the main thing I took away from VNS. Each day begins and ends with an Advisory. In Britain this is basically called Form Period and deals mainly with administrative tasks, ushering pupils to an assembly or checking that everyone has uniform and equipment. Here it is extended and involves games, discussion, problems that have come up, all types of – not team building – but culture building. I say this because of another quote I’d like to pull from the Raising Hope: A Guide To Advisory document I cited earlier. It made me smile – a wry smile, and one definitely directed at my own outlook in the past rather than anybody else in particular:

“Educators may need time to accept the validity of ‘touchy-feely’ culture-building activities.”

Okay, it’s gong to take time to help pupils transition to this type of setting but it’s not going to be easy for the staff either! We are building a culture, a community, so advisories are for all parties – staff and students, an ever-evolving reflective yet active period where a lot of hard work is done in the pursuit of genuine efficacy rather than heads down time filling designed to look like a lot is being achieved.

It must have taken an enormous amount of such genuine hard work and determination to get to where VNS are now; you can tell because they make it look so effortless. Let’s not make that mistake when judging our own classrooms. Listen: does it sound like learning? Because learning, like schools, can look like a lot of things, but it always sounds the same.

Blog 2 by Guest Blogger, Matthew Scott: Practical Magic

With school visits just around the corner, updates here should come thick and fast in the next month or so. To say I’m excited for these visits is something of an understatement; to see great PBL (Project Based Learning) practitioners up close and personal is, for the purposes of this project, very important, but more about later. For now, I’d like to say hello again – it’ been a while.

Not that I’ve been sat here these last few weeks idly watching summer become autumn – no – between this blog and the last I’ve mostly been in inquiry mode, working out what I need to know and how to go about getting to know it. I’ve been reading an awful lot (which, granted, did involve a lot of sitting down, not a small amount of lying down, and at least one wistful glance out of the window at the changing seasons), as well as chatting with people on both sides of the Atlantic about this project. It has been important time and it has led to a tentative formulation of my essential question. Drum roll please:

“Can PBL be successfully implemented in a traditional school setting?”

To me, this feels like the right and proper question to be asking. The reason for this is that for all the passion and idealism involved when tackling education and learning, I want to keep a certain pragmatic edge to my inquiries. Why? Let me explain.

The phrase ‘real world application’ often comes up in the literature and discussions about PBL and the first part of the that phrase, ‘real world’ is one that can often find itself lost in pedagogical debate. When I say ‘real world’ I do not mean that to be dismissive; the world of those practitioners who are already making a great success of PBL is just as real as mine and the freedoms they have fought for were not given to them – courage, conviction and vision played the greatest part in allowing for such innovation – but there is a wider reality, certainly where I am from, where the majority of teachers might not be able to see how genuine PBL is even a possibility under the system currently in place. Still, in my experience, new, exciting, innovative ways of reaching learners are the very thing most of these teachers would be extremely interested in doing, even in their real world.

The problem is the ‘how’ of the matter, not the ‘if’. Teachers when presented with something that is genuinely proven to work may not even consider the ‘if’ – great, it works, let’s do it – but what they do have to consider is the ‘how?’ How given my particular school’s culture do I achieve this? How can I find space for this when my prescribed curriculum is so content heavy I barely have the time to get through the two novels I am instructed to teach this term? How do I explain this to parents? How do I prove this is of value to my senior managers?

We do not want to fall into the trap of dismissing such issues as excuses for avoiding change. That’s not who we are. These are not excuses but genuine practicalities teachers working in traditional settings have to encounter – to be dismissive of these issues helps nobody and is more likely to lead to defensive attitudes. As teachers, we want to do these great things but we also want to know how? Working together we can find the answers but only if we take the practical as well as the ideological viewpoint. Therefore I will try to take the perspective of practitioners as much as possible in these blog posts.

So which ‘hows’ does a teacher need to know in order to embark upon PBL in their classroom? In my research so far I have managed to boil it down to the following Need To Knows. Of course, I’m sure others can think of many more and I’d be interested to hear them. For now though:

–       How can we create a PBL culture in school? From timetabling to having parents on board, how can we make it happen?

–       How do we ensure our learners (and teachers for that matter) have the skills necessary to make critique and advisories work?

–       How do we help learners generate ideas for their projects?

–       How do we take learners from a mindset where they are constantly looking for the correct answer to exploring an Essential Question that may not have a correct answer at all?

And, perhaps most pressing in that real world:

–       How do I prove to people this is working?

As I have said, in my reading, in conversations with colleagues, in research online, in blogs, video presentations and some social media to-and-fro, I have already begun to chew over some possible responses to these matters but, to come back to my thoughts from the beginning of this post, an essential part of my inquiry is to see PBL in situ.

That is why I am so looking forward to my upcoming visits; because to read about PBL, to listen to people, even to see edited highlights on film, there is a certain suspension of disbelief involved. This is not cynicism, but genuine: it all sounds incredible. That’s what is so exciting about it! But right now it feels a little like magic. One moment we are introducing PBL into our classrooms and the next minute we have these self-directed, engaged, critical thinking uberstudents in our midst. What happens in between? I have to see it in action. And if it does turn out to be genuine sorcery, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime however, this project is now taking a certain type of shape:

For the next few months I’ll be reporting back from school visits and will try to provide as full a picture as possible in the snapshot I’ll be seeing.

Once the visits are over I’ll be using all this experience to tackle each of those Need To Knows in discrete blog posts of their own, drawing on all of my research including the school visits.

And hopefully there’ll be a few answers to these ‘hows’.

Until then, take care. And if you’re on Twitter, maybe say hello. I’m @mattscottedu.



Guest Blogger: Matthew Scott

Matthew Scott

My name is Matthew Scott. I’m a teacher and writer from the UK. I currently live in the US and decided to explore some of the innovative work taking place here in education. This was mainly done in the hope of being able to take a few ideas home with me when I go back to Britain. Then I got carried away. This blog will chart that journey.

One: The Storm Before The Calm

I’d never driven through a tornado before. It was a Wednesday morning and I was on my way to Monona, Wisconsin, a town just over an hour west of where I live. My destination was the Project Based Learning Un-Conference organized by WISN and Project Foundry. It was a gathering of educators with varying degrees of expertise in the field of PBL. I’d been in touch via email with Sarah from WISN who had been extremely positive and helpful, but I was still nervous. You see, I’ve been in the US for a couple of years and (apart from volunteer work at a downtown Milwaukee city literacy center) haven’t set foot in a classroom for a while. My wife assured me I’d be fine – teaching was like riding a bike. Yes, I thought. Or driving a car. On the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Through a tornado…

Okay, perhaps this is a little over-dramatic. There was no twister that morning but the warnings were out and judging by the number of cars with hazards lining the highway or hiding under bridges, the likelihood of one touching down wasn’t altogether unreasonable. And my nervousness was extremely real. Apart from a vague outline, I had no real idea about PBL. It did actually feel a little like the first day at high school again.

I needn’t have worried. The Un-Conference was hosted by the wonderful people of MG21 Liberal Arts Charter School and as I pulled into the parking lot I was relieved to see the WISN and Project Foundry signage pointing me in the right direction (again, read the symbolism there as far as cliché will allow). After signing in, I headed into a large computer lab for the welcome speeches and breakdown of the sessions for the next few days. The room was already buzzing with conversation and it was clear that a lot of people knew each other or had come as part of teams. At that time I was still absolutely convinced I was the most clueless person there. Everyone had laptops – really nice ones. I had a legal pad and two pens in case one ran out of ink. But despite the diverse range of experience and experiences in the room, it was clear that this conference was designed with the goal of exploration in mind, and what’s the good of exploring if you already know exactly where you are going?

My own meandering began with a session on Advisory. It was run by the Valley New School from Appleton, WI and after circling-up for a few ice-breaking games, people began to explain why they were there and what they hoped to take out of the session. I will admit now that although I was taking in a great deal of information much of it swirled about like the weather on the way in that morning – the odd tree branch might flash by in the wind, something recognizable, but nothing for me to grab hold of with any confidence. This had nothing to do with the excellently led session and more that so much of the terminology and language – the basic jargon of US education – was so alien to me. Imagine a US educator visiting a similar event in Britain and having to work out what Key Stages, or Pupil Premium, or even GCSE meant before they’d even had a chance to think about the topic being discussed? Luckily, for one activity, I found myself partnered with Steven Rippe from WISN and, as I’m sure any of you who have spent any period of time in Steven’s company will attest, things suddenly got a whole lot cooler.

Having worked out what I was actually doing there, it was Steven who came up with what this whole blog is going to be about: It’s a project. ‘If your aim is to find out as much as you can about PBL, treat it as a project’ – that was his suggestion. Suddenly all the anxiety about not knowing anything became a driving force: I could just learn. Need-to-knows, making real-world connections, linking back to standards: all of this went from being the content of the learning to the actual process. I was going to do a project on finding out as much as I could about PBL and the product, tentatively, would be this blog.

So, this is the first post: an introduction. Forgive me for not going into detail about the rest of the terrific Un-Conference: the sessions on building a culture for PBL in a traditional school environment; how to integrate PBL into core subjects; examples from educators actually doing PBL in teacher-led settings, student-led settings and everything else in between; PLPs; assessment; Project Foundry; and the inspirational key note address from Joe Bower – no, all of these matters and more will, I’m sure, be discussed in more detail in later posts.

Nor am I going to write too much just now about the quick realization that although the jargon might be slightly different, this infamous shared language, which is often ironically said to separate us on either side of the Atlantic, actually speaks of exactly the same concerns, challenges and, most importantly, passion I hear when talking to teachers back home. Sometimes it’s buried deep beneath warranted frustrations but it’s still there.

For now I’m just saying hello.

Before I go though, I should mention that a week after the UnConference, I drove to the WISN office in Madison to discuss this whole adventure. The weather that day? Glorious sunshine.

Supporting Innovative Schools in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network Blog Post June 10 2014

The staff and board of the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network is sorry to learn about the dissolution of the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association. Since 2001, the WCSA has been an important voice in the debate about the future of education in Wisconsin, and for charter schools in particular. We are thankful for the incredible educators who worked tirelessly to improve charter schools in Wisconsin throughout the existence of WCSA.

While we will miss our colleagues at the Association, we would like to note that their dissolution leaves a gap—but not a vacuum—in the ongoing discussion of the roles and educational opportunities that charter schools offer Wisconsin citizens. Since 2011, the Wisconsin Innovative Schools Network has offered forums, workshops, resources, and guidance to innovative schools, including public charter schools around the state. Now comprised of nearly 150 partner schools, our mission is to further educational innovation and collaboration between charter and other public schools.

WISN welcomes educators utilizing a wide variety of instructional approaches and organizations to partner with us in exploring and building high quality educational opportunities for all students through our grassroots network of schools. More information about the Network, including a listing and schedule of summer workshops and trainings, can be found at

For more information, please contact Dr. Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director, at or (608) 509-8387.

Read the WCSA press release in the
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.