Deeper Learning Conference 2018, Day One: PBL

Updated: May 1, 2018


Last month, I had the opportunity to fly across country to sunny San Diego to attend the Deeper Learning Conference organized by High Tech High and sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


The Deeper Learning Conference is a unique education conference in that it allows educators to experience deep dives and project-based learning through the lens of a student.


The first day of the conference ran as a fairly traditional conference. The conference opened with several speeches and keynotes where the goals of the conference were laid out.


In addition to encouraging conversations around equity in education, the Deeper Learning theory was obviously a major focus of this conference. During the keynotes, the DL competencies were showcased:


  • Master core academic content

  • Think critically and solve complex problems

  • Work collaboratively

  • Communicate effectively

  • Learn how to learn

  • Develop academic mindsets




After the keynotes, everyone was split up into smaller breakout sessions. We were asked to write our own Keynote speaking to why we teach. During these sessions, we were asked to share, edit and revise our keynotes with fellow classmates. The Rose, Bud, Thorn method was shared as a way to conference with each other about our writing, a tip I’ll surely be stealing for the classroom!


After a scrumptious lunch, our workshops began. I attended a workshop called “Getting off to a Great Start: Project-Based Learning Basics.” While I know a lot about PBL, I struggle with finding examples of PBL units for the secondary ELA classroom where literature is a component. PBL with writing? Voila! PBL with literature? Nada!


The session began with a jigsaw reading of various articles about PBL. I read “What the Heck is Project-Based Learning” by Heather Wolpert-Gawron. It was a great, little article that truly explained the differences between PBL and traditional units and projects. We were all asked to highlight a portion that stood out and then to share these selections with our groups while completing “Save the Last Word for Me.” Save the Last Word for Me is a great listening and critical thinking strategy I’ve often used in class. It forces students to be succinct in their sharing, while also pushing them to develop listening skills.


This was the portion I highlighted. I thought it was one of the best analogies I’ve ever heard or read about PBL.

"Teaching with PBL is the difference between the atmosphere at Disneyland and the atmosphere at a Six Flags resort. No offense to Six Flags, I love a great roller coaster, but their décor needs some serious work. At Disneyland, you are submerged in the story of each ride from the time you enter the line. The walls, the ceiling, the ground on which you tread as you advance to the actual ride, all support the end result... [PBL] couches lessons in a tale - a tale about a problem that must be solved or an activity that must be developed... It isn't about building a replica of the Washington Monument. It's about researching someone to honor, designing your own monument, and persuasively pitching a committee to build it."

After jigsawing the rest of the articles with my group, these were my take-aways from the other articles:

  • PBL is the act of learning through identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution. Guide students to identify, through research, a real-world problem and then develop a solution using evidence as support. Then students present that solution through a multimedia approach in a public forum.

  • Students or teachers identify a driving question to lead the journey.

  • With PBL, kids show what they learn as they move through the unit, not just at the end.

  • PBL is an ongoing act of learning about different subjects simultaneously.

  • Kids show their learning throughout the journey and assess themselves and others. Teachers use formative assessment throughout the unit to assess what the students need.

  • Process over product.

  • Students do not just take a test or produce a product.

  • Traditional learning = Learning, than doing. PBL = Learning while doing.

  • And most importantly:

What do I want students to remember about this project in 10 years?

This led me to look up the differences between a project and project-based learning, a common misconception. I found a really awesome comparison chart from Teach Thought.


At the end of the session, we had time to work on our own PBL units. We used the Buck Institute for Education's PBL project design planning form to work through developing the unit.


The most relevant piece of literature I believe I teach in ninth grade ELA is Fahrenheit 451. Therefore, I chose this piece to develop my unit around. I thought about what driving question I could develop to guide our study of the novel, persuasion, obsession with technology, and conformity.


Some ideas I came up with were:

How do we prevent society from being controlled?
How does technology influence who we are?
How can we prevent outside influencers from controlling us?
How do we develop a self-identity?

I wasn't too thrilled with them. But they're a start.


Overall, the first day of the Deeper Learning Conference felt like a traditional conference, yet in an nontraditional school environment. I was blown away by High Tech Elementary and High Tech High International. The schools were beautifully built and thoughtfully organized. Care was taken into the furniture selections and wall-space in each classroom. I fell in love with the white board walls, each inch packed with visible deeper learning. Student work mastered the hallways, inviting everyone to stop and admire.


It was hard not to feel inspired in a space like this:


Thoughts on day two of the Deeper Learning Conference coming soon.

English Breakfast

Meet Kristina

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© 2019 Kristina Ulmer/Tea with Teacher

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