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39. Curriculum Series #3—Project Based Learning in Action with Matthew Pimental

by Lindsay Lyons
July 20th 2021

In Podcast Episode 39 of the podcast, I am talking with Matthew Pimental. Matthew has 15 years experience in education. He is the Supervisor of gifted education, professional development and projec... More

in this episode, I'm talking with Matthew Pimentel who has 15 years of experience in education, you got to start developing cultural immersion experiences for american teenagers to locations throughout the world before transitioning to a classroom position in a philadelphia charter school serving students from the third forrest said quote in the United States, the transition to a role supporting students identified as intellectually gifted and now oversees professional development programming for teachers and help support a school within a school project based learning program in a highly diverse school district in the philadelphia metropolitan area. I can't wait for you to hear from Matt. Hi, I'm lindsey Lyons and I love helping school communities envision bold possibilities, take brave action to make those dreams a reality and sustain an inclusive, anti racist culture where all students thrive. I'm a former teacher leader turned instructional coach, educational consultant and leadership scholar. If you're a leader in the education world, whether you're a pro principal Superintendent instructional coach or a classroom teacher excited about school wide change like I was, you are a leader and if you enjoy nerd ng out about the latest educational books and podcasts, if you're committed to a lifelong journey of learning and growth and being the best version of yourself, you're going to love the time for Teacher Ship podcast, let's dive in Matt, welcome to the time for Teacher Ship podcast.

We just introduced you with the formal bio but is there anything else you want to share with our audience. Just happy to be here, talking with you. I'm just looking forward to diving into a conversation about progressive education and project based learning. Excellent. I'm so excited. One of the big things that we start with at the top of each show is this idea of Dr Bettina love talking about freedom dreaming dreams grounded in the critique of injustice as I think about your district in your program. I think about, like you said, progressive education and Children's right to a quality engaging education. I think there's so much that is a dream of sorts for you and the work that you do. Do. You want to just describe to us a little bit about that dream you hold for the field of education, thinking of it from that lens. I have to go back on my own experience to a certain extent, as an elementary school student. I attended a laboratory school which is directly came out of the vision of john Dewey who wanted to set up free public elementary schools that would be run by college professors at colleges of education and the purpose of them wasn't to just be another school, it was to be a place where they could attempt To pilot new ideas that would help foster this notion of progressive education as defined by Dewey.

And so he started the first one. Um I believe in the University of Chicago. So I happened to grow up in a small town where there's a teaching college there. So there was a laboratory school that was set up back in the 1930s and is still there today. So my experience as an elementary school student was pretty extreme. Um, we did some pretty out of the box stuff and the other part of it was that we also had on any given day at any time, there was at least two or three college students in the classroom observing and sort of engaging with us as well. So it felt like the world was kind of watching and knowing sort of what that experience was like or what the end product of that was, which was that the students felt very invested in the school that they were in, it felt like a community, like the line between home and school was completely blurred as students, we felt like we belonged. And then on top of that, the methods and the ways in which the teachers sought to teach us the things we need to know was not through textbooks, it wasn't through worksheets and those kinds of things.

It was very, in some cases hands on. But even when it was more academic in nature, it was still um, a lot of sort of quote unquote fun was built into it. Now, the term that you might hear use like Gamification, like how to make things that are actually learning more of a sort of fun experience. There's a lot of that and I don't think I realized how unusual it was, it just felt natural, it felt like something a kid should do. Why shouldn't it be like that? And I didn't realize the shift until I then moved to the middle school in my small town, which was a perfectly fine, perfectly functional middle school sort of middle America standard middle school experience. But it was by relative comparison cold, it felt too big, it felt industrial and it lost that human touch. And I definitely felt like a cog in a wheel. Like there's these things I'm supposed to learn them. If I don't learn them, then my teacher has a furled brow and sort of, you go on from there and of course there are some great teachers there too, but as a system overall, it felt institutional and and not like a natural place to be as a kid.

And I'd say that that's kind of stuck with me as I've gone on to become an educator myself and to think about how to apply these things to our world today and being able to have lived through both of those things myself that just always lives with me as a kind of ideal or a dream or something that we ought to be doing more of in our public settings, that it doesn't have to be something that is only for the elite or only for the private schools, it can be something that everyone gets to experience and enjoy. That was great. You said the idea of like home and school being blurred, you talked about the sense of belonging, those are absolutely critical things that we don't always think about when we think about schooling institutions and if they were less institutionalized and more like that, I think we really would be achieving monumental transformation in our system. So I love the ways in which he described that as we think about the schools, maybe that are institutionalized in this moment, that are kind of recognizing themselves in the descriptors of the cold institutionalization and wanting to shift more to the sense of belonging, that authentic project based learning, the progressive education, the blurring of home and school lines.

What do you think are the mindset shifts that are required to get people to buy into that approach? There's a couple angles on that. Um so the first one I have to take actually is straight from Dewey, one of his later texts, he goes on to extol the virtues of a traditional education and the reason why he starts from that seemingly odd place is that one of the things he recognized is that a progressive education done poorly is not a good education. And that oftentimes when we go to put progressive educational practices in place, they are not done with the same level of rigor and expectation as what you would find in a more standards based approach. And so what ends up happening is that the progressive model gets used as an excuse to not provide an absolutely fabulous first rate, no questions asked.

This is a wonderful educational experience. And instead it's kind of this half baked thing and the mantle of progressive education gets used as an excuse for why things aren't as high quality. Some of the examples are like, oh, we're, we don't grade students. That's an interesting philosophical concept and you can you can have a whole podcast on whether or not we should grade students. But if you're not going to grade students, how are you holding students to excellent work? You can't avoid that just because you're not gonna use grades. And I think often times and I'm using it as one example, but getting away from grading winds up being getting away from any kind of evaluation whatsoever. And that's not high quality education. The same thing goes to like behavioral stuff. We let our students pass in and out of our room, They don't have to ask permission. Okay, but half your classes in the hallway, there is an education happening. It's it's it's chaos. It's not order. Um, so just because you're so open minded that you don't have these basic rules is not really an indication of an improvement. So I really take Dewey's own critique of his own system as something that we still need to apply now.

So for those who are thinking about a mindset shift, one of my first thoughts is don't necessarily like go off the deep end and say everything about the current educational system should be trashed and we need to start completely over, well, I don't know about that, you know, so there's a lot of good stuff that we do in traditional schools now. We don't need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think that's kind of one thing for people who are sort of scared at the idea of a significant change. But what about all the stuff that works? It's like we'll keep doing those things. You don't need to reinvent the wheel where it's unnecessary. I think that's sort of one piece of it and then the other piece of it is, this is often cited. I believe it was from 1960 until the year 2000. The top 10 highest paid professions were the same. It was the same 10 jobs they jockeyed around in terms of who was number one or who was number three, but it was the same 10 jobs. And it was all the things you would have thought of if you were of the generation that came up during those years. So doctor, lawyer, um, engineer, so on and so forth.

And then from the year 2000 to today, the top 10 highest paying jobs didn't exist, that is likely to be a clearer picture of what the future is going to hold for us than the old model. So the idea that I'm a high performing parent and I have a high performing child and I have expectations for them to do great things in the world. So the assumption that we will limit this child to medicine, law and engineering is not necessarily to actually put that child into the same position that you would have done. So if it was 1985 and you were trying to make the same decision for your child, I think the recognition that the world is just a more flexible, fluid, undefinable space means that the education we have to provide for our Children has to be aligned to that unknowable future. And the whole concept of a very rigid standards aligned education does have philosophically underpinning it an assumption that there's an end point that we're all marching toward that we know about.

I think that part of the big shift is simply the recognition that that end point is not the solid fixed flag that it once was. So knowing that we don't even know where we're going, how do we educate people to be able to have success in that environment? Just sort of an aside. Um and this is because my my family is Portuguese and one thing that always struck me was that in the early days when the Portuguese started exploring, they would send out 10 boats in different directions and they would be lucky if they got one back, which means that nine boats never came back, no one knows what happened to them in a sense, that is like more like what the future is going to be like how do we prepare people to just go into unknown directions and define success? So I think all of that then, if you can walk through that sort of series of thinking, then you're going to start looking for adjustments or alternative educational models that might be able to better address the needs of this unknown future world.

And I think that that's where project based learning comes into play, which is that it's a method or it's a means that has already been developed where we can put students into educational scenarios where they are employing more skill sets that are aligned toward this unknown future. And that aspect of it, I think is something that helps us to try to mitigate this challenge. And then a few just other pieces to that, because I would personally would place project based learning sort of in the middle, if not towards the um and I don't mean this politically, but towards the conservative end of the progressive educational options, you can apply project based learning and still meet basic state standards, you're still meeting the core content things that students need to know, you're still teaching them the skills that they need to know that they would have learned. Otherwise, it's really not nearly as radical as people think it is. And I think that if you can kind of get on board that this is actually more of a of a twist of the wrist it's really not that much of a radical change that I think can also alleviate some people who are like I don't know if I want to go down this road, it's like it's really not that weird.

It's really not once you get a grasp on how to do it and how to do in a high quality way, it's not that big of a shift really from what we do in a traditional setting. And that sounds like a perfect transition to thinking about what are the brave actions that someone can actually take to start that shift and maybe figure out like you were saying how to build up that way of doing PPL well in a way that's not super scary. Yes, so I think I've probably touched on a few or I've set the stage anyway for sort of that piece. Number one is it's not helpful to try to show up and be the rebel who's like telling everyone else that they need to upturn things like none of that's helpful. It doesn't actually result in good outcomes. I think it's more about looking at the systems you have in place and figuring out what do we keep and that should be most things and then start to look at okay here's the things that we keep and what are the things that need some adjustment they have to change, but we're not getting rid of these things. And then I think once you sort of can bracket all of that, then you're looking at what's left over for where the real change is going to occur.

And I think that that then really focuses on what it is your students are going to put in front of others as a demonstration of what it is that they learn that then becomes the thing that truly changes and you can wind up keeping a lot of the other things that you may be doing in your school now that don't require the shift. So I think, I think the bravery comes around the ability or the willingness to a evaluate everything that you're doing because you have to decide what's going to stay and what's gonna be adjusted and what's gonna go. So that's kind of the first brave step is what we are going to look at everything and decide what, you know, what needs to stay, change or go. I think that's step one, I'd probably leave it at that. That sounds great. Yeah, and I love how it's that critical evaluative look, right? That totally takes bravery and then the piece that you're talking about two, I've heard of PBL described as the meal, not the dessert, right? You're the main course, not the dessert and so there's that approach to like full on PBL where the project we're working on the project every step of the way during unit.

And then I've also seen teachers who are just kind of experimenting with it, who start out with that end product. It could just be like the last few days of the unit, we're putting together this product and we're not taking a full deep dive into PPL, but we're just trying to figure out what's a cool application project, like what's a cool demonstration of learning. And I think that feels like a safer transition point sometimes for teachers instead of like, let me revolutionize my entire unit or my entire curricula to make everything PBL centered. That might be easier for folks. Do you mind talking just a little bit about how PPL works in your school district? Like I know you had spoken to me a little bit about the K-12 continuum of how students are introduced to PPL and you're doing some full things there. Yeah, we thought of it as a kind of funnel. Um, I should actually back up and say that we're a traditional public school system. We're in the suburbs of philadelphia, very diverse district, both in terms of racial demographics, but also in terms of socio economics and religion. So it truly is a very diverse place. And when we thought about the application of project based learning to our district, a big piece of it was an eye toward equity and providing an educational experience that is of high quality for all of the students who engage in it.

So, the way that we approached it was, we thought of it as a kind of funnel where students at the narrowest part of the funnel would be having a very intensive project based learning experience. The widest part of the funnel would be having a kind of light touch, sort of an introduction to, or just a taste for what it might be like and and that in essence sort of defines the K 12 continuum. He started at the narrowest part of the funnel at our high school. For high school students, there are students who opt into a project based learning experience and for the majority of the day, they are, in a sense, this is not a really accurate way to describe it, but it's a kind of school within a school. What makes a difference is that as the bells ring and students throughout the rest of the school are moving from class to class. The students in the PBL space are not, they stay contained within the same group of students for the majority of the day, not the entire day, but most of it, and during that time they are with PBL teachers who have been trained in project based learning.

All of our teachers have shadowed with a high tech, high teacher from high tech, high SAN Diego. So those teachers then, um, as you said, you know, they are using project based learning is the meal, um, not the dessert, it is the projects are how learning happens. It is the thing that drives learning. So that's the experience for our students at the high school level, the middle school level, which is kind of the middle of the funnel. It's a little bit different. Our middle school is broken up into teams and so for each grade level, one of the teams is converted, so to speak to a more design thinking slash project based learning experience and that that team is randomly selected. So students are not opting in um it's the students who are simply placed on that team, they're on the project based learning team. And then when they moved from seventh to eighth grade, they may or may not be on the project based learning team in eighth grade. It's not meant to be a kind of continuum experience. It's, it's meant to simply have two of the teams in the school are using PBL and then within those classrooms it is not PBL all day all the time.

Teacher select particular units that they are going to apply a project based learning approach to and then there's also units where they don't um, so for example, our english classrooms, when is leading up to the state standardized assessments, they are not doing project work during that time. So they, they sort of put their project time at different points in the year is one example. So it's a little bit of a less intensive experience and then right now we're in the process of finding ways and methods to bring a PBL experience to all students in our elementary grades, so that that they have a light touch experience, some kind of combination of maker space meets design, thinking meets PBL as a way for everybody to get a taste, a person listening might be a leader of high school thinking, yep, I can see this path forward, I can see how to transform this or at a lower level thinking like how does this actually work with all the stuff that we have going on? And I love the maker space idea as kind of the light touch at the start of the funnel.

Super cool for schools that are thinking about more or project based units and supporting the teachers to design project based units that speak to their students, your teachers have created their own podcast, right, that will share really cool projects that have been going on with others as kind of a source of inspiration, I think that's amazing. Do you mind just sharing a little bit about that initiative? That initiative started with high tech high um they had created a website that was a series of exemplar projects that high tech high teachers have utilized and an outgrowth of that experience because there is sort of a general call for people who are interested in project based learning, you know, what does great project based learning look like, What's an example of project? How do you guys plan this? Like all those kinds of questions. So high tech high decided to take it in a slightly different direction, which was to start to produce podcasts that would essentially act as audio documentaries of the teachers experience in the creation and formation of their own projects and what that was like for the students um and the teachers so on and so forth.

And that was a part of their unboxed Journal essentially, which, which is, I think like a digital podcast journal. So high tech, I reached out to us because we have a close relationship with them and asked if some of our teachers would be a part of this initiative to put together these podcasts and we of course were more than happy to join in and some of our teachers volunteered to be a part of this sort of special program. Those teachers who are with us are actually working with high tech, high teachers in the creation of these audio documentaries to let other interested teachers who might want to know like what does a great project look like and what the trials and tribulations of a teacher who goes through the process of putting this together and what do the kids have to say about it. That's really what got the whole thing started and our hope as we continue to do this and this is actually our second year of doing it, The first year was more of a website creation and so then this year they shifted to the podcast component and our hope is that as time goes on in conjunction with high tech high, we're building a bigger and bigger library of great project work.

That's amazing. And is this something that people can listen to on like the regular podcast channels? Yes, don't believe it's been published yet. They're, they're still trying to wrap things up. Okay, awesome. As you think about all those amazing units that teachers are doing in the auto documentaries that are happening, what are maybe one or two of your favorite PBL projects that you've seen at your school? The first one that comes to mind is the opposite of kind of like a grandiose project. And I think this goes back to the idea of PBL doesn't have to be such a radical thing. We had an english teacher who wanted his students to write a series of self reflective vignettes, kind of standard english teacher thing to do. Anyone is an english teacher assigns teach kids to do vignettes, that's something you can do. But in a typical setting, you have students learn what vignettes are, what are the components they write them, they hand them in, they get a grade and then we move on in the project based learning space. What they did was they read a book that was a series of vignettes, um, house on Mango street and they used that as their exemplar about what a collection of vignettes can be.

And the difference between a vignette and a collection of them that are thematic in nature. He then had the students write their own vignettes around an organized theme. After that part of the work was done, they compiled them together into a book that is now for sale on amazon and that's the product that was produced through the project based learning experience. So from sort of an instructional lens, if you looked at it, you're like, well what's really different about this? Well, instead of it just simply being a paper that's handed into the teacher, it's that and these things get put together and published in a way that the public can join in the book is for sale. You know, there's there's copies of it on the shelf in the classroom, It's a final finished product. It's a real text. I think that that is a representation of like a very easy slight shift that a teacher can make. That is all the difference between a traditional classroom and a project based learning class and obviously anyone who's an english teacher and who might be listening to this, it would not be hard to meet all the standards that you have to meet to teach.

All the content skills you have to teach. Like it's not asking you to throw all that out, but the students are in the end producing something very, very different. I love that as sort of one of our examples of a successful project that is from a sort of PBL lens, you could say it's like a small lift or a small shift. Another example that comes to mind, we had another teacher who was trying to make sort of a bigger splash, no pun intended as I explain the project. So it was a combination of several subjects and part of it was a theme on migrations, human migrations. And so as a part of that thematic concept, one of the teachers had students build life size canoes and they put them together in their fiberglass and they're real canoes um that they produced and as a part of the production of that was the whole was wrapped into that english lessons and social studies lessons and chemistry lessons all about the different components of the boat building process, about human migrations, technological advancement, those kinds of things.

And so then the end product were these full size vessels that we put in the high school pool and we're able to, you know, paddle around and they're hanging from the ceiling in the PBL rooms now. And it was really for some of our early students, one of their first experiences of being able to really produce something big and grand and that came out really well and looked professional and and looked high quality, you know, I think it's one of those projects that they'll remember for the rest of their lives. Thank you for painting a picture of both of those like the small lift and then maybe a larger lift because I think it speaks so well to the continuum of opportunity we have in PBL and I love that you framed it in that way too for the teacher who's listening, who's like, oh yes, I can do that one, maybe I'll get to that one, but I can do, I can do maybe that first one. And I also love that, you know, house on Mango Street is used as an exemplar, like you were talking about the finish product is like this meaningful product, which I, I think is such a hallmark, important hallmark of PBL projects. I also love that PBL can use these existing text as opposed to we learn what kenya is and then we read the text and then you know, game over instead we're like okay, we're thinking about writing our own and so we're studying this really cool exemplar as a mean to create the project, which I think speaks to the idea of the project as the main course versus the dessert.

Just that small shift in mindset, there is like, oh that's why that teacher did that. Okay, now I could see how students are more invested. The product that they end up producing is a little bit better because they were more invested as they were reading the vignettes so much, they're wrapped up in what you said, I just wanted to kind of highlight all the cool stuff happening as we kind of wrap up the episode. We've shared a lot today. And so I'm just curious to know what's the first thing that someone could do ending the episode? That's kind of a first step into jumping into this? I know you talked a little bit about the action steps, Is there something that you would recommend people do right away? Is it, you know, go explore some project options online. Is it doing that? Thinking that you mentioned about what's working, what's not, where would people go first? I would say if it's an individual teacher thinking about it, the first thing I would recommend is to start thinking about what is it that you think students could do if they were held to a really high standard and and I don't mean academically, but like what could they produce? What do you think they could make? Um You know, in the example of the book that I'm talking about, I mean, it's a professional looking book that Anyone would buy from Amazon.

It was made by 9th graders, really trying to challenge yourself and challenge the students around this idea of super high quality work in a realistic, in a real world context, what do you think your kids could do? And if you can start thinking like that. I think that that's sort of the right first step before you start landing on things like oh I want to do, X, Y. Z. Project, um you know, starting with what you think your students are capable of, what you think they could do um if they were pushed to produce really high quality work, I love that's a great suggestion. And as we close up the last two questions I always ask first, what is something that you have been learning about lately? I would say that I have um recently really been going down the rabbit hole of the application of design. Thinking as a method for administrators, mostly people in leadership positions but also teachers as a sort of modus operandi on how to make decisions and how to function and operate a large scale organization that is in keeping with the general principles of um progressive education and do it in a way that can be applied in a traditional public school um that it doesn't have to be a private school or charter school or something where you can kind of really break the rules so to speak, but that can happen inside a structure that has history and has been around for a long time.

I love that and that's gonna be super relevant to everybody listening. Last question, where can people learn more about you, learn more about your school, connect with you online. I'm sure people are gonna be interested in learning more. For starters, people interested in project based learning can um look at the Sheldon ham school district in pennsylvania. Um and we have things on our website around project based learning and you know also my contact information is there as well. Awesome matt. Thank you so much for being on the show. Okay, thank you. Thanks for listening. Amazing educators. If you loved this episode you can share it on social media and tag me at lindsey Beth Alliance or labor review of the show. So leaders like you will be more likely to find it to continue the conversation. You can head over to our time for teacher ship facebook group and join our community of educational visionaries. Until next time leaders continue to think big, act brave and be your best self.

39. Curriculum Series #3—Project Based Learning in Action with Matthew Pimental
39. Curriculum Series #3—Project Based Learning in Action with Matthew Pimental
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