A Tale of Two Conferences (Part 2 - ASCD)

In last week’s Part 1 post, I told the tale of the Deeper Learning gathering at High Tech High in San Diego. I traveled to the other side of the continent last weekend, to Atlanta for the ASCD Annual Conference. Here are some reflections written at 35,000 feet in the air on the way home.

Differences in scale and style were of course most apparent. Several thousand teachers, administrators, instructional coaches, tech coordinators, consultants, and miscellaneous other educators attended ASCD. It was a traditional conference with big-name keynote speakers like Mike Schmoker and Carol Dweck in ballrooms, a giant exhibit hall, hundreds of sessions on virtually any topic you could think of in education, and swag bags and gear emblazoned with corporate names and logos: Pearson, Amazon, Microsoft, and so on.  Suffice to say it didn’t have the community feeling – nor the rappers or staff member rock band – that I saw at Deeper Learning.

The Good News
Even at ASCD, the theme of equity was present, which is encouraging. Many sessions addressed issues such as access to post-secondary education, culturally responsive teaching, and meeting the needs of low-income urban students and English learners. Manny Scott gave a powerful, inspiring keynote about how he turned his life around through education; his story features in the 2007 movie, Freedom Writers. Pedro Noguera and Alan Blankstein spoke in a keynote about closing achievement and opportunity gaps. I wasn’t able to attend so I don’t know if they mentioned PBL, but I would be surprised if they did; the equity argument for PBL that BIE makes has yet to penetrate the mainstream.

My one-hour session, “Is Your Project Based Learning Up to the Gold Standard?” took place in a room with seating for about 175 people, but a couple dozen more stood in the back or sat on the floor. It was a receptive crowd, from what I could tell, as I expanded on the message I wrote about last week in my post, “The Perils of PBL’s Popularity” and explained BIE’s model for Gold Standard PBL.

Each year at ASCD recently, I’ve seen more and more PBL sessions in the program, and a search of this year’s showed ten (three more were about problem-based learning) that had something to do with PBL, such as:

  • A tour of Central Gwinett High School, which uses PBL (Gwinnett County Public Schools is a BIE partner district).
  • Flipped learning gurus Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams (who’ve also presented at PBL World) talked about how flipped learning overlaps with other teaching and learning strategies, including PBL.
  • Ame Baeder of Educurious shared a financial literacy unit for teens that used a PBL + blended learning approach.

Our exhibit hall booth, staffed by me and Rhonda Hill, one of our systemic partnership coaches, had visitors much of the time, although we didn’t feature the giant displays, microphones, product giveaways, and practiced sales pitches of many of our neighbors. It was great to meet newcomers to PBL, people who appreciate our work, and old friends and colleagues.

(And btw… Last week I mentioned how good the food was at High Tech High; at the ASCD conference it was typical convention center fare, but in the evening I found Atlanta to be a great place for foodies, with many “gold standard” restaurants.)

The Bad News
On the other hand, sometimes Rhonda and I sat in our booth watching hundreds of ASCD attendees walk by with nary a glance, or a quick glance that said “wha??” or “no PBL for me, thanks.” This reaffirmed something I already knew: PBL is still a small tributary into the mainstream of education. It’s impossible to determine exactly how many teachers and schools use PBL – never mind to what extent, and at what level of quality – but it’s less than 5%, if I had to guess. Another 5% may be exploring it. We know the reasons why people walk by our booth; PBL is either unknown, misunderstood, or perceived as too challenging. (Or maybe they were just heading for the free ice cream at the ASCD Center!)

There were only a handful of other booths in the exhibit hall that had any mention of Project Based Learning. One was Richer Picture, run by my old Coalition of Essential Schools colleague David Niguidula, which creates an excellent tech platform for professional development, PBL, performance assessment, digital portfolios, and more. A shoutout too to our booth neighbor The Institute for Performance Improvement, which works with districts on systemic improvement and totally gets PBL. A few curriculum providers had some materials labeled “project-based” that were more in the dessert project category. Some had decent materials for the “other" PBL, Problem Based Learning.

As you can tell from my snapshots of the exhibit hall, most of the booths were hawking products for the mainstream: everything from textbooks to standards-aligned worksheets-on-computers to headsets for online test-takers to t-shirts with self-esteem-building slogans for teachers and principals. Not that these products don’t show a great deal of thought, care, and innovation among the mainstream exhibitors, mind you, but it’s all in support of a system that we in the PBL world believe needs serious change.

The Good Fight
My fellow travelers at the Deeper Learning conference are smart, dedicated, and working hard, sometimes against the current, to turn PBL into a mighty river that will join – and change – the mainstream. Some of these folks believe the traditional system is so entrenched, so full of structural and policy barriers to the kind of teaching and learning we believe in, that it’s more promising to carve out special places where PBL and deeper learning can happen. But I'm holding out hope. 

It is sometimes hard to imagine all our talk of student voice and choice, authenticity, teacher-as-coach, success skills and transformed lives becoming the talk at a conference like ASCD’s. But while BIE is glad to be traveling with our friends in San Diego, we also trust that someday PBL will be an accepted presence at “regular” schools and the big conferences, with many PBL sessions and products in the exhibit hall – and that we’ll need a much bigger booth!

Questions, comments? Please enter them below.