Watch this keynote and Q&A with Zaretta Hammond on YouTube.

“How can we counter the negative narratives about what certain kids can and can’t do?"

“Particularly when it comes to something like Project Based Learning, there is a whole school of thought that certain kids aren’t ready. That is part of the inequity by design.” This message about our education system was delivered by PBL World 2020 keynoter Zaretta Hammond this morning. It really resonated, since it’s key to PBLWorks’ mission to ensure all students, no matter where they live or what their background, have access to quality PBL.

Zaretta Hammond is a renowned voice for educational equity, consultant, and the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain:  Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

Today is Day 2 of the first-ever online version of our PBL World event (which btw is going very well for the 1000+ attendees!). We heard Zaretta speak for about 15 minutes, then her audience had a chance to ask several follow-up questions, moderated masterfully by Gina Olabuenaga, our director of curriculum. We’ll be making a video recording of the speech public after this week, but here are some nuggets from what we heard today...

Zaretta's book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain is "very much in affinity" with PBL, as she shared.

"There’s a lot of compatibility and overlap because we are talking about how do we help students expand their capacity and confidence as learners?” I was happy to see Zaretta link this point to progressive educator John Dewey, considered the “grandfather of PBL”, whose writing she showed on a slide: “To prepare a student for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means to train him so that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities.”

Referring to racial disparities in educational opportunity and how these issues have come to the surface with recent events, she said, “So the lenses we carry have to be around not only being anti-racist but also building a bicultural lens. It is not an either/or, it’s a both/and. The question is, how do we do that through Project Based Learning?”

After showing our well-known image distinguishing “dessert projects” from “main course PBL”, Zaretta likened it to “equity lite” vs. “equity at the core”—reflecting one of her main messages, that equity work has to be deep and lasting. She drew the parallel distinction between “multicultural education” (focused on social harmony, which is nice but not enough), social justice education (focused on having a critical consciousness), and culturally responsive education, which is focused on “accelerating learning so students can have independent agency.”

Having high expectations is not enough; teachers have to practice “active demandingness” along with it.

Zaretta emphasizes this point, comparing it to being a personal trainer, which reminds me of the “teacher as coach” idea that Ted Sizer promoted and is part of the Project Based Teaching Practices in our model of Gold Standard PBL. 

“You have to coach them around the learning how to learn processes,” she said, “like a trainer builds muscles.” Teachers in this role also provide “timely, corrective feedback” and “embed a meta-strategic conversation about learning moves.” Great stuff, very actionable, and too much to explain here, so for more you’ll have to check out the recording of her talk when we make it available soon—and get her book.

During the Q&A that followed her talk, Zaretta was asked about how to involve parents.

She offered this wisdom: “We have to give respect to parents, who are their children’s first teachers… Understand the funds of knowledge that are coming out of a community… Just as we want learning partnerships with our students, we need to have dual-capacity partnerships with our parents.”

Asked to elaborate on the difference between social justice education and culturally responsive education, Zaretta said, “My social justice is to leverage students’ cultural funds of knowledge as a scaffold to help them accelerate. Multicultural education will never get you to close the reading gap. Just talking about Black Lives Matter is not going to close those reading gaps.”

She then made a statement that struck me as the heart of her work, with a reminder of what PBL should really be about.

“If you’re serious about Black Lives Matter, Black brains need to read." 

"We could say the same thing with math, with writing," she continued. "Your social justice mission is to help students close that reading gap... If you don’t, students will not go on to college, and career, and life, ready. They need to have all these intellectual capacities at their fingertips, at their ready, so that they can map their life, they have real agency… not just, “oh, they did a project last week, that was fun.”

Since she had mentioned that “collectivist work doesn’t begin and end with group work” in her talk, a questioner asked what that actually looks like. Zaretta had a sharp reply: “Honestly, I’m not even going to attempt to do that. What I’ve found, particularly with white educators, there’s not the effort made to learn about collectivist culture, and to experience it. What ends up happening is, we listen to a podcast, “oh, someone said it was that.” I don’t want to give a quick checklist, and have people say, “Zaretta says it’s this.”

“This is what we have to do collectively. And if you’re a white educator, you have to get out of your own zone, you have actually experience it, to start to understand—that’s the bi-cultural lens. I’m expanding my aperture. Most people of color are already bi- and tri-cultural. Most white educators do not do that.”

“You have to commit to doing your work. That’s really what it means to be a culturally responsive, anti-racist educator.” Where do you start? Recognize it’s a long journey. Don’t do it alone – squad up with some folks. You can read my book, but a book study is not going to lead you to equity. Information is not experience. You have to be in your own dojo, to close the knowing-doing gap.”

As people were saying after Chris Emdin’s keynote yesterday… BOOM! It’s been an incredibly powerful two days, so necessary for the times we’re in.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the announcement of our 2020 PBL Champion and the speech to follow.


The video of the PBL World morning keynote is currently only available to virtual conference attendees. However, check back here next week for an update when the keynote presentation is made available to the public. To follow the conversation at PBL World 2020, join us on Twitter at @PBLWorks with hashtags #PBLWorld #PBLWorld20.

John is an education consultant and writer. He was the editor in chief at PBLWorks for many years.