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PODCAST EPISODE 1  |  8.10.2020

Don't send a professional to do an 8th grader's job


Ron Berger

In this episode, EL Education Chief Academic Officer Ron Berger talks about powerful PBL projects he's worked on with students, including an 8th grade science project that prompted a town to invest $156K in energy renovations of its schools.

About our guest, Ron Berger

Ron Berger is chief academic officer for EL Education. EL Education guides a network of over 150 public schools in more than 30 states – an organization that partners with districts and charter boards to found public schools in low-income communities to send all graduates to college, and transforms existing K-12 schools to focus on high student achievement, character and citizenship.

Ron works closely with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he did his graduate work and teaches a course that uses exemplary student project work to illuminate standards.He is the author of six books, including An Ethic of Excellence and A Culture of Quality. Ron was a public school teacher and master carpenter in rural Massachusetts for over 25 years.

Full transcript 

Stanley: Ron Berger is chief academic officer for EL Education. EL Education guides a network of over 150 public schools in more than 30 States. It's an organization that partners with districts and charter boards to found public schools in low income communities that send all graduates to college. It transforms existing K through 12 schools to focus on high student achievement, character and citizenship.

Ron works closely with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he did his graduate work, and teaches a course that uses exemplary student project work to illuminate standards. He the author of six books, including An Ethic of Excellence and A Culture of Quality. Ron was a public school teacher and master carpenter in rural Massachusetts for over 25 years. As a personal note, Ethic of Excellence was an important book when I was first teaching 18 years ago, and was such an important read, to be able to understand how PBL works within a classroom. And so, it's my pleasure to talk to Ron.

Let's listen into Ron's keynote from last year's PBL World, where he describes a project where students work with the community to do energy audits of their schools.

Ron: Because the work that kids do in this school has meaning, and I will only tell you one example of that this morning. But these students, ninth grade science students, were trained by city engineers to do energy audits of buildings. They tested for insulation, boilers, window treatments, electrical functions of all the appliances in the building. And those kids prepared a report for the city of every city school and where it was losing energy and money. And they asked the city of Springfield to invest $156,000 to retrofit their schools to make them more energy efficient. And they promised the city in their report that the city would make back every penny it invested within five years, because they did a cost benefit analysis of the retrofits. And they priced out all the building renovations.

So they did this in public, so the mayor had to respond because they did it in a public press conference. So the mayor went back to his staff, this same mayor that's there today, Domenic Sarno, went back to his staff and said, "What do I do? I can't not respond here. I'm in a corner right now." And they said, "Mr. Sarno, Mr. Mayor, you should invest $156,000 to retrofit these schools. We train these kids. They're right. This is a great report. We believe that their report is correct." So the mayor went on television and he said, "We're going to invest $156,000 to retrofit our city schools to make them more energy efficient, because these students in our public school told us that within five years, we'll make all of our money back, we'll save money for the city, and we'll help save the environment." Then he went to the school and said, "You kids better be right."

Well, within two years, the city had saved $160,000 in energy expenses. So by then, they were making money. The mayor came back to the school and he said, "We just set aside a quarter of a million dollars for you to be the energy auditors for the rest of the buildings in our city." When he left, the kids said, "Mr. Berger, this is kind of like slave labor, isn't it?" And we said, "Well, yeah, yes, it is. However, you're all going to college. You could come back here and change the world with your skills. You're on television now as ninth graders. That's pretty good."

Stanley: Ron, welcome to The Project.

Ron: Thank you very much. Very happy to be here.

Stanley: Yeah, personally, I'm very excited that you're here because Ethic of Excellence was actually a book that I read when it first came out in my first year of teaching. We had just started a school and it was really an important read. It was so important just to really think about the combination of culture and teacher work and also the student work that's expected, and it really helped me out, so thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

Ron: Thank you.

Stanley: Well, so let's dig into the project we just listened to. So let's talk about it. How did this project come about?

Ron: It was fairly early in this life of that school. This is a public district secondary school, so it's a six through 12 school of about 700 students in the city of Springfield. Springfield is a sort of midsize Northeastern city, about 150,000 people, that has seen better times. Like many Northeastern cities that industry has left, there's a lot of poverty. And of the high schools in the city, most of them are not doing that well, to be honest. People are trying hard, but only about 60% of kids are graduating on time, except for this high school that the district worked with us to open, which has a different approach. It has a project-based approach and a character-infused approach.

And this high school is getting 98% of kids to graduation on time and now has 12 consecutive years of a hundred percent of graduates getting accepted into college. So it's been a great success and I think part of the reason for that success has been projects like this one, where kids are, even as students, not waiting until they're grown up and done with school. But as students right now, are doing significant work that supports the community and has adult level standards for rigor and quality.

And so, they had done projects like this before this. They had studied a local pond that had been closed down for pollution, and due to their water quality work and their cleanup work, the city was able to reopen that pond for recreation. It's now used for swimming, thanks to the kids' work. So it wasn't the first time that they did a project like this. But this was a project that got a lot more media attention and I think was a very significant one for the city to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into buildings based on student research. So it was a terrific boost for people understanding the power of what kids can do.

Stanley: I love that idea about the power of what kids can do. And I think it's just so important to be able to consider how they can contribute to the society, as you were talking about. I'm wondering too about this, the connection between the experts that you bring in and the community outreach and the ways that you work with experts in this project.

Ron: Yeah. I mean like many schools and organizations that take project based learning seriously, our feeling is that the teacher is rarely the expert, that a teacher is an expert as a teacher, but not necessarily the content expert in the topic that kids are working on in their project.

And so, in this case, the teacher was a science teacher named Aurora Cushner with a background in environmental work. She had worked as an Outward Bound instructor, and a good science teacher, but she was not an expert in doing energy audits of buildings, but was able to get somebody who was a facilities engineer for the city to commit to working with kids to understand, what is an energy audit of a building and how do you look at the envelope of a building? How do you look at whether the windows are sealed or not, whether the doors are sealed, whether there's good enough weather stripping? Taught them how to look at boilers and think, does the boiler have an automatic switch, a manual switch? What's the thermostat system like at the school? How many zones is it using? What's the efficiency of the boiler? What about the vending machines in the building? Do they have energy miser switches so that they turn off when they're not being used?

Kids became experts in this, not because of the teacher, although she was a brilliant teacher, but because of this facilities engineer for the city who got kids to understand that an energy audit that's usually done by adults could easily be done by high school kids.

Stanley: Hmm. Thank you. Yeah. I really keyed in on this idea that the teacher is an expert as a teacher, but not necessarily an expert at engineering. I think it's such an important thing to know. This project is incredible, inspiring, and I just am really excited. Listening to it was really incredible. I was just wondering, what steps should a new to PBL teacher take towards creating authentic learning experiences like this?

Ron: Well, I think one of the most important steps is to not make assumptions about what your community could need, but to go out and talk to people in the community about, what are the genuine needs? So we have this collection of student projects on this open website we've created, Models of Excellence, and the collaboration between my organization, EL Education, and Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I also work. And we have hundreds and hundreds of projects archived there. And the most powerful of those projects, like this one, have been not because the kids or the teacher made an assumption about the environmental or social or financial needs of the community, but went out and found out what would be useful in this community, what kind of research would be helpful so that it could create a project that was really for a genuine need.

In this case, kids were worried about the environment. They're worried about global climate change, and the city also is starved for money. And so, the idea that probably buildings could be much more energy efficient in our city, it was a provocation that they already had in their mind. But by going to city engineers and saying, how do we address this? What could we do? It was the city engineers that helped them understand how they could put that to use. So I think for any teacher, to think, what are the standards that you're covering? What's the content that you're covering? And then, can you go out into your community to find out, what are things that we could create a genuine service for in our community through scientific research, through historical research, through social connections? Are there people in your community whose stories have not been told?

So every community is full of unsung heroes, people that served in the military for the United States, people that served in the civil rights movement to help change America, people that served in all kinds of ways to make their communities better places, experts in science and in writing and in arts. These are people that are not famous and their stories have never been told, and every community is full of them. So the idea that their stories could be celebrated by students of any age in podcasts, in books, in videos and in posters, that's the kind of thing that I think any teacher could tap into. It's like there are real resources and opportunities and needs in our community if we just go and look for them.

Stanley: Yeah. It really strikes me, just the ways that you're bringing up such asset-based community development and going out to the community to be able to find the needs and also the resources and the benefits and the things that are already inherent in the community. Thank you so much for talking about that.

You also talk a lot about the importance of the relationship between students and adults. I'm just wondering, what's the connection between these relationships and project-based learning?

Ron: Well, I feel like student-adult relationships change in project-based learning in a couple of ways. One is that the relationship to the teacher changes because the teacher stops becoming, is no longer the audience for student work. So when I was a student in public schools, the teacher was my only audience for almost everything I did. Everything I created as a younger student or older student went to my teacher, got graded and came back to me.

In this case, the teacher is the coach, but the audience is the world. I mean, the students are producing stuff for an audience beyond their classroom. So the teacher becomes your trusted coach, like an athletic coach, or like the director that's getting you ready to perform a play, or your musical director, who's getting you ready for a performance. And so, it changes the relationship a lot, that they're not the intended audience, but they're to support your growth so that you can do something powerful and beautiful for another audience.

Another way though is when you get into real-life project work, you start meeting experts and resources in your community and that can inspire you to do different things. This report is actually 10 years old and I opened it up this morning because we were having this conversation. And I looked at the list of students that were part of it as ninth graders, and I noticed that one of them is a city councilman in Springfield now, was the youngest elected city councilman, I think, in the history of the city. This as a ninth grader working with adults in the city government, and the sense of, this is how you get things done. As soon as he graduated from high school, he ran for city council while he was going to college and he's still a city counselor today. And it just struck me like, that's how you get kids involved as citizens. Get them involved right now. Don't try to talk them into getting involved when they're done with school.

Stanley: Yeah. And I think that city councilman example is a perfect example of what you say around PBL preparing students for their real lives. And maybe we could talk a little bit more around that. How does PBL prepare students for their real lives?

Ron: Well, I understand that for so many reasons we have to give students tests, but the truth is, as I always say, and I'm sorry for repeating it, but when students are done with school they're never again in their lives judged by test scores. I mean, for the rest of their life, they're judged by the quality of person they are and the quality of work that they do.

And so, building that sense of doing high quality work, of perseverance, of craftsmanship, of really worrying about quality, is one of the most important things about school, but one of the things that we can at least focus on because so many schools have to spend their time on test preparation. They really don't spend time on the kind of work ethic and high standards for work that kids can develop.

I think when kids start doing high quality project work in schools as first graders or as 10th graders, they develop this understanding of what it's like to take on significant work, what it's like to get critique, revise it and do multiple drafts, do something you're proud of, present it well and thoughtfully. And the skills that you get from that are the skills that you're going to use wherever you land in the real world. Those are the skills we use in the world. Nobody in the real world just does something for a test. They do something to present for a real audience and they get help they need to do it well.

And so, students that have been doing project-based learning have a real leg up on all of that, because they understand that the real world is about grappling, getting help, struggling with a team to do something important, design a building, solve a software problem, work on something in a political movement, and get some results in the real world from it. And students who have done that for many years already, to enter with that in the real world.

Stanley:  I'm also wondering, we talked about the process, and also then now we can talk a little bit around the final product. And you talk a lot around beautiful work. What I value most in teaching is the opportunity to support students to do beautiful work. How do you define beautiful work and why is that so important to you?

Ron: Well, it's funny. I get a lot of pushback on using the word beautiful work. People assume it's too value-based maybe, or that it's only related to artwork. And I love beautiful artwork, but when I use the word beautiful work, it's not beautiful only aesthetically beautiful, but beautiful in its feel and in its domain.

So when you talk to mathematicians about the work, they talk about beautiful solutions. When you talk to scientists about the work, they talk about beautiful hypotheses and beautiful experimental designs. In any field, something that's done well in that field is considered beautiful. So I think about beautiful historical work, beautiful mathematical work, beautiful scientific work, work that's elegant and important sophisticated.

And I think that's a noble aspiration for schools and kids to be focused on. It's really not inspiring for kids to think, I should get a proficient on my test. What's inspiring about a year later finding out that you scored proficient on a test? And yet, if you create something that you are proud of and your parents are proud of and the community is proud of, a beautiful performance, a beautiful report, a beautiful design, a beautiful scientific piece, you are forever proud that you were a part of that work.

And so, I used to beautiful in this very grand sense of sophisticated, important, well done pieces of work in any domain, and many of them are cross domain. Many of them are interdisciplinary work. But I think once you've done beautiful work, it transforms who you are as a person. That student is never the same. If she's done something really powerful and beautiful, she knows she's capable of that and you can't take that away.

Stanley: Hmm. Thank you. I'm wondering about beautiful work and I love how you termed it sophisticated, important and well done. What's the process? How do we support all learners to be able to get to the place where all of their work is beautiful?

Ron: Well, it's a good question. So I wouldn't say all of their work is going to be beautiful, because a lot of the early work is going to be beautiful in conception and in push and ideas, but it's going to be messy. It's the final products of work that we really need to be beautiful. In the struggle to create great work, you create a lot of messy stuff, I think, and that's fine.

But in the end, I think anything that kids spend a lot of time on in school should have an audience beyond their classroom. And if there's an audience beyond the classroom, then there's an authentic reason to do it well. If you are doing biographies of civil rights heroes in your community, and the families are going to get those biographies to put on their mantelpiece at home and they're going to be published in a local newspaper, there's a reason to do that work well. And the reason isn't that your teacher's going to grade it, the reason is that families will care that your writing is powerful and compelling, and that the conventions are perfect. And so, you have to obsess about quality in that work.

So I think the best place to start as teachers is to have models. I think kids have no idea what a great essay or a great scientific report is unless they've seen one. So you start with models from the professional world. You start with models done by other students. The reason we opened a website with hundreds and hundreds of models of work is so people can download them for free and have models already, and if they don't already have them from the work they do. And then, look at those models together with students to discuss what makes a good essay, what makes a good scientific report what's makes a good mathematical proof. What are the dimensions and qualities of a good version of this, so that it's not what they need to borrow for their own work. So I think the first step for supporting students is to have a clear vision of what quality looks like.

I often say ... I was a carpenter for 25 years. Carpenters don't talk a lot about what a quality joint is on a mitered window frame. You go over and you look at it. I mean, you have models of people that are good craftsmen on your crew. You look at what they're doing and you look at good framing or finished carpentry models. You look at what good cabinetry looks like. You see what the tolerances are, and you have a vision in your mind, that's what I'm aspiring to. And I think we need to give kids the same kind of vision by looking together at models for the professional world or models of other kids that are well done.

And then, you need an environment of critique and multiple drafts and feedback, where kids are trying things, getting feedback from their colleagues, their peers, from their teachers, and importantly, from experts. So if you're doing a scientific report, you have scientists come in and look at your work and make sure that it's significant and valid and well done. If you're working in local history, you have a local historian come in and look at the work you're doing, not to come talk about their career, but to come work with you as a colleague, to give you hard and helpful critique about how to make your work better.

And then, you have to give yourself, as a teacher, and kids the time to create something valuable. And I think the biggest problem in project-based learning is typically the need to rush. And so, the ability to create things of quality isn't there, because we're just rushed to cover things and we've got to get it done too quickly, so kids don't have time to really draft it well.

Stanley: Just like the rising to the occasion for outside audience, models from professionals for students, multiple drafts, and also that time to create. I think you summarized this support so well. Did I miss anything?

Ron: No, that's exactly right.

Stanley: How do you respond to people who say that PBL isn't for everyone?

Ron: Well, actually, that's an interesting thing. So I would say it's true that PBL isn't for everyone right now. And by everyone right now, I would mean not all teachers feel ready to do it well. In terms of kids, PBL is absolutely available to every kid. Kids are ready to dive in if we, as educators, can build the structure for it to work well.

There is a prejudice that project-based learning is part of a progressive education tradition that tends to be more privileged and white. And yet, most of the schools that I've collected work with from the last 40 years for our collection online are kids of color and low income, rural and urban communities. They're not white suburban kids. And they're doing beautiful project work.

The project we're discussing today, the energy audits of schools in the city of Springfield and the report to the city, most of those students are low income, urban kids of color. And they're exactly the demographic that people might feel like, yeah, that's not what they need. They need more basic skills work. And yet, it's hard to picture a more powerful project.

So when I think of are people ready for PBL, I never would worry about, are the kids ready? I mean, I think kids anywhere are ready to take on a real challenge of being pushed. And if they're lacking in some of the basic skills they need to do the project well, then you double down on those basic skills at the same time as you're doing the project. You don't think, Oh, we'll spend three years catching them up on their skills and then give them something engaging to do. You say, we're going to work on this project every day and because of that, we're going to double down on some of your basic skills in mathematics or in research or in writing, so that when we're working on the project, it's well done. But it gives an authentic reason for that skills work.

The part of the not being ready that I do agree with is that some teachers are not quite ready to let go or to share leadership of work with students. And I think that's something that can't be forced on teachers. Teachers have to learn through modeling, through being around other project based settings, how to make that work. And so, I wouldn't force project based learning on any teacher, unless she or he were ready to hear and listen and learn about it.

Stanley: Yeah. I love that. I mean, I think it's thinking about the ways that teachers just are exposed to more authentic experiences first, to be able to feel like they want to move towards it. It's such an important thing. Thank you.

You bringing up your own experience of being in school really resonates for me, because the only things when I think about school, the only things I remember are the things where I was performing in front of others. So that's such an important thing to remember. Thank you.

What have you been working on? So what areas of project-based learning are you exploring right now?

Ron: Well, I'm always trying to figure out how to take our Models of Excellence website and make it accessible to people who aren't already project-based teachers. So I feel like we get a lot of visitors to our website. We get about 10,000 visitors a month. So I'm pleased that some people come to download beautiful projects from schools anywhere in the world. Anyone can send us a great project. We have a curation team that chooses the best, uploads them, and then they're just free to the world.

And we get a lot of people using them, but when we've done demographic studies, what we find is that teachers that are predisposed to being positive about PBL to begin with, teachers that are already deeply project based, will tend to come to the website and download projects and use them as ideas and provocations and models. But more traditional teachers will come to our website and see that there's no lesson plans and just leave. There's no formula, there's no recipe for how to do it, because what we share is student work. We don't share every teacher step that went into it.

And I am struggling with, how do I make the beauty and power of great student work more accessible to more teachers, so that it doesn't feel like it's the purview only of teachers who are used to the PBL world of work and use to the progressive traditions of project-based learning? Because every teacher could do more in this way. So how do we make it more accessible?

Stanley: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Thank you. Yeah. Models of Excellence. Yeah, that is a great thing to work on, especially looking at student work. It's such an important thing.

Ron, thank you so much for taking the time to be here with us today and share your stories. It was really inspirational and there's so much information that you shared with us.

Ron: Well, thank you for all the good work you do to lift up for people the potential of what kids can do. I think we always underestimate the amazing work that kids can do if we set up the right context for it, for them, if we can support them. And PBLWorks and Getting Smart and all the folks that are involved in making that more possible, I'm just very thankful.

Stanley: Yes, well, we are very thankful for all the work that you do. I personally, this was an honor just because I have read your book and it was, as a first year teacher, it was really like, okay, this is where I should go and this is what I should aim for. Your writing was a big part of that, so thank you so much.

Ron: Thank you.