Hacking Project-Based Learning

Hacking Project-Based Learning

I’m in the middle of Hacking Project-Based Learning by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, a concise, practical guide for teachers wishing to deploy PBL in their courses.

Cooper and Murphy are primary school teachers, so their examples are often calibrated to the elementary grades. But, as they remind readers, instructors can scale and adapt PBL to the learning level of their own students.

How the book is organized

As the subtitle suggests (“10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom”), the book is designed as a toolkit for quick action. The short chapters are presented as “hacks,” expedient solutions to common classroom problems. Chapter sections like What YOU Can Do Tomorrow and Overcoming Pushback show how the book is tailored to help you clear hurdles and achieve rapid adoption. The hacks:

  1. Develop a space that promotes risk-taking
  2. Teach collaboration skills
  3. Magnify PBL-worthy content
  4. Create a vision for your project
  5. Wrap the learning in inquiry
  6. Shift the ownership of assessment
  7. Make feedback everyone’s business
  8. Reserve the right to mini-lesson
  9. Guarantee understanding
  10. Finish off your project in style

In separate posts, I plan to write a synopsis on most of these hacks, to convey some of each chapter’s main points. Here’s the first:

Hack 1: Develop a Space that Promotes Risk-Taking

How many times each day does the following conversation take place somewhere in western civilization:

Parent: How was school?
Child: Boring.
Parent: What did you do?
Child: Nothing.

The opening chapter of Hacking Project-Based Learning presents a problem I discussed in an earlier post titled Children Are Curious; Students Are Not, that schools kill curiosity.

Human children exhibit great curiosity and wonder. Babies and toddlers are inquisitive and experimental to the point of annoyance. Anyone who has seen a plastic spoon thrown repeatedly from a highchair or fielded a barrage of Why? questions can attest to this. Kids want to learn and they don’t care how much Gerber hits the wall.

Sadly though, our old-fashioned education system, designed to churn out nineteenth-century factory workers, wrings most of the curiosity out of kids. Salvaging some of their youthful curiosity, Cooper and Murphy suggest, is good for education generally, and PBL in particular.

Ken Robinson’s TED Talk Do schools kill creativity?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Learning occurs when class is active and engaging. Students confined to a lecture hall doing passive, rote learning are all-but-certain to become incurious and disengaged. To encourage emotional and intellectual investment, there must be stakes: risks and rewards.

A successful PBL classroom relies on a culture of inquiry and creativity to ensure students engage in deeper learning driven by their curiosities.

p. 19

Of course, instructors must strive for the right amount of risk. If students suffer failures that are traumatizing or dispiriting, the learning process itself will fail. Cooper and Murphy suggest “removing the stigma from the word ‘failure'” by creating a failure board for students to post their mistakes. They also urge teachers to talk through their processes and share their own failures.


The authors list several steps to foster risk-taking. Here are a few:

Build relationships: A risk-taking environment must contain trust, so instructors should talk with every student, every day. Further, show empathy toward students. This individual attention will forge the student-teacher relationship.

Teach students to ask good questions: Fruitful inquiry arises from effective questions. Three methods for this are mentioned:

  • Question carousel: Each student group writes down one problem. Then groups rotate through each problem, brainstorming a list of questions for each one. Once each problem has cycled through each group, a list of critical questions comes back to the original group.
  • Question formulation technique: The QFT is detailed in this earlier post.
  • Why? What if? How?: Journalist and speaker Warren Berger designed this 3-step sequence to tackle any problem.
A brief overview of the QFT

In the final step of the blueprint, the authors caution us that “the verbal and nonverbal cues we offer students who are experiencing setbacks can make or break a learning experience.” Thus, it’s essential to calibrate our responses to foster perseverance rather than despair.


The practical advice in this chapter will help teachers create the right classroom culture, that of inquiry and creativity. Having established trusting, empathetic relationships, students will feel empowered to triumph over adversity. This will foster healthy risk-taking, accomplishing hack one in the movement toward PBL in the classroom.

Creating Wicked Students: An Idea for Class Discussion

Meaningful Connections

By Paul Handstedt

I began reading Creating Wicked Students by Paul Hanstedt (2018) some time ago. While my progress has been slower than I’d hoped, but passage inspired me to think of a novel idea for class discussion:

Consider the following: Three students are assigned a book chapter. The first one reads the chapter carefully then makes an outline of the chapter using key words and phrases in the text. The second student finishes the chapter then answers a number of questions at the end, referring to the text when necessary. The third student finishes the chapter then generates a list of questions that might be useful to discuss with the class the next day.

p 14

After laying out the hypothetical, Hanstedt asks the reader which student is most likely to recall the material in meaningful ways two days, two weeks, or two months later?

The scenario struck me as salient for its many implications for TWP. All that we’ve heard and read in the CPLC drives home the importance of authenticity, learner agency, and curiosity, exactly what Hanstedt is touching on here.

Before answering, let’s recap, giving names to the students:

  • Alex creates an outline of the chapter’s main points
  • Bailee answers the end-of-chapter questions from the text
  • Chris generates a list of questions that would be useful in class discussion

Hanstedt says only the third student, Chris, is likely to achieve meaningful understanding of the content because, he says:

“Deciding what questions to write down requires thinking about the material and making decisions about what matters and what doesn’t.” This thought process nudges Chris to recall previous discussions, questions, and experiences. It also prompts Chris to consider the types of questions that have stymied students before, and to ponder the sort of responses each question is likely to elicit.

By connecting the present content to both past experience and future discussion in this way, the student is “mentally engaged” and “emotionally invested”. Hanstedt cites research that suggests “firing these established networks” increases memory in meaningful ways (Kole and Healy, 2007).

Although Handstedt doesn’t mention it, this activity helps alleviate the problem of inert knowledge, a phenomenon in which pupils can retain the information, but are unable to apply it practically, and perhaps only long enough to regurgitate it on an exam.

[ See also my post about authenticity, which includes a couple paragraphs on inert knowledge. The fact that thinking about Hanstedt’s ideas hearkened to related ideas from a book I’d read previously proves his point. Bonus points for metacognition! ]

Class Activity

Having thought about Hanstedt’s hypothetical in the context of authenticity and learner agency, I had an idea to modify the well-known think/pair/share formula. This exercise would incentivize mental engagement and promote student accountability. Incorporated into class discussions, it could be done once, a handful of times, or repeatedly throughout the course.

The classic think/pair/share activity


As the instructor assigns readings, videos, or other materials, they ask the students to return to class with two open-ended questions inspired by the material.

It’s important for the instructor to emphasize that the questions should not have well-known, definitive answers. Here are some good examples:

  • What are some of the costs of remediating the international e-waste problem?
  • Is there something you wish you had done to prevent cyberbullying?
  • Are efforts to adapt to climate change better than measures to prevent it?

Individually brainstorming such questions would evoke the meaningful connections Hanstedt described. And by making students accountable to one another, it would likely increase assignment completion.


Then, in class, initiate discussion by having the students pair off and take turns asking and answering each others’ questions.

The teacher could allot between 5 and 10 minutes for this step, allowing more time as needed.


Finally, the class would rejoin for a plenary discussion of the material. Students eager to share their questions and answers should be invited to do so. At the teacher’s discretion, inviting, nudging, or cajoling the withdrawn students could be done with care. Calling on students at times should tend to diversify the perspective. It would also help establish a participatory expectation as a class norm.


Paul Hanstedt wrote about how thoughtful brainstorming fosters meaningful memory of material. By adapting the simple think/pair/share approach, teachers can promote learner-driven inquiry and authentic learning. The end result should be deeper engagement with and understanding of our wicked problems.


Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating wicked students : designing courses for a complex world (First). Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The aims of education & other essays. Macmillan.

Kole, J.A., Healy, A.F., 2007. Using prior knowledge to minimize interference when learning large amounts of information. Memory & Cognition.. doi:10.3758/bf03195949

Habits of Mind Self-Assessment

“These Habits are lifelong pursuits, and proclaiming success is likely to let your guard down.”

Image: nasa.gov

Nowhere in the US Constitution is there an express right to privacy. Wouldn’t it just be bonkers if the government could intrude in your personal affairs as long as it technically didn’t violate any clauses of the text? Thankfully, it can’t, because in 1965 the Supreme Court held that an individual right to privacy can be found in the collective shadow cast by others in the Bill of Rights. Privacy is, therefore, a penumbral right. Thus, penumbral came to refer to an implicit concept that’s logically entailed by other, explicit ones.

Introspection, I submit, is a penumbral Habit, logically entailed by PSU’s four explicit Habits. It’s only fitting, then, that professors like me would be asked to undertake this introspective exercise, assessing their own progress in the HOMs.

Purposeful Communication

You would hope a person with two degrees in information, combined with two decades of practice using information, both analog and digital, would have reached the proverbial summit.

And while I believe I have, I am reluctant to claim such a pinnacle. As I tell students, these Habits are lifelong pursuits, and proclaiming success is likely to let your guard down.

I always “seek additional knowledge” for contextualization and “recognize implications” of text (probably to a fault given the amount of time I often take composing emails).

I intend to work on “organizing and synthesizing information” to generate “new insights” in my communication. This has always come slowly to me.

Problem Solving

I face the day’s challenges, large and small, with a repertoire of approaches. When confronted with, say, a workplace conflict, I apply strategies to “survey the problem from various points of view.”

Often, that involves seeking common ground and showing empathy. Good faith efforts like these foster compromise.

Sadly though, I still sometimes succumb to the Lebowski Trap. The Lebowski Trap, if you haven’t heard of it (because I just made it up) is the condition of having the facts on your side while being so abrasive that the other person still resents you.

The Lebowski Trap

This means I must need more practice “exploring and incorporating multiple perspectives.” I am close to, but have not yet, reached the summit.

Integrated Perspective

Speaking of perspectives, I think I excel at “analyzing the interconnectedness” between systems and “augmenting my own limited perspective.” Being a research librarian prepares one for that.

I have become well versed at seeking facts from diverse sources and disciplines, then provisionally cobbling them into an incomplete whole… like a 1,000-piece puzzle you’ll only ever see 12 pieces of.

Considering not only outside perspectives, but unheard-of perspectives, and even as-yet-unknown perspectives, gives me a sense of intellectual humility on my way to the summit.

Self-Regulated Learning

Oof. I did not save the best for last. Learning I do with alacrity; it’s the self-regulation at which I fall short. Unfortunately, I need to make much more progress at “setting high expectations for myself and “developing a plan” to meet them.

Never has this deficit been more clear than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Setting organizational goals and deadlines has never been a strength of mine. The pandemic has given me even more slack. My work and personal time have started to run together, and I often fail to hold myself accountable. The struggle, the climb, is real.


As I tell students, these four Habits of Mind are not the only ones a university could have chosen to pursue, but they are extremely worthwhile.

Introspection has always been my forte. Even if I have much progress to make in the four HOMs, this penumbral habit will serve me well.

While I am at or near the summit in most of the Habits, my philosophy forces me to believe it’s always just a little further.

Righteous Mind Seeks Integrated Perspective

Reason is the slave of the passions.

David Hume

I wrote the title of this post in the style of a personals ad not (only) to showcase my bottomless wit, but because, like a good personals ad, it suggests there’s a match which, once made, makes the world just a bit happier and more fulfilled.

And like any good match, the eventual partners are unaware that their ideal mate is out there.

Integrated perspective is well known to us as one of the four Habits of Mind that make up Plymouth State’s Gen Ed program, but to what does Righteous Mind refer? The phrase belongs to professor Jonathan Haidt and is the title of his 2012 book.

Side note: Haidt (Stern School of Business, New York University) is a social psychologist whose ideas I’ve followed with interest for some time. His 2016 talk at Duke University, Two incompatible sacred values in American universities, is a provocative critique of what Haidt sees as academic orthodoxy.

The Rationalist Delusion

Haidt’s primary research is in moral psychology, the biological underpinnings of human ethical development within societies and cultures. His is among a growing body of scholarship that describes our minds’ surprising and innate tendencies (although Haidt is quick to say innateness is not destiny).

Work like Haidt’s fascinates me because it contradicts common assumptions of what our minds must be like. The popular misconception is that our brains are computing organs, rationally weighing our self-interest against the interests of others. It’s also tempting to believe that our internal states follow external states—that our feelings are responses to conditions in the world. On this rationalist view, the right choices are merely the outcome of the right information. Or, as Plato put it:

To know the good is to do the good.


Haidt calls this the “rationalist delusion.” In reality, our decisions and actions are buffeted by temperamental undercurrents created by ancient forces of natural selection.

In experiments, subjects are asked to judge the rightness or wrongness of hypothetical scenarios. Then the experimenters gently interrogate the respondents’ reasoning. Time after time, subjects exhibit moral dumbfounding—standing by their judgments even when all their stated reasons are shown to be irrelevant.

Example and explanation of moral dumbfounding

In other words, when pressed to explain why they believe what they believe, people will essentially concede I don’t know; I just do.

Moral dumbfounding is a sign that we reach conclusions viscerally, then subconsciously send our reason on a fact-finding mission to support these conclusions. Hence, this phrase repeated like a mantra throughout the book:

Intuition comes first, reason second.

Jonathan Haidt

Thus, Haidt seeks to replace the rationalist delusion with an intuitionist model. Just as Plato was the forerunner of the rationalists, David Hume presaged intuitionism when he said reason is the slave of the passions.

This gets to the book’s title: The Righteous Mind. The pretension of reasonableness is held by us all when, in fact, intuition is the tail that wags the dog. So when people’s views clash, each one wrongly believes the other will accede to their superior reason, and none does.

But how could evolution have imbued us with such a fallacy? What adaptive purpose is served by making brains that harbor this logical conceit?

The musings of biologist JBS Haldane come to mind: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

JBS Haldane. Possible Worlds and Other Essays. 1927.

Whether there is yet a convincing explanation for the rationalist delusion, it seems to be a fact of human psychology. Which is why I think our students should become acquainted with it in order to begin practicing the self-awareness and perspective-seeking at the heart of integrated perspective.

Moral Foundations Theory

Haidt, together with fellow psychologists Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham, developed Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) to offer an intuitionist account of moral psychology. MFT is a purported antidote to the rationalist delusion.

Five Innate Modules

MFT posits five moral dimensions, each one corresponding to an innate module—an evolved tendency inscribed in our psyches. They’re innate because they are “organized in advance of experience.” These innate features can be encouraged, suppressed, and channeled by one’s environment, which includes a person’s culture and upbringing. Haidt and his colleagues allow that dimensions may be added or modified as the theory incorporates new evidence.

Differences between individuals and across cultures emphasize certain dimensions over others, and invoke them in different ways. The dimensions, in other words, are universal but not uniform.

Each dimension is a pair of opposites. For each pair, preference for the first and aversion to the second is found throughout humanity.


In contrast to reptiles and other mammals, Homo sapiens invest extraordinary resources into care for their young. That is the basis for the care module.

Our proclivity for caring extends well beyond child rearing, however. This module moves people to protect kin, classmates, and compatriots.


Humans are a social species: probably the most social species. As survival came to depend on cooperation with non-relatives, we developed an aversion to cheating to combat the free-rider problem.

This module explains why societies punish theft and look down on laziness. It’s why we admire Robin Hood and despise Bernie Madoff.


Societies old and new thrive on trade, which depends on cooperation. The loyalty module is akin to fairness in that it counters the free-rider problem, but, unlike fairness, loyalty sustains relationships through time.

People who abandon their families or strike off to join new tribes do not foster viable, long-term societies. Today, the loyalty module adheres nations and religions comprised of hundreds of millions of people who have never met.


Every human society contains a division of labor. Whereas the loyalty module maintains relationships, authority establishes order, hierarchy, and duty.

The authority module accounts for our deference for law enforcement, our adulation for statesmen, and our stopping for red lights when there are no other cars on the road.


Our capacity for disgust evolved to keep us safe from pathogens and parasites. Unclean or degraded things generate a sense of revulsion. That is the sanctity, or purity, module at work.

But sanctity can be repurposed for metaphorical uses, as when we tend a loved one’s grave site or hold sacred a creed or flag. It can also be turned against society’s perceived enemies: when dissidents, immigrants, communists, or capitalists, eg., are assailed as decadent or insidious.

Understanding our Moral Foundations

Humans are capable of a vast spectrum of kindness and cruelty, selfishness and generosity. Haidt’s research reveals that our praise and blame for virtue and vice—our moral psychology—is driven not by reason, but by intuition.

The moral foundations theory says that we are all in some measure irrational. Moreover, it suggests that our disagreements arise not from factual differences, but from divergent intuitions, of which we may not even be aware.

This prescribes a dose of humility. When in conflict with a partner, colleague, or Internet commenter, we ought consider the moral foundations behind the other point of view.

For as long as we cling to the rationalist delusion, we burnish the fallacy that we’re objective, fact-driven creatures even though the opposite is true.

Haidt, Graham, and Joseph designed the website yourmorals.org to gather data and give participants a sense of their moral foundations. The site contains numerous surveys, but I encourage TWP teachers to have their students take the moral foundations questionnaire. The questionnaire will show students where they are on each of the moral dimensions.

I also encourage teachers to show their students Haidt’s TED Talk that explores the differences between the moral foundations of liberals and conservatives.

If our students get a basic grasp of the MFT, and see themselves within it, they will almost certainly grow in their integrated perspective. Particularly:

  • Listen to other perspectives when collaborating
  • Recognize the interconnectedness between and within natural and social systems
  • Acknowledge the limitations of a singular perspective
  • Understand various perspectives and how they came to be

I close by returning to the title: Righteous Mind Seeks Integrated Perspective. This is a match worth making, and one that will make the world just a little bit happier and more fulfilled.

CPLC Season 2: Opening Reflections

Shockingly, although I had taken part in discussions of interdisciplinarity before, I had not really considered my own disciplinary affiliation in those discussions. At least, I had hitherto failed to contend with the fundamental question Do I even have a discipline? Watching Matt Cheney’s ID video a couple times woke me from my dogmatic slumber.

In libraries, information is the coin of the realm, but it is rarely minted in the realm.

Of course, a body of scholarship exists describing the information-seeking behaviors that go on in libraries, but librarians most often deal in others’ intellectual domains: education, economics, kinesiology, the life sciences, eg.

Library science, or information science, is at once everything and nothing. Put that way, it sounds like I am coveting a mystique–the pretentious pedant that I am (a job requirement for all librarians).

Contemplating Matt’s framework–content (what), method (how), and epistemology (why)–I began to notice something. The same fascination that attracted me to librarianship also drew me to TWP.

The tenets of critical thinking, problem solving, and information fluency drive at those epistemological questions: What counts as evidence? How do we value that evidence?

This metaphysical curiosity is why I am excited to engage with students in their educational journeys: to interrogate facts and probe our assumptions.

As Matt quotes Cathy Davidson, you reward faculty and their students “for constantly rethinking options.”

Not only is this constant rethinking integral to indisciplinarity, but I daresay it’s essential to each one of the four Habits of Mind.

A Year in Practice: Synthesis & Vision

“To fill a gap in my teaching I hadn’t realized was there.”

The toad of wisdom
The toad of wisdom. Campton, NH.

Personal Connections

A fringe benefit of my CPLC involvement has been the happenstance connections I’ve made with other faculty and staff. I’ve met several interesting and talented people from diverse disciplines and far flung places.

During that first session on June 4, when we brainstormed PSU values, I was talking with Chen Wu about how those values related to traditional Chinese culture. It was a lesson in contrasts and a spontaneous reminder of the significance of one of our HoMs: integrated perspective.

Education Scholarship

How Humans Learn by Joshua Eyler
How Humans Learn. Joshua Eyler (2018).

But the deepest and most influential results of my participation in the Learning Community came from reading Joshua Eyler’s How Humans Learn: not just reading the book, but taking many scholarly detours through the research he cited, drawing connections between them, and trying to articulate the ideas here in this blog (all links in this post are to my other posts).

That exploration led me to numerous evidence-based and expert-endorsed concepts and methods that I will incorporate into my teaching.

The Power of Stories

The chapter on sociality led me to Louis Cozolino of Pepperdine University and Dan Willingham of the University of Virginia. Through their work, I came to appreciate the power of story-telling, the psychologically privileged place of narrative, and the ingredients for incorporating stories in effective pedagogy. I will use these ideas in my TWP section.

The Scientist as Child

From the chapter on curiosity, I learned about Alison Gopnik‘s ideas on child and adult learning. Kids are eager learners. Gopnik suggests that youthful alacrity predisposes children to scientific investigation.

She challenges the conventional notion that education is a process of replacing childish thinking with grown-up ideas. Instead, we can harness our pupils’ natural learning tendencies and, in the process, salvage some of the curiosity that is often lost in school.

Asking the Right Questions

Perhaps most notably, How Humans Learn led me to the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), a classroom method created by Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein for a dropout prevention program in Lawrence, MA.

I was drawn to the QFT because it promised to fill a gap in my teaching I hadn’t realized was there. The technique provokes inquiry and reflection; instead of passively responding to the questions I hoped would spark their interest, students in the QFT will drive their own investigation. Participants become agents of their own discovery while, at the same time, they are compelled to practice meta-cognition. The QFT also connects nicely to our four Habits of Mind.

So enthusiastic over the QFT’s potential, I conducted a session with my faculty colleagues in the library. That experience was positive, so I decided to propose a University Days presentation on it. Even though there were several compelling breakout sessions happening at the same time, 17 people attended my QFT session. The participants were deeply engaged and the vocal feedback was very encouraging.

The official reviews were few, but entirely positive:

“helpful and informative”

“Great workshop! Learned a new technique to start discussions and get students asking more questions.”

I’m excited to employ the QFT in class. It could be a powerful catalyst in the production of their group projects.


The concepts mentioned above are noteworthy, but not the only ones I gleaned from my CPLC reading. Others include the experiential learning theory of David Kolb and peer instruction from Eric Mazur.

For a relatively inexperienced teacher like me to attempt to absorb so many scholarly methods in three months was challenging. But, I had two powerful motivators working on me. The aspiration to succeed in TWP led me from the front, while the risk of disappointing my CPLC colleagues pushed me from behind. With the carrot of successful pedagogy and the stick of CPLC deadlines, I achieved nearly everything I set out to accomplish. While this sounds like the end, I know it is only the beginning.


“We do not create artificial assignments for babies. There are no lectures on how to eat. They grab an actual spoon, fling some food around, and experiment until they get it in their mouths.”

Eyler, Joshua. (2018). How Humans Learn.

The word authenticity may turn off the more jaded academic reader. Admittedly, it carries an air of pretension and buzzwordiness. The term could easily succumb to overuse or inspire eye-roll-inducing conference talks. Yet, there is good reason for educators to understand authenticity and how it relates to teaching and learning.

Leading scholar on authentic learning Jan Herrington.

Authentic learning is grounded in the constructivism of Piaget and other theorists, emphasizing the active acquisition of knowledge through practice and experience. Evidence suggests authentic learning gets better results than passive approaches like traditional lecture.

Benefits of Authenticity

Julia Hayden Galindo, from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, writes “students who take part in classes with an authentic learning component, make higher academic gains” than students in similar classes that lack an authentic learning component. She cites studies by Mayo (2010) and Power (2010) to support this conclusion.

In a large meta-analysis, Freeman, et al (2014) found significant benefits to active learning, a genus of authentic approaches that also emphasize real-world experiential constructivism.

The meta-analysis looked at 255 studies of courses in STEM fields, finding that overall “average examination scores improved by about 6%” in the active learning sections over those based on traditional lecture. The meta-analysis also found “students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail” than their active learning counterparts.

What is authentic?

So authenticity delivers results, but what does it mean to be authentic?

“Realism lies at the heart of any discussion of authenticity.”

Eyler, p 152

Authentic learning must resemble, as much as possible, the real-world application of the knowledge to be gained. In some disciplines, it is the real-world application of knowledge. In chemistry, for instance, authentic learning may involve working with chemical reactions or the phase changes of matter. In aviation, on the other hand, a simulator provides an authentic flight experience.

Whether fully real or merely simulated, an “authentic learning experience must have ‘as much fidelity as possible to what students will encounter outside of school in terms of tools, complexity, cognitive functioning, and interactions with people'” (Eyler, p 153).

Inauthentic Experience

To appreciate authenticity, consider its absence. Inauthentic experiences suffer two distinct drawbacks: ineffectiveness and inattention.

Teaching methods that lack realism are less effective because they fall victim to “the problem of inert knowledge”, an idea that traces back to Alfred North Whitehead. Inert knowledge may be regurgitated, but cannot be applied outside the artificial confines in which it was absorbed. A student who can recite electrical formulas on an exam, eg., but can’t complete a circuit suffers from inert knowledge. A student who can recount the events in 1930s Germany but can’t contrast fascism with other political movements may also suffer from inert knowledge.

Inauthentic teaching is also prone to student inattention. As Eyler points out, “if the brain registers a situation as being artificial or unimportant, it will allocate cognitive resources elsewhere” (p 170). That’s a tactful way to describe boredom. Students who become thus disengaged may be worse off than those with inert knowledge; they may even fail to be able to apply knowledge in the artificial setting of a classroom.

Why is authentic learning important?

What makes authenticity work in education? The answer may have to do with how humans are predisposed to learn from an early age.

In an earlier post, I discussed Eyler’s chapter on curiosity and the ideas of psychologist Alison Gopnik. She suggests children possess an innate science-like method of testing and theorizing about the world around them. This view presupposes authenticity; our evolutionary development took place between the earth and sky, not a desk and whiteboard. Authentic learning harnesses our natural learning patterns.

Experiential Learning Theory: a framework for authenticity

In 1984, educational theorist David Kolb proffered a theory of experiential learning. His Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) gives us a framework for understanding the role of authenticity in learning. Kolb’s theory contains a cyclical model consisting of four parts:

Image credit: Queens Univ, Kingston, Ontario
  1. Concrete experience: active participation in a task, such as lab or field work, rather than passive observation
  2. Reflective observation: thoughtful consideration of the experience, including positive and negative outcomes
  3. Abstract conceptualization: sense-making and informal theorizing drawing on reflection as well as external information
  4. Active experimentation: planning to apply new understandings to future experience
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle described for health workers

The four stages take place sequentially, then the cycle begins anew. Kolb’s experiential learning model may serve as a guide for educators wishing to enhance the authenticity in their classes. If a class activity incorporates each of the four stages, it is likely an authentic experience.

To further explore authentic learning and the experiential learning model, I plan to peruse this ebook: The Experiential Learning Toolkit by Colin Beard (2010). It contains about 50 activity ideas that may make a class more authentic.


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Herrington, J., Reeves, T. C., & Oliver, R. (2014). Authentic learning environments. In Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (pp. 401-412). Springer, New York, NY.

Mayo, J. A. (2010). Constructing undergraduate psychology curricula: Promoting authentic learning and assessment in the teaching of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Power, A. (2010). Community engagement as authentic learning with reflection. Issues in Educational Research, 20(1), 57-63.

Peer Instruction: Right for Wicked Problems?

Peer Instruction is a teaching method invented in 1991 by Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard University. Mazur found that, in spite of his award-winning lectures and his students’ high test scores, the students failed to grasp the concepts he was teaching.

They could crank out formulaic answers by rote, but couldn’t explain the principles they were using or apply them in new contexts. Peer Instruction, or PI, arose during a flash of inspiration (or a bout of desperation) during a lecture on Newton’s third law.

Eric Mazur explains how he came to invent peer instruction.

Frustrated by his own repeated failures to get the idea across, Mazur told his students to discuss the problem-at-hand with one another. What followed evolved over time into the extremely effective, evidence-based method of instruction PI is today.

Peer Instruction Described

The Peer Instruction Process. (Rochester Institute of Tech Teaching and Learning Services)

PI begins with a brief explanation (in other words, a lecture) by the professor. This explanation should be in the neighborhood of 10 minutes. The professor then confronts the class with a multiple-choice problem to solve, also called the concept question. Each possible choice should seem plausible.

The students spend a couple minutes attempting to work out the solution individually. The professor then holds a vote: collecting each student’s answer as close to simultaneous as possible. Voting can be done using clickers, but less sophisticated means, like flash cards or show of hands, can be used as well.

The next step is determined by the distribution of answers. If most students were right, briefly affirm the solution and then move on. If the answers were predominantly incorrect, the instructor should provide a new explanation or hint, then repeat the individual phase.

If, on the other hand, the answers are more evenly divided, the special sauce is then added. The students break into groups of two or three and attempt to persuade one another of their answer. As professor Mazur found, and as numerous studies have since confirmed, the proportion of correct answers and the comprehension of underlying concepts rises dramatically.

Peer Instruction Flow Chart

Butchart, S., Handfield, T., & Restall, G. (2009). Teaching philosophy, logic and critical thinking using peer instruction. Teaching Philosophy32(1), 1-40.

Why does PI work?

A key reason PI is more effective than traditional lectures is what’s called the curse of knowledge: the inability of the expert to appreciate the obstacles faced by the non-expert. Paradoxically, the professor’s subject mastery becomes a barrier to effective teaching. Students who explain concepts to other students are keenly aware of the hurdles they just recently cleared.

Another force at work in PI, a constructivist mechanism, lies in the process of explaining. The very act of articulating ideas correctly fleshes them out and firms them up in the mind of the explainer as well as the listener. “Students learn best when active learning takes place” (Butchart, Handfield, & Restall, 2009).

Is Peer Instruction suited to Wicked Problems?

PI was invented in the physics classroom and has been applied successfully in numerous STEM fields over the years. Questions in math and science tend to be convergent: zeroing in on one definitive answer. What happens when the problem-at-hand doesn’t have a fixed answer? Can PI help us navigate the murkier waters of social science, humanities, and Wicked Problems?

Butchart, Handfield, & Restall (2009) insist “the opportunities for student discussion and active engagement offered by PI can be achieved even with open-ended questions which do not have a unique correct answer.” The authors present the following example concept question:

“Which of these outcomes is worse?

  1. Five people contract a fatal disease that can only be treated at great cost and with difficulty. They are not treated, and die of it within a year.
  2. A person murders a completely innocent stranger. The murderer feels no guilt, but never re-offends.
  3. Neither: they are equally bad.”

Because this question hinges on ethical values, the answer cannot be clear-cut. Nevertheless, using PI in such cases can prime the students for discussion. It can also get the constructivist juices flowing: prompting students to solidify the rationales behind their answers, however subjective they may be.

Using one of my own Wicked Problems as an example, here is what PI concept questions might look like:

What would have the greatest impact on cyberbullying?

  1. Nationwide laws and regulations to punish cyberbullies
  2. A grassroots, nonprofit advocacy and awareness campaign
  3. State-by-state funding for anti-bullying programs in schools
  4. Social norms will take shape naturally as technology becomes settled

What, if any, threat does Artificial Intelligence pose to mankind?

  1. None. Even strong AI will be confined to machines with no means to rule or enslave us.
  2. Little. It may affect our quality of life some but Terminator scenarios are overblown.
  3. Significant. Runaway AI is a unique and unprecedented risk that can be managed only with proper oversight.
  4. It’s over people. This genie isn’t going back into the bottle.

I’m excited for the possibilities Peer Instruction provides. Time will tell whether questions like the ones I’ve created above will advance the learning objectives of my TWP section.


Butchart, S., Handfield, T., & Restall, G. (2009). Teaching philosophy, logic and critical thinking using peer instruction. Teaching Philosophy, 32(1), 1-40.

A Social Classroom

Without first building a social classroom, it will be more challenging for any of the other teaching strategies to take hold.”

Eyler, Joshua. (2018). How Humans Learn.

In How Humans Learn, Joshua Eyler extols social pedagogies, a concept found in Bass and Elmendorff: course designs that make the representation of knowledge to an authentic audience integral to the construction of knowledge (p. 82). That’s a dense definition, so let’s unpack it.

The representation of knowledge is student work in any amount or form that exhibits the students’ understanding: an explanation, a presentation, a policy proposal, an architectural design, a research paper, a mini-documentary, a diorama, or anything else suited to the challenge.

An authentic audience is comprised of those with an interest or stake in the matter under investigation, whether inside or outside the classroom.

In other words, social pedagogies are designed by teachers to encourage students to share their newfound knowledge with the world beyond the classroom.

Eyler seeks to extend this definition of social pedagogies to include such teaching approaches that leverage our innate human sociality to further a class’s learning objectives.

Before we can make productive use of social pedagogies, we must create what Eyler calls a social classroom, one in which healthy interactions foster social learning. A social classroom is free of corrosive interactions and harmful social dynamics. Eyler says there are at least three elements that make up a social classroom.

Three components of the social classroom:

  • A sense of belonging
  • Pro-social classroom management style
  • An instructor who models intellectual approaches

I will summarize these elements now.

Sense of Belonging

“College students benefit when they understand that challenges in the transition to college are common and improvable”

Yeager, et al. (2016).

Carissa Romero describes belonging as when students feel “socially connected, supported, and respected. They trust their teachers and their peers, and they feel a sense of fit at school” (2018).

Romero expounds: “Instructional practices that promote trust and enhance belonging also have long-lasting effects on student outcomes.” In discussing the existing research on social belonging in higher education, Yeager, et al, write “college students benefit when they understand that challenges in the transition to college are common and improvable and, thus, that early struggles need not portend a permanent lack of belonging or potential” (2016).

Interestingly, a look at several studies on belonging interventions reveals mixed results. A complex interplay of variables such as size, type, and culture of the school may confound efforts to draw straight-forward conclusions about such interventions. One variable, however, stands out: student ethnicity. Students from minority and under-served populations, such as African-Americans, derive an unequivocal boost from belonging interventions.

For example, social psychologists Walton and Cohen (2011) studied the effect of belonging on the academic careers of 92 African-American (49) and European-American (43) students. Half of each population were given information intended to buttress their sense of belonging. It did so by framing social adversity as common and transient.

For three years, Walton and Cohen observed health and academic outcomes of the African- and European-American students in both the experimental and control groups. In white students, the difference between control and experimental groups was negligible, but black students in the experimental group benefited significantly. Those students closed the achievement gap with their white classmates by 79 percent. They also reported less illness and fewer medical visits over the three-year period.

Joshua Eyler’s words on social belonging are particularly salient to Plymouth State: “Colleges and universities should certainly be paying close attention to the degree to which students feel like they belong, particularly since this factor seems to affect decisions related to the much-ballyhooed retention, progression, and graduation rates” (p 85).

His lesson is that the institution can take steps to give students a sense of belonging in the community, but professors are the ones who influence belonging in the classroom

How belonging relates to classroom norms in a public school setting

Selected References on Belonging

Broda, M., Yun, J., Schneider, B., Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., & Diemer, M. (2018). Reducing inequality in academic success for incoming college students: A randomized trial of growth mindset and belonging interventions. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 11(3), 317-338.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331(6023), 1447-1451. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198364

Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L., … & Gomez, E. M. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(24), E3341-E3348.

Prosocial Classroom Management

“Social and emotional competence supports classroom management efforts and may in fact be an essential component”

Jennings, P. & Greenberg, M. (2009). The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to child and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research. 491.

The second necessary piece of a social classroom is a prosocial management style or, in other words, one that fosters community building. Traditional classroom management consists of the rules, discipline, policies, and expectations established by the teacher so learning can occur relatively unimpeded. This standard is necessary, but not sufficient, to create a prosocial learning climate. The instructor also must exhibit Social and Emotional Competence (SEC). According to Patricia Jennings and Mark Greenberg (2009), SEC is comprised of five traits:

  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Responsible decision-making
  • Self-management
  • Relationship management

Jennings and Greenberg have laid out a model (figure 1) to account for the complex interplay between SEC and outcomes for both students and teachers. Teachers with higher SEC, Jennings and Greenberg assert, tend to produce healthier teacher-student relationships, enjoy fewer class disruptions, see higher grade attainment, and suffer lower burnout rates. Teachers with high SEC know how to “use emotions such as joy and enthusiasm to motivate learning in themselves and others.”

Jennings, P. & Greenberg, M. (2009). The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to child and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research. 491.

The authors point to a body of research that suggests “teachers’ SEC supports their classroom management efforts and may in fact be an essential component linking this new orientation toward classroom management, healthy classroom climate, and positive student outcomes.”

SEC influences a surprisingly diverse array of outcomes: for both students and the teacher, both inside and outside the classroom, and in the short- and the long-term. In other words, those who are socially and emotionally competent are cognizant of their feelings, those of others, and of how the expression of one’s feelings affects the other. Those with SEC also make decisions thoughtfully and take responsibility for their actions.

The benefits of SEC are manifold, but for the purposes of the social classroom, it creates a healthy atmosphere for social teaching and learning: “teachers higher in SEC are likely to demonstrate more effective classroom management; they are likely to be more proactive, skillfully using their emotional expressions and verbal support to promote enthusiasm and enjoyment of learning”.

References on Building a Prosocial Classroom

Jennings, P. & Greenberg, M. (2009). The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to child and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research. 491.

Modeling Intellectual Approaches

Third and last in Eyler’s non-exhaustive list of qualities that make a classroom social is an instructor who models intellectual approaches.

Modeling as a scholarly study began in the 1960s, when Psychologist Albert Bandura devised a theory of social learning. Bandura’s social learning theory helped to bridge the behaviorism dominant at the time with other methods of explaining behavior and motivation. Bandura “stressed the importance of observational learning and modeling” (2005).

Modeling in Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. Lynda.com video by David Hogue

Whereas behaviorism is predicated on conditioning via the rewards and punishments experienced by an individual, social learning theory posits a sort of vicarious conditioning. That is, people observe the actions of others and unconsciously work out how and whether to imitate the observed behavior. When people notice positive outcomes, they will be more likely to model such behavior in anticipation of the same outcomes.

Bandura’s work has been very influential and serves as, well, a model for college instructors. Joshua Eyler implores us to model these intellectual approaches in the classroom:

  • Show positive regard and empathy for all students 
  • Explore diverse perspectives on scholarly issues 
  • Use logical argument 
  • Limit our agonistic approach to other scholars’ work 
  • Cite our sources orally and visually 
  • Demonstrate methods for productive and collegial disagreement 
  • Offer constructive criticism 
  • Find value in the contributions of students 
  • Listen 

If we embody these traits in front of our students, they will notice the positive outcomes and, quite naturally, model them in the future.

References on Modeling

Bandura, Albert. (2005). In K. Krapp (Ed.), Psychologists and Their Theories for Students (Vol. 1, pp. 39-66). Detroit, MI: Gale. Retrieved from https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3456300013/GVRL?u=plysc_main&sid=GVRL&xid=d9737b33


In summation, the three characteristics outlined above tend to produce a social classroom:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Classroom management style that is prosocial
  • An instructor who models intellectual approaches

Successfully bringing about a social classroom will allow us to implement social pedagogies, which include collaborative learning, peer instruction, and discussion-based learning. I’ll delve into some of these more in a later post.

Natural Pedagogy and the Social Classroom

“Place our social natures as human beings front and center in the learning process”

Eyler, Joshua. (2018). How Humans Learn.

In his book How Humans Learn (2018), Joshua Eyler devotes one chapter to each of five attributes he says are key to human learning:

  • Curiosity
  • Sociality
  • Emotion
  • Authenticity
  • Failure

In a couple of previous posts, I’ve attempted to digest his most significant takeaways on curiosity from chapter one. Now I’m turning my attention to chapter two: sociality. For our purposes, sociality refers to the depth and extent of human social interactions that have the potential to help or hinder learning inside and outside a classroom.

Eyler opens chapter two with a circumspect discussion of primate social traits, evolutionary biology, imitative learning, and mirror neurons. This builds up to the crux of the chapter: the biological underpinnings of social learning.

Natural Pedagogy

Csibra and Gergely (2009) put forth the idea of natural pedagogy to explain the human facility for knowledge transfer. More so than our primate relatives, humans are capable of rapid and efficient skill transfer through observation and imitation. Not merely imitative, however, human learning is facilitated by overt communication, which Csibra and Gergely call “ostensive signals”. According to Csibra and Gergely, evolution has bestowed on us a keen sensitivity to these signals. Natural pedagogy, in their view, is a unique human adaptation for social learning. Ostensive signals accompany the observed behavior such that the observer gains some generalizable knowledge about the world. Natural pedagogy has become a highly cited idea in the social psychology of learning.

Some scholars, however, including Amy Skerry and colleagues (2013), have been cool to the supposition that evolution specifically selected for natural pedagogy. They consider more wide-ranging and disparate explanations for humans’ adeptness at social learning.

Regardless, whether it stems from a singular adaptation or arose through multiple factors, our predilection for social learning remains readily exploitable. In Eyler’s words, the debate over natural pedagogy underscores “the significance of teaching as an augmentation of our sociality” (p 76).

Social Pedagogies

Eyler suggests that, as the social realm precedes the pedagogical realm, all teaching and learning takes place within a social context. Teaching, therefore, is subordinate to sociality. A classroom’s social dynamics can help or hinder learning, so we as teachers must be mindful of those dynamics.

He refers to the work of Bass and Elmendorff (2011) on the subject of social pedagogies, which they define as “design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an ‘authentic audience’ (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course” (2017).

Elements and Goals of Social Pedagogy by Randy Bass and Heidi Elmendorf

This definition echos many of our themes in Tackling a Wicked Problem, such as the authentic challenge component of project-based learning.

Eyler adds to this definition, saying social pedagogies “would include those strategies that maximize the characteristics of sociality” and “place our social natures as human beings front and center in the learning process” (p 83).

Since all teaching is intertwined with and dependent on social factors, Eyler exhorts us to foster what he calls a social classroom. A social classroom is comprised of three elements:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Classroom Management philosophy that privileges community building
  • An instructor who models intellectual approaches

According to Eyler’s reasoning and the studies he adduces, when each of these three elements is strongly present in a classroom, social learning can thrive. He says, “without first building a social classroom, it will be more challenging for any of the other teaching strategies I’ll be discussing to take hold” (p 83). I will explore the meaning and evidence behind Eyler’s idea of a social classroom in my next post.