Friday, December 14, 2018

JECC Reflection 2: Learning Product and Belief, from Restorative Practices to Project Based Learning

Backwards from Learning Product
“Children are a central part of life and family here. Children are very visible and are very seen. We use the terms 'citizen' and ‘fully developed human’.”

In a podcast conversation with Rachel Fink on why she was attracted to the Reggio Emilia approach to learning for The Journey: Early Childhood Center in Tel Aviv, she mentioned the above.

Fink told the story of a frustrating search through the early childhood centers of Tel Aviv seeking the right environment for her child.  In one early childhood center, children where each given identical outlines of a tree and told to fill it in.  This clashed with what she believed children are capable of.  She questioned…

“What is childhood?  What is the image of child?”

Then she explained...

“You make the shift to understand children not as empty vessels to fill up with our own learning, but as competent, capable learners who are interested and motivated to learn.”

Using Fink’s example of learning product, of a group of young learners all producing near identical results and how that clashed with her belief system, I reflected on my own practices, research, and conversations with educators to create a list of approaches and methods that validate children as “competent, capable learners who are motivated to learn”.  I think that by working backwards from learning products, productions, artifacts, and evidence of process through documentation, we can work with and around institutionalized learning metrics, and unlock true meaning within our belief systems and school mission statements.  In this post, building from my notes, I will compare Restorative Practices and Project Based learning, how their products of learning differ, and how they contribute to a constructivist belief system.

Restorative Practices

Restorative practices builds from traditions in ancient and indigenous cultures around the world.  In modern justice systems, offender and victim are separated and the social capital of community is not restored.  Through informal interaction and formal meetings such as circle talks, students and teacher facilitators work through conflicts with the cooperative goal of building an integrative learning network where peer relations are a critical element.

We have to accept that conflicts in classrooms will arise and the goal of restorative practices is not a replacement of a punishment system, rather an investment in positive proactive measures in order for students to spend less time on disciplinary office visits.  The product of learning is a long game in that over time students feel part of a group and responsible for its well being.

In an extreme case, I witnessed a group of third graders share their experiences with death in order to console an emotionally walled in student who had lost his father.  A year later I watched this same student read his carefully written poem about his father in front of the whole learning community of students and parents.  Restorative practices are not just about conflict resolution, but address how a community responds to crisis and moves forward.  The week this student came back to school, one of his classmates stood up in the middle of a circle talk and gave him an outpouring of empathy and compassion.  While the immediate product was the bursting of the guerrilla in the room, the long term product was establishing the school as a safe place for the student to process grief.

Restorative practices reflect a belief that children are living participatory parts of community, and with facilitators are capable of the restoration of conflict, even in the most extreme cases.  The language barrier often distorts our perception of children’s abilities, and how moral judgement develops before linguistic expression in children.  This belief overlaps with Morton Deutsch inspired Johnson and Johnson’s work with collaborative learning, that learning is not just an internal cognitive process but a social construction.  Cary Roseth continues this research showing that when peer relations and cooperative goals are the focus over individualized or competitive goal structures, learning improves by multiple forms of measurement.  Another core building block in this belief is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development in which the community of learners present are critical tools in extending a learner’s grasp.

Project Based Learning

This is a confusing term in the spectrum of hyphenated learning approaches.  Here project based learning refers to extended periods of time, two weeks to three months or more where students begin by immersing in an experience or interact with an artifact intended to spark inquiry.  A student created driving statement for a project overrides teacher dictated essential questions, although they can all be present in the process.  The key is validating student inquiry and understanding that without it there is no project.  Unlike STEM/STEAM approaches that also contextualize learning with interdisciplinary constructivist challenges and emphasize the “behavior of scientists”, PBL in its purest form has no boundaries normally confined by set curriculum.  John Larmer explains the spectrum of PBL as being dependent on your school’s climate.  When asked how much student inquiry, time for projects, constructivist approach to curriculum is appropriate, his response… “As much as you can allow.”

In working towards the creation of a product, service, or experience, projects feed off of peer relations, distributed teaching and learning, cooperative goals, interaction with real world professionals, and an authentic audience.  A writing piece, graphic, oral performance, or other artifact go through repeated cycles of prototyping, each iteration presented before peer or whole class for critique and reflection.  Some describe this environment as a safe space to fail fast and often.  For me, this ensures learning will not only happen, but will go deep.  Good projects crescendo, often only ending because of a deadline.  Projects design for intrinsic motivation, engagement, and “need to know”, deemphasize the extrinsic motivation of grades.

Differentiating PBL from STEM and STEAM: challenge-based approaches contextualize learning and could become project based, but often draw tighter parameters around voice and choice in order to get at specific curricular objectives.  Like Fink’s frustration with cookie cutter individual products, the voice and choice may only be evident within the mold of the final product.  Fink observed kids choosing colors and patterns to include in a predetermined shape, much like the middle schoolers I have observed chose their problem solving methods of wingspans and flaps, but they all created model wooden gliders.  This is not to say that such challenges are not important within learning environments and they can easily be modules within larger projects, just as teacher read-alouds and lectures have a definite place, even within project environments.

Buck Institute and New Tech Learning also show the wide spectrum within PBL.  BI says that any project work is good, while NTL applies a more rigorous approach to whole school adoption of project method.  BI promotes rubrics that create reflections on learning objectives difficult to quantify (ie those too subjective to be taken seriously by many schools), while NTL grades are based on communication, collaboration, agency, knowledge, and thinking.  The spectrum of how much project based learning goes back to the Dewey/Kilpatrick debates on "the project method", Kilpatrick arguing for unrestricted student choice and motivation, while Dewey promoted the role of the teacher and curriculum in developing student critical thought.

Beliefs: Learning is far more complex than a series of inputs and outputs of cognitive processes.  Starting with inquiry and working toward a product of learning creates a kind of narrative bracket to learning where purpose and choice drive student motivation to master skills and content.  Early learners come ready with three types of agency - individual, proxy, and collective - that projects should provide space for.  Children with scaffolded guidance and continuous cycles of feedback are capable of managing their own learning.

Building a Product

Restorative practices and Project Based Learning show how very different products of learning can be, from the utilitarian product of a project developed over a specific period of time with specific learning goals in mind, to the long game open ended construction of a classroom and school culture of restoration, one informal or formal interaction at at time.  Each complements the other in the belief in children as capable, co-constructors of their learning environment.  I hope that by walking through each approach and reflecting on how product unlocks belief, it may shed light on how the branding and marketing of learning approaches distract from the more important goal of identifying what our beliefs are about what children learn, how they learn it, and why.

In the next post this strain continues with Writer’s Workshop, Maker Centered Learning, and Design Thinking.

Work Cited

Bandura, A. (1999). Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Asian Journal of Social Psychology,2(1), 21-41. doi:10.1111/1467-839x.00024

Costello, B., Wachtel, J., & Wachtel, T. (2009). The restorative practices handbook: For teachers, disciplinarians and administrators. Bethlehem, PA: International Institute for Restorative Practices.

Davis, C., Lopez, D., & Leon, N. (2015, February 17). Paul Curtis from New tech Network on Student Inquiry. Retrieved from

Davis, C. (2016, April 01). Testing #prototypes & gathering feedback #designthinking #dchat #dtk12chat #makerEd #edchat #pblchat Retrieved from

Davis, C. (2016, April 24). The Teacher's Lens. Retrieved from

Davis, C. (2017, March 28). The Teacher's Lens. Retrieved from

Davis, C. (2017, May 11). Dr. Cary Roseth: Motivation and Purpose in Learning Environments. Retrieved from

Davis, C., Lopez, D., & Leon, N. (2015, January 22). Interview with John Larmer of Buck Institute: Student Inquiry. Retrieved from

Hallermann, S., Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. R. (2016). PBL in the elementary grades: Step-by-step guidance, tools and tips for standards-focused K-5 projects. Novato, CA: Buck Institute for Education.

Howe, J. (2002). The Kuna gathering: Contemporary village politics in Panama. Tucson, AZ: Fenestra Books.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., Tjosvold, D., & Roseth, C. J. (2018). Morton Deutsch: Celebrating His Theorizing and Research. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. doi:10.1111/ncmr.12122

Larmer, J. (2014, October 1). PBL Blog. Retrieved from

Sharp, J. (2018, December 10). #NewTechNetwork schools grade Ss on Communication, Collaboration, Agency, and Knowledge and Thinking ... much more meaningful than a simple A-F! Retrieved from

Sills, L. (2017, August 21). Design Thinking at Mid-Pacific. Retrieved from

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