Review: A.J. Juliani Workshop

How to Turn Any Unit into a Project-Based Learning Experience

If you’re an educator and you don’t know about this Scratch Your Itch podcaster, #bemorechef blogger, tweeter @ajjulianai, father of four young children (nine and under), author, and oh-so-much-more teacher leader who advocates “intentional innovation,” then it’s time you got to know about him. While there are many teacher leaders to follow, Juliani is really interesting and remains my favorite!

He offers many resources for educators from free webinars to workshops for your conference, organization, or school to downloadable resources and units on Teachers Pay Teachers. This week, he offered a free webinar titled “How to Turn Any Unit into a Project-Based Learning Experience.” I found this exceptionally appealing because it underlies my belief that we need to change the way we do education. I believe integrated STEM, which uses PBL, is the ticket to that change.

How so? Well in a nut shell, project- and problem-based learning (PBL) experiences allow students to engage in their learning in ways that traditional sit-and-get methods deny. These experiences give students choice, enrich their P21 skills (learn more here), and can actually cover the standards that you’re so hooked on teaching. And that’s not meant as a reproach–but as a recognition of our need as teachers to assure students are equipped to pass standardized tests–especially for those educators whose evaluation scores are tied directly to student performance on those tests. (That put the fear in me as a teacher.)

So what did I learn in Juliani’s webinar? The title is the best introduction to his webinar. In short, it’s about turning standards-driven units into authentic project-based learning in five steps.

Every student in our schools is someone else’s whole world.

Tom Murray

Caring deeply for education is the main motivator for Juliani. He views each child through fatherly lenses–knowing, that as Tom Murray says, they are someone else’s whole world. From this vantage point, finding the best methods for engaging students in authentic learning becomes almost religious in its nature for him.

Consider curriculum, standards, and pacing guides. In this workshop, Juliani asks us to stop and think about how we might mesh those with PBL? Now also consider that there isn’t a magic bullet, he says. In fact, you can expect to go through a process and do some work. The end results will make it worth it, and research already informs us that all around the world, teachers see their students achieve at higher levels when using a PBL approach to learning.

Before the workshop launched into the five steps, we took a brief tour of many career concerns that paint our children’s futures. What careers will exist for them in 5 or 10 years, especially when automatons are replacing many jobs, and many jobs haven’t even been envisioned yet? What skills do employers seek (problem solving, teamwork, communication, initiative, flexibility, etc.), and are those skills testable on standardized tests? Why does student engagement drop substantially from grade school to high school?

The last question is answered with a graphic about the principles of learning and engagement. Apparently, the principles haven’t changed over time. They state that learning must be human, social, language-based, and meaning-centered. Do you see the build-up to PBL here? Anyhow, while the principles haven’t changed, the definitions have. In other words, being social looks way different in 2019 than it did in 1960. (Do you have your smartphone out at the moment?) So have the other principles. Do you see the build-up here to the need to change our education system?

And what is engagement anyhow? According to Juliani, it means “getting kids excited about our content, interests, curricula.” With engagement as the foundation of his five steps, the workshop turns to the heart of the matter. So what follows are Juliani’s five steps for taking any unit, any current curriculum we have from our pacing guides, and turning it into a project-based learning unit.

STEP 1

Have a reason for project-based learning that starts with a problem, challenge, or inquiry other than standards. For example, you have a product in mind that you would like students to create, or a natural phenomenon that piques everyone’s curiostiy, or awareness of an issue, or students’ personal interests, or a problem to solve locally or globally. Life is so much more interesting when you look at it from ideas such as these rather than from a list of standards that students should know. Do you teach to be evaluated, or do you teach for personal reasons? Similarly, do students learn for the sake of standardized tests or because they are interested in something?

STEP 2

Have a focus on what students are going to learn–what knowledge and skills they will acquire and master in your unit. Learning may be based on student interests, but you as the teacher are aware of the standards that connect to learning how to research, learning how to analyze and apply through inquiry, learning how to write, present, evaluate, and create through inquiry (think Bloom’s New Taxonomy here), and more. You will discover that a well-done PBL unit covers more standards in a few weeks than if you taught by singling out standards to teach day-by-day. Also, consider that there are more standards than just your math, science, and ELA ones. For example, take a look at ISTE’s standards and P21’s framework.

In traditional instruction, students receive information. In PBL instruction, students discover information.

A.J. Juliani

STEP 3

Have in mind what students might make, create, or design, and who they are creating for and why. How will this demonstrate what they have learned? Be intentional about this so that STEP 1 and STEP 2 are included in this stage. Be authentic and have purpose. Create something that matters. Share it! Finally, be aware that this stage completely allows students to personalize how they demonstrate their understanding. That equals engagement, if you ask me.

Global Goals for Sustainable Development
A great example of authenticity connects middle schoolers to “The Global Goals” and asks them to choose one of the seventeen as a focus for their projects, then research the goal while answering what the world needs to know about it and what can be done about it.

STEP 4

Be clear about how to scaffold and structure the experience for learning and choose a consistent process. Juliani relates a story about his first big mistake in PBL, which was not including this step. His students were excited about the whole idea, but they didn’t really know what to do and where to begin. They didn’t know the steps needed to make it happen. The few who had some idea of what to do tended to do all the work themselves while their teammates simply checked out mentally. This step is very important and must get equal attention in your PBL unit planning. Think: We are not a guide on the side, but a guide–a guide on the ride. Give your students a plan and call them to action, Juliani says as he referenced Miss Frizzle and Dumbledore, and scaffold student ownership so that nobody gets left behind.


Need to learn how to get students to do the talking? Visit A.J. Juliani’s 3-step process at http://ajjuliani.com/three-step-system-getting-students-talking/. You’ll learn about the discussion game, the fish bowl, and the symposium.

Finally, select a framework or a design-thinking process that structures the learning and stick with it. Be sure to plan check-ins and student conferences along the way. Here is a list of resources referenced in this workshop:

STEP 5

Know when students will self-assess, revise, and reflect, and assess their learning and their process–not just their final product.

This isn’t about the projects. It’s not about the final product – it is about the project-based learning experience. The L in PBL is the most important part of PBL.

A.J. Juliani

An interesting and important distinction made at this point of the workshop centers on the difference between failure, which is permanent, and failing, which is temporary and is about the process. The learning process in PBL should be iterative, should include failing again and again until something finally works, and should include unlearning and relearning. This is where success meets student ownership! “We did it,” they shout!

Juliani wraps up his workshop talking about some final, important considerations. For starters, how do we use peer feedback and rubrics? I really found the GRIT rubric that he discussed to be useful and interesting. The acronym stands for guts, resiliency, integrity, and tenacity. Click here to learn more about it.

He also talked about the changes in the role of a teacher in a modern classroom by comparing Blockbuster to Netflix. Netflix took Blockbuster’s model (cheap, convenient) and made it more accessible to everyone. How do we shift our role as teachers? He suggests that our job as teachers is “to help kids learn to prepare themselves for anything” as opposed to us preparing them for something. It fits nicely with the Blockbuster/Netflix analogy, doesn’t it?

Finally, teachers worry about the time constraints, the curriculum map, the test, and so on. How does Juliani iron out these questions? He does so by citing the research that demonstrates the effectiveness of project-based learning on retention and understanding, which ultimately leads to better standardized test scores. The traditional approach isn’t what prepares students better. Want to see the research? Go to http://ajjuliani.com/research and you will find supporting evidence for that statement.