How can you be sad while working on your Passion Project?

This week I ran across a Freshman working dutifully on her Passion Project with a sad look on her face. Her project is about her travels and explaining to her peers that people in other places are the same… and different!

She was slogging through the project, trying to get something done & worrying about what kind of grade she would get on it. She was “just trying to get it done” & had a sour look on her face.

I knelt beside her and ask how she was doing.
“Oh… ok *sigh”
I smiled! Not because she was unhappy, but because I understood what the problem was. She was just “Looking for Done!” You know… Just like kids do when they get a worksheet for the 1243rd day in a row. She was working on a “Passion Project” but without passion!
I asked her if she knew she was looking up Anthropology terms. She didn’t know what Anthropology was. *Freshman! What are you gonna do?*
After I filled her in on that, she still didn’t see why I brought it up. So I asked why she liked to travel.
“Because I get to see things.”
So I can get out my phone and show you pictures and it will be the same as a vacation?
“Well no. In real life I get to see things in 3D.”
So I need to order a 3D viewer and then it will be the same?
“No. There is the travel, meeting people…” and she trailed off… thinking *I love that look!*
I asked her what I suggested she do for her passion project. She said “Something about how people from all over are the same & different at the same time… ” I added, “And what you know about them and your peers don’t?”
She was still a little confused. I told her to explain what she knows about people from her vacation destinations. What are they like? Are their personalities different? Do they like the same things? Do they eat the same foods? What about their lives is the same/different from yours? WHY are they different? We all grow up with different influences in our lives. What made those people the way they are? Are the people in New England the same as the people in Mexico, Florida, the Bahamas, Texas? WHY or WHY NOT… ? THAT is the JOY in your passion project! THAT is the part that should be fun! You get to relive your travel experiences and think about the people you met.
By this time she was smiling. “So I can just write about my travels and the people I met and it will be ok?”
I asked if she was going to dive into the personalities and try to figure out WHY the people she met are the way they are?
“That sounds like fun!”
That is what I suggested two months ago! But you decided this was a dumb assignment you needed to struggle through and “put up with” to please the teacher. But that’s the wrong mindset. You were looking at this with the wrong …
I think you have a new title for your blog project!
THAT is why teachers get out of bed in the morning! It was a very good day!


That Crazy TPBL Classroom

I was a traditional teacher for my first 14 years. I tried hard, cared about my students, took classes, went to professional development workshops, read books, read internet articles and blogs, gave out my phone number, and did everything I could to “Be Better!”. Then I found TPBL. Here is just a few of the reasons I changed everything about my classroom methodology. For the long version, you will need to wait for my book to come out.    😉


From an educational psychology standpoint, traditional education requires patience, self-restraint, and memory. Patience to wait for the teacher’s timeline, and/or the pace that other students can handle. Self-restraint to only speak when asked a question, stay on task with the teacher’s agenda, don’t ask too many tangential questions. And most importantly, the last one… memory. Most traditional classes ask students to read, listen, take notes, pass a few quizzes/worksheets/tests … remember information presented to them.

Todays Classroom

TPBL asks students to follow the design cycle to solve a problem or create a product that addresses a need (a different form of ‘problem’ – see our Engineering Design Cycle here).

Our process asks Student to Brainstorm (access everything they already know about the subject even if it is only remotely related — or anything they know of, but need to look up). Brainstorm, in our class, means individually first, then in small groups, then as a whole class. This allows the students to compare their recollections to those of their classmates. This serves many purposes, but most importantly, it allows students to compare their knowledge & recollections to their peers and it refreshes their memories about previous lessons/classes/teachers/etc.

Research is an informal step in the design cycle, because it appears during and between practically all of the steps. Anything that the students can research, we try not to tell them. This creates repeated attempts to find information and discern whether the source of the information is quality, and leveled for their abilities and the audience they are attempting to communicate the information to. We also teach, then require, APA citations just like a scientific journal would.

In the Design phase, students are tasked with making dozens (if not hundreds) of decisions about their problem, the solution, and the product they are creating to solve the problem. These decisions require them to compare ideas from all group members and to choose the best, most efficient solution. That means they need to learn to cooperate, convince their peers, take constructive criticism, accept the group’s decision, and create a plan that reflects the best ideas of everyone in the group. All of these skills are rarely exercised in a traditional classroom, but essential in the 21st century workplace.

Whether the product is digital or physical, the act of creating a product requires all of the cooperative skills needed in the design phase and adds in the mental and physical skills required to Build a product. The build may require hammers or PhotoShop, but the give-and-take between group members is one of many critical skills our students will need in their work lives.

After their solution has been constructed, they share their work with others to gather critical feedback. We are constantly reminding them that this is the feedback of a ‘critical friend’. Comments on the work must be constructive, never destructive. Comments must be about the product, not the person. Our methodology requires the students to create the rubrics used to Evaluate each other’s work. This gives them a voice in their grades, but also requires them to compare the difficulty of the tasks they completed, the time required for each, and to wrestle with the point values that should be applied to each part of their work.

Another unique part of our methodology requires the students to score each item in the rubric as being of high quality or not high quality. That means the work gets full credit or no credit. If an item is worth 5 points (as determined by our whole-class discussion), then students will award 5 points or 0 points. Allowing a score of 1-2-3 or 4, allows less than ‘High Quality’ work. What employer accepts substandard work? Why would anyone want to foster work that is substandard? This means student scores WILL be lower than if partial credit was allowed, but partial effort is the result of allowing partial credit and we want to encourage students to do their BEST work. We want students to learn to learn to sustain their efforts, to increase the demands they put on themselves, to step-up their effort level whether talking about concentration, cooperation, competence, communication, or the quality of their work.

The ‘All-or-Nothing’ scoring on each item means that every time a student gives a 0, they must give feedback that will help the creators to rectify the issue the evaluator had with the work. This becomes instructions on how to Modify the original product so that the creators will get a MUCH higher score on their next iteration of their product. As adults, we know that the products we purchase are nowhere near the first version. Most have been modified dozens, if not hundreds of times on their way to market. Our standard two-week roll on our problems allows students to complete their product, get feedback, then modify their work before they are graded by their peers and the instructors.

The Share in the Design Cycle is as authentic as we can make it. Students get familiar with each other and become complacent. Most are OK with failing in front of their classmates and their teacher. We ask student to present to other classes (older and younger than themselves) and teachers within the building, other classes from other schools, Instructors/Professors from universities, and experts in many fields from across the country and around the world.

It should be evident from the length of this description of how we use the Design Cycle that our students are asked to work at a level of thought that is significantly higher than when they are asked to search through a text book to find the words needed to fill in the blanks on a worksheet. The change to TPBL from traditional instruction can be difficult for some students. A student who is accustomed to, and good at, the memory skills required to succeed in a tradition class can become frustrated at not excelling with the same amount of effort as in previous classes.

These students see themselves as the best students, and in classes that operate traditionally, they are the ones who get good grades, complete the work faster than their peers, and rarely struggle in the classroom. TPBL changes the dynamic from read, listen, take notes, and write it down on quizzes/test to the steps in the Design Cycle: Brainstorm, Research, Design, Research, Build, Research, Evaluate, Research, Modify, and Share. These are completely different skills than are needed in traditional instruction, but they are EXACTLY the skills needed in the 21st century workplace and the skills demanded by the Common Core and South Dakota Content Standards.


Education and medical school classes were once almost exactly the same. The methodology and thought processes of the instructors (and even the students) were the same. But this wasn’t what was needed during the industrial revolution, so education was diverted onto another path. The system we have now is what was created to educate students just enough to work in a plant or secretarial pool, to sell insurance, or to be an accountant. Think of the black & white movies with all the workers dressed the same in a huge office with everyone sitting at the same exact desk in rows, doing similar tasks and creating TONS of paperwork. That was what school prepared students for.

1800s Classroom

That world no longer exists. That business model no longer exists. Maintaining that system of education seems fruitless to me.

So, for me, TPBL is the only way to teach my students what they need.

Habits InfoGraphic     Float Your BoatEvaluating Habits     Edible Plant Cell Model

Turning the 1st of Many Corners

During the construction of their habits of mind infographics, one student turned to another and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re a little hard to work with. You’re a bit of an autocratic leader.”


That led me to ask, “What is the opposite of an autocratic leader?” It took a few seconds, but one student came up with, “Democratic!”. That led to a conversation about our system of government and …

Some learned that we live in a representative republic, one or two said they knew that already.


Then we went to how SHE (the student) brought a recent Social Studies topic into the Science/English class, AND it was relevant! How awesome that we can use things we learn in other classes (silos).

We are beginning to de-silo their thinking, and that was during week two!


Now, at the end of week 3, we are seeing a few behavioral changes. Some of the students that were having a hard time staying focused sat quietly for a stretch of more than 20 minutes this week!


The time on task is improving in all three of our classes and the ‘adulting’ skills are being practiced by most, and some of the students are starting to point out the juvenile, off-task behaviors by telling their peers they are, “…not adulting very well!”. Most find this amusing, but they get the point. The great part? It has been quite effective in curtailing unacceptable behaviors when students self-restraint is failing them.


In week four all of our classes have new problems to solve. The 7th grade has been tasked with creating an edible model of a cell. They have divided into animal cells and plant cell groups based on their own interests. They will take this product and digitize it so they can put it into an infographic that explains the function of all the sub-parts of their cells.


Our 8th grade class is creating infographics about the different types of storms. They too, have been grouped based on their own interests. I can’t wait to see what they do when working on a topic they have chosen. Everyone does better work when they care about the topic.


9th grade will start working on finding and explaining the simple machines found on a typical playground. This oral presentation needs to include their simple machine, the formula(e) that are used to calculate the forces applied, what forces are involved, etc.


This should be a fun week full of students showing us growth and learning to develop questions on their own. As educators, we often give the students work rather than letting them question and figure out what the root of problem really is, then go solve it. This method is messier, takes more time, and is very scary for traditional teachers (I know because I was one for 15 years!).


This method also pushes the students off the bottom of Bloom's TaxonomyBloom’s pyramid and into higher level thinking. It also covers many content standards simultaneously. For example: the 7th grade is learning the parts of a cell. But they are also making a model, developing questions, researching, reading scientific and detailed information, and communicating with their peers verbally and non-verbally but also with their audience by creating a digital product.


In addition to covering South Dakota (or Common Core) Standards, by running our class this way we are constantly working o the 21st Century skills that Industry has told us our High School and college students are lacking when they enter the workforce. Our students need to work collaboratively, communicate information effectively and efficiently, learn to accept critical feedback, problem solve, resolve conflicts within their group, and meet deadlines!


And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When their conversations and their work are critically examined, we find that their interactions are every bit as complex as those of their parents have at work. What could be more authentic?

A little about me (or 1111 words)

This blog started out as a short note to let the students in my education classes know a little bit about how I think, before they come to visit my k12 classroom. It didn’t turn out to fill that bill…

My name is Jeff Schneider. I am not a professor, I am a teacher, an instructor.  I work in the SDSU department of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership and also as a 7-9 science teacher in Elkton, SD. I am starting my 7th year of practicing Transdisciplinary Problem Based Learning (TPBL), and starting my 22nd year in education. I am a huge fan of Ed Psych as I think every teacher should be!

I have taught in several k12 schools, Two schools simultaneously, and even three at the same time, one year. I have conducted and been part of dozens of teacher workshops, put on several summer Education camps for kids in grades 5-9, and helped run a basketball camp with approximately 1000 kids each summer for a 10 years.

I tell you these things to give you some idea where I have been. Where am I going? I wish I knew for certain. I only know that the path I am currently on is taking me far from traditional education.

Maybe some of my goals will shed some light on my path? I want my students to:

  • Be able to figure out new technology and learn how to figure out even more technology.
  • Learn to use their current knowledge to solve problems they have never seen before
  • Learn (and value) 21st Century Skills
  • Become competent researchers that can find and utilize information
  • Become confident problem solvers that can use their background knowledge  as a starting point to begin looking (logically & scientifically) for a good solution to any problem that life puts in their path

Some might say these goals are too lofty or that everyone wants these things for their students. I think the things that differentiate my wish list from most others is the method of getting there.

I want my students to:

  • Become self-directed learners
  • Become so engrossed in the problems we are working on that they forget to misbehave in class
  • To spend their free time researching the things that interest them
  • Become life-long learners

All of these start with students that are practicing their “adulting” skills. I know many teachers that have said how  “Teaching would be a terrific job if it weren’t for all of the kids that mess up my day!”. I was one of them at one point. I was joking. I’m not certain about all of the others.

Teaching my students to act like adults is easy. Getting them to “adult” is not within my power. I can’t do it. Only the students have the power to control themselves.

Many teachers battle student behavior constantly. Very literally! They look for students chewing gum, doodling in the margins, looking out the window, any myriad of other minor infractions of the myriad rules that are designed to control the students.

There is no way teachers CAN control the students. Control often means coercion. Whether it is treats, or threats, or punishment, no one likes to be controlled or coerced. Why anyone would think this is the best means to get students to decide to behave and focus on their learning, is beyond my comprehension. It is the way school has always been done, but is it the best way? I can’t count how many times I heard, “You can’t teach them anything if you don’t have control!” I used to buy into that way of thinking. It makes me sad to think that I knew so little about how actual learning takes place!

Students that choose to control themselves are exhibiting adult behaviors needed in the workplace. Most teachers take this for granted and spend their entire day giving negative attention to the others. Why don’t we give the students that are behaving our positive attention and let the rest figure out that behaving is the way to get positive reinforcement? But I digress…

In our practice of TPBL, we use the Engineering design Cycle. This is the organization of everything we do in and out of the classroom, even when we get dressed in the morning. Brainstorm, Research, Design, Build, Evaluate, Modify, and Share. Repeat the process with the next problem.

Design Cycle 2017 copy.png

TPBL focuses on student choice and choices. Choices have consequences (both positive and negative), but I’m not referring only to behaviors. When solving problems, students must make choices about their thinking, research, hundreds of choices in the design phase, and hundreds more in the build phase. Then they must evaluate their own work and that of their peers.

All of these “Opportunities to Adult”, decisions that will effect the outcome of their work, are the same type of decisions they will need to make in their jobs and daily lives when they become adults. That is the reason I use the term, “Adulting”.

While designing and building a solution, students again add to and refine their knowledge. When students evaluate the solutions the others groups have come up with, they will (simply due to human nature and the way the mind works) evaluate and compare their own solution to the solution of the other groups.

The modify portion of the design cycle is where students refine their knowledge. They have done research and added it to their previous knowledge. Prior to the modify step, students have compared their knowledge and research to that of the others in their group and added to or refined what they know about the subject.

In the share phase of the design cycle, when possible, we bring in experts to watch the student presentations and give them feedback. The students are usually nervous the first few times we do this as they really value the opinions of industry experts. We also bring in other classes, sometimes older, sometimes younger. Students become accustomed to failing in front of their classmates. But when they know they will present their solutions in front of other classes, they step up their efforts to impress the new audience, much like they do for the industry experts. Every teacher knows that students put much more effort into their work when they know the audience is more than the usual cast of peers and one teacher.

With TPBL, students are responsible for their actions, their behaviors, their focus, their research, … their learning!

When teachers give the responsibility for learning to the students, they are free from the burden of trying to ‘make’ students learn. Freed from an impossible task, we can step off the stage and help students who have taken responsibility for their own learning. Much like learning happens  in the “real world”.

Week 1

Our Transdisciplinary Problem Based Learning School Partnership Research Project is off and running. The students in all grades (7 through 9) have researched the habits of good students and are creating an infographic to display in the hall. For some, this is their first exposure to metacognition or thinking about thinking. None of these students are good at finding relevant information and determining if the site they found is reliable or not. Many of the older students are pretty good at finding things, but have not given much thought to the reliability of their sources, so the process is challenging, at some level, for all of them.

We have introduced the Engineering Design Cycle and everyone seems to have a grasp on how it can be applied to manufacturing. They are also learning that all the work they do for their teachers is producing something, so it applies to themselves as well.

We have begun talking about their “work product” and Habits of Mind (the attributes people show when they behave intelligently). All three classes did a good job of staying on task and a few even got finished before class ended today(TGIF!).

At the end of week one, the students have gone through the “Dead Teacher Lab” to work on their observation skills and learn how to use a Laboratory Notebook. We have also, nearly, completed a “Habits of Mind Infographic” and used and learned the design cycle.

There were some behavior issues midweek, but that is only human nature when the restraints of “typical” classrooms are removed and authoritarian teachers are replaced with autonomy and the need for self restraint. Friday’s class had some of the most rowdy students in school working quieter and getting more done than most of the other groups! I was pretty impressed! All-in-all… a pretty good week!



Closing another Circle

I will be teaching teaching while I am teaching. Who has a better job than that?

I closed another circle today! You know.. the circle of life stuff from that kids movie? I just finished my 1st day as a teacher in the district that employed my parents when I was born. I grew up in a house, very literally, right across the street from the school. The school dominated the view from my bedroom window from age 3 to age 10. My parents were teachers and my Dad became the Principal the summer before my fourth birthday and held that position for the next 10 years. A vast majority of my parent’s friends were teachers. I knew almost all of the teachers by first name before my first day of school. And now I work there. Circle closed!

That was a little bit emotional. It lasted about 15 seconds, then a student asked a question and I was back on track! That question reminded me that today was the first day of our new Innovation Lab School Pilot program. South Dakota State University (SDSU) and the Elkton School District are cooperating in a program that will study the efficacy of Transdisciplinary Problem Based Learning (TPBL) in the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades in Elkton, SD.

This year I am teamed up with Kelsey Beckman. We are offering Science and English combined into one class for grades 7, 8, and 9. The courses will be problem based and use real-life situations to give the students opportunities to meet the SD Content Standards. Using technology, research skills, 21st Century skills, design thinking, and systems thinking our students will tackle culturally relevant problems and present their solutions to each other, other classes, and experts in the field whenever possible.

SDSU’s department of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership is beginning a research project based on our classroom work. While Problem Based Learning has been shown to work in many situations with varied students, most of the research has been done on anecdotal data. SDSU professors will be attempting to quantify our TPBL process to determine it’s efficacy using empirical data. That means we will be recording classes and surveying the students for this study among other things.

Additionally I am co-teaching Secondary Education 314 for SDSU with my wife, Mary. She will do the classroom sessions and the lab sessions will occur in our TPBL classroom in Elkton. To be more succinct, I will be teaching teaching while I am teaching. Who has a better job than that?


1st Day = 1st Problem

So it’s 1st period on the 1st day of a new year in a new school. What is going down in my room? My wife died!


Dead Teacher Lab
Photo from our “Dead” Teacher Lab in Burke, SD

I added the Biology class that I share a lab with to my Chemistry class and set them to the task of identifying what killed my wife. They made observations from behind the Hazard tape and then we discussed what they saw. A little lesson on focus was learned as many had no idea how many beakers were on the table, how many containers held white powders, or how many contained clear liquids. Many only saw the lady on the floor.

I sent them back with the tape removed but didn’t let them touch anything. Much like investigators at a crime scene after the body was removed. Document before touching. This is where I got to yell out “You just died too!” when the first student to reach the lab table stuck her nose right into the Erlenmeyer Flask! After a class discussion about how to waft fumes into their noses, they proceeded to finish out their observations.

At this point they had a pretty good idea that one substance was Vinegar and another was Sprite or 7-up. We had another short discussion about what they KNEW and what the THOUGHT was true. This included the lab safety rules Mary had broken and any others they knew and thought were important.

Then I sent them back again to test the substances in any way they could to PROVE the identities of the three white powdery solids and the three clear liquids. Hilarity ensued!

We learned:

  • that nothing should be returned to reagent bottles
  • if you put liquids into the solid container no further tests can be done, and
  • knocking over a rack of test tubes is really loud (and not a good thing)

What a great start to the year!