Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Where is the heartland of PBL?

THE VIEW FROM 30,000 FEET | David Ross

I am bi-coastal.

I was born and spent the first 10 years of my life in Boston. By the time I was 13 my family had move to Los Angeles after a brief sojourn in Arizona. I have remained within five miles of the Pacific ever since. Without trying, I developed the standard coastal prejudice toward the folks who live in the middle.

That prejudice was never challenged until I began providing professional development to schools in such places as Portsmouth, OH, and Huntington, WV, and Parsons, KS, and Rochester, IN. The educators I encountered there were more eager to implement Project Based Learning, more focused on 21st century learning, than the teachers I encountered on the coasts. But why?

This is a generalization and suffers from the shortcomings of all such statements. That said, the level of commitment among these heartland teachers was remarkable. They understood that the clearest path to equipping students with the skills and knowledge to compete in a global market was an education that used PBL as the how and rigorous content and 21st century skills as the what. These teachers would not consign the heartland to being a 2500-mile flyover zone.

My understanding of this movement simmered for a few years. Just recently, the Buck Institute for Education commissioned a market analysis to determine in which regions PBL is flourishing and in which regions PBL would find new, fertile soil. The analysis came back with a catchy heading, Rust and Silicon, which I have since amended to Rust, Dust and Silicon.

We and other like-minded organizations are doing this work in big coastal cities (New York and Los Angeles: Silicon), but we are also invading aging industrial hubs (Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit: Rust) as well rural communities, big and small (Sioux Falls, Talladega, Sheboygan, Macon and Klamath Falls: Dust). Economic opportunity, or the lack thereof, seems to be the common thread.

In June, John Mergendoller and I were invited to be members of the faculty at a 21st century learning summit produced by EdLeader21 and AASA. Representatives from Apple and the New Tech Network were also on the faculty. Who were the participants in this three-day event in Utah? Fifty or so superintendents, most of who came from small, rural districts.

The clarity of their shared vision is exhilarating. The commitment with which they advocate change that will benefit their students today and their communities for a lifetime is inspiring.

I still live on the coast and will do so until I die. But until I hang up my cleats, I will be spending a great deal of time in the middle of our country. It’s always nice to preach to the choir, and the choir there is singing loud and clear.

David Ross
Director of Teacher Professional Development
& Dean of National Faculty


  1. Great post! Yes, there's a cluster of innovation happening on the fresh coast of America that I'm glad is being highlighted here!

    This is part bolstered by stronger, more educator-initiated charters allowing room to design small schools that can demonstrate better, more student-centered models. Best part is many having been going strong for more than 5, 10, 15 years!

    Likewise, bolstered by the efforts and dissemination of folks like you (BIE), Ed Evolving (http://www.educationevolving.org/) and EdVisions Schools (http://www.edvisions.com/).


    Minnesota New Country School- http://www.newcountryschool.org
    Valley New School- http://www.valleynewschool.com/
    Northwest Passage High School- http://www.nwphs.org
    Avalon School- http://www.avalonschool.org/
    Northwoods Community Secondary School-http://www.rhinelander.k12.wi.us/ncss/

    Great Lakes Constructivist Consortium- http://www.greatlakescc.org
    Wi PBL Network- http://www.wipblnetwork.org/

  2. I live in the mid-west, Rochester, Indiana to be exact and have been so energized and excited as more and more schools join us in moving students towards deeper learning. In our small town of 8,000 we are a New Tech school. Indiana's community college, Ivy Tech now has a building within walking distance of our school, education is on the forefront, people are engaged! It all began with asking questions...funny....just like PBL!