Hello there, friend, today on our podcast. I’m having a wonderful conversation. With the legendary Susie boss. Now, if you don’t know Susie, she is a writer and educational consultant from Portland, Oregon who works tirelessly to harness the power of teaching, learning, and storytelling to improve lives and transform communities.
She is a powerful believer in project-based learning. In fact, I met Susie a long time ago when I wrote my very first article for Edge Utopia, and she was also working at Edge Utopia and advocating for project-based learning. Since then, she has traveled across the United States and around the world to support schools that are shifting away from traditional instruction and engaging students in real world problem solving.
Collaborating with educators everywhere from India to Europe to South America. She’s a PBL, Works National FA Faculty Emeritus, and a longtime contributor to e Utopia. As I mentioned earlier, she’s also the author of PBL for 21st Century Learning Success altogether. Now setting the standard for project-based learning and bringing innovation to school among many others.
Susie is truly a boss. She lives up to her name and our conversation today is gonna center around PBL and how project based learning. Can really be interwoven into everything that we’re doing in our schools. So here’s Susie. All right, welcome, Susie. It’s so wonderful to have you on the show.
Thanks so much for the invitation.
Happy to be here.
Absolutely. So for people who may not be familiar with you and your work, I’d love for you to just introduce yourself to us and let us know what your work is a based in and, and what you’re working on now.
Sure. So project based learning has been my wheelhouse for probably the last couple of decades.
I’ve written a number of books on that topic, Made a bit of a shift. My most recent book is called Redefining Student Success, which has PBL at the core. But we really, my co-author Ken Kay and I really looked at you know, what are those new goals for students? How are communities really rethinking what students need to be ready for the future?
And so right at the heart of that book are. A whole series of project examples where students are doing amazing things often interdisciplinary, often incorporating the arts to solve problems. So that was a little bit of a, a shift for me. Still very project focused, but a little broader reach.
Yeah. So I just finished an interview with Rowan Gibson who talked all about school innovation. So I’m curious on your take on school innovation, like, because if there’s ever a time to innovate schools, it would be now, right? Right. Mm-hmm. . So how, how do you redefine student success and how do we innovate schools?
Sure. And so I think first I have to say, I don’t redefine, I think it’s up to each community to decide for itself. Mm-hmm. . And it’s really as the whole community, including student voices, including parents, including non-profit business. You know, communities of practice as a, and as, as communities around the world are doing this, our, our, our look really went global.
And my work in PBL has taken me around the world as well. And so as communities are, are refocusing on, what do we need students to be ready for? What skills and competencies do they need for whatever future they imagine? Each community needs to come up with its own understanding, often kind of community.
Catered in a, a graphic way as a portrait of a graduate. You know, thinking about this is kind of the the, the full complex picture of what our students need to be ready for. Not that they’re being shoehorned into the same profile but that there are certain essential skills all students need to kinda seize the moment for themselves.
So I think this is the big shift that it’s a, needs to be a really strong. Community conversation full stakeholder engagement. And then as you look at these goals from one community to next, there’s always a core of, of very similar you know, understandings of, of, you know, students need to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers, but each community then brings its own take on, you know, where I live in Portland.
Being a really strong advocate for the environment is, is matters a lot. Other communities are taking global citizenship on is a challenge that their students or leadership. So each community has a different little different take. And then interestingly from the arts perspective, a different way of communicating that graphically so that everybody kind of gets a sense of, Oh, I see where we’re.
Yeah. Where we have to go.
Yeah. This is, this is fascinating to me. So particularly on this, this idea of re-imagining perhaps what our schools look like, because much of what you’re describing, I’ve seen starting to play out in magnet schools, in some charter schools. But what you’re talking about are, is this possible in public schools, do you think?
I, I think it’s not only possible, but you know, we just you know, this is what education needs to be for all kids. Mm-hmm. , and I think that’s the equity message in this work, that it can’t just be, you know, we’ve seen over the last couple decades that I’ve been doing this work, there are always pockets of wonderful things happening, you know, pockets of excellence and, and as you said Special schools that reach only a certain population of kids where fantastic learning experiences are unfolding.
But, but if we really mean that education is about preparing all students for the future, they imagine they all need this experience of, you know, kind of growing into the competencies that really matter. Otherwise we’re gonna have not just the achievement gaps that we have now, but. , but what my co-author Ken Kay and I talk about as opportunity gaps.
Mm-hmm. kids are not gonna be equally ready, you know, to seize the moment and create their futures and solve the problems they care about if they don’t, you know, grow into these competencies that are so important.
I completely agree. I think this is such a timely message, Susie, because I, I’m seeing it play out in real time.
I have a 13 year old and I also have nieces and nephews who are right around that age as well as younger. And I’m watching this opportunity gap that you’re talking about playing out in real time depending on where they go to school, even within our own district. So that’s, that’s really interesting. I, I’m gonna ask a question and maybe, maybe you don’t have an answer for this, but at least we could chat about.
What happens if the community that a school is. Disagrees or has a a different viewpoint of what is needed in the schools than maybe the teachers in those schools do. Cause I know that that’s happening in my community right now.
Sure. And, you know, things are contentious in, in some districts across the country where, you know, we’re seeing these kind of.
Debates and yeah, presentations, Let’s call them at school board meetings that get, get kinda hot, kinda high school. Yeah. And, and I think that the goal for a district for district leadership in particular is to figure out how to be a consensus builder. . If there are differences of, of opinions and understanding this is where the leadership team really needs to lean into those conversations.
Maybe there’s some shared experiences that are necessary to build understanding of, of what’s ahead. And we’ve seen some really creative ways that districts have done this and have gotten through those. Divisive conversations, everything from sending the adults back to school for a day, having them shadow students and then asking them, Okay, how did your day prepare you for the future?
That, that you want your students to experience? Or bringing students in to that conversation and having them talk about what really matters to them, or having them sometimes facilit. Conversations with adults, which is fascinating to see happen if the kids are prepared for that, you know, if they understand what it means to hear different points of view and bring in evidence and bring people together into some shared understanding.
So it, it’s not necessarily an easy conversation that, you know, this idea of get your community together and, you know, have a chat about it. It it’s work and it takes time. It takes really good listening skills and as I said it, it’s sometimes. Requires a shared experience. Some communities bring in guest speakers or they do a film screening that’s provocative.
And then, you know, that starts the conversation of, you know, don’t we want this for our kids? Don’t we want this for all kids? So it, it takes work. It’s not a quick and easy thing to do. But it’s just you know, I think some of the best work to reset. What do we mean by school? Who’s it for? Who’s it serving?
How can it serve all kids?
Mm. I I love this. So the, I’m gonna get to pbl, I promise you over talked about pbl. I’m just, I’m just, so I, I just find this work so important, particularly right now. I guess maybe my, my last question around this process and redefining student success would be what happens when.
The community organically changes what what they value and what they feel as though are, is gonna prepare students for the future.
Yeah, that’s a, a really great question. And I would say this whole process of creating a portrait of the graduate, it’s pretty, pretty new yet, and a lot of communities are just at that stage of, I mean, our, by our estimate, only about 10% of public school systems in the US have done this work and.
You know, it’s still pretty new. But, but what I’m finding in particularly in schools that have had a portrait for a while, they tend to revisit it because you have new parents, new students, new teachers joining, and so you need to revisit it, have that conversation again, fine tune it if necessary. , you know, does this still meet the moment?
Is this still what we want for our students? And if not how does it need to shift? So it’s not something written in stone and this is the only way forward. You know, I think so many of the. The portraits that we’re seeing emerge are about students being adaptable and flexible and resilient, and nimble.
So of course that means everybody in the system needs to have that mindset of being able to respond to change. And you know, you know, communities do change. Sometimes major employers leave. or new opportunities emerge or startups, you know, pop up in a community. And so sometimes there’s a, a different need for thinking about how do we prepare kids or, you know, how do we hold onto our students.
Some, some of our rural communities are really keen on figuring out how do we help our kids see that this is gonna be a place to stay and, you know, be adults who contribute to the community. So I think that that sense of being adapt. It’s right at the heart of this.
Oh, perfect. That’s great. So I’m gonna do that pivot to over to pbl since that has been a large portion of your work in the last several decades.
So I’m curious, how did you, how did you start on your journey with PBL and, and where, how did you pivot from,
from that? Sure. Interesting. So, you know, I, I kind of have had a non-traditional path, I guess, into the work that I’m doing now. Before I was involved in education, before I was a teacher myself, I was a newspaper reporter and my academic background is in journalism and, you know, work that I love and still continue to.
Find my way to writing as much as I can, but because I’d been a newspaper reporter before I was a teacher and made a shift into teaching journalism, teaching, running a publishing center I set it up the way a newsroom felt. So I didn’t have the lingo of, of pbl. I hadn’t really, you know, dug into that as a pedagogy.
I just knew that if we wanted this to be authentic and if we wanted students to have a, a real audience. They needed to do the work that journalists do, so they needed to get outta class, they needed to interview people, they needed to work together, have a real audience which made their, the, the kids I worked with made their learning experience a little different.
We were kind of outliers, you know, in a pretty traditional system. Then fast forward a little bit. Another phase in my career, I shifted from my own classroom to working for a research organization where I got to combine the two things that I really loved, a passion for education and particularly helping students find their voice, express themselves, and continuing my work as a writer.
So in my research, Lab capacity. I had this great opportunity to go into the field visiting, I would say hundreds of classrooms and watching and observing, documenting good practice in action. So the expert researchers, the, you know, the, the PhDs in the world of education, they were defining from a research standpoint, here’s what’s effective.
Here’s what we know works. And my job was to go find that. What does that look like in practice when you know, great things are, As technology became, you know, I’m dating myself a bit and going back a couple decades, but as technology became more pervasive, more available, how were schools using that effectively?
How were students using that to communicate and create and connect and all those things? So that, that led me deeply into the the world of pbl. because the, the teachers who were doing, I think some of the, the most promising early work, especially around technology integration, were doing project based learning.
So I really needed to understand that at a, a deep level, did a big deep dive for one project. I think I interviewed 300 teachers who were doing technology integration well and almost to a person, they were doing project based learning. So that got me kind of deep into it and I. You know, doing some kind of spinning off and doing some writing on my own and kind of harnessing all that.
I’ve been learning and I’m continuing to do that work have been ever since and have just had the great pleasure of working with educators now and just about every continent. I haven’t been to Africa, but just about every other continent where there’s interest in project based learning and where, you know, I’m still looking for those great stories to tell of mm-hmm.
here’s what it looks like, you know, in different contexts. Here’s what it looks like at D. ages in different content areas. So,
yeah. So for people who may not be familiar with proj project based learning can you give a brief overview of what, of what quality PBL does look like? Yeah, and
I think quality is the key word there.
Mm-hmm. . So when I think of what makes for a really high quality pbl and I, I should add a lot of my thinking about this. Been informed by my long standing relationship with PBL works. Mm-hmm. and organization in the us. I was on their national faculty for a long time and did some of my books are, are published with them.
And we did a, a big deep dive into what makes for a high quality project based learning. So that teachers trying to do this kind of work, making a shift in their practice is something more student-centered could get off to a faster start. Mm-hmm. , you know, if you know. Good looks like, then you can kind of aim toward that.
Right? So for me, it, it needs to start with a really interesting open-ended challenge or question that kids are gonna care about. So a question, you can’t go Google, you can’t look it up in a textbook and it, you know, it, it requires learning something and then applying what you learn. So deep dive into understanding some concepts, building that conceptual understanding, and then doing that higher level thinking of applying what you’ve learned to create a product or a solution.
Somehow, you know, use what you’ve learned to solve this problem. And then communicate it with an audience. Audience can be, you know, a big haul full of people, or it can be a small group or one really interested person who’s your client for problem solving. But in some way, the work that students are doing in the process of learning gets communicated outside the classroom.
And for students generally we hear that this is what makes a big difference. It leads to deeper engagement. They care more. They’re not just doing it for a grade. They have a purpose. They’re not thinking about when will I ever need to learn this or know this cuz they know. It’s gonna matter.
Either I’m solving a problem for a client or I’m trying to convince an audience about an issue that matters to me and I’ve had some new understandings into, or, you know, or whatever it might be. And we can talk about some examples. But for me, those are the things that really make it work worth doing.
And that puts the project right at the heart of the curriculum. It’s not something extra or added on or done after. Real learning happens. It, it the root to deep.
Yeah. And so much of what you are sharing is very similar to what we advocate for with Arts Integration and steam. And I think, and correct me if I’m wrong, I think PBL and STEAM and Arts integration, they actually, they work in tandem together and strengthen
Right. Yes, absolutely. That Venn diagram, lots and lots of overlap there. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
And I, because sometimes we’ll have people come to us and say, Well, what’s the difference between steam and pbl? And there are, there are certainly distinctions, but I think they work so well together, especially that point of inquiry, making it Real, making it hands on and project based and having students solving a problem Right.
Is something that’s so critical. Do you find, I know we find this with steam and the, the misperceptions of steam and stem versus but projects that just happen to use you know tools to create something, but not necessarily something. Of value, let’s say. Do you find that there are misperceptions with PBL versus projects?
sure. . Mm-hmm. and, and I think , that’s part of the kind of broader education that needs to happen around PBL for, for today’s parents. Certainly people of my age you know, my kids are grown and out of the house, but I think if most of today’s parents who have kids in school, if they. Project based learning, they think, Oh, we did that.
We did those dioramas. Mm-hmm , we did that. We made something outta sugar cubes. They think that it’s this kind of fun activity that happened after the serious learning was over. That’s what projects have been treated, you know, as in the past, and I think you’ve probably seen that a lot in the, the steam stem world where, you know, it’s an activity.
But unless it has all of those components, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with hands on learning, right? Making, sometimes a diagram is the best way to create a model that you wanna share with the real audience. But unless the experience has all of those other components, unless it has inquiry built in, Unless it has students making decisions and having voice and choice.
Mm-hmm. , you know, unless it requires students to really dig in and research and ask questions in the way that experts do in different disciplines, and bring that understanding to solve a problem and share it with an audience unless it’s all of that, it’s not project based learning might be a great activity.
I mean, can I share a quick example? Oh, please. I was just gonna ask if you an example that would be, You know, and sometimes you can take those activities and think about how could I grow this into a project? There’s a great I’ve done some some writing and work with Edge Utopia over the years and one of their wonderful videos about arts integration showcases a project where they’re elementary students who are gonna be learning.
Content side about the forces of flight they un need to understand about drag and lift and all those things that keep planes up in the air. And in, in the past, this teacher has taught that by doing a paper airplane contest, which is really fun. But has no authentic audience. You know, not, not a lot of critique and revision.
They just make airplanes and see who’s goes the furthest and fun activity. Hooray, we’re done moving on. Instead, they do a deep dive and they have kids go to the airport. And these are little guys, interview adults. Do you know why your plane is gonna stay up in the air? What’s gonna keep your plane flying?
And the adults are just dumbfounded. Most of ’em, they have no idea , they just, they trust somebody knows , some pilot or engineer. Somebody has figured this out. But clearly the adults they talk to do not understand the forces of flight in the way that these kids are learning. So they decide. They’re gonna educate passengers and reassure them that their planes are gonna stay up by creating artwork that requires the use of drag and lift.
And so they, they began studying different artists. They’re, you know, you can see them learning about. Ken Ski and you know, older artists who dropped paint, you know, from above and lift. You can see there’s a moment where they lift a canvas and, and the paint flows, and they’re understanding now about gravity and flow.
I remember sharing this video with a bunch of arts integrators and that moment where the kids tilted the canvas. Saw and they connected it to, to the forces of, of, you know, gravity and flow and all that. There was just this, oh my gosh, you know, they are experiencing it. And then they created this art exhibit that they curated mm-hmm.
and explained how did they use all these different forces to create their art and how does that apply to airplanes? So what a difference. And, and guess what? In the middle of that project, which is extended, they still did that paper airplane contest cuz it was a fun activity. That let them do some trial and error and you know, use some of the things they were thinking about, but it was just one activity over the course of an extended inquiry experience.
So for me that’s a nice example of activity versus project based learning.
Absolutely. So what do you say to people who are concerned about. Needing a lot of money to again, enter into the world of pbl. We get that all the time with steam. Like, we have to spend all this money to buy these materials. What how would you answer something
Yeah. Well, if I’m, if I’m doing work around the world, I talk about frugal innovation, which is something you hear about in countries like India and Africa. They have, you know, whole terms of art around, you know, kind of doing something with nothing, you know, making the most. Reusing materials and literally solving problems with very scarce materials.
So I think it’s a big misperception that you have to have a fancy setup or be in a fancy school or have access to the latest and greatest you know, 3D printers in order to do meaningful work. You use what’s available and you use it in a creative way. This is part of where creativity comes to the, for, you know, you may not be able to.
Create the final finished product, but you can make a pretty rock and prototype out of reuse materials and cardboard and, you know going from there. So it’s not about having an unlimited budget or the need for an unlimited budget, it’s really about more unlimited creativity. You know, how can we use what we have at hand to solve
And I, I think there’s, I mean, I certainly find so much truth in that. I also think that the idea of projects being richer because you have limited resources and also providing equity because we talk about the equity co part of the conversation, a lot of schools that have budgets and schools that.
But the idea of the PBL framework can exist in both places as an equitable access
piece. Absolutely. And really has to. I think you know that. And, and I think for kids who have been Disconnected in school for whatever reason, you know, disengaged, not very excited about learning. If they get involved in a project that they really care about, you know, that just, you know, the learning accelerates.
Cuz they have a sense of purpose. They’re in it for the long haul. They wanna put their best work forward. And I think that can really drive you know, student achievement in lots of
ways. Yeah. Last part about pbl, I think how do, how can educators who work with special needs students, maybe English language learners or even students of of exception, how can these educators also participate in pbl and, and have it be meaningful for those students?
And I think one of the best things you can do as a teacher if you have a specialist In your building or in your district who can partner with you in project planning and anticipate, you know, thinking of particular students and what might those special needs be that we need to either accommodate or scaffold for in the project.
If you can do that planning in advance, great. If they can be involved during the project, even better. But I think for, for every teacher you wanna think, Creating opportunities for every student in your room to, to grow. They’re all starting at different places, but you want them all to show some growth and to be able to meet appropriate goals by the end of their project.
So you design the project with learning goals in mind, and you think about those goals. Are they appropriate? Do they need, do we need some accommodation for students? Do we need to stretch some students set, you know, different goals for some students. And so you’re thinking about that in the. Design and then you’re thinking about how can I scaffold this so that every student can be successful.
You mentioned language learners you know, one course large population thinking about a project for students who are designing tiny houses for a client. They were elementary students. A lot of the kids in that classroom were language learners. So before the project began, the teacher was wise enough to have the students who were language learners create their own kind of picture dictionaries around architectural terms that were gonna be Could have been a barrier for their understanding as they got into reading material, as they got into talking with architects, that you wanted all students to be able to engage in those conversations and in the literacy work.
So they had, you know, kids who needed that that scaffold create these picture dictionaries. But guess what happens during the project then? Those kids became experts in the language of architecture. So on their, on their you know, mixed stability teams. They could weigh in and say, Oh, I can help us understand this term and look, here’s my drawing that illustrates, you know, what that looks like.
So I think anticipating what those kind of challenge spots, pinch points in the project might be being ready for that. Some kids may need some, some pre-work to get ready. Some may need some scaffolds in the moment. And chances are all of my my educator friends who are experts, you know, in, in working with inclusion, they remind us that often scaffolds that you design for some students are often useful for all students.
Mm-hmm. . So, you know, there can be multiple benefits. Absolutely.
UDL component. Yes, absolutely. Yeah. Great. So I have one last question which I ask all of my guests, which is if there’s one thing that you’d like us to know about PBL or creativity or innovation what would that be?
Boy, what a great question.
So I guess if I think of the term, the creative process, what I would want everyone to know is it is a process that’s learnable and teachable. And that I think we have this misconception that only some people are creative or some are innately creative and others aren’t. But I think what everyone can learn is that there’s a process for problem solving.
and you can help students from a very young age, and I’ve, I’ve seen this work with kids as young as, you know, primary grades. Understand that you can ask questions in a certain way. You can pull together diverse perspectives. You can figure out how have people solved this before and how could I build on prior knowledge and maybe do something, you know, Bring some ideas together or maybe come up with something even newer that nobody’s thought of before.
And then improve that. How can I get feedback on this and improve it and make another draft? You know, I’m not gonna just make a one draft and, and be done, and then I’m gonna think about what I’m learning. along the way. So I think if we understand that it’s this really rich process that’s all about learning and if we keep that at the heart of, of what’s going on in project based learning or STEAM or STEM or any of the other labels we wanna put on this kind of learning you know, I think then students are gonna emerge from those experiences, has more confident problem solvers and realiz.
You know, I never thought of myself as an artist before, maybe a student might say, but I know I’m a problem solver and I know how to bring people together to solve problems that that matter to
Oh, wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Susie. How can people stay in touch with you?
Oh. I’m active on social media, so I’m at Susie Boss on Twitter. Susie boss.com is my website. We can find out where I’m gonna be and, and keep up to date on things that I’ve been working on.
Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Susie. I really
Oh, it’s been a pleasure.
Thanks so much Susan. Sure.