Let’s Start Building Airplanes with Our Students

I’m convinced. It is time to start building airplanes with our students. I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Hong Kong where I gave a keynote at the 21st Century Learning Conference, followed by a short stop in Hanoi, Vietnam. There I led an evening workshop for educators at three international schools. The topic for my keynote and workshop was self-directed learning, especially exploring the why and how of creating opportunities for students to develop the competence and confidence to be self-directed learners. While I hope that I shared something of value, I certainly came away with a story that challenged me to take my thinking and work about self-directed learning to the next level.

Technically, it wasn’t even a story about self-directed learning. As best as I could tell, it was more of a teacher-guided project-based learning experience, but the scope of the project was incredible. I was about halfway through my workshop on designing self-directed learning projects when a teacher in the back of the room mentioned something about building an airplane with his students. To tell the truth, I don’t think it stuck at the time. It was only during a short break when I spoke with this teacher, he pulled out his phone, and showed me a picture of him, his students, and the actual airplane that they built together over a 12-18 month period.

This was a first. I’ve seen some incredible projects in schools throughout the United States, but this is the first time that I’ve ever heard of a teacher building an airline with his students and then flying it. Can you imagine the impact of such an experience upon the students who worked with the teacher on this project? How many young people can say that they accomplished as monumental of a task as to building an airplane at school? This certainly puts all of those baking soda volcano science projects into perspective.

What excites me about this story is that it is the sort learning experience that changes the lives of learners. This is the kind of accomplishment that has the potential to nurture incredible confidence and a sense of agency. As we accomplish increasingly uncommon and larger tasks, we tend to develop the capacity and confidence to take on even larger projects.

Here are five reasons why I would love to see more “build an airplane” projects in schools.

Small Pieces & a Big Result

In the case of this teacher and his students, they used a kit to build the airplane. As such, you could just think of this as a massive puzzle, but building something from individual pieces is a great way to discover how individual pieces come together to make something massive. With a little guidance, there are some rich lessons for learners in such an experience. Great accomplishments, projects, and products start with a single step…a single piece.

Expanded Sense of Possibility

These stretch experiences broaden our sense of what is possible. How many times do we miss out on opportunities because we do not think they are in the realm of possibility for us? Yet, when young people are involved in accomplishing these seemingly impossible projects, they are set up to do the same thing throughout their lives.

Extended Projects

Many great accomplishments in life take more than a few days or weeks, yet most of what students work on in schools is broken into small chunks. Great accomplishments involve persisting with a project over months or years, so why not give students some experience with that in school?


This was a team project. No single student built the airplane, but together, with the help of their guide, they accomplished this task. Now that is the type of cooperative learning that aligns well with the nature of great cooperation and collaboration in the world beyond school.

Build It and Try It

There was no certainty that they would be successful with this project, and that is the nature of projects in the real world. Nonetheless, they set out to build it, tested it, likely had to make adjustments and gain new knowledge to troubleshoot problems, and they persisted until they got their desired outcome. This strategic experimentation is a valuable life lesson.

This story leads me to wonder what would happen if students had the chance to do the equivalent of building airplanes every year or two in school. What would that do for their confidence, capcity for taking on large tasks later in life, working through complex problems and projects, working with a team to carry out something grand and inspiring, and persisting with a project over an extended period? Can you imagine a student experiencing the completion of 8-10 such projects over the course of her K-12 schooling?

If you can’t tell, I’m sold in the idea. Maybe it is time for us to start building airplanes with our students.

Should We Make High School Passive & Compliant to Prepare Students for College?

What happens if you go to a wonderfully innovative project-based learning high school but then end up at a traditional industrial age state University with massive lectures filled with hundreds of students? Will you be prepared for the expectations and challenges of that University? That was one of the questions explored in an August, 2015 article in US News and World Report. It is a fair and realistic question. As the article points out, some students find themselves ill-prepared to function in such a traditional context, but plenty figure it out over the first year. In fact, a challenging transition from a more traditional high school to a large state University can be equally shocking for some students. High school and college are different, so it is expected that there will be challenges and the need to adapt to an alien system. Interestingly though, some of the same students who struggled initially because of being in an alternative school also managed to explain, understand and value that they received a high school education that prepared them for the life beyond college.

Years ago I taught in an independent high school where students went to daily chapel. Some chapel speakers resonated with students, but as guest pastors came in from churches around the area, there were a few speakers who didn’t connect as well. At times, it seemed a bit like they were just using the high school chapel as a dry run for their Sunday sermon. It wasn’t uncommon for me to hear rumblings about how boring chapel was on a given day. Maybe I agreed with them on some days, but one time I decided to put a playful spin on it by setting up the following scenario.

Imagine that you wake up in the middle of a large room with no doors or obvious ways out. The only recognizable features or items were a series of holes in the floor along with a large, several hundred page manual titled, How to Get Out of a Room with No Doors? Suddenly water starts to come out of the holes in the floor. What do you do?

It didn’t take long for most students to opt for picking up the manual. Then I add a simple twist. Imagine that it is an incredibly boring book, what do you do now? Some knew where I was going with this scenario, so they tried to come up with a creative alternative. Regardless, almost everyone said that they would keep reading. In conclusion, I said, “So, thank God for boring chapel speakers. They are preparing us to survive future life-threatening circumstances. In fact, maybe we should make more parts of school equally boring and less engaging so that we can better prepare you for those future circumstances. In fact, it might even be malpractice if I were to make the learning too engaging, too motivating, too interesting, too relevant, too valuable.”

I was mostly joking with them, but there is a valuable lesson here. Some of the most important knowledge comes in boring wrapping. Those able to persist through the boredom long enough to unwrap the wonderful treasure inside are better off than those who just throw the gift away. Persisting through the less pleasant parts of work has its benefits.

There is a realism that informs such an approach to education as well. Elementary school prepares people for high school. High school prepares people for college. College prepares people for life after college…or sometimes just for more college. This is what we call schooling. Much of what happens in some schools is about preparing people to be successful in schooling contexts. That is why grade point averages in high school tend to be better indicators for success in college than test scores on the ACT or SAT. Getting a high GPA is about learning how to play the game of school well. Oftentimes, it isn’t about your aptitude, knowledge or skill as much as it is about functioning in an academic culture.

When we look at the alternative education movement, we often see schools focused less on schooling and more on learning, personal formation, and the desire to nurture things like character, curiosity, collaboration, agency, along with the competence and confidence to thrive as a self-directed learner. Few debate the value of these capacities, but there remains a disconnect. As some K-12 schools focus on this, there is need to think about what is next. For some, I expect that college will become one of many viable options. For others, expect to see more higher education institutions following suit with the K-12 alternative education movement. Over the upcoming years we will likely see a growing number of alternative higher education institutions as well as existing institutions with alternative education tracks.

In the meantime, we will continue to see students struggle with strange transitions and disconnects between the methods of K-12 and higher education. I don’t expect us to see K-12 alternative schools back away from their efforts. In fact, I hope that these alternative K-12 schools persists in their efforts because there is something troubling about the idea that we need to make high school less effective in its preparation for life just to accommodate less than ideal circumstances in many higher education institutions.

Notes & Quotes from Jeff Sandefer’s The Learner Driven Revolution

My visits and reviews of creative and promising school models must have reached the triple digits by now. Near the top of the list for me remains a school that I’ve yet to visit in person, one that I briefly described in the past when I wrote about the Acton Way. As such, I was delighted to sit in on a presentation at SXSWedu by Jeff Sandefer, one of the founders of Acton Academy. Following is my biased and flawed recollection of his words…combined with a bit of commentary, ending with a couple personal reflections. In, The “Learner Driven Revolution,” Jeff didn’t start his presentation with proclamations. True to his philosophy of education (as I’ve come to understand it), he started with questions followed by a story.
  • What if…?
  • What if children are far more capable than we imagined?
  • What if children could share learning with each other in a tightly bound community?
  • What if they could find a deep, burning need in their hearts to meet a deep burning need in the world?
As Jeff explained, “the start of Acton Academy” was an impulse more than a vision.” Even the beginnings of the school was passion-based learning at its best…a passion for something personal, the education of his two boys. They attended a Montessori school in their town. Jeff described an eye-opening meeting with a teacher in a traditional classroom. He asked the teacher when he should think about moving the boys to a traditional school, and the teacher explained that he should do it now. His reason? “Once they’ve had that kind of freedom, they will not take well to sitting in a desk for 8 hours a day.” Jeff went home and decided that his boys would not sit behind a desk for 8 hours a day. There has to be a better way. This is the type of story that led to the launch of a wonderfully distinct type of school, one that began with simple questions for students like the following four:
  • Who am I and where am I going?
  • What tools and skills will I need and which will I master?
  • Who will affirm me and hold me accountable?
  • How do I prove what I can do?
Jeff described four metaphors for their school design, although he acknowledged that they are always on the lookout for new and promising practices.
1. Superman – This is a person who discovered his special talent. He refined it, used and changed the world.
What a powerful vision for education. What if our schools sought to nurture a generation of young people who did the same. They discovered their genius, nurtured it and used it. When I hear that word “genius”, I don’t think of people with 150 IQ. I think of the day I first walked into The Sistine Chapel over twenty years ago. It was crowded that day and I was not allowed to stand and look for long, but my eyes were instantly drawn to the paintings of the prophets and these little children sitting or standing behind them. According the person next me me, these were not children but geni, which artists sometimes used to represent inspiration or genius. They represented the calling and inspiration in people’s lives. True or not, the concept stuck with me, and I continue to see each person as having callings. What a compelling way of thinking about schooling, not as a place to make young people as uniform as possible, but a community where people discover their distinct genius and some of their callings. They develop them, come to understand them, and they experience the joy of sharing their genius with the world.
2. Alcoholic’s Anonymous
There is this wonderful self-organizing element to AA. People mentor one another and hold one another accountable. And there are “explicit covenants.” At Acton Academy, eagles (as the members of the community are called) create similar covenants around their learning.
3. Google (and Gaming)
This is a place with a culture of innovation. It is place where teachers are game designers, and they take advantage of the growing research about quest-based learning, game-based learning and gamification to design rich and engaging learning experiences. Students travel back in history, playing roles as they go on quests, for example. They also make use of developing adaptive software like Dreambox, Khan Academy, and Rosetta Stone.
4. The Boy Scouts of America
In the Boy Scouts, you show what you can do, and you are granted a badge as a symbol of your new skill. The same happens at Acton, and students build a growing digital portfolio of their work. I also see many parallels wit the BSA focus upon learning by doing.
What do students learn at Acton Academy?
While there is plenty of content that is learned, Jeff explained a vision that goes well beyond learning to know. Instead, it is about “learning to do, learning to be, and learning to learn.” They learn to do through hands on projects culminating in public exhibitions at the end of a quarter. They learn to be as they go on quests, meeting “giants, ogres, and fellow travelers.” Along the way, as in the hero’s journey, they learn about themselves and their gifts. This is not just about completing a challenge, but it is about “the change that happens in the hero” through the journey. They learn to learn as they are invited to organize their own learning, self-direct, and come to discover the wonderful capacity for learning inside of each of us.
How does Acton know how they are doing as a school? 
They take a transparent, customer-centered approach. Each week they ask parents a simple question. “How did we do this week?” The responses are open to the public and, as Jeff explained, “sometimes it is pretty and sometimes it is not.” More important, they actually use this feedback as an ongoing source of improving and refining what they are doing. As Jeff explains, The Hero’s Journey matters a lot…get[ting] them to believe that they are on an important journey and their gifts matter.” By the way, this feedback approach is used with the students as well. They get 360 evaluations from fellow Eagles at different times throughout the year.
What about motivation?
Jeff shared the same thing in my recent interview with him as well, but this can be a problem for some of us who seemed naturally inclined toward self-directed learning. He explained that, in their school, it is important to “focus on the tribe,” to remember the importance of “hav[ing] fun and hang[ing] out with friends…They all love to learn but because they want to be with friends.” As such, he has learned the importance of fun first, challenge second.
What about the Teachers?
Teachers are guides. They are also game-makers, although the students are game-makers as well (with high school students designing challenges for the younger eagles). When it comes to finding teachers, he pointed out that it is really challenging to convert traditional teachers to such an approach. In this context, when there is chaos, teachers need to step back. When it gets worse, they step back more. The teachers offer processes and possibly options, but it is up to the students to act.
Contrary to some champions of solving challenges in schools by creating smaller teacher to student ratio, Jeff’s vision stems from a conviction that, “the more adults in the more, the more things are going to go wrong.” He is confident that this model works well with 4 adults for 120 students and $4500 per student; and he is working on getting to 1 adult for 120 students, dropping the cost to $2500 per student.
How did he end the talk? 
He finished with with this sentence. “Don’t dismiss their super hero dreams.”
A Couple Last Personal Reflections
I realize that such a vision of education is frightening, maybe even troubling to some people. It isn’t what many of us experienced and people are unsure how this could possibly work. I’m not sure that I can alleviate such fears or concerns with words. In most cases, people probably just need to see it in action.
The vision for Acton Academy is truly unique in many ways. In other ways, it is part of a growing movement in K-12 education (and possibly soon to be in higher education as well). It shares many values and convictions about education with a variety of schools that I’ve visited and/or studied , everything from Montessori schools to self-directed learning academies, project-based learning schools to student-centered quest-based learning academies. It is a broader movement that believes in empowering the students to take ownership for their learning, to make school a community where people learn to set goals, self-organize, and to grow as a competent and confident people with a deepening sense of agency.

Surfacing Intrinsic Motivation in Project-based & Self-Directed Learning Envioronments



Not every student in a project-based or self-directed learning environment will be excited about this new model. It takes more effort. It is counter to many of the school success strategies learned through years of a traditional model. There are often new skills, disciplines and dispositions that one needs to nurture to get the most of out of these experiences. And yet, almost everyone has been engaged by a project-based or self-directed learning experience at some point in life. As a result, teachers in PBL and self-directed environments quickly learn that calling it PBL or self-directed is not adequate motivation for all students. Not every student instantly gets excited about the idea of getting immersed or even lost in a project or inquiry. For this reason, I find it helpful to go back to instructional design basics. In fact, I still go back to Lepper and Malone’s 1987 chapter on Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations for Learning. In this chapter, they outline six types of intrinsic motivators for learning: challenge, curiosity, power, fantasy, cooperation and competition, and recognition. They offer teachers (and students) ways to think about addressing low motivation while still advocating for the growth and development of self-directed learners.

1. Challenge

A student tends to be more intrinsically motivated when there is a right challenge fit. Csikszentmihalyi writes about this in his work on Flow. Challenge is not simply about deciding what is the right level of challenge for a student. There is more subjectivity it. A student may have immense competence in an area but lose motivation when having to work on a challenge that is well within her abilities. That is because challenge is more about the learner’s perception of both the challenge and her own skills related to that challenge.

Understanding a student’s self-esteem becomes important in finding the right challenge fit. We begin to address challenge by helping learners establish goals that are appropriately challenging, but have a stretch element to them. A measure of uncertainty about whether one can accomplish the goal can help with motivation, granted that it is not too much uncertainty. We want a goal that is the right level of challenge, difficult enough to be worthy of pursuit, but not so difficult as to instill a sense of certain failure.

Also, when working with students who are new to PBL or self-directed learning, it is useful to start with shorter term goals. Just like it can be helpful for an aspiring marathoner to start with the goal of a 5K, it is helpful for a student to begin with a shorter term project. Without hope of success, motivation plummets, so figuring out challenge becomes critical.  Feedback also becomes important. If students are uncertain about their ability to face a challenge, more frequent feedback may be necessary at first to help build confidence. Keep in mind, however, that low self-esteem in academic areas may have built up for over a decade, so a few days or weeks will probably not be enough to help build the confidence to embrace and overcome significant academic challenges. Given this fact, small but significant PBL wins will help students build the confidence to face larger challenges.

There is another element to this in some environments, and that is the confidence deflation that comes from seeing other students work on projects that seem more significant. In a traditional class, some students get higher grades than others, but everyone is generally working on the same things. In a PBL or self-directed learning environment, the wide spectrum of student projects becomes clear. This can motivate and inspire some students while demotivating others. There is still benefit in these comparisons (as I will mention later), but beware of the impact on self-esteem as well.

2. Curiosity

Lepper and Malone distinguish between two types of curiosity, sensory and cognitive (p. 235). The first has to do with the physical senses. As such, it is useful to ask if the learning spaces and the available learning resources are stimulating. How are the senses engaged? This is why Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education pays so much attention to the environment and the learning resources in that environment. Take a few minutes and browse the web for images of Motesorri classrooms. It doesn’t take long to get the idea. Cognitive curiosity, however, relates to the drive for us to make sense of things. When we are convinced that we do not have a clear understanding of something that is important to us or that our understanding is incomplete, that can conjure cognitive curiosity. Or, if something in our thinking is inconsistent with reality, that too evokes curiosity (p. 236).

Learning to ask questions that spark curiosity is, therefore, a valuable skill for teacher and student. This is not just an exercise in creating lists of interesting questions about a subject. If it is going to awaken intrinsic motivation through curiosity, it must be about surfacing inconsistencies, incompleteness, and a lack of clarity about something of personal importance.

3. Control

As with challenge, we are not just talking about the objective measure of control given to students in the learning environment. We are referring to the perceived amount of control. The perception of control impacts motivation more than the reality of it (p. 238). So, if you see unmotivated learners in a context, what is their perception of control?

One way to get at this is to make sure student choice is available, choice about what questions to pursue and how to pursue them. This does not mean making everything completely open-ended, as that can overwhelm (think back to challenge) and de-motivate. Lepper a Malone suggest that 5-7 choices is ideal for many environments. Or, if there are unlimited choices, it will help to offer clear guidance on how to narrow things down (p. 239). Regardless, giving choice or increasing the perception of choice elevates intrinsic motivation.

Related to choice is also the concept of power, where a learner’s choices have obvious and significant implications. When a learner can see that her choices made a large difference, this impacts motivation. This is another reason feedback and shorter projects can help build intrinsic motivation, because both are ways to show the impact of a person’s individual choices (p. 239).

4. Fantasy

In the original chapter by Lepper and Malone, their reference to fantasy is in the context of games and learning, so my reflection here may deviate well beyond their intended use of the term. Malone’s work in the early 1980s on the concept of fantasy is also a worthwhile read. Malone worked from the following definition of fantasy, “mental images of things not present to the senses or within the actual experience of the person involved” (p. 56). This can be effective with teacher-directed project-based learning by building a project into an immersive fantasy experience. It can also be used for student-directed PBL…for more self-directed learning contexts.

Helping students learn how to use their imagination with regard to projects can be a powerful motivator. Invite students to imagine the potential impact of their project upon one or more people. Encourage students to use fantasy and imagination as they work on their projects. They might, for example, create fictional characters for whom they are designing the project.

5. Cooperation and Competition

While I am admittedly do not think about leveraging competition, there are ways that people do so in PBL and/or self-directed learning contexts, like having students pitch ideas, and a panel rates their performance, perhaps giving a first, second and third place. Or, there might be a more objective element of competition, with people or groups competing to create an object that has the largest impact in some way. Think of projects where groups are given $10 with the goal of having the greatest social impact with the money. Or, there are the popular projects around protecting an egg with some sort of design, or creating a paper airplane that can fly the greatest distance.

Similarly, charging entire classes or groups to work together in the accomplishment of a significant challenge or socially relevant project can be a powerful motivator. As noted in Bartle’s gamer psychology test, there are killers, achievers, socializers, and explorers. The killers and socializers in the groups may well discover a compelling motivator through such learning experiences.

6. Recognition

This may seem like extrinsic motivation, but Lepper and Malone describe recognition as intrinsic because it comes from a need for approval or recognition. This is an area that is often highlighted by project-based learning advocates, noting the benefit of an authentic audience for the product. However, recognition can also be used throughout the process by making learner progress, discoveries and developments more visible to the community throughout the learning experience. A class blog, practice presentations, frequent show and tell exercises and the like build opportunities for recognition throughout the PBL process. Give it a try and see how it impacts the motivation of different learners.

Motivation Conclusion

Project-based learning and self-directed learning environments have many exciting possibilities and affordances, but they do not usually happen by chance. Teachers still play a valuable role in designing spaces and contexts that lead to motivation. Teachers can construct motivating learning challenges and experiences, and helping students learn to motivate themselves. As such, these six approaches are a good starting place.