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.

Competency-based Education: A Mission and Values-Driven Approach

Competency-based education continues to gain traction as a growing number of Universities are exploring it and we continue to see articles and blog posts build a public and collective conversation about the subject. I’d like to add an element to this conversation. It relates to our conception of what competency-based education looks like or should look like. As it stands, more people are trying out CBE by modeling themselves after a handful of groundbreakers. Benchmarking can be helpful, but rote imitation is no better than mindless memorization. We are wiser to innovate from a place of clarity and purpose; and that means starting with a clear mission, vision, set of values and goals. Instead of just doing what other competency-based education innovators are doing, each learning organization is wiser to start by looking inward before looking outward.

Allow me to give a personal example. When the team at my University decided to explore the possibilities of a competency-based approach to our graduate program in Educational Design and Technology, it did not start with researching SNHU, WGU or any other school. Yes, we were informed about their model and practices, but our focus was not, “How do we build another WGU?” We looks at the needs and goals of the learners that we currently served and aspired to serve. We examined the needs of those who do or might hire those students who go through our program. We considered the distinctives and core values of our University. We also candidly talked about the type of social good that we aspired to achieve through the program. Having worked through those questions, then we started selecting options for how to re-imagine things.

Yes, while we were doing all this formal and informal preparatory work, we were also experimenting with different innovations like digital badges, open education resources and textb00kless classes, different forms of assessment, and the like. Yet, none of these were technologies that we decided to use in advance. We wanted the tools that would enhance your mission, vision, values and goals. That meant imagining something completely different from any other competency-based program in the United States or beyond, as described in this past article.

For us, we wanted something that addressed a number of considerations. As such, the following list represents an important consideration or feature for us followed by how that impacted the design of a competency-based program that is uniquely focused upon project-based learning, mastery learning and personalized learning.

Desired Feature – The curriculum needed to be deeply practical and applied but rooted in great ideas and research.

Design Decision – Every assignment or assessment would have real-world relevance. It could be used or shared with people in a real world context and have or create value in that context. As such, traditional tests were out.

Desired Feature – Students learned by doing, and we wanted that doing to be as authentic and contextual as possible.

Design Decision – Whenever possible, students would learn from student-centered, project-based learning activities that also measured and documented student competence.

Desired Feature – Students should be able to recognize the discrete knowledge, skills and abilities that they were developing throughout the program.

Design Decision – The curriculum would be broken down into small and discrete competency-based digital badges that allowed students to see what they have learned and how they are progressing in the curriculum (learning journey).

Desired Feature – Students could demonstrate progressive competence to employers or others rather than relying upon abstractions like course grades, credits and a diploma.

Design Decision – Students would earn digital badges that include specific criteria that would have meaning in learning organizations. In addition, students would build a massive portfolio of work from which they could pull to demonstrate their knowledge and skill.

Desired Feature – Students would create evidence of their learning that could also be used to address real needs in their world or in different learning contexts and organizations.

Design Decision – While core competencies are universal in the program, there are elective competencies where students could specialize. In addition, students are able to demonstrate competence through projects that they personalize to address needs in one or more personally meaningful real world contexts. 

Desired Feature – There would be no “busy work” or effort extended by the students that was not connected to a real need in the education space.

Design Decision – Abandon the use of traditional papers, tests and assessments that resemble work that would only make sense in a classroom context. As much as possible, all student work and activities would have meaning and value even if it were done outside of a formal graduate program.

Desired Feature – Readings and learning activities would be personalized, allowing individual students to into readings that helped them progress toward program goals but also specialize in fields are areas related to their current or future work. In other words, a person aspiring to be an instructional designer in higher education and another in the same class interested in middle school teaching would have personalized reading lists and learning activities based upon these differences. 

Design Decision – In general, move away from a canonical approach to readings. Make sure students are exposed to core theories, people, and concepts and any seminal works; but apart from that, have a repository of readings from which students can select (and to which instructors/coaches can direct students) along their journey toward competence in a given area.

Desired Feature – Community and feedback is a value but it must not turn into a dictator. 

Desired Feature – Students should receive personalized coaching as they progress through the learning experience.

Design Decision – Apart from the required assessments for competencies and weekly group discussions, the instructor is not able to require standard activities for the entire class. Learning plans should be personalized. 

Desired Feature – Reflective practice needed to be nurtured and emphasized throughout the learning experience in order to develop increasingly effective reflective practitioners.

Desired Feature – Whenever possible, students should not be penalized for needing more practice, more feedback, or having less background knowledge than others in the class.

Design Decision – Apart from “grading” of weekly discussions, everything else will be built upon a mastery learning approach. Students can revise and resubmit as much as necessary to reach competence, granted that it is within the formal time period for the course.

Desired Feature – Scalable is nice but as long as it is financially viable, we will go with the model that best meets these other priorities.

Design Decision – We will not revert to objective tests and assessments just because they are scalable or achieve some sort of abstracted form of reliability and validity. It has to have meaning in the real world and produce a have a high level of confidence that the learning is transferable to real world contexts. 

Notice how our values and convictions led to the design of an entirely different approach to competency-based education than what we see in many schools today. That is because it was mission and value program and not a cookie cutter approach. I’m convinced that the broader CBE community could benefit from a larger dose of this approach. What do you think?

Fanning the Flame of Self-Directed Learning

Five years ago, I attempted something for the first time as a college professor. I’d done it as a K-12 teacher over the years, but this was a first with traditional undergraduate students. I redesigned an entire undergraduate course around six self-directed learning projects for each unit in the course. I still kept a midterm and final exam to test understanding of the “grammar” of the course. However, I threw away every other graded assessment. Instead, at the beginning of each unit, students had the challenge of proposing a project that tied directly to the learning objectives for that unit. The proposal needed to cover the following elements.

1. What is the question that will drive my inquiry?

The question should be compelling, provocative, deep, substantive, and it should drive you to explore and discover something that matters to you and others.

2. How will I pursue answers to this question?

It might include a tentative reading list, field trips, observations, interviews, experiments, research, a review of the peer-reviewed literature, participating in online or other communications or anything else that might help. This part of the proposal didn’t need to be complete, but the student had to show that they had an initial and tentative plan.

3. How will I document my journey?

This should be in a form that allows the instructor/coach the review it at any point, and it needs to be updated at least twice a weekly, but daily is recommended. I also encouraged this to be designed in a way that classmates and others can view it and provide feedback. Students could use a shared Google Doc (or folder), a Wiki, a blog, a YouTube video diary, or any other format that met the above criteria.

4. What culminating product, project or performance will be the result of my work?

This should be something that demonstrates the learning gained by pursuing answers to that driving question. I encourage students to do something that is valuable to the student and beneficial to a specific person or group of people. In some ways, this added a service learning element to the project, something the resonates with my deep conviction that a great education is about discovering one’s calling, which is always found in love for and service to others in some way.

5. Who will be the target audience for my product, project, or performance?

While sharing it with classmates is nice, I challenged students to find the audience that would most benefit from the work and share it with them, preferably in a presentation to them. I went back and forth on this element over the years, but some of the best projects were consistently the ones created and presented to a real-world audience.

6. What is the tentative timeline for this journey?

Since this was done in a traditional semester class and each project was for a unit, there was a fixed maximum amount of time, but if students requested more time, I always gave it to them. In fact, I remember a student coming to me midway through a unit, troubled that she would not be able to finish it in time. I simply said, “No worries. Just change the due date.” She looked at me confused so I said it again, explaining that she was in charge of the timeline, not me. I was just there to help her meet her goals.

If students were doing all this work, what were you doing as a teacher?

This was the best part. I didn’t have to do anything. I just sat around and checked Facebook status updates. I’m just kidding. In fact, I was never so busy and never had so much interaction with students as I did in the classes with these projects. I was a coach, mentor, guide, concierge, intellectual match-maker, and resource. I met with students individually and in small groups, giving them tips and resources on how to frame their questions, how to identity great resources, how to connect with experts and groups related to their projects. In fact, along the way, I built my own personal learning network by helping students reach out and connect. I also provided often optional mini-lecture on topics and skills relevant to their work. I also coordinated activities to them them work their plans, workshop their projects with peers, and surface new possibilities.

I never used my cell phone more in class. I would be talking with a student or small group about something and they had a pressing question. If it was about an author or person, I would just look up their contact information and call them on the spot, asking if I could put them on speaker phone. Or, I would craft an email and try to broker introductions. I was modeling what I hoped the students would gain the competence and confidence to do, and many of them did it.

What was the result?

Without question, starting to run a class this way resulted in the most impressive student work and thinking that I’d ever seen as an educator. I learned so much from these students and their inquiries. Many of them, with a little polishing, were publishable quality. They were substantive and proposed compelling solutions to pressing problems in the world, especially the world of education (I’m and education prof).

It wasn’t all good. There were four common challenges.

1. Time Management

Some students just didn’t stick to their plan. They were so used to cramming for tests, papers, and projects that they had lost or failed to develop time management skills so valuable in working on an in-depth and extended project. This was evident in their learning journal entries, so I would reach out to them individually, trying to help them build this valuable skill, but it was not easy going for some of the students. In fact, I found myself helping students systematically develop time management skills to find success in this new model.

2. Limited “Research” Literacy

Some students really struggled at first with how to explore answers to a question. They had spent little time really getting to know about libraries, Internet search strategies and the like. In addition, I was challenging them to use the skills present in qualitative and quantitative researchers, so I taught optional mini-lessons on different strategies: observation strategies, interviewing techniques, how to reach out to a stranger, how to set up an informal thought or life experiment, how to make sense of a quantitate research report, etc. It was very rewarding to watch the lights turn on in their minds when they began to imagine the possibilities of using these strategies to reach a personally meaningful goal.

3. Time

I mentioned time management before, but I discovered quickly that many students were used to getting through college courses with a minimal time investment. Many skimmed instead of reading deeply and pondering. They did what they needed to pass or get the desired grade on the test or paper. However, many worked long hours, had extensive time commitments with extracurriculars and more. Perhaps this is part of time management, but I really saw it as just not having a lifestyle that left room for deep, really deep learning.

Add to this the fact that some students were busy meeting the demand and expectations of 4-5 other professors at the same time, and it becomes hard to really lose yourself in a strain of inquiry like this. It is why such things work so much better in schools that embrace it on a school-wide level, and why some people don’t discover the joy of these approach until they are out of school (either because they drop out, graduate, or never start). As it stood, I often found students cutting short on the depth of an inquiry because of the demands of other courses. There was only so much time in the day, week and semester; and each student prioritized their work differently.

4. Discomfort with the “Lack of Direction”

I gave more direction than ever in this approach, but I didn’t tell them what to learn as much. I told them that I was there to help them develop the competence and confidence to learn on their own. There were still students who nearly demanded that I tell them what question to ask, what resources and methods to use, and what projects to create.

I remember reading the course evaluations of a couple such students. “People don’t learn by asking their own questions and seeking answers. They learn by a teacher telling them what to learn.” “I don’t have time for this ____. You are the teacher, so shouldn’t you be teaching me instead of telling me to teach myself?” “This is too hard.” I took every one of these statements to heart because they told so much about the beliefs, values, perceptions and experiences of these students. In the end, there were some who were genuinely philosophically opposed to such an approach. I was teaching future educators and they truly believe that good teachers tell you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

When I was convinced that this was truly a deep-seated philosophical conviction of students, I tried to channel it, but suggesting a couple of strong resources that related to these convictions. In fact, some of these students ended up creating the most amazing projects by tapping into the community of fellow essentialists, perennialist, or classicists. That love for content and ideas was often a great foundation for this sort of work.

Helping Students Be More Self-Directed

In the end, while I too easily recall my failures in these classes, my failure to light the spark of self-directed learning in some students, I have so many amazing memories of students who got it. Boy did they get it, and I pray that they still have it and use it. School has a way of taking it away from you sometimes through teachers who dictate, direct, and demand more than spark, ignite, and fan into flame. As a teacher, there are definitely times to direct. However, this experiment with my students left me with strong convictions about the transformational power of student-centered projects. When I look at this type of inquiry and learning I see a bit of the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ansel Adams, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and hundreds of others. I think this is a spirit that we want to spread today.

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.