It was an honor to present From Design to Research: Making Interdisciplinary Pathways for Student Directed PBL at the PDS STEM-STEAM and Beyond conference yesterday and my warmest thanks go out to Josie Holford and the Poughkeepsie Day School team for facilitating an amazing event..  It was an honor to lead a futures workshop on interdisciplinary innovation and project based learning. This workshop design is both participatory and design based. Participants in the PDSs2s workshop:

  • told stories about success and failure in interdisciplinary1 project based learning2 and other interdisciplinary innovation,
  • critiqued a range of critical issues pertinent to creating interdisciplinary innovation and
  • visioned the most ideal learning environments and technologies for creating interdisciplinarity, PBL and beyond
  • agreeing to report out on the next steps, research, design and practice taken after the workshop.

The workshop was packed with educators from all domains and across the k-12 spectrum. This is one small example of a significant trend in education. Interdisciplinary innovation is a prescient topic with frontiers for independent schools and education in general. Incredible interdisciplinary projects are emerging across education that are well planed and executed departures from the traditional siloed education.  How we develop pathways from these projects toward future school design is very important. The intuitive work of Bo Adams amazing work on Pedagogical Master Planning and  Bannan-Ritland, B. (2003 diagram)3 in design based research are a clear lens on this point. Educators need to ask critical,reflective questions. How do your schools develop theory for new projects, research and create design prototypes, test designs, iterate and implement/mutate your schedules, departments?  More simply (and possibly most importantly) what is your mindset for a cycle of transformation?

ILD design research

Becoming a practitioner researcher in schools starts with a mindset which was the focus of this weeks workshop at PDS. As a group we developed and refined theory, reviewed programs (prototypes) in participant schools (and the consequences of those programs) and ideated on the future. Participants explored their discipline/s and examples of projects that crossed discipline boundaries.  These projects ranged from maker-spaces to projects and the diversity of experience in the room was vast.  We also discussed the issues of content, standards, schedule, parents and paradigms…. “the softballs” of education that keep getting replayed (or thrown around is it may be).  We also heard of bold moves to re-imagine schedules, realign priorities in schools…. and we heard questions of the heart.

Over and over again, workshop participants fell quite after hearing each other discuss what student self determination looks like in learning.  Teachers and administrators spoke of working hard to bypass the “softballs” that seem like mountains to high to summit at times.  As educators we know what is possible with our care, passion, intelligence, hope and love for young people.  We want our social constructs….democracy et al. to survive and have caretakers, we want the realities of interconnectedness and interdependence in the world to find a fertile nexus in our school communities. There was agreement that we needed to consider change in may parts of our school structures.

I will argue, and did in my session that the process of schools moving from theory and initial design work to prototyping and new educational design and testing will be a significant linchpin to transformational change.  It takes a school communities of mavericks and managers imagining how events could be otherwise and then engaging in the significant and difficult work of co-constructing a community of learning with all of the stakeholders in your community to provide a relevant education in this century.4 The futures workshop process is one of many ways to provide a intentional landscape to start or move forward this process.


I hope that all who were in my workshop and those who’s network learning brought you here will peruse the resource posts at

  • If you are a head of School or Trustee, I suggest you read Grant Lichtman’s Zero-Based Strategic Thinking: Real Innovation Shifts the Focus to the Future. In the article, Grant provides an erudite view of why the innovation space is not enough and how the larger spacial turn in world systems demand educational and institutional mutation.
  • If you are a division head, curriculum leader or teacher I encourage you look at implemented designs that exemplify whats possible in your school.  Many critical upper school dreams are bounded in departmentalized structures that drive static schedules and outmoded views of essential skills delivery. Going “beyond AP” to cross boundaries and utilizing the vast flexibility in IB to foster and proliferate transdiciplinarity are just a few examples that demand the role of the “department” be diminished in order to illuminate imagination, creativity and innovation. Regardless of your model or method now, the few examples listed here should inspire jump-start your ability to question what you can do with your resources and school vision. If you know of other school-wide programs or incredible catalysts please leave a comment.

School Wide Programs

The ILC – Interdisciplinary Learning Collaborative, Midwestern US:  “The Interdisciplinary Learning Collaborative is an innovative high school design that engages its adolescent learners in purposeful interdisciplinary learning, multiple community connections, and collaborative pathway experiences that contribute to and benefit from the greater community”.

Hobsonville Point Secondary School, New Zealand: ” is a school that places students at the centre of their learning with our expert teachers challenging and supporting them to achieve to their full potential across all areas of the curriculum. Personalising learning means we respond to the individual learning needs of your child, foster their personal interests and strengths, whilst also exposing them to a wide range of new learning experiences and opportunities that inspire new passions. This approach motivates and engages students more deeply as they learn how they contribute to their own success”. See also: The 2014 Modules of Hobson Point Secondary School

The Bridge Year at Kieve-Wavus, ME:The Bridge Year design is a co-educational boarding school for students who have completed their 8th grade year to enhance their academic core through campus and field studies which are experiential, integrated, and personalized. The Bridge Year supports students in developing: enduring intellectual passion, a sense of personal and social responsibility, confidence, and personal, technical and creative skills. The small intentional residential community and personalized academics at The Bridge Year provide students with the support and tools that they need to cultivate lives that embrace wilderness and culture, personal and social, and the intellectual with the experiential.

RiverPoint Academy, WA“Students take on real-world challenges and, using a design process to develop solutions, actually work to implement them. Professionals from the community work with students in order to create an authentic learning experience as they dive deeply into science, engineering, mathematics, the arts and humanities and entrepreneurship — all fueled by radical collaboration with peers, the use of powerful technology and a deeply caring and devoted staff. Coursework is strategically integrated to support meaningful learning all in preparation for college and career post high school goals. Many students will take advantage of college courses available through EWU’s Running Start courses at Riverpoint Academy. The focus at the Academy is on 21st century skills and leadership, STEM literacy and nurturing the creative passion within each student”.

Soundings: A Democratic Learning Community, PA:Soundings challenges eighth graders to explore student-selected themes that merge their adolescent concerns with global issues. It works something like this: following a process of asking, analyzing, and grouping lots of questions, the class works together to decide which questions they most want to study. These then become our themes for the year. For each theme selected, students learn to set goals and objectives, develop and initiate plans to achieve those aims, present their results, and assess their performance.  As they experience this process with its emphasis on both quality performance and higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and assessment, students master essential skills and concepts from all academic disciplines and apply them to real world issues.”

Exemplary Projects and Planning Tools

Pedagogical Master Planning (Adams, B. 2013) Pedagogical Master Planning is a radical rethinking of strategic planning that  mashes up …. transformation design with master planning’s greatest virtues visualizing whole systems, layering complex  information, and phasing strategic renovation. Inspired by campus master planning, we’ve translated its principles to what happens  at the heart of a school.   We illustrate a school’s teaching and learning core its pedagogical ecosystem so that people can see  how the parts of the whole are interrelated and interconnected.  Then, school transformation can be designed holistically, with  blueprints, in a similar way to making changes to a school’s physical facilities”.

Mount Vernon Presbyterian Innovation Diploma“Mount Vernon Presbyterian School’s Innovation Diploma offers an unparalleled opportunity for high school students to observe, question, empathize, experiment, craft, and implement innovations in a variety of fields and contexts before leaving the Upper School. To earn the Innovation Diploma, students engage in immersive exploration and empathy, experiment as they design solutions to problems they observe and discover, and launch and implement innovative solutions within an environment of feedback and support. In addition, students complete a variety of coursework focused around skills of design thinking, problem-based learning, innovative technologies, and passion-finding”.


1I choose to use the term interdisciplinary innovation to describe a wide range of curriculum innovation. Multidisciplinarity, involves drawing appropriately from multiple disciplines to redefine problems outside of normal boundaries and reach solutions based on a new understanding of complex situations; interdisciplinarity, involves the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity (e.g. a seminar or research project) and about creating something new by crossing boundaries, and thinking across them; transdisciplinarity, when interdisciplinary learning moves across institutional boundaries into non-institutional spaces (partnerships with organization, citizen science, service work, entrepreneurship);and perhaps even post-disciplinary, re-imagining the institution and all forms of learning.

2 Yong Zhao (2012) curates an erudite research profile on PBL in his book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. He narrows the research into three general descriptions of PBL as a starting points: academic PBL that is primarily classroom based, content driven, single subject and teacher led mixed models where teacher and student collaboration through groups is key and a product is sought within the constraint of academic disciplines inside and outside of a school entrepreneurship models that are completely student led, focused on a product with the teacher serving as venture capitalist, consultant, and motivator and focus group. Academic disciplines emerge out of need and feedback NOTE: This student directed project based learning description is closest to the spirit of the definition for this set of workshops.

3Bannan-Ritland, B. (2003) The Role of Design in Research: The Integrative Learning Design Framework. Educational Researcher, 32 (1), 21-24.

4 Essential Questions: Learner: Which elements seem of vital importance for learning from the personal and educational needs and interests of the learners themselves? Society: Which problems and issues seem relevant for inclusion from the perspective of societal trends and needs? Knowledge: What is the academic [intellectual social and physical] and cultural heritage that seems essential for learning and future development? From McKenny, Niveen and van den Akker (2006). In van den Akker, Gravemeijer, McKenney & Nieveen (Eds.) Educational Design Research (p.68) Abbingdon, Oxen: Routledge.



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