Permission to Dream

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By: Ryan Steuer, Executive Director of Magnify Learning

Indianapolis, IN

@ryansteuer

PBL Stories & Structures

At some point in your undergraduate work as an educator, you probably wrote an essay along the lines of, “Why I Want to Teach?” Your version was likely filled with high aspirations of engaging the next generation of leaders who will solve all of the world’s woes. (If you want to know what mine looked like here’s a version I wrote for a website called, Why I Teach.) At the time, you knew nothing of classroom management, hungry students, standardized tests, or that you would have 4 minutes to use the bathroom. With our boots on the ground doing the educational work, we often throw out or forget about the dream driven passion we proclaimed in our college essay. Now that our boots have some dust on them, I want to take us back to that essay and combine our current experience in the classroom with that earlier optimistic college kid ready to take on the world. 

PBL Provides a Why for Learning

Sklyer Wagoner holding PBL Stories & Structures.

Sklyer Wagoner holding PBL Stories & Structures.

The same ‘why’ that drives us as adults needs to be there for learner engagement as well. If our learners don’t know why they are learning something, they are unlikely to be engaged in it. The ‘why’ of engagement goes for both ends of the academic spectrum. In the opening chapter of my book, PBL Stories and Structures, I tell about Skyler who was a classic under-achiever who came alive when the ‘why’ of learning was presented to him. What didn’t make the book, was the story of Matt, who was a super high achieving point getter. Matt was also disengaged in school, but it was harder to see because he got all As. At first, Matt pushed back on Project-Based Learning because he couldn’t figure out how helping people register to vote helped him get points. We got to have the life changing conversation that school (and ultimately living) is not all about points, and that finding your passion and helping others may be a better north star. 

Let’s be honest, Matt found out how to get his points eventually. Matts always do don’t they? They are too clever and will dissect your rubric to determine the easiest path to the highest grade, but Matt’s story has a twist. It took a bit, but Matt did see that school can be about more than grades. He began to see helping others and finding out what you believe are also important. When I caught up with Matt at a student’s Naval going away party, he mentioned that he is in the last year of his teaching program. He already has a teaching spot lined up, where he will teach history in a Project-Based Learning environment. Matt found his passion for making history come alive and helping others make history relevant to the present. Without Project-Based Learning to disrupt Matt’s passive point getting, would he have taken this path?

PBL Gives Structure to Make It Sustainable

We read stories and watch movies about Skyler and Matt experiences, but the narrative we see doesn’t always seem sustainable. We don’t want to be an educator that devotes their whole life to the school at the detriment of their own family. The beauty of PBL is you can find a structure to those amazing project ideas that can keep you from entering the world of overwhelm. At this point in the educational environment, there is a ton of research, tools, books, podcasts, and resources out there for PBL. The structures allow us to take our standards and build a PBL unit that helps our learners engage in a real world problem. The engagement with a real problem and with real community partners gives our learners opportunities they may not have otherwise. 

When the largest solar farm on airport property was being built in Indianapolis, we found a way to connect it to a project. At the culmination of the project, Richard, who was a 2nd generation immigrant, was able to speak at the grand opening of the solar farm. After the presidents of two major energy companies spoke, Richard spoke and received a standing ovation. Richard also received tickets for a Pacers game and an internship. As a 14 year old, this was quite an honor. Because he was in an environment that valued, practiced, and graded employability skills like communication, problem solving, and collaboration, Richard had an opportunity to excel in an opportunity few will ever experience. For his teachers, they had the structure of Project-Based Learning to plug this great opportunity into, so there was no way they would let it pass by. 

With Structure & Purpose, You are Set Free to Live Your Why

Once you combine your ‘why’ with structure you now have permission to dream! When Ruby Bridges or Jeanie White come to town, why wouldn’t your learners be the ones they talk too? If someone is going to make people aware of what autism is, educate the public about water conservation, or present to city council to change the city flag, why wouldn’t it be your learners? Once you know your ‘why’ AND you have the structures to support the work within a standards based educational environment, why wouldn’t you start leading with your heart? It’s time to let your heart shine and to dream big because when you do, you will set your learners free to do the same.


Ryan Steuer.jpg

Ryan Steuer is the Executive Director of Magnify Learning, a teacher driven non-profit organization dedicated to expanding the use of high quality project-based learning (PBL) by offering PBL professional development. He started out as an engineer and then made a major career shift to teach 8th grade English, which led him to his passion for PBL. Ryan continues to encourage educators to ignite their passion in the classroom by 'Living Their Why'! When he’s not encouraging educators you can find him (with his boots still on) spending time with his family of 6 ( a lovely wife & 5 kids), helping with the chickens, building, or dreaming over a glass of hot tea.


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