March 25, 2015
 Our Vision: Ignite Passion. Inspire Excellence. Imagine Possibilities.

Dear District 41 Community,

Every month I attend the PTA Council meeting here at the District office.  I appreciate the opportunity to spend time with the PTA presidents from each of our schools and the PTA committee chairs from across the district.  From time to time, the PTA leadership will share "word on the street" type items with me.  Recently, it was brought to my attention that parents want a better understanding of Problem-Based Learning (PBL).


You have heard a lot about PBL this year because each teacher in District 41 was expected to deliver curriculum through at least one PBL unit of inquiry.  And next year, we will continue with the same plan of one PBL inquiry with their students. This year has been a learning experience for the entire district and I am proud of the learning taking place by students and staff.


Over the past several months, Karen Carlson, assistant superintendent, and I met with virtually the entire teaching staff. I appreciated the collaborative nature of the meetings and was encouraged by the feedback. I told our teachers that eventually PBL will be the "primary" way we will deliver curriculum. What I mean by "primary" is that inquiry will be happening throughout the school year in all classrooms in a very natural and authentic way. It will be something that organically happens all the time as students inquire and ask questions about their learning. Teachers will use PBL as the vehicle to support student interests and learning at various times throughout the year when the link to content area standards is robust. However, PBL will not and is not the only way we deliver curriculum. This is the same message I shared with teachers during the building visits.  


It's important to note that Problem-Based Learning is only one component of our 21st Century Teaching and Learning Model that defines the district's academic path. The objective in defining our model is to ensure our instruction is grounded in a deep understanding of the standards and our students develop the necessary 21st century skills, which are woven throughout all content standards.  


Here are a few highlights from our District 41 Model:


  • Planning - Planning is the foundation of the District 41 Model. This is one of the benefits of expanding the elementary school day. Teachers need more time to plan and more time to deliver core instruction. Collaborative teacher planning teams (grade-level, departmental, etc.) critically examine and discuss Illinois State Standards, the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards to determine learning outcomes for students and design rigorous assessments that demonstrate evidence of mastery. Collaborative teacher teams reflect on the learning process of the students and themselves; consider data from assessments, determining what teaching strategies were most successful, adapting subsequent teaching to implement these areas of discovery; and understand that we will grow and learn together as professionals. The Professional Learning Community (PLC) structure is central to more than one component of the model and it is where teams do much of their planning. "Good plans shape good decisions. That's why good planning helps to make elusive dreams come true." -Geoffrey Fisher

  • Problem-Based Learning - PBL is deeply rooted in inquiry-based learning. Inquiry strives to nurture a deep, discipline-based way of thinking and doing with students. Problem-Based Learning demands that students are learning the standards of each grade level. Students continue to learn the basics of reading, writing, using/learning math, and studying science through PBLs, while being assessed on the standards along the way. Standards are predetermined and formatively and summatively assessed by teachers within the classroom throughout the PBL process - not by panelists at panel. Problem-Based Learning is a vehicle to deliver instruction and it supports our curriculum. During PBL, a teacher is still working with students to teach them the necessary skills, content and process that are required in the standards. For instance, a math teacher continues to instruct on computation and time. The difference is how students apply what they have learned from their teacher. In PBL, students are active learners, not passive learners; a problem engages students, and provides real-world relevance for learning. After completing a PBL, students remember what they learn and retain it longer than is often the case with traditional instruction. Because of this, students who gain content knowledge with PBL are better able to apply what they learned to new situations. Through PBL, students are engaged, and their use (or grasp, or understanding, or knowledge) of their 21st century skills is thriving.  

The essential elements of PBL include:


  • Standards - At its core, the problem is focused on teaching students important knowledge and skills that are derived from state and national standards.

  • Learner Characteristics - Students build competencies valuable for today's world, such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity/innovation, which are explicitly taught and assessed within the classroom by teachers.

  • In-Depth Inquiry - Students are engaged in an extended, rigorous process of asking questions, using resources and developing answers.

  • Authentic Problems - Problems focus on open-ended questions that students find intriguing.

  • Relevant - Students see and value the need to gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to answer the Driving Question and create project products, beginning with an Entry Event that generates interest and curiosity.

  • Voice and Choice - Students make some choices about the products to be created, how they work, and how they use their time, guided by the teacher and depending on age level and PBL experience.

  • Feedback - The solution(s) includes processes for students to give and receive feedback on the quality of their work, leading them to make revisions or conduct further inquiry.

  • Panel - Students present their work to other people, beyond their classmates and teacher. The opportunity to show off work in a public setting is an important part of project (problem-) based learning. Why? Two main reasons: it mimics real life and it raises the bar.

For Problem-Based Learning research information, click here.

 We are very proud of what our students have accomplished so far. Here are a few news articles featuring Problem-Based Learning in our district:

Monarch Butterflies - Daily Herald

Gardens for Giving - Daily Herald

Kids Solve Real-World Problems - My Suburban Life


  • Differentiation - Differentiation happens when teachers facilitate learning in and out of their classrooms using a variety of internal and external resources and demonstrate innovation daily in their teaching.

  • Teacher specialization and multiage - At the elementary level, the structure of school has been recast to align with these guiding principles: give all children what they need when they need it, and give all children an experience that is rigorous, relevant and built on strong relationships.  Earlier this year we shared that we have seen academic and social/emotional gains in our current structure of teacher specialization at Level 2 and 3 and mulitage Level 3 Literacy.  We look forward to continued gains in the future.  

  • Workshop model - The workshop model has been shown to be one of the most effective differentiated instructional models. District 41 has used the workshop model in literacy since 2007, formerly referred to as small group instruction. Using workshop in all content areas ensures that each student is highly engaged, the learning is differentiated, and students are working on "just right" materials as well as materials that will stretch their thinking.

  • Conferring - Learners crave feedback to grow, and conferring is a differentiated way to provide it. At the heart of the workshop, this conversation between two (or more) creates a deeper understanding of a student's thinking and processing and is an opportunity to coach and nurture students.

  • Assessment - Assessment for learning provides students and teachers with information they can use immediately to improve performance by differentiating instruction to meet the learner's needs in the moment. Research shows that students do better when regular assessment shows them the way forward. Assessment for learning begins when teachers help students understand what "right" looks like, and provide frequent feedback taking care not to overwhelm them. The students' role is to use feedback to see where they are in relation to where they want to be, and to determine how to do better.

If you are interested in learning more about the District 41 Model and PBL, I will be holding Open Office Hours to further engage with you on this topic.  I hope you will stop by at one of the following times:


Monday, April 6, 2015

9:15 - 10:30 a.m. and 3:45 to 5 p.m.

District 41 Central Services Office

793 N. Main Street, Glen Ellyn


This is a lot of information, but I hope I have been able to give you a deeper understanding of our District 41 Model for teaching and learning.



Paul Gordon



"Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. We only think when confronted by a problem." -John Dewey




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