The Expert Effect: A Strategy to Keep Students Excited About Learning

In this 6-part series, I'll be sharing best practices and advice from educators that I interview in my fifteen-minute online Bam! Radio Podcast; Practical PBL Strategies


In this fifth episode, my guests were Grayson McKinney and Zach Rondot. Grayson Is a fifth-grade teacher and Zach is a fourth-grade teacher, both from Michigan. They are the co-authors of the book The Expert Effect.

In our conversation we talked about ways to connect STEM with project-based learning (PBL) in the classroom and why it is essential that all educators find ways to bring these opportunities to students. Some educators may think that it might be difficult to do STEM and PBL in the classroom or that you need to have special knowledge or skills in order to get started, however, Grayson and Zach offer some great insight as to how to get started. 


Is it important for elementary teachers to bring in opportunities for Project-based learning or STEM, and if so, how do we connect these?

Grayson says that it is an important time to be having this conversation because, after the pandemic, many teachers have been in survival mode. Teachers have been moving back into the classrooms, getting to know kids, while students are learning what it means to be in school again. What makes it more difficult is that during the past school year, we got used to a different way of teaching and learning. But now that we're back in the classroom, we have an opportunity to do things differently, we don't have to go back to the way things were or to what we considered to be normal. He says “We have the open door to reimagine what school can look like for kids.”  Bringing STEM and PBL into the classroom helps us to bring relevance to everything that students and teachers are doing in the classroom. It makes school real, engaging, and exciting. Instead of feeling overwhelmed or anxious, kids are excited to come to school because they know that the learning they are engaging in matters. It makes a difference and they see the importance and relevance of it. 


Is it something extra in the curriculum?

Bringing PBL and STEM into our classrooms is not something extra, Grayson says that we can work this into our everyday curriculum. There are small steps we can take, starting with one thing and building on it. The key is to have it be authentic and purposeful. When students see the connection to the work that they're doing and its relevance to the world, it becomes more meaningful. It has such a positive impact on their learning experience. “Once you start to see the impact on students and on you as the teacher, it gives you the push to continue to bring these opportunities to your students.”


Why are PBL and STEM important? How does it impact students at the level that you work with?

Zach says that the most important thing about PBL is that “it takes learning from being passive.” Traditionally, classrooms have had the teacher standing in front of the classroom and giving information to the students for them to memorize, and be tested on it. Instead, PBL “flips the paradigm.” Students need to engage in learning where they are actively looking for solutions and solving problems on their own. They have to learn how to research things and demonstrate what they learned in an authentic way that meets their specific interests. Zach adds that too much of the traditional model of direct instruction becomes boring for him. But when you shift from direct instruction and instead get to interact with students who are driving their learning, it's also more active and exciting for the teachers. When teachers are excited about the process and engaged in it, then the students will be as well.

The more that we can interact with students and have conversations, the better we can understand their interests and the impact of this learning on them, which helps us to better plan our next steps in the classroom. It's important that we continue to reflect on our own practices so that we can tweak our lessons and activities and continue to grow as learners.


How early should we begin?

Elementary teachers also have to think about future-ready skills and prepare students for whatever their next steps will be. The big question we all have to consider is: How do we prepare students for the future, to develop essential skills, especially when we don't know what the future will look like?

Zach says this is such an important question that educators need to ask themselves. Our work is to “prepare students to be successful, long after they leave our classroom. It goes beyond what they're doing with us during each school year.” We need to prepare students to find answers on their own, to come up with problems to solve, and to move beyond what used to be the “traditional, factory model style of school, where there were rote tasks and memorization.” This is not the future that students face anymore. Students have to be problem creators, finders, and solvers. It is important that we provide opportunities for students to use critical thinking skills to figure out how to solve the problems that exist in the world. In the workforce, projects are not typically a one-person project, they are collaborative. Collaboration is a huge skill in the workplace, working together, building relationships, and working together toward a common goal. PBL does a great job at helping students prepare for this essential skill for the future and also the benefits from now.

Over the years, Grayson and Zach have developed a system called the “Expert Effect” which is also the name of their book. There are three parts to the expert effect. First, educators are not experts in every single subject, so they need to reach out to the community and find experts who are doing the work that students are learning about. With this partnership, there is a shared ownership of teaching our students about what it means to be involved in different types of work. An experience like this sparks curiosity,  for learning, students can ask questions, connect, and learn directly from the source which is a powerful tool. Second, once they learn with the experts, they engage in PBL, and students become the experts in their own right. The third part of this system is finding an authentic audience, which is important for students to share what they have created and build additional skills that will benefit them now and in the future.

Because we are in the lead in the classroom, we feel like we have to have all the answers, but we don't have to. We just need enough to get students started and give them the chance to take it in their own direction and be there to support them along the way. Co-learning with students is essential.


For educators looking to get started, PBL can seem overwhelming. What advice can you offer educators to check that what they are doing is PBL and not simply projects?

Grayson recommends asking ourselves “Will all projects look the same?” If they all look the same, it's probably a project. But in the end, PBL will look very different for each student because they're bringing their individual expertise, their own interests, and skill set. Zach says “Dream big but start small.” It's not about taking and turning everything into PBL, just choose one thing, and when you feel comfortable with it move on to another one.


How do we make opportunities like this happen?

Grayson and Zach recommend reaching out to the school community and finding out what the parents’ careers are. Make connections and help students see the relevance of what they are learning and its application in the world. Involve students in the conversation, which shows we are willing to take risks, that learning is a process, and that we're all in this together.

STEM and PBL need to be brought into all classrooms, regardless of grade level or content area. Our common goal is to prepare students for the future with the skills that they need to be successful. Authentic and real-world learning will best prepare them for whatever it is they do when they leave our schools and our classrooms and head to the future.




About Grayson McKinney

Grayson McKinney is a fifth-grade teacher from Michigan and a leader in the area of innovative teaching and learning. He has worked with learners at all levels of school from K-6 as a teacher, technology facilitator, and as a program administrator. He is a student podcaster, educational writer, and speaker on the topic of 21st-century student learning and engagement.


About Zach Rondot

Zach Rondot is a passionate fourth-grade teacher in Troy, Michigan. His mission is to teach students the 21st-century skills, mindsets, and attributes that will help them succeed long after they leave his classroom. In 2019, Zach was named the Troy School District Elementary Teacher of the Year and the Oakland County Elementary Teacher of the Year. Zach is an instructor in the Master’s program of Learning, Design, and Technology at Central Michigan University. He utilizes technology to create learning opportunities that otherwise would not be possible


About Rachelle Dené

Rachelle Dené Poth is an edtech consultant, presenter, attorney, author, and teacher. Rachelle teaches Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology at Riverview Junior Senior High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle has a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. She is a Consultant and Speaker, owner of ThriveinEDU LLC Consulting. She is an ISTE Certified Educator and currently serves as the past -president of the ISTE Teacher Education Network and on the Leadership team of the Mobile Learning Network. At ISTE19, she received the Making IT Happen Award and a Presidential Gold Award for volunteer service to education. She is also a Buncee Ambassador, Nearpod PioNear, and Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert. Rachelle is the author of seven books and is a blogger for Getting  Smart, Defined Learning, and NEO LMS. Follow Rachelle on Twitter at @Rdene915 and Instagram at @Rdene915. Listen to Rachelle's podcast, ThriveinEDU, here:


Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!

Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career Readiness. 

Subscribe to our blog