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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

As my colleagues and I were building curriculum for our ninth grade project-based program, we found that most of our conversations centered not on potential projects themselves, but rather on building student self-motivation and self-mastery. We realized that our program's measure of success was whether the students learned to take charge of their own learning and find a joy in it.

Beyond "Just Good Enough"

I had made the switch from more traditional teaching to project-based learning partly because I saw how PBL greatly increased student engagement and curiosity. However, I still wanted my students to feel an authentic, self-starting kind of drive -- the sort of thing we see when kids are playing sports, making music, or doing anything that stems from personal passion -- in other words, the internal desire to continually improve and to work hard at doing it. They liked doing projects well enough, but were still not personally connected enough to the work -- or doing more than "just good enough." I wanted to find something they would look forward to doing when they weren't in my class, and something they would want to master, rather than just doing "good enough."

I had a chance meeting with a friend of a friend who wanted to get students involved in entrepreneurship. As it happened, my colleagues and I had just read Yong Zhao's World Class Learners, and we wanted a project that would enable our students to start a business with an actual possibility of earnings. In this case, the students would be challenged to market their product -- an aquaponics kit for the home -- on Kickstarter or other crowdfunding websites. The result was beyond anything I could have hoped for.

Authentic Projects Involve Real Stakes

This project brought the real-world commitment we'd been searching for. While it's true that we cannot predict the world our students will graduate into, we were able to model our classroom on the way small, successful startups operate in the business community. The students visited aquaponics farms and deconstructed existing products and business pitches to develop rubrics for their classroom work. Project teams developed roles based on real-world counterparts:

  • "Contractors" were responsible to delineating tasks and communicating with their "staffs" and with us.
  • "Designers" worked on developing models.
  • "Salesmen" developed social media and other outreach materials.

Teams held weekly meetings to find out how much work had been finished and how much was left to do. Students felt personally responsible for their teammates' success and were unhappy if they felt they had let down their teams.

Everyone in the Community Becomes a Teacher

Students found mentors outside the school who correlated to their project roles. A real strength of PBL is that it takes kids out into the community, but we found that creating an entrepreneurial project brought the whole community to us as well. Parents were eager to bring their work skills and experiences into our classroom -- not to lecture the whole class, but to work with their younger analogues. The "builders" on each team, for instance, spent hours with construction engineers and local craftsmen, and the sales team members met with business and marketing specialists in the classroom and even at home. Local businesses, from aquaponics farms to Maker spaces, volunteered their space and time to help students design and build their kits. And since -- let's be blunt -- I'm a humanities teacher with a very limited sense of how to create a business, I was more than happy to let the experts share their talents while I concentrated on my own job.

Students Take Mastery of Their Own Learning

Finally, the students' excitement continued to build as their designs slowly took concrete shape and their social media campaigns ramped up in preparation for the Kickstarter campaign. Parents reported their students had never seemed so involved in their schoolwork (or so willing to talk to them at the dinner table). We initially worried that our mandated curriculum -- the math, science, literature, and history requirements for ninth grade -- would get lost in the shuffle, dropped in favor of the lure for becoming business successes. We needn't have worried.

For the students, reading novels (such as 1984) or historical documents became exercises in examining the authors' uses of rhetoric and persuasion. Understanding narrative began to matter more as students realized they had to craft a compelling message for their campaigns. As they learned the importance of communication in the professional world, writing exercises became a common-sense preparation for life, not a chore. My STEM partners reported the same results for math and science lessons. In other words, the students saw the adoption of classroom skills as an important step for their future success. This didn't happen immediately, but by the last third of the project timelines, their attitudes had shifted markedly from where they had started the year.

Redefining Success

More remarkably, this project even changed how they used their free time. I saw our students enrolling in online courses in either website or business development. Their social media use took on more significance and had a more authentic stake for them, as students began communicating with web journals and community organizations to expand their online presence and gain "endorsements" for their products. Eventually, their work became polished enough to attract the interest of a few local entrepreneurs who volunteered not only to teach them business skills, but also to host a Shark Tank event and bankroll the winners. While only one team won, the other teams vowed to continue developing their ideas and seek their own independent funding. They had redefined success as not necessarily getting A's or passing the class, but as refusing to take no for an answer.

You can find a record of their work on my website, here and here.

How have you used PBL to foster student engagement in real-world projects?

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