How to Raise the Educational Stakes with Project Learning
Beef up the real-world consequences of student projects in every grade.
Credit: Katherine Emery
This how-to article accompanies the feature "Treasured Island: Giving Students Real Skills and Real Responsibilities."
In a small island town like North Haven, Maine, all community members -- even students -- take on responsibility for education. North Haven Community School science teacher John Dietter says with so few people on island, "if a student shows up and is competent, he or she will get to do the work." What people call project or service learning, he adds, "out here just makes sense."
But schools in any location can beef up the real-world consequences of -- and broaden the audience for -- student projects in every grade. In doing so, teachers can increase student motivation and focus. Dietter and NHCS principal Barney Hallowell talk here about raising the stakes, and student investment, in project learning.
Hold a knowledge fair. Teachers can deepen portfolio assessment or a unit project by inviting other classes -- or community members -- to view students' work, ask questions, and provide feedback. NHCS accomplishes this goal through its annual Knowledge Fair. "It's like the old science fairs, but broader," says Hallowell. "The whole community comes out."
Every student participates: High school students pick a question, issue, or problem to pursue and present their findings individually; at elementary school and middle school levels, teachers choose a theme or subject area and have each student select a topic within that theme. Each student has three assessors who visit and interview the student, read the written presentation, judge the visual presentations, and evaluate work based on established standards. At North Haven, the assessors are teachers, but you can involve community and family members, as well as peers, in the process.
Have students create presentations at the end of a project and invite another class, along with available adults on campus, to visit. Have visitors complete simple evaluations aligned to your assessment rubric, and your students will get feedback from a variety of sources.
Have students teach students. Teachers know how much you absorb information when you have to teach it. Employing that concept in your own classroom can increase the importance of a project for students.
Start with content-based cooperative learning. In a jigsaw assignment, move students into "expert" groups to study a piece of content closely and prepare to share it with others. Experts then split up, go into cooperative groups, and teach others the content they learned.
You can go deeper in your own class by scaffolding reciprocal teaching strategies. Or increase the stakes by working with another teacher at your own or a nearby school and having groups of your students teach lessons to the class. The lessons can be just thirty minutes, but make sure you teach them basic lesson steps and ask them to assess their "students'" knowledge at the end.
Present to the community. At North Haven, presenting to community members is commonplace. Students joke that when they get off the ferry after an expedition, their neighbors ask when the presentation will be. NHCS students present to decision-making bodies, too. Before the town built a water-treatment plant, John Dietter had students research systems used in other places. "Students went to the public hearing, and they were peppering the water scientists with questions," he says.
Now, eight years later, student efforts continue. After weighing the benefits and costs of placing wind turbines on the island, physics students created a draft wind-power ordinance and presented it to the planning board. The student-drafted ordinance passed unanimously at a recent town meeting.
Teachers in any location can prepare their students to present to the school board or other local government body. "It's more than just a show," says Hallowell. "It's a way of deepening their understanding. They have to present to some really knowledgeable people."
Employ real training and outside testing. Do you know students who study more for drivers' ed than any other class? They're probably highly motivated to get their licenses, and they know they have to pass a test not given in school. You can apply some of these lessons to projects associated with your content area and can use outside assessments to add legitimacy to the content you're teaching. At North Haven, all students are trained in CPR -- they even learn the terms in French -- and to get certified, they must take a skills test.
Assign real jobs and make them count. At NHCS, students are given responsibilities and opportunities to succeed or fail. On expeditions, students plan and carry out the trips. "It is absolutely real," says John Dietter. "If you don't pay attention to your job, you let the whole group down and there are real consequences." Students are given the job, for instance, of navigating for the bus driver. "If they tell her to take a wrong turn, she takes it."
On the river or trail, students navigate for the whole group and lead the expedition; teachers provide instruction and model leadership in the first days of the trip. Then students take over; teachers only step in for safety.
Look around your school's neighborhood and design projects based on tasks that really need to be done. North Haven kids, for example, did environmental-impact studies of one of the island's boatyards.
Publish. Don't be the only audience for your students' writing. Plan an after-school poetry reading of student work, or ask a local community college's poetry class to cosponsor an evening reading in a coffee shop. Require students to enter their best work in local contests or for publication in literary magazines. Save up your copy-paper allotment and print out a class book, or write a mini-grant and publish enough copies to give to each student, and send to local schools, libraries, and community centers. Ask a student to design a class Web site on which all classmates publish their work.