A Step-by-Step Guide to the Best Projects

Discover a project-based learning model that motivates students to pursue knowledge and drives academic achievement.

Discover a project-based learning model that motivates students to pursue knowledge and drives academic achievement.
Hunger Games book cover; three girls

One sophomore project at Manor New Tech High School was based on the best-selling novel The Hunger Games. Examples of how they incorporated English and world history standards into the project are below.

Credit: Zachary Fink

Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas, is a 100 percent project-based learning school. They are part of the New Tech Network of schools and their approach has yielded remarkable results, including a 98 percent graduation rate, with all of their graduates accepted to college.

The success of their PBL approach is largely attributable to the fact that their process is designed to stimulate student inquiry. Additionally, their process can be applied to any project in any subject, which means there is a consistent approach across grades and subjects at Manor.

We followed a sophomore world studies class through a three-week project called Controlling Factors, created by teaching partners Mary Mobley (English) and Michael Chambers (world history). They designed a project that capitalized on the wild popularity among their students of the best-selling novel The Hunger Games. Built on specific English and world history state standards, the project covered concepts including the pre-World War II global economic crisis, the rise of totalitarianism, and the societal moral dilemmas that world leaders at that time faced, and then had students draw parallels to similar fictional themes in the book.

Here is a breakdown of key steps, with some examples from Mobley and Chambers's project:

  1. State standards: Every project at Manor starts with the state standards, and every project's final assessment requires that students demonstrate their mastery of them. State standards are laid out in the rubric, and students should be able to tell you which ones they're covering in any given project.
    • Example: For Mobley and Chambers's project, world history standards included understanding the causes of the global depression, the response of governments to it, the rise of totalitarianism, and key world leaders in WWII. English language arts standards included analyzing moral dilemmas across cultures in works of fiction, making complex inferences from literature, and writing personal response essays.
  2. Critical Friends: Honest, two-way feedback and ongoing adjustments help Manor’s projects to continually improve. Both students and teachers participate in a peer review protocol they call Critical Friends. Before teachers launch a project, they often have a session with colleagues for feedback, especially on the academic rigor of the project. Similarly, before their final presentations, students often run Critical Friends to give each other feedback in the form of "I like…" and "I wonder…" statements and suggest next steps for improvement.
    • Example: Mobley and Chambers had a Critical Friends session with their department colleagues in which they received feedback on how to better integrate the two subjects. In this session, they also came up with the idea for the second part of the project, in which the students were broken up into districts and a ruling capital to simulate both the fictional and historical scenarios they were studying.
  3. Entry event: Teachers introduce each project with an entry event that serves several purposes: to hook the kids and get them engaged in the content, to provide an exemplar of what the teachers expect, and to introduce key vocabulary (such as people, events, and terminology) related to the targeted content to get the students thinking about what they'll need to know.
    • Example: For the Controlling Factors entry event, Mobley and Chambers created a newsreel that included terms like "Mussolini," "totalitarianism," "global depression," and "World War II" as breadcrumbs. A student might already know what totalitarianism and World War II are, but may not know who Mussolini was and how those terms are all connected.
  4. "Need-to-know" list: Keywords in the entry event should prompt students to identify new concepts they’ll need to learn and help them make connections to related content they already know. As a class, they agree on a shared list of need-to-knows, which they update individually throughout the project.
  5. Rubric: The rubric is an essential tool for maintaining transparency for students at Manor. Teachers carefully design rubrics to define all the desired learning outcomes for a project, including which state standards students are expected to master and how performance will be measured for each outcome. The rubric sets the standard for each project and is presented at the start so that students have clear goals to work toward.
  6. Group contract: Individual accountability is a critical component of successful PBL, and Manor students use group contracts to document expectations for each team member. Each project team writes a contract that clearly defines everyone's roles, responsibilities, and contributions to the project, and students are held to it. Students can be fired if they do not fulfill their part of the contract and must complete the project on their own, although this rarely happens at Manor.
  7. Research and collaboration: Once the project is launched, it is up to the students to work together to figure out what their final product is going to be and how they will acquire the knowledge they need to complete it. Teachers provide workshops to go over concepts depending on students' needs, and they have students run workshops for each other to reinforce their learning and build collaboration.
    • Example: Workshops for The Hunger Games project included student-led discussions about real moral dilemmas from events in history or fictional examples based on events in the book. They also had workshops on different totalitarian leaders and other world leaders during WWII.
  8. Assessment and adjustment: Throughout the process, teachers and students give and receive feedback and make adjustments accordingly. Teachers track student progress to make sure no student is falling behind. Depending on what they find, they might go back and do more scaffolding, quiz more, or provide additional workshops. "If I have a student who is almost done with an entire project and is not doing very well," says Mobley, "I really step back and wonder, 'Where was I this whole time? Why wasn't I paying more attention to the student's progress?'"
  9. Presentations: Public presentations are the common element to all projects at Manor, with up to 80 percent of them in front of an external audience. Verbal communication, public speaking, and other important nonacademic skills are honed in this process.
    • Example: Final presentations for Mobley and Chambers's project included a multimedia presentation with audience participation about a moral dilemma faced by Nazi concentration camp survivors and a skit dramatizing the moral decisions made by world leaders running up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  10. Final assessment: Because teachers take pains to observe student progress throughout the process, the final assessments tend to be relatively easy. The work up front on creating a clearly defined rubric that identifies multiple learning outcomes and criteria also helps considerably. As Mobley explains, "By the time students turn in their final work, they should know what grade they're going to get."
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This article originally published on 5/23/2012

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Comments (17)

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HS Mathematics and MS/HS Pre-Engineering teacher, from South Louisiana

MSK - Link to Buck Institute PBL Website

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MSK - You may want to have one of the lead teachers at your school check out the information here at Edutopia (there's a lot of good PBL stuff here) - the main write-up on this page is an excellent summary of the PBL process!

Also, check out the following Buck Institute PBL website where you can find videos, free downloads (that go with their PBL Handbook), as well as additional information:
http://www.bie.org/
Their PBL Handbook is very comprehensive and beneficial to teachers when they first begin developing project based units.

Another suggestion is to just search online to find examples of successful PBL implementation.

MSK - I think it's great that you, as a student, are looking for ways that your teachers can make positive changes within your school! Thanks for your input!

I am a student, Grand Canyon University, Science K-8

PBL SUCCESS

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Wow Chris,
that is awesome! sounds like you all are really making a differance. Can you share any resources that other teachers may use to help do some of the same things without the funding you all had?

Missed the Point of Money

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Yes, we have some shiny computers and some shiny Smart Boards (IWB's) in our classroom. But the grant money (which we no longer have) didn't really influence the teaching going on in the classrooms. As we all know, now, IWB's are no longer considered "must haves." In fact most research I have read shows that IWB's being stationary and hung at the front of the room are nothing more than fancy chalk boards in classes where teachers stay at the IWB being the "sage on the stage."
No, what is important is the model we are using for our PBL. No money is needed to create that. All you need is some training by someone who understands PBL (like the Buck Institute or the New Tech Network) and your teachers can be changing the course of education in your school.
This year, off of the initial grant, we saw significant increases in all areas of study on our state standardized tests. This was especially true in our math scores. That wasn't because of technology. It was because we tweaked our teaching process in the math classrooms. We adopted a more Problem Based approach (PrBL) as did most of the New Tech schools in the nation. This step alone allowed our teachers to have a better understanding of our student's needs and allowed the teachers immediate remediation.
Yes, we got a ton of money up front to create our school. Money went into technology, it went into hiring of curriculum specialists for the district, it went into remodeling the school, and it went to the New Tech Network so we could use New Tech in our name and it paid for New Tech coaches to help us get off of the ground. But it is our teachers and PBL that have taken students coming out of 8th grade with a passing rate of 50 to 60 percent on the state tests to a passing rate of over 90% in every subject area.

A Little More Insight

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I wanted to shed some light on our math scores, since I lived it, for the past four years. For one, during this 4 year period we, as a district, have made a concerted effort to improve math scores. The students arriving at both high schools had major gaps in foundational areas of their math skills. And so we attempted to be true to a PBL model with major support for those identified as struggling learners outside of their math class time (such as after school). We also tried "math pullouts" where they would be pulled from their elective classes about 3 weeks prior to state testing to get intensive support.
But with major gaps in skills these efforts did not work. We saw gains each year but not significant for our school rankings.
This past year we, and most of the schools in the New Tech Network, adopted a Problem Based approach to our classes. Using PrBL instead of PBL allowed for quicker corrections to misunderstandings and allowed for a closer examination of areas where there were gaps in skills.
This year (results just came out) we found that over 90% of our students passed the state tests including the first ever End of Course exams in Algebra and Geometry. As a matter of fact only 1 student in Geometry didn't meet the standards.
So, it isn't that our projects (yes we still do overarching projects) aren't effectively created. Instead our students coming to us have far fewer gaps in knowledge and when you combine that with PrBL we are seeing some spectacular results.

6-12 technology teacher district 2 New Brunswick Canada

Enough about Manor

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Enough Manor already ! If you gave any district 4 million dollar USA they top the charts in results. Look at Alberta Canada as and example. Although this is great because students are helped the real story should read "Look what millions of dollars can do"
Find some "regular schools" that create greatness from far less than millions of dollars

Find the PBL that doesn't start by winning the lottery.

5th Grade PYP Teacher from Killeen, TX

Their math data...

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Cara, I think this page has answers for your questions on their math performance:
http://www.edutopia.org/stw-project-based-learning-best-practices-new-te...

It looks like they've gotten better since when they began.

High School Math Teacher from Central OH

The article says that Manor

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The article says that Manor Tech kids outperform their peers in English, Social Studies, and Science, but by how much do they underperform in Mathematics? Is this because of PBL in math? Or is it because their math projects aren't effectively created?

I actually use some PBL in my HS math class (though there is still 'traditional' flipped learning), but I'm not sure that my math class could be 100% project-based like Manor is... Anyone else have a 100% PBL math class?

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