What Makes Project-Based Learning a Success?
At one high school in Texas, where every class in every grade is project based, the answer is devotion to a consistent process, belief in relationships, and commitment to relevance and rigor. Results? Hard to beat.
Thanks to an effective PBL model and a school culture that values relationships and autonomy, Manor New Tech students, teachers, and its principal, Steven Zipkes (right), are achieving impressive results.
Credit: Zachary Fink
There is a small town, about 12 miles east of Austin, Texas, where a high school devoted to teaching every subject to every student through project-based learning (PBL) opened five years ago. On its own, this would not have been a noteworthy event. The list of schools across America deepening the learning process through PBL has been growing for quite some time. But few schools have fine-tuned the process like Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas, where 98 percent of seniors graduate and 100 percent of the graduates are accepted to college. Fifty-six percent of them have been the first in their family to attend college.
Manor New Tech was started with a $4 million grant from the Texas High School Project as part of an initiative to develop schools dedicated to science, technology, engineering, and math in Texas. The school is part of the New Tech Network, a nonprofit with 85 schools in its nationwide network that provides services and support to help reform learning through PBL. Overall, the network is doing very well, with an 86 percent graduation rate; 67 percent of graduates apply to college and 98 percent of those are accepted. But Manor New Tech is a standout even by those standards. To find out what makes their ship sail so effectively, Edutopia followed one sophomore classroom for a few weeks to observe a project from start to finish.
What we found -- and what we believe is the key to Manor New Tech's success -- is a schoolwide, unwavering commitment to the design and implementation of a PBL model that includes evidence-based strategies and drives students to actively pursue knowledge. From the moment a project is introduced, students are responsible for figuring out what they need to know and for doing the legwork to find the information, analyze it, and present it. Teachers are there every step of the way to guide students through the process and to provide workshops to help clarify any concepts.
Relationships Before Rigor
Their PBL protocol is designed to put students in the driver's seat of their learning and is followed consistently throughout Manor. Some elements may be common, such as peer reviews and ongoing assessments, but it's the sum total of the process, as well as the fidelity with which it is followed, that are a big part of Manor's success.
No less important, though, is the school culture that supports it. It is a culture of enthusiasm and determination that begins with founding principal Steven Zipkes, whose zest and passion for his students and his school make him a one-man pep rally.
Zipkes begins with the three R's, which he is quick to note should be engaged sequentially, but not in the conventional order of rigor, relevance, and relationships. Rather Manor begins by building relationships, then incorporates relevance and rigor. "Many schools try to put the rigor in first, but then they've already lost many of the students," he explains. "If you don't have a relationship with the students, they're not going to do anything for you; if it's not relevant, you're going to bore them. But when you look at relationships and relevance and then rigor, you're going to hit all students."
Ownership and autonomy are also essential to Manor's PBL, and they operate on every level. Zipkes requires that all teachers start with the state standards and that they observe and stay true to the school's PBL model; beyond that, he leaves it to their creativity and expertise to design the projects and guide their students through the process. Similarly, teachers strive to give their students latitude in how they choose to demonstrate their knowledge, as long as they aim for the learning outcomes defined in the rubrics. This belief in each other's capabilities fosters trust and a kind of self-regulation that frees Zipkes to be the visionary leader rather than the heavy, the teachers to be facilitators rather than disciplinarians, and the students to be learners rather than test-takers.
One of the familiar refrains at Manor is, "This is our house." And they mean it. Everyone, teacher and student alike, is there because they choose to be. Not a single student has dropped out in its five-year history, nor has any teacher left due to dissatisfaction. At one all-school assembly we attended, Zipkes made his way through the crowd of students, bellowing into the mic like an inspirational speaker. The students cheered him on, genuinely enthused by his energy. With this unity of purpose, process, and passion, Manor New Tech's continuing success seems inevitable.