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.

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.
Teacher sitting with students; Principal Zipkes

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.

  • Topic: Project-Based Learning

  • School: Manor New Technology High School

  • Location: Manor, TX

  • School Setting: Suburban

  • Target Audience: Grades 9-12

  • Note: Demographic data below is from the 2011-12 academic year.

  • Enrollment: 345

  • Student Population:
  • 54% free or reduced-price lunch
  • 44% Latino
  • 32% Caucasian
  • 22% African American
  • 2% Asian/Pacific Islander
  • 4% individualized education programs
  • 5% English-language learners
  • Note: Expenditures below are from 2010-11 academic year.

  • Average per-pupil operating expenditures:
  • School: $5,488
  • District: $6,909
  • State (TX): $7,494

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Watch the video:

group of teens in class

PBL Success Start to Finish

Duration: 08:01 min.

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.

(See our article, "A Step-by-Step Guide to the Best Projects," for more details on Manor's PBL process.)

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.

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This article originally published on 5/23/2012

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Comments (8)

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Hi We are far away from your

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We are far away from your system but so interested to implement in Senegalese schools(West Africa).
Having tested with my students in 2007, PBL is the alternative to see My country Senegal and the whole Africa and the rest of the world to eradicate the sicknesses that envade schools. In Africa we face many gaps that prevent from doing PBL.Since 7 years I am running after a project to be funded so as to help schools be involved in Project based Learning, but to ship a 40 FT containers from Seattles and London, I encounter the problem of the World.

Can you help find out issues? It would be great.


Moustapha Diouf

Wish You Could Come Visit Us

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Hi Laurie. You are from a place I love. I grew up in CT and have friends in Castine and near Bath. Spent many summer vacations up that way growing up. At this point we have not done a school-wide project. As 9th graders come to us we stick with projects for their Algebra 1 (or Geom.), their Biology, their World Geography, their English, their language, their PE/Health, and any other electives. It is important during this first year that they experience PBL in all of their classes and that they see that we are all doing PBL but that each teacher has the opportunity to put their own stamp on what that looks like. Every project has an entry event, every project has scaffolding, and every project has presentations, and every class starts another project within a day or two of completing the previous project. So, students have 5 projects all going on at various stages of implementation. Now, each teacher has their own style for their entry event and for their scaffolding and for the way they want their presentations to run.
If you ever have a reason to come to Austin TX get in touch with us and come tour our school. We have visitors 5 to 10 days every month.

Manor is going PBL K-12

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We are definitely NOT a magnet school and we take the first 100 that apply. But, that said, we are now going K-12 with PBL. This will take 3 or 4 years but please keep in touch with us as we do this. It sounds like our demographics are comparable to yours. Good luck with your pursuit of PBL.

Misinformed Post

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I feel bad that you have been to the school and didn't get all of the information correct so I felt I should make the corrections here. First, the student body is randomly selected from applications that have the student name, address (to verify they are in district), and gender. They are selected boy/girl until the class is complete. Now, to say it is EXACTLY the same as the rest of the district is a slight error because someone filled out that application. There is someone (the student, parent, teacher, guardian) who is motivated and filled it out. But the demographics are statistically the same as the rest of the district.
I don't understand the "hard work of planning outside of the classroom" statement. All I know is that when I arrived, with 15 years of teaching 6 - 12 and college level, I had to relearn what it was to work. And, I have never worked harder in my life than in that job. Most of us work 6 or 7 days a week, get into school early, leave late, and then work a month or more during the summer while getting paid for 187 days in our contract.
Your third comment shows us all your misunderstanding of what it means to teach in a PBL environment. Work sheets, problem drills, and lecture are ALL part of teaching with PBL. Anything and EVERYTHING that will help a student learn is brought to bear. That is the anticipatory part of being a PBL teacher. As you walk around working with your cooperative groups you need to be making mental notes about deficiencies. Then we have lectures (mini to lengthy) that we call workshops. We may have worksheets to do some quick assessment of understanding. It's called being a good teacher.
And, your final statement, solidifies the fact that you have a severe misunderstanding of PBL. Please attend a workshop by the Buck Institute or go to one of the New Tech schools where they are teaching using PBL and you will see that State Standards, Common Core Standards, and yes, even good-OLD Bloom's are used in the planning process by those teachers who, you say, never work outside of the classroom.

Managing Editor and Producer

Hi James - Thank you for your

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Hi James - Thank you for your comment and question. You might want to take a look at our Schools That Work package about Whitfield County schools in Georgia (http://www.edutopia.org/stw-replicating-pbl), also fairly rural, where they have replicated the High Tech High model of PBL at their traditional middle school as well as at the high school (however, the high school is a career academy). Also, our package about PBL in Maine (http://www.edutopia.org/stw-maine-pbl) includes Helen King Middle School, a public, expeditionary middle school.

Not impressed

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I have visited this school and have seen the process. First, the student body is not random, but self-selected, which gives the stats for the school large gap in credibility for their success claims. Second, while the teachers are enthusiastic, they often count on the technology and student "interest" to produce something...they do not do the hard work of planning outside of the classroom. Third, during HST cycles, teachers are often seen going back to worksheets,problem drills and lecture in order to catch up for the test. Finally, PBL is utilized, but attention to the curriculum and the relationship to Bloom's Taxonomy is overlooked much of the time.

What about us?

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I love the PBL model, and I think it can reach all kids. But I am frustrated with examples like this that appears to be some kind of magnet school, where all the students choose to be there. We are a small-town, fairly rural school district, and we have to serve all the kids in town (actually within about a 15 mile radius), many are low SES, low parent support and low motivation. Can you provide some examples of PBL learning in districts that have to serve all children, not just the ones who choose to be there?

Local Stories Project coordinator - community based integrated arts

This article just whets the

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This article just whets the appetite! Great to hear about a PBL based school that is doing so well, but I kept waiting for more detail, and concrete examples of projects.HOW does this "relationships first" model work, exactly? Are initial classes structured for "get to know you"? Do all grades work together on school-wide projects? How specific are the themes? Would be great to have a follow up article with some specifics.

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