Ten Tips for Replicating Project-Based Learning
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Five middle schools and one high school in the Whitfield County, Georgia school district are in their second year of a transition to project-based learning. Their model is High Tech High, a San Diego charter school renowned for its hands-on student projects that have real-world impact.
Whitfield educators have taken big risks, tried things that failed, and then improved their work based on those mistakes. They're still learning. Yet they've also succeeded in making a huge transition in a short time. The words they use for what it's like to see their students so thoroughly engaged include exciting, amazing, and fun.
Here are some key lessons from Whitfield County -- often learned the hard way -- on how to tackle the challenges of replicating a model PBL school.
1. Deliberately build trust among colleagues
Any process of change -- not to mention project-based learning itself -- requires teamwork and learning from one another. "One of our biggest mistakes was assuming that teachers could jump in and collaborate and have those critical conversations," says Andrea Bradley, principal of North Whitfield Middle School. "It's very, very hard not to make it personal." After some initial friction, North Whitfield Middle School started using High Tech High's procedure for constructive criticism to help teachers learn to go "hard on the content, soft on the people," as High Tech High describes it.
2. Grant the freedom to fail
It requires courage and a willingness to take risks and experiment to try anything new. Teachers in Whitfield County say a crucial part of their success results from knowing that administrators will support them even if they try something that bombs. "Teachers need to feel that if I walk into their classroom and they're trying something and it doesn't work, it's OK," explains Bradley. "Otherwise, they're not going to try to grow."
3. Allow for flexible scheduling
Engaging, hands-on projects often don't fit neatly into a 50-minute class period. A teacher might need just 20 minutes for an introduction one day, then 90 minutes for students to work in groups the next day. So Bradley and Tim Fleming, principal at Whitfield Career Academy, the high school, did away with bells at their schools. Instead, each group of teachers shares the same set of students, and each group has the freedom to adjust its schedule depending on the demands of the day.
4. Build in time to plan and collaborate
An essential part of the High Tech High model is integrating multiple subjects into each project, which requires teachers from different disciplines to plan together. Plus, teachers need one another's support and coaching as they undergo this change. So principals at each of the schools shifting to PBL changed the schedules to allow for daily common planning time. At Whitfield Career Academy, teachers literally share an office; Fleming moved their desks from separate classrooms into a big, shared workroom.
5. Don't forget the standards
Teachers at Whitfield Career Academy and North Whitfield Middle School say that last year, they were so intent on designing meaningful projects and personalizing the work for their students that they didn't always build in enough academic rigor. This year, they're working to correct that."One of my biggest mistakes was thinking that a project has to be a grand display, the more butcher paper and scissors and glitter the better," says North Whitfield Middle School seventh-grade teacher Samantha Bacchus. "Now, I feel like a project really works when I start with the standards and incorporate aspects that I know the students will be able to use to learn the standards."
6. Remember, not everything is a project
"When you jump into something and teachers are excited about it, they may want to force, say, this math into this science, but it doesn't always fit," notes Bradley. "I keep having to say to teachers, 'It's OK if I come into your classroom and it looks very traditional,' because a project for everything is not appropriate, but engaging work is always appropriate."
7. Cultivate an evangelist
Whitfield Career Academy teacher Eric White went on the first of the district's several visits to High Tech High, and he took to the school's rigorous project-based learning right away. Given his passion for the practice and his skills as a presenter, he became a key evangelist who explained project-based learning to his colleagues and led training sessions across the district. As usual, it helps for teachers to hear this message from a fellow teacher -- someone who understands the daily challenges of a classroom.
8. Pilot with a small group of enthusiasts
Rather than trying to convert their entire schools to project-based learning all at once, principals in Whitfield County started with a single grade and tried to place the teachers who were most eager to make the transformation in that group. That way, the enthusiasts could work out some of the bugs and demonstrate the benefits of PBL for their colleagues to see. The principals chose the earliest grades in their schools, sixth and ninth, because students in those grades would more likely be open-minded about a new kind of learning.
9. Use the available free resources
The nonprofit High Tech High aims to share its best practices openly, not make money off them, so it posts a host of materials on its website for free. The Projects page details projects created by High Tech High teachers, with timelines, assignment descriptions, and examples of student work. The Videos page contains dozens of videos on teaching and learning at the school, some produced by students. More resources and videos on project-based learning are available from the Buck Institute for Education and Edutopia's own PBL page.
10. Educate parents and the community
Helping parents and community members understand and buy into project-based learning is one thing educators across Whitfield County agree they haven't done enough of. "The word project can mean so many different things," Bradley points out. "Parents thought it meant we were going to cut out cute stuff and stick it on a poster. For us, project-based learning doesn't mean you have to use paint or glitter or build something. Really, it's about designing an experience that children want to be a part of."