Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Getting Specific About Student Success

September 12, 2013
Photo image: Jon_Marshall via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Getting ready for the new school year can feel like preparing for a race. Anticipation of that opening bell gets hearts beating faster for students, teachers, and parents alike. Alarm clocks that have been quiet all summer are now screaming for attention. Between shopping for back-to-school supplies, navigating new schedules, setting up your classroom, and packing lunches, there's little time to think about where you're heading in such a hurry.

What if you could hit the pause button long enough to consider, what would a successful school year feel like? What are right-sized learning goals for the next nine months? How about audacious goals? Taking time to reflect on these big questions can be a valuable part of your back-to-school planning.

The Role of Project-Based Learning

The New Tech Network, which includes more than 120 public and charter schools across the United States plus a partner in Australia, has been fine-tuning its definition of school success. Across the network, schools put project-based learning (PBL) at the heart of instruction and share common language about learning outcomes.

Until recently, most of the network's insights have been shared internally, helping member schools get better at what they do. New Tech President Lydia Dobyns told me earlier this year that she and her colleagues "pause regularly to collect and analyze data; implement changes based on that analysis; and repeat, repeat, repeat." In other words, they apply the same inquiry cycle that drives student learning in PBL.

As New Tech Network has grown and matured, it also has started to make public some of the tools it uses as a learning organization. Sharing results with a public audience is another nice parallel to the PBL experience for students.

One such tool is a school success rubric, which is available for any school to use or adapt. (Download a PDF of the NTN School Success Rubric.) Paul Curtis, chief academic officer for New Tech Network, calls the tool "a surprisingly simple framework that has lots of implications of what learning must look like."

The rubric is tightly focused on student success measures. It spells out what learning should look like to prepare students for college, careers, and active citizenship. Common language means that everyone in a school -- students, teachers, administrators, parents, and other community members -- is talking the same talk when they describe learning outcomes, school culture, and college-and-career readiness.

For example, a student who is "highly successful" when it comes to mastery of academic content (defined broadly as "knowledge" in the NTH rubric) is able to demonstrate "a specialized knowledge in one or more disciplines that are of interest." The last part of that sentence -- "of interest"-- is worth discussing as a learning community. Do you know what interests your students? How might you find out? How do you help to spark new interests with open-ended projects and other assignments that allow for student voice and choice?

Here's another gem. Students who are highly successful when it comes to "attributes" (sometimes called habits of mind or dispositions) are described this way: "They 'lean in' to their futures by taking leadership roles and seeking opportunities for growth." They don't avoid challenges, but instead see them as learning opportunities. They demonstrate resilience and persistence.

Attitude and Agency

It's no accident that the NTN rubric language reflects research by psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New Tech Network has taken to heart her endorsement of a growth mindset as a key factor in building student motivation and, ultimately, student success. (Watch Dweck explain the growth mindset in a collection of videos.)

As Paul Curtis explains in a recent blog post, the big idea has to do with student agency -- the capacity of the learner to act as an advocate for his or her own success. He writes:

New Tech Network is also committing to the idea that agency is something a person can develop over time. Carol Dweck's work around state of mind shows us that even the language we use to reward a learner's success has an impact on how they define success and can influence how they process failure in the future. It turns out, praising a learner for his or her natural talent and ability actually sets them up for failure. Because they believe success is based on innate ability, when they experience failure, they assume it's because they don't have the ability to be successful and give up.

A learner praised for success resulting from hard work comes to understand failure as a temporary setback. They experiences failure as an obstacle to be overcome by hard work and will double their efforts to meet the challenge.

Questions to Consider

As a teacher or parent, how do you encourage the confidence it takes for students to "lean in"? Does your school create opportunities for student leadership in diverse contexts (for example, not only in student government)? How do you encourage students to take risks and recover from setbacks? How would your students define a successful school experience?

These are among the hard questions you're apt to consider if you set out to define what it means for students to be successful. Think about how you might capture that conversation and share your insights with others who are embarking on a similar journey. Please share your reflections in the comments.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Assessment

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