George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The end of the school year presents us with an opportunity for reflection at Envision Schools. We take a final measure of students' progress throughout the school year, celebrate the many Envision graduates that will be heading off to college in the fall, and consider how we can incorporate those lessons into improving our own work to best enable, encourage, and ensure student learning.

And so last week, I joined our principals, vice principals, and lead teachers at our annual three-day leadership institute to take stock of the past year: We analyzed data; made plans for the new school year based on both our experience and data, and explored essential questions that had arisen during the school year. This year, we tackled the questions, what is a project? and, what makes a well-designed project? We used these two questions to confirm and reaffirm why we believe in the use of project-based learning at Envision Schools.

In order to get grounded, we looked at student work together and listened to teachers describe their projects. After each, we asked, "is this a project?" and then, if yes, "is it a well-designed project?"

One project that we interrogated was called the BP Oil Spill Project, used in twelfth-grade AP Environmental Science and AP Government (many of our projects are cross-disciplinary). Students were asked to explore the question, "Who was responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf in 2010?" In order to answer that question and demonstrate their knowledge, students studied the ecological effects of the spill and conducted labs on possible dispersants in their science course. In their government classes, they explored the policy and the bureaucracy related to the disaster.

To culminate, they prepared and conducted a simulated congressional hearing to demonstrate their knowledge of the government standards, and had to write and perform a speech (in character!) at the hearing. After investigating several projects like this project, we began to define what I call "PBL, Envision-Style."

Our Working Definition

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching approach, a mindset, and a framework for teaching skills and content. (Both our working definition and criteria are derived from our own work, as well as the work of, Adria Steinberg's 6 A's of PBL, The Buck Institute for Education, and Expeditionary Learning.)

High-quality, PBL "Envision-Style" includes:

  • A timeline that is short or long, ranging from a few days to several weeks, so students learn how to benchmark and manage projects of different sizes.
  • An engaging launch to hook students into taking on the project.
  • Academic rigor and alignment with standards allowing students to master content knowledge and skills, and to demonstrate or apply that knowledge.
  • An inquiry into a student-friendly, provocative essential question that drives the learning. This question often drives the unit or is one of the larger questions in the discipline. For example, "Who am I?"
  • A demonstration of key knowledge and skills in which students show evidence through the product that they have mastered the standards outlined in the course map (state standards).
  • Applied learning so that students think and do something new with their knowledge or skills.
  • An authentic audience that ensures the students take the project, learning, and results seriously and present it professionally (e.g. the class, students from another class, staff, parents, or professionals).
  • High-quality products or performance at the end that show the results of inquiry into a question through applied knowledge and skills (presentation, artistic representation, written and performed speeches, poster or video documentation of: simulation, Socratic, debate, defense). A non-traditional product might be an added layer to a traditional product such as an essay or test e.g., students might debate after writing a research paper.

What do you think of our definition and our characteristics? What would you add or delete? Where have you seen these characteristics in action? Help us refine and evolve our work with your comments, suggestions, and examples.

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Scott Mastroianni's picture

Thank you, we are trying to move to a project based focus in our school. We serve special needs students primarily diagnosed with emotional disturbance and I think this will help focus our teachers in planning for project based experiences.

InternationalGAian's picture

While I like the idea of unit projects, I can't say that projects will be what replaces standardized tests. It makes teachers view their students' grades as subjective and inadequate as data for scores collected from end-of-year-tests. Projects create a summative collection of the standards that are covered in the unit, and serve as a good catalyst for progressive education. I laud the administration and staffs' efforts for setting up such an interesting project. However, I hope the school is able to meet the needs of AYP and NCLB.

SheilaSletmoe's picture

I often require students to incorporate a hands on activity for their project presentation. This is often challenging, but makes it more memorable for both the student and their audience.

Kyle Simon's picture
Kyle Simon
Teacher at South Western High School in Hanover, PA

@InternationalGAian While we're talking about hopes...

...I hope we can stop shooting for "adequacy" and focus on making learning meaningful.

Bobbie Carter's picture
Bobbie Carter
Campus Instructional Coach in Wylie, TX

I appreciated your comments on PBL. My school is currently going to follow the PBL framework and I am reading the reinventing project-based learning book that the Buck Institute endorses. I have created a blog to log my journey with my fellow educators. I too am concerned about the PBL model and also meeting the standards of standardized test pressures. If you would like to join me on my blog or on twitter here are my connections:

forbie's picture

Project learning can and should replace standardized forms of assessment. According to John Dewey's model of education, educators should take into account the "whole child." When educators focus on Eurocentric forms of assessment that do not take into account our country's linguistically and culturally diverse students, all students suffer. According to Donaldo Macedo, the standardized assessment debate is backed by educators and politicians who feel that standardized forms of assessment benefit the students because they are all on an equal playing field. This is simply not the case for our English language learners. These students take the tests regardless of the fact that they do not know English. The data that is measured by standardized tests is simply not indicative of the progress of English language learners. If educators employed a portfolio assessment system that focused on whole child, project-based learning all students would learn content that has real world applications.

hmbird's picture

I agree with the characteristics you listed in your article. A project with these traits can certainly advance the learning of students and their audience. I would emphasize three elements, which I believe are essential in making the project come to life for the students:
* A compelling and relevant topic or problem for the students to address
* A climate that promotes collaboration among the students in the classroom and beyond (through social networking, for instance) in addressing the topic.
* The students' work product can be published and shared outside the classroom (assuming adherence to copyright and other applicable laws).

Thank you.

Tabatha's picture
high school teacher from Gwinnett County, Georgia

The lessons that I teach in all of my Family & Consumer Sciences classes are almost always project-based or problem-based. There is a real push in our school and the surrounding area to use the textbook less and actually put the course material to work. Students are more engaged in the lesson and they inspire each other. Retention of the material is higher when our students can relate what they accomplished to what they heard. I think problem-based learning is one of the best ways to put knowledge to use and to grow 21st Century skills that our children desperately need for their future.

Angela Dye's picture
Angela Dye
School Innovator and Social Change Agent

I appreciate your description of a "well-designed" project, especially the mentioning of academic standards to define rigor. As a project-based learning(PBL)developer (particularly for at-risk learners), I studied many school models that promote PBL. I am always surprised (and a little disheartened) when I stumble accross those programs that allow students to apply standards at the END of the project instead of up front in the project's design. Instead of thinking that standards limit creativity, I like to think that they promote it. Academic standards in project based learning provides scope (and sometimes sequence) to learning and creativity. Many times, it is a life line for students who know "what" they want to explore... they just do not know "how". It looks like you and your team are doing good work for students and PBL. I especially celebrate your end-of-the-year reflection activity. Only educators who themselves engage in learning qualify to facilitate the learning process for others.

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