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Whirlwind Tour of PBL Schools Reveals Key Takeaways

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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From de Tocqueville to Dickens, curious visitors have a long tradition of trying to make sense of the American way of doing things. Tom Stephens, an educator from the United Kingdom, spent five weeks this summer studying our educational system up close, on the hunt for good ideas to take home. Unlike his predecessors, he came equipped with a Twitter handle (@tom_stephens1) and blog to capture his impressions in real time.

I caught up with Stephens at his last stop, the PBL World conference in Napa, Calif., where we talked about the various models of project-based high schools he has visited. I was eager to know, what stood out as bright spots at these diverse schools? Which ideas does he think are exportable to the UK? Here are highlights from his travels.

Suzie Boss: How did your whirlwind tour of American high schools come about? What's your own background?

Tom Stephens: I'm originally from Wales and am now five years into teaching high school (history and sociology). I was doing PBL before I knew there was a name for it. At Rivers Academy in West London, I was given the best position ever: director of research and innovation. I'm currently assistant principal there, focusing on curriculum and instruction. Our school has survived a turnaround -- the horrible first part (of school change) -- and now we're looking for strategies to get to student self-worth, engagement, and sense of purpose. Through research, PBL came up. I wanted to see it in action and see how different schools do it. I've seen High Tech High (in San Diego, Calif.), but I wanted to explore other models. The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust funded a research grant that has allowed me to do that.

As you think about introducing PBL in the UK, where are the opportunities? What's likely to be hard?

The UK has introduced a new kind of government-funded school. Our studio schools are similar to your charter schools. They're small by design -- about 300 students -- and just for ages 14-18. Our comprehensive schools are large -- Rivers Academy is 1,850 students -- and go from ages 11 to 18. I was on a team that wrote a bid for two new studio schools. The first opens this fall, the second in 2015. The first will have a focus on space-related industries. There's no model to follow for a space-themed high school, so we got industry experts to advise us. It's going to offer career pathways within the context of space exploration. (Read more about Space Studio West London.)

There's room for innovation, but the UK also has rigorous testing. That's not going away. We want to keep the dropout rate low by doing better at engaging students, but still make sure that a high number pass the tests. There's a concern among some educators that if we do projects, students won't pass the tests. We have to show we can do both.

So let's hear a little about your visits to U.S. schools. What's been memorable?

First stop was New York City, where I went to Bronx Guild High School. It's a Big Picture school in a tough neighborhood. There are enormous health challenges facing this community. Sometimes when you're in the most challenging circumstances, you have to innovate. There's an emphasis here on apprenticeships, and many students are working in settings that have an ethos of social justice. It might be a lawyer's office, a civil rights organization, or a group working on public health issues. Student achievement is on the upswing and dropouts are down. The principal, Sam Decker, is a mad gardener. They use a one-acre garden for science investigations. It's something special.

From there, I went to the Young Women's Leadership School in Astoria, Queens. Students on the Tech Crew run what they call "intensives" -- focused learning experiences -- for other students. They have an incredible project management structure in place, and students are adept at producing digital content -- videos, games, an award-winning iBook.

At Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, I saw a high school with an incredible school culture. They've nailed it. Then I went to the conference of iZone schools. So much innovative stuff happening, from blended learning to parental engagement. And that was just New York.

[Read more detailed descriptions of his PBL school visits on his blog.]

Can you generalize about the PBL schools you visited? What do these diverse models have in common?

My overall impression is about the kids at these schools. They are so articulate. They talk about their work, their projects, and their questions. It's a big shift to see those speaking and listening skills.

In Rhode Island, at another Big Picture school, I met a student who had started a bike repair business in the school's business innovation unit (like a business incubator). He pitched the idea, proved the concept, and then sold the business to another student. This involves real funding, a real start-up culture.

At Tech Valley High, a New Tech school in Albany, New York, you could tell that students have agency. There are zero behavior issues. Kids use the same project management tools and strategies that professionals use. It's real world.

In Cambridge, Mass., I went to see NuVu Studio. Students choose to come here for part of high school (from a couple weeks to a semester or more), and they get coached by facilitators. They've applied the principles of design and problem-solving to a high school. Students are so immersed in learning and creativity. I saw one student working on an infinity cube. Another produced the most incredible documentary on the subject of homelessness I've ever seen, and the student is just 14! Another did a five-minute short with animation on the subject of selfies. I went to NuVu exhibition night and watched kids present to an audience of 400 parents. They presented their work just as adult professionals would.

Some of these examples, like NuVu, have broken from traditional school models completely. Are there ideas here that you might be able to borrow and adapt for your comprehensive high school back in West London?

Yes, it's about making space for the kind of learning experience that positively benefits the rest of school. It doesn't have to happen all day, in a wall-to-wall PBL school. If there's engaged learning going on for at least part of the day, it spills over.

I saw this in rural Arkansas when I visited schools that are part of EAST Initiative. EAST schools have created technology labs where students choose to spend part of their school day. They are doing projects that have massive impact on their communities. In one small town, students have created QR codes to direct citizens to emergency information. The town had no plans in place in the event of disaster, so students mapped out evacuation sites. Another project combines agriculture, technology, entrepreneurship, and social benefits. Picture a student-run garden where the carrots send a text message when they need water. The food grown there is sold to area restaurants, and some also goes to a shelter that feeds some students' families.

My last stop was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at ACE Leadership Academy. Students are doing real work in the fields of architecture, construction, and engineering. Teachers don't talk like they're in a classroom. It feels like a work site. (Read more about ACE.)

That's quite a tour. And then you came to PBL World for a deep dive into project design and planning. Any final thoughts after this week?

What I've realized is that there's a huge spectrum of projects that can engage kids. My earlier perception was that you have to change everything [to achieve the benefits of PBL]. That's not true. You can deliver elements of traditional teaching and still have the engagement of PBL.

We need some beacon schools in the UK that will be like your High Tech Highs and other models. I hope that our new Space Studio School will be one. I think we can find room in the mainstream for PBL. I'm optimistic. I'm feeling a groundswell of support, and now I have allies in the U.S. to help us get there.

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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

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