George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The mere mention of 21st-century skills always seems to elicit lively debate among people who are either for the concept or against it. The conversation about it is a good one to have, but we should move beyond this particular debate and toward an inclusive discussion that helps students win on all sides.

In order to succeed in the 21st-century workforce, students need a curriculum that includes both opportunities to master content and the chance to apply and demonstrate their knowledge. At Envision Schools, we combine rigorous academic content with an applied-learning model known as project learning. It serves to motivate students and increase academic achievement.

Using project learning, we reinforce knowledge from one class in other classes as students acquire new computer skills, learn to work in teams, and gain experience with public speaking. These are the same skills students must demonstrate not only in college but also in life beyond the classroom.

For example, our high school seniors must read Dante's Inferno as well as compose an in-depth literary analysis as a baseline for college-preparatory work. But we don't stop there. We also bring Dante's Inferno into technology, art, and drama classes, where students must work in teams to create an artistic interpretation of one of the levels of hell Dante describes. The entire class must then retell the story, presenting the work in sequential order before an audience of parents and peers.

It's interesting to note that no one in the 21st-century debate is disputing the link between motivation and achievement. Certainly, the prospect of earning an A on a paper can motivate students to master such a difficult book. What I've seen at Envision Schools, however, is that the greatest motivator for students is the opportunity for them to creatively express their understanding through interpretive work for a real audience outside the classroom -- not just a teacher. Students get excited, and this excitement translates into success.

Few public high schools require all their students to read the Inferno. It's a tough read, no doubt. But because our students are highly motivated, they do succeed. At the end of this challenging project, the students have two more pieces to add to their portfolios, which are required for graduation.

Content mastery is only a baseline measurement of whether students are ready for college. Students must also be able to apply what they've learned and articulate their viewpoints.

How has project learning revolutionized your classroom or school? Let's keep the conversation going.

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Andrew Pass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great post! Thanks for sharing.

The one thought that I had as I read it was, in the Twenty First Century students are no longer limited as to who they can present their work to. Indeed, social networking tools might be used to create world-wide arenas of collaboration. Your students could present Dante's Inferno while they learn content presented from other high school students around the world.

Bertha Kaumbulu's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The misunderstanding about PBL arises when teachers fail to recognize that they are decision makers and education is not one-size-fits-all. PBL is grounded in constructivist learning theory--just as drill and practice or content based instruction, which has been a traditional approach, is also based on behaviorist learning theory. Teachers will integrate learning theories whether it is Multiple Intelligences theory or any of the others as they (learning theories) apply to their learners. Decision making and application is just as important for the teacher in the classroom as it is for one's students. Therefore, there is a place for project-based, inquiry-based instruction as well as drill and practice instruction. This calls for a richer relationship with one's students and makes teaching much more purposeful.

Ongoing professional development is integral to teacher growth. This becomes necessary in light of technological and global changes that require both skills and knowledge.

Wren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My students are researching the 1800's and are using wikispaces to showcase their knowledge. They are conducting independent research projects and using the web in a safe format. They are also responsible for creating an alternative format to show their new knowledge, so while every student creates a wikispace for his or her topic, each student chooses a different alternative format. For example, one student is creating a board game, another is building a model Civil War era naval ship, and so on.

Enjoy! Wren S., M.Ed.

Cyndee Perkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The above comments and advice have been particularly interesting, but another facet to PBL is staff development. I have been frustrated by teachers who simply invent a project without first considering the content and whether this particular project stimulates and/or reinforces the learning. They decide to have students do projects simply because their school administration or department head has asked for a project. Teachers need training to evaluate WHEN and WHY a project is appropriate.

And, I don't know about anyone else, but I wish I were a student in Tristan's classroom!

Cyndee Perkins
Director, Curriculum and Program Development

Brian 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Has anyone else used technology portfolios? Envision Schools uses the model in a high school setting. I am very interested in using it in our STEM school with elementary students. How much grading weight is put into the portfolio and do students have several different subjects and projects that the portfolio encompasses?

Jenny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach first grade at a school in North Carolina. Our county has used project based learning for several years. This year our first grade did a PBL on North Carolina Animals. We researched 5 different animals. Our reserach consisted of going to the media center and working with the media teacher, the computer lab and working with the lab teacher and then reserach with books, Discovery Streaming, internet in our classroom. The students wrote down dash facts, made all about books, and drew pictures. We also incorporated music and art into our PBL. The music teacher taught the students songs about the animals and our art teacher helped them make a backdrop to use for our program that we would be doing at the end. After studying these animals each class was an expert on one animal and presented that animal in our program. My class did a play where they shared facts about the red wolf and sang 2 songs. Behind them was the back drop they had drawn that showed what a red wolf looked like and it's habitat. Throughout this PBL the students were engaged and learned a lot. It was a different way of learning for them and they enjoyed it. They were having fun and forgot they were learning about North Carolina animals.

Chris A. Heidelberg, Ph.D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I love what you are doing with project based learning. In fact, I have employed it in my college classroom to teach students across disciplinary lines with students ranging from first year freshmen to graduating seniors and it has proven to be quite effective. In fact, the students assisted me in creating a research project based on it that I plan on publishing by the end of the year. This is the future! My original background was 15 years of producing,directing and writing and I switched to higher education and implemented my edutainment and convergence methods in the classroom. I hope to collaborate with you in the future.

Chris A. Heidelberg, III, Ph.D.
Executive Director
The Center For Internet Research

Shontae Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think project learning is a great move for the future. I remember doing something like this in my student teaching class. I observe the English, math and social studies all doing an assignment on black death. Each subject area had assignments that connected to the other subject matters. I felt that the student were more interested in this method of learning. I feel that this is an great way for students to stay motivated and e successful.

Christine Wagner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have really enjoyed the discussion on project learning. I love the projects in my classroom, and long to do more. Bob Lenz wrote, "..the greatest motivator for students is the opportunity for them to creatively express their understanding through interpretive work for a real audience outside the classroom -- not just a teacher." That sums it up for me. Kids want to express to us and to the world what they know. They do learn. They love to learn. I'm just not sure school has kept up with the curve.

cecilia04's picture

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