George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

The Importance of Project-Learning Schools

August 28, 2009

When I talk with groups of teachers about project learning, audiences typically divide along predictable lines.There are the pioneers who have been teaching with the project approach for years and wouldn't consider going back to more traditional instruction. There are those eager to give projects a try but not quite sure how to begin.

And then there are the naysayers who have a list of reasons why projects aren't worth their time and effort.

It was a different story at the first Project Foundry Conference, held recently outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Every teacher in attendance came from a secondary school that embraces project learning as central to instruction.

These tend to be innovative small schools, including charters, vocational academies, and schools geared for alternative learners. The setting for the event was the TAGOS Leadership Academy, in Janesville, Wisconsin, which is about to start its third year of delivering individualized instruction through the project approach.

These pioneering schools, looking for better ways of reaching today's learners, have been willing to rethink just about everything: How should the school day be scheduled? How do we measure student progress toward learning goals? What's the best size for a learning community that fosters strong connections between students and adults? Models vary somewhat from one community to the next but share a common vision of students deeply engaged in learning by tackling real-world challenges.

It doesn't take long for teachers from these schools to start sharing stories of fantastic projects and motivated learners. But as one of the participants pointed out, the larger community needs to hear these stories, too. Most adults have never had a chance to learn or teach in a project-learning setting. If these new schools are going to thrive in the long run, they need policy makers, parents, and community members to understand what they are doing -- and why it matters.

The goal is not only positive press coverage (although that doesn't hurt) but also a better way of talking about results. Most project-learning schools operate within the larger, more traditional educational system.

That means schools focusing on authentic assessment still have to turn in reports that tally credits earned for seat time. Sometimes, it can feel as if you're speaking different languages. To avoid confusion, Paul Tweed, founder of the Wildlands School, in Augusta, Wisconsin, suggests that project-learning schools find ways to translate what their students are doing to the more traditional language of credits and course titles.

Similarly, schools need to be able to talk with parents in a language they understand. That's the seasoned advice of Steve Rippe, who promotes school change through the network of EdVisions Schools.

"We need a bridging language," he says, so that parents who have never experienced project learning feel comfortable entrusting their children to a school that embraces that method. That's especially important for parents from low-income communities who know that education is the key to their kids' future. "They can't gamble it," Rippe says.

Another resource for encouraging this conversation is Project Foundry, which offers schools an online system for managing all the complex pieces of a project-learning environments. With feedback from end users -- educators themselves -- the toolkit is constantly being fine-tuned to meet evolving needs, including reporting tools to communicate results.

As I listened to these educators share strategies and wrestle with challenges, I found myself wishing their discussions could reach an even larger audience. If our old ideas about school are going to change anytime soon, this conversation needs to move from the frontier to the mainstream.

What ideas can you bring to the discussion? How do you talk about what works in education in your community?

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