George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teacher-Training Coordinator David Grant Describes a Framework for Project Learning Success

How King Middle School in Portland, Maine combines project learning and technology to build effective, authentic learning experiences.
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Teacher-Training Coordinator David Grant Describes a Framework for Project Learning Success (Transcript)

David: The essence of King Middle School is giving kids, all kids, a very purposeful way of engaging in complex ideas, concepts, challenges and curriculum. It's about taking curriculum, which is often so dry -- it's about taking it and finding how that actually fits into the context of the real world, giving kids opportunities to work with people who actually work in real disciplines in the world, not just academic disciplines but work in applied science or in applied art or in applied design, and creating a context in which they can explore that while they build both meaningful skill sets and develop –- they develop accurate comprehension of curriculum, but they're doing it all within the context of real work. It's a tricky model, because it means that in order to pull that off, you need a group of six or seven adults who are those kids' primary teachers. You need those adults to understand the big picture of where they want that learning to go. They have to be able to engage with the community and find the right connection, and they have to be able to think about, "So, I'm a field biologist. Well, what is it that a field biologist does? Who's the right field biologist to get in here to work with our kids, and if we take what a field biologist does, what does that look like when a seventh-grader does it? How do we modify it so it's a seventh-grader activity so that seventh-graders can really do that well and accomplish this sort of appearance of the same goals that a real field biologist would engage in."

We adopted the expeditionary learning model at the beginning in 1993, and the laptop initiative began in 2001 or 2002. By the time the laptop initiative came out, we were already pretty well-versed in what project-based learning looked like. We still had a lot of work to do. We always have a lot of work to do in this area, but that gradual process of change meant that it was a change that meant changing the culture of the school, changing the culture of the -- changing the way educators thought about doing their work, changing the structures within the school as we began to see that certain things are too difficult to expect in a lockdown structure, finding ways to open that structure over time. We have summer planning institutes, which we've been doing for 15 years now, where almost the entire staff comes in for three or four days in the summer, works together around planning learning expeditions, critiques each other's work, talks about common resources we could share. We look at different kinds of products people are making. We talk about the learning that could happen in those products. So, we've been doing that for a long time. We've had a celebration of learning for 13 or 14 years now, where at a given point in the year at the end of the year we put out all the learning that kids have done, all the products that kids have done. We invite educators from around the country to come and look at that work. Our kids all talk about their learning. That's been going on for a long time.

By the time those laptops came out, we already had done deep multimedia work with kids, so we felt quite ready for them. In fact, we were feeling held back by not having laptops before they showed up. So, when they came it was like we hit the ground running, and when I say "we," I mean some of us. So, some of us in the school were doing the kinds of things that we felt like over time we wanted to see everybody doing, and that's one of the great things about the leadership structure at King. It's extremely flexible, like everything else. Most of us do two or three things and nobody cares if somebody else is doing the same thing as another person. Everybody's overlapping and working together to get the job done. When it came to looking at the best practice of learning and teaching here at the school, nobody thought about it first and did it second. Everybody here had ideas that were driven by values and sort of hunches about how learning should work, and then we started doing that and then we started to catalog our success, and that cataloguing of success led to looking at what were the practices that made that possible and then institutionalizing those practices over time through a process of recording and documenting and doing professional development around that work.

The way traditional schools are set up is they're training children and young adults to become mini-professors. You've got your mini-professor of English and you've got your mini-professor of science or your mini-professor of math. And that's just the model and the paradigm we're working with, but that paradigm doesn't really suit the needs of kids or the world anymore today, so one problem that we're facing is that most schools don't even realize that they're working from within a modeled framework. That doesn't really make sense anymore. Then we look out and we think about, well, what's an alternative model? And we think, well, we'd like it to be more like the real world, and a lot of schools have said, "We'd really like our school to be more like the real world," but they break down around structures that would support that within the school. What it takes in a lot of schools is a kind of heroic effort by a few people to pull off these complex learning experiences for kids, and we found here that heroic effort is great once and a while, but it's a burnout. So, unless you find a way to support that within the structure of the school itself, you're going to burn out trying to turn your school into something that's really meaningful for kids.

Most schools are divided into 40- or 50- or 60-minute blocks. They might think they're progressive if they do 80-minute blocks, but that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about a schedule here at King Middle School, where a team of five or six experts in learning, your teachers, can say, "In order to pull off this particular project at this particular stage, in order to make the workflow happen that we need to accomplish with kids, we need to design a whole new schedule this week." And that's what we have here at King Middle School. There aren't any bells. Nobody actually knows where anybody is most of the time, but that's the way real work happens, and we all know that. If we're working in the world and we're in any kind of engineering or design process or we're editing movies or making sounds or we're doing whatever it is that people do, nobody stops after 40 minutes, puts everything down and goes on to do something else. So, flexible schedules is very key. Another piece, which is around time and time management: Schools need to absolutely commit the time for planning and collaborative planning within the schedule framework so that all teachers can work together to integrate the curriculum pieces and do the basic nuts and bolts and workflow planning to make something complicated happen for 80 kids over the course of 8, 10, 12 weeks. It's not easy. It takes a lot of teamwork, which is also not easy, and it also takes a absolute commitment on the part of the school administration and the leadership to carve out that time and make it sacred for teacher planning.

Another piece of the framework that's critical is you need to have the right resources in students' hands, and for us that's been a variety of things; not least important has been the 1-to-1 Laptop Initiative. Now, I wouldn’t say it's the most important thing. I would say it's among the most important things, because you also need to have the right reading resources for kids, so you have to be able to identify developmentally appropriate reading materials for all kids within topics, or else you don't really have a topic that will fly for kids. But at the same time, if you don’t give them a tool like a laptop, a real, professional tool that professionals would use all the time in any field, then you've taken away the opportunity for kids to act like real professionals or to produce real professional products.

Anybody who's spent time working with computers knows they're actually more complicated than people would have you believe. It's difficult to know how to manage the workflow through a project. We have a teacher here in the building whose job is to work with all seventh-graders and to manage that sort of workflow with kids and teach them what that looks like. And, in fact, we've kind of spread that out in a lot of ways, creating lots of different production houses within the school so that as kids pass through different curriculum areas, teachers can rely on experts in production within their own team framework to help them build those kinds of projects. So, I would call that knowhow. It's one thing to have the resources, but you totally need to have the knowhow built into the building.

We go through a process as staff where we critique each other's work, and that's a model for how we do our work with kids as well. We know that getting to the best product for all kids means a period of revision and assessment, formative assessment, looking at kids' work, and when I say "looking at kids' work," I don't mean adults looking at kids' work exclusively. I mean kids looking at kids' work based upon models that they've already looked at and seen. Our teachers produce -- we call them "exemplar models" of the products our kids are going to make before the kids actually do it. And so, often the kids look at what a teacher's made and they say, "You know what? I get it and I think I could do that better." And that whole process leads to our kids also beginning to define the criteria of what a high-quality product would look like, and that's not informal. We formalize that. We design rubrics and create rubrics with our kids that define what quality would look like, and then our kids work to meet their own definition of quality. That's very collaborative, so our kids work together. They do peer editing, and near the end of an expedition sometimes there's a week or six or seven days set aside just for looking at drafts and revisions, drafts and revisions, to get to a high-quality final product with kids.

All kids learn in different ways, and we know that all kids learn at different speeds. And what we've tried to do is ask teams of teachers to think about how they can bring different kinds of media and different kinds of representations of learning into the products that they're making. We've often asked teams to think about if you're going to do this piece around producing a document, for example, with the Taking Care of Business expedition, we've got all those kids producing business plans and making little businesses and they're writing these things that're official little business plans at the same time that down in Joe Farrell's room producing a piece of music. And, for kids who love music, that might be the hook, and for kids who love writing, which my daughter's a kid who loves writing, that's the hook too. You might think of it a little bit as like a pop song. We need to make sure we have the hook in there for all different kinds of kids and all the different kinds of learners, and we're very aware of that. We often ask that all expeditions include a piece of art that kids are producing, and we make sure that the output media of the product can hold a variety of different kinds of media so kids can feel proud of the piece they drew. If they're not as proud of their writing, they might think this is a great piece of art that supports it that they made. So, bringing in the capacity of kids to represent curriculum in a variety of media, in a variety of intelligence just makes it more possible for kids to feel successful.

We make sure that our kids feel like they're a part of a team, so our kids -- they actually don't call them "teams" here. We call them "houses," and our kids have the same houses for two years in a row, the same teachers. We do looping, and there's a strong commitment that every child will be known by at least one significant adult in the school, so we have crews, and a crew is only about 10, 8 to 12 kids big, and that 8-to-12-kid group meets once a week with their crew leader, who's one of the faculty. It's not necessarily their teacher, and those groups of kids do things like initiatives together with the teacher, all kinds of different experiences, and they also manage the learning-portfolio process with that particular crew teacher. And then we have teams that are just totally committed to kids treating each other respectfully. Our kids go out and do community service. Lots of our teams, whether it's expedition time or not, do volunteer work in the community. We take our seventh-graders. Our whole seventh grade goes out camping for three days, and it's all based around teamwork, communication. We have a ropes course in our gym. We're very happy to have competitive experiences for our kids, but we also try to balance that with collaboration and compassion and care for our kids. We teach those things explicitly, and I think when you come into King -- I think everybody says this -- the place does just have a really good vibe. It feels really good. It's not cliquey. Kids all get along with one another, and it's remarkable.

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Support for Edutopia's Schools That Work series is provided, in part, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

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