George Lucas Educational Foundation

Manor New Technology High School

Grades 9-12 | Manor, TX

A Step-by-Step Guide to the Best Projects

Discover a project-based learning model that motivates students to pursue knowledge and drives academic achievement.
Mariko Nobori
Former Managing Editor and Producer, Edutopia
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Three girls smiling behind a laptop
One sophomore project at Manor New Tech High School was based on the best-selling novel The Hunger Games. Examples of how they incorporated English and world history standards into the project are below.

Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas, is a 100 percent project-based learning school. They are part of the New Tech Network of schools and their approach has yielded remarkable results, including a 98 percent graduation rate, with all of their graduates accepted to college.

The success of their PBL approach is largely attributable to the fact that their process is designed to stimulate student inquiry. Additionally, their process can be applied to any project in any subject, which means there is a consistent approach across grades and subjects at Manor.

We followed a sophomore world studies class through a three-week project called Controlling Factors, created by teaching partners Mary Mobley (English) and Michael Chambers (world history). They designed a project that capitalized on the wild popularity among their students of the best-selling novel The Hunger Games. Built on specific English and world history state standards, the project covered concepts including the pre-World War II global economic crisis, the rise of totalitarianism, and the societal moral dilemmas that world leaders at that time faced, and then had students draw parallels to similar fictional themes in the book.

Here is a breakdown of key steps, with some examples from Mobley and Chambers's project:

  1. State standards: Every project at Manor starts with the state standards, and every project's final assessment requires that students demonstrate their mastery of them. State standards are laid out in the rubric, and students should be able to tell you which ones they're covering in any given project.
    • Example: For Mobley and Chambers's project, world history standards included understanding the causes of the global depression, the response of governments to it, the rise of totalitarianism, and key world leaders in WWII. English language arts standards included analyzing moral dilemmas across cultures in works of fiction, making complex inferences from literature, and writing personal response essays.
  2. Critical Friends: Honest, two-way feedback and ongoing adjustments help Manor’s projects to continually improve. Both students and teachers participate in a peer review protocol they call Critical Friends. Before teachers launch a project, they often have a session with colleagues for feedback, especially on the academic rigor of the project. Similarly, before their final presentations, students often run Critical Friends to give each other feedback in the form of "I like…" and "I wonder…" statements and suggest next steps for improvement.
    • Example: Mobley and Chambers had a Critical Friends session with their department colleagues in which they received feedback on how to better integrate the two subjects. In this session, they also came up with the idea for the second part of the project, in which the students were broken up into districts and a ruling capital to simulate both the fictional and historical scenarios they were studying.
  3. Entry event: Teachers introduce each project with an entry event that serves several purposes: to hook the kids and get them engaged in the content, to provide an exemplar of what the teachers expect, and to introduce key vocabulary (such as people, events, and terminology) related to the targeted content to get the students thinking about what they'll need to know.
    • Example: For the Controlling Factors entry event, Mobley and Chambers created a newsreel that included terms like "Mussolini," "totalitarianism," "global depression," and "World War II" as breadcrumbs. A student might already know what totalitarianism and World War II are, but may not know who Mussolini was and how those terms are all connected.
  4. "Need-to-know" list: Keywords in the entry event should prompt students to identify new concepts they’ll need to learn and help them make connections to related content they already know. As a class, they agree on a shared list of need-to-knows, which they update individually throughout the project.
  5. Rubric: The rubric is an essential tool for maintaining transparency for students at Manor. Teachers carefully design rubrics to define all the desired learning outcomes for a project, including which state standards students are expected to master and how performance will be measured for each outcome. The rubric sets the standard for each project and is presented at the start so that students have clear goals to work toward.
  6. Group contract: Individual accountability is a critical component of successful PBL, and Manor students use group contracts to document expectations for each team member. Each project team writes a contract that clearly defines everyone's roles, responsibilities, and contributions to the project, and students are held to it. Students can be fired if they do not fulfill their part of the contract and must complete the project on their own, although this rarely happens at Manor.
  7. Research and collaboration: Once the project is launched, it is up to the students to work together to figure out what their final product is going to be and how they will acquire the knowledge they need to complete it. Teachers provide workshops to go over concepts depending on students' needs, and they have students run workshops for each other to reinforce their learning and build collaboration.
    • Example: Workshops for The Hunger Games project included student-led discussions about real moral dilemmas from events in history or fictional examples based on events in the book. They also had workshops on different totalitarian leaders and other world leaders during WWII.
  8. Assessment and adjustment: Throughout the process, teachers and students give and receive feedback and make adjustments accordingly. Teachers track student progress to make sure no student is falling behind. Depending on what they find, they might go back and do more scaffolding, quiz more, or provide additional workshops. "If I have a student who is almost done with an entire project and is not doing very well," says Mobley, "I really step back and wonder, 'Where was I this whole time? Why wasn't I paying more attention to the student's progress?'"
  9. Presentations: Public presentations are the common element to all projects at Manor, with up to 80 percent of them in front of an external audience. Verbal communication, public speaking, and other important nonacademic skills are honed in this process.
    • Example: Final presentations for Mobley and Chambers's project included a multimedia presentation with audience participation about a moral dilemma faced by Nazi concentration camp survivors and a skit dramatizing the moral decisions made by world leaders running up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  10. Final assessment: Because teachers take pains to observe student progress throughout the process, the final assessments tend to be relatively easy. The work up front on creating a clearly defined rubric that identifies multiple learning outcomes and criteria also helps considerably. As Mobley explains, "By the time students turn in their final work, they should know what grade they're going to get."

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Comments (21) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Nathan's picture
High School Science Teacher

While watching all of the videos posted at Edutopia as well as other sites, one part that always seems to be missing is the instruction. All of the videos focus on a bit of teacher collaboration, student performance assessments; but the instruction is always left out. Is the instruction traditional but not shown, or are the students on their own to find information? That is the missing piece for me. Do they get choice in how they want to learn the content, is there a list of "to do's", or is direct instruction happening and the students work as the instruction takes place? Am I missing something. Thanks

Mariko Nobori's picture
Mariko Nobori
Former Managing Editor and Producer, Edutopia

That is an excellent question, Nathan. Depending on what strategy we are focusing on, sometimes we're not able to show as much of the details of classroom instruction in lieu of capturing details about the strategy. In the case of Manor, students learn the content through a variety of methods, almost all of those you listed. At the start of each project, they identify "need to knows" on both a class and individual level, and students are responsible for their list. They find the information through independent research, sharing info with each other, group workshops, and occasionally traditional teacher instruction. The teachers generally use the students as a gauge for when this is appropriate. If they are getting feedback from several students indicating difficulty with a subject, or if they want to make sure everyone is on the right track, then they will give direct instruction to the class. Otherwise, they serve as guides and a resource, and let students take on the responsibility of how they will obtain and learn the information. Hope that helps, thanks for the insightful question.

Chris Fancher's picture
Chris Fancher
Design and PBL facilitator.

Mariko had a nice reply to your comment and I wanted to add that your view is a common question from people looking in at a PBL classroom. Whole group instruction does (and should) occur, small group instruction is even more prevalent, and individual research is on going. PBL is just good teaching practices all rolled into a thing we call PBL. There are daily formative or summative assessments, daily reflection pieces, and peer critiques going on continuously, as well. PBL is HARD to do properly. But when the students and the teacher both understand the process, it is incredibly rewarding for both teacher and student.

Mariko Nobori's picture
Mariko Nobori
Former Managing Editor and Producer, Edutopia

Thank you for the helpful additional info, Chris! Excellent to get it straight from the classroom.

Joe Balbontin Jr's picture
Joe Balbontin Jr
President and CEO of Urians of Bayugan International, Inc. (U.B.I.)

Great! I want this to be shared to our U.B.I. scholars in Urians of Bayugan International, Inc - UBI of Bayugan, Agusan del sur so that they will learn more by doing projects by themselves.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Someone tweeted this very helpful graphic they made based upon this step-by-step guide:

Some context of the image and inspiration:

The Essentials of #PBL. Resources: @biepbl and @edutopia. Inspired by @ncnewschools #ScalingStem '13.

Mary Ann Stoll's picture
Mary Ann Stoll
Curriculum developer for K-12

So, Manor's shift from PROJECT Based Learning to PROBLEM Based Learning in math has enabled teachers to recognize and respond to students' math-related needs more quickly. How does their model for PrBL differ from PBL? What is it about the PrBL that facilitates "immediate remediation", that is not present in PBL?

Mary Ann Stoll's picture
Mary Ann Stoll
Curriculum developer for K-12

This story about Manor is inspiring. This is a three-week project? It sounds like there's too much to accomplish in three weeks. Was one hour a day devoted to the project for the three weeks? Or two hours a day, given it integrated SS and Eng? Or full days for three weeks?

Can we get a glimpse of the project calendar mentioned in their project form?

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Hi, I'm not sure whose statement you're agreeing with, but do you mean "doing problems" as they are traditionally use in math - like the ones in a textbook? Or do you mean problem based learning is when students learn a concept more deeply? I'd agree with that, but not with the idea that textbook questions allow students to learn very deeply. I've seen plenty of project based units in math that go deeply into concepts - maybe you've seen some poor examples of PBL.

Mary Ann Stoll's picture
Mary Ann Stoll
Curriculum developer for K-12

I had really hoped that this was an active discussion because I really want and answer to my question. May we please see a project calendar?

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