Project-Based Learning

What Makes Project-Based Learning a Success?

At this high school in Texas, where every class is project-based, there is a commitment  to a consistent process, a focus on relationships, and a commitment to relevance and rigor. 

May 23, 2012
Senior students are doing a presentation in front of the classroom.

Overview

A Commitment to Relevance and Rigor

The key to Manor New Tech’s success is an unwavering schoolwide commitment to the design and implementation of a project-based learning (PBL) model that drives students to actively pursue knowledge. From the moment a project is introduced, students are responsible for figuring out what they need to know and doing the legwork to find the information, analyze it, and present it. Teachers are there every step of the way to guide students through the process and to provide workshops to help clarify concepts.

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The school’s PBL protocol is designed to put students in the driver’s seat of their learning and is followed consistently throughout Manor. Some elements may be common, such as peer reviews and ongoing assessments, but it’s the sum total of the process, along with the fidelity with which it is followed, that is a big part of Manor’s success. One of the familiar refrains at Manor is, “This is our house.” And the Manor community means it. Everyone, teacher and student alike, is there because he or she chooses to be. Not a single student has dropped out in its five-year history nor has any teacher left because of dissatisfaction.

Manor’s success begins with the three R’s, which conventionally stand for rigor, relevance, and relationships. Manor has switched the order of these concepts, though, beginning by building relationships and then incorporating relevance and rigor. Ownership and autonomy are also essential to Manor’s PBL, and these concepts are integrated at every level. All teachers start with the state standards, and they observe and stay true to the school’s PBL model. They are left to their own creativity and expertise to design the projects and guide their students through the process. Similarly, teachers strive to give their students latitude in how they choose to demonstrate their knowledge, as long as they aim for the learning outcomes defined in the rubrics. 

How It's Done

Project-Based Learning: Success Start to Finish

Manor New Technology High School in Manor, Texas, is a 100 percent project-based learning school. Manor New Tech students follow the STEM curricular program, which requires all students to take two courses in engineering (Engineering Design and Principles of Engineering).

The school is part of the New Tech Network of schools, and Manor’s approach has yielded remarkable results, which include a 98 percent graduation rate, with all graduates accepted to college. Manor accomplishes this by following the 10 steps below:

Adherence to State Standards

Teachers build each project around a driving question. As a general rule, the driving questions at Manor New Tech must be mapped to state standards and cover a sufficient number of them to warrant the time spent on the project. Since every project at Manor starts with the state standards, every project’s final assessment requires that students demonstrate their mastery of them.

Critical Friends Discussions

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.

Entry events

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.

Need-to-know lists

Key words 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.

Teacher-Created Rubrics

Teachers carefully design rubrics to define all the desired learning outcomes for a project, which include the state standards students are expected to master and the way performance will be measured for each outcome. The rubric sets the standard for each project and is presented at the start so students have clear goals to work toward.

Group Contracts

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.

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 according to students’ needs, and they have students run workshops for one another to reinforce their learning and build collaboration.

Assessment and adjustments

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. According to what they find, teachers may go back and do more scaffolding, quiz more, or provide additional workshops.

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.

Final Assessments

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 helps considerably. They also enable teachers to track behavior and reward positive student behavior accordingly.

School Snapshot

Manor New Technology High School

Grades 9-12 | Manor, TX
Enrollment
345 | Public, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$5,488 School$6,909 District$7,494 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
54%
DEMOGRAPHICS:
44% Hispanic
32% White
22% Black
2% Asian
5% English language learners 4% Special needs
Data is from the 2011-12 academic year.