George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Manor New Technology High School

Grades 9-12 | Manor, TX

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. 

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Project-Based Learning: Success Start to Finish (Transcript)

Steven: I was a bad student. Skipped school quite a bit, and I really didn't find education exciting until I got to college, because then I got to control how I was going to learn. My name is Stephen Zipkes, I'm the founding principal Manor New Technology High School, in Manor Independent School District, Manor, Texas. Manor New Tech is a 100 percent project based instruction school. Students at this school not only get the knowledge, but they learn the application, so the knowledge then becomes relevant when they have to apply it to a real world situation.

Mary: I'm super excited about this project about the Hunger Games. My co-teacher, Michael Chambers, he is the expert in history. I sat down with Michael and said, you know what, I think this is how we can fit it in, let's look at your state standards and let's look at my standards and see what is coming up next.

Michael: So what's your standards you're going to be covering in this?

Mary: We're going to do 5A, which is analyzing scenes, 5B, analyzing different characters' moral dilemmas, and this is huge.

Steven: We have no choice on what we teach, really. The state tells us what we have to teach.

Mary: What are yours again, that we're hitting, so I can go ahead and write this out?

Michael: WH 12, history of the student to understand the cause and impact of World War II, describe the emergence and characteristics of totalitarianism.

Mary: We hooked the kids into the project with the entry event. And then we do what's called the knows and the need to knows, and that's where the student will give us a list of things, what do you know about this content, so they go through their prior knowledge and then they talk about what do they need to know, so we're talking about leaving the students breadcrumbs in these entry events, and those breadcrumbs would be like clues. This idea of wait a minute, I kind of-- I've heard this word before, I don't know exactly what that means, so that's a need to know and I'll ask that at another time.

Student: You probably need to include that picture that I had on the research, because we used that in the question for Columbia.

Student: Okay, we done here?

Mary: The process of a project is constantly changing. We have to look at what the students are doing, how they're learning, do we need to go back and do some more scaffolding? Really, if I have a student who is three quarters of the way, or almost done with an entire project, and has not been doing very well, I really step back and wonder, where was I this whole time? Why wasn't I paying more attention to where the student's progress was?

Steven: Our students are averaging 60 projects a year. So they're averaging 60 to 65 public speeches a year. By the time they graduate, over 200 public speeches. They know how to talk.

Student: Right now, my favorite project is called, Create your own Project.

Student: My favorite project this year was in chemistry, and what it was about, we were using chemistry and reactions to create a soda.

Student: It's a video production class, and we're making a kids' show. We're calling it the Dojo Show.

Student: We're learning about spatial diffusion, black death, the Columbian Exchange.

Student: Reactions like double replacement, combustion, things like that.

Student: I like it because it gives me a whole lot of room to be creative.

Mary: You'll notice that we're covering a lot of the state standards that deal with working in groups and how you are giving feedback to each other on content. At the end of the class period, you need to have a complete and finalized presentation. So critical friends will be over on that side, everyone else, continue working on your presentations, and we'll get started.

So this half of the class has been working on a protocol that is called critical friends, where they're getting feedback on their presentations.

Student: We're going to do a skit on our moral dilemma.

Student: Here's our choices. Do we take him back to the Germans so they can kill him, do we attempt to take them to a medical center, so they can heal him and save his life?

Student: Hmm. What should I do? Should I let my country suffer from the lack of resources?

Student: I like the fact that they're doing a skit instead of a PowerPoint or something, because they actually make it interesting and they, like, interact with the audience and everything.

Mary: The, I likes, are just obvious, what do they like about those presentations. The, I wonders, are maybe some clarifying questions that they might have about those presentations.

Student: I wonder why he, like, chose the specific music to go with the presentation? That's what I wonder.

Mary: And the next steps are some-- that's where the critique comes in, some feedback.

Student: Put some more emotion into your speaking, like really sell why you would choose a reason.

Mary: They're going to present their papers, but how they present, it always-- how they present is their choice, but they always do something multimedia.

Of course, we're having presentations this morning. What you should have, each group should have one slip--

Student: As everybody knows, we read the book, "The Hunger Games".

Student: So what is a moral dilemma? It's a situation where all your choices are morally challenging.

Student: Ours was to risk your life to save another.

Student: There's three Jewish prisoners and they escaped from a German concentration camp. Me and Jorge, Abe, and Jeremiah, escaped fine, but our friend, Philiam, is wounded and he will die if he doesn't get help. I can't choose my own selfish desires to keep a friend, then doing what is right and just and letting him go through all that pain. Thank you.

Mary: I'm assessing them on various pieces of the oral communication, like how they organized their ideas, and how they delivered those ideas, what kind of tone they used during the presentation, and any kind of rhetorical strategies they--

Student: I'm more of an independent student, of me grabbing knowledge than someone telling me. I believe it has prepared me to take the state test, because it's a new way of learning and it sticks to you in a way that's different from an oral teaching class.

Mary: When you put them in this setting, then suddenly, it just makes sense to them. They see the potential that they never saw in themselves, and I get excited about my content again, because it challenges me, and when I get excited about my content, they get excited, and when they get excited, it just feeds me more, and it just-- to me, it makes it all worthwhile.

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  • Director: Zachary Fink
  • Producer: Mariko Nobori
  • Editor: Daniel Jarvis
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Camera: Mario Furloni, Zachary Fink
  • Audio: Thomas Gorman
  • Production Assistant: Bobby Longoria
  • Graphic Design: Maili Holiman
  • Digital Media Curator: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Executive Producer: David Markus

© 2012 | The George Lucas Educational Foundation | All rights reserved.


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.

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.


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.

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Cara's picture
High School Math Teacher from Central OH

While I love PBL, so often the 'resources' seem to be sales pitches. This video shows students and teachers talking about how much they love PBL, but they aren't saying HOW they do it. They're preaching to the choir!

Ms.Togs's picture
Robotics, Family Consumer Science, RTI,Physical Science

PBL or STEM, is ever changing with students natural curiousity and with teachers letting go. There are three of us at our school teaching science, that took a class to learn how to use this type of learning. it was tough!!! as instructors, we can not do this on our own, guidance, reflection, how to do betters are real important to get to PBL.

orehekd's picture

Our first grade class jumped in without a life preserver this year, jettisoned by student inspiration. I, too, hadn't seen much about elementary PBL, so we explored. We set up several topic files, generated by kids' ideas, and worked on what was interesting to us whenever we had some extra(!)time.
Subjects in which we were interested:
The Alamo
The Wild West
The Titanic
Students signed on where their interest followed the suggestion of the topic.
We presented without a specific script the last two days of school...not enough time...and realized, as is usually the case, that process was 90% of the experiment. Students were very interested and engaged, so will try to generate more parameters for the next go-round. I've tried to modify suggestions for HS students, but sny ideas or assistance would be much appreciated...

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

[quote]While I love PBL, so often the 'resources' seem to be sales pitches. This video shows students and teachers talking about how much they love PBL, but they aren't saying HOW they do it. They're preaching to the choir![/quote]

Thanks for your comment, Cara! We built this package to be chock-full of resources that actually do aim to show you how to do the PBL you see in the video -- you may want to start with this article:

A Step-by-Step Guide to the Best Projects

Good luck!

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

[quote]I like the idea of PBL. My question how best can PBL be used in the Elementary Level? How best can it be done as a whole school?[/quote]

Suluchewy, thanks for your questions and your interest. We do have some older videos in our library that show PBL at the elementary level, though they don't have the wealth of how-to resources that this package does. You may be interested in this video:

Worm Project at Newsome Park Elementary School

or this one:

Water Wheel Project at the Ferryway School


ChuckG's picture

Please read "Seven Myths About Education" for an alternate view of PBL

Mrs. Mobs's picture
Mrs. Mobs
PBL Education Consultant & Curriculum Developer

If you still would like to see PBL at the elementary and/or middle school levels, check out the schools on Manor ISD (Manor, TX) on the website. They have implemented whole camps dedicated to PBL from pre-K to HS.

Good luck! And enjoy watching your students learn and create!

-Mary Mobley


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