George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Getting Started with Project-Based Learning

A public middle school and high school in Whitfield County, Georgia show how to recreate the learning strategies of a renowned charter school in a traditional setting.

April 12, 2011


Who Says You Can't Adapt Another School's Success?

Oftentimes in education, the most inspiring models of excellence can seem the most difficult to emulate. The more innovative a school and outstanding its results, the more impossible replicating it looks to educators elsewhere who are struggling with challenging student populations, limited resources, and unimaginative administrations.

Teachers and administrators from Whitfield schools begin by visiting High Tech High in San Diego. for one of its three-day residencies. Then, once back home, they benefit from continued mentoring by phone, email, and Skype or even by having the San Diego-based trainers visit their schools. Teachers can also access the wealth of free materials available on the charter school's website.

Educators undergoing this transformation don't expect their schools to emerge from it looking exactly like High Tech High. Every school has its own unique teachers, students, culture, history, and setting, and its path to change must uniquely match those. Yet the core design principles that shaped High Tech High -- such as personalization, adult-world connections, a common intellectual mission, and teachers as designers -- apply anywhere, and these are what guide the schools' replication efforts.

How It's Done

Key lessons from Whitfield County 

Deliberately build trust among colleagues

Any process of change -- not to mention project-based learning itself -- requires teamwork and learning from one another. "One of our biggest mistakes was assuming that teachers could jump in and collaborate and have those critical conversations," says Andrea Bradley, principal of North Whitfield Middle School. "It's very, very hard not to make it personal." After some initial friction, North Whitfield Middle School started using High Tech High's procedure for constructive criticism to help teachers learn to go "hard on the content, soft on the people," as High Tech High describes it.

Grant the freedom to fail

It requires courage and a willingness to take risks and experiment to try anything new. Teachers in Whitfield County say a crucial part of their success results from knowing that administrators will support them even if they try something that bombs. "Teachers need to feel that if I walk into their classroom and they're trying something and it doesn't work, it's OK," explains Bradley. "Otherwise, they're not going to try to grow."

Allow for flexible scheduling

Engaging, hands-on projects often don't fit neatly into a 50-minute class period. A teacher might need just 20 minutes for an introduction one day, then 90 minutes for students to work in groups the next day. So Bradley and Tim Fleming, principal at Whitfield Career Academy, the high school, did away with bells at their schools. Instead, each group of teachers shares the same set of students, and each group has the freedom to adjust its schedule depending on the demands of the day.

Build in time to plan and collaborate

An essential part of the High Tech High model is integrating multiple subjects into each project, which requires teachers from different disciplines to plan together. Plus, teachers need one another's support and coaching as they undergo this change. So principals at each of the schools shifting to PBL changed the schedules to allow for daily common planning time. At Whitfield Career Academy, teachers literally share an office; Fleming moved their desks from separate classrooms into a big, shared workroom.

Don't forget the standards

Teachers at Whitfield Career Academy and North Whitfield Middle School say that last year, they were so intent on designing meaningful projects and personalizing the work for their students that they didn't always build in enough academic rigor. This year, they're working to correct that."One of my biggest mistakes was thinking that a project has to be a grand display, the more butcher paper and scissors and glitter the better," says North Whitfield Middle School seventh-grade teacher Samantha Bacchus. "Now, I feel like a project really works when I start with the standards and incorporate aspects that I know the students will be able to use to learn the standards."

Remember, not everything is a project

"When you jump into something and teachers are excited about it, they may want to force, say, this math into this science, but it doesn't always fit," notes Bradley. "I keep having to say to teachers, 'It's OK if I come into your classroom and it looks very traditional,' because a project for everything is not appropriate, but engaging work is always appropriate."

Cultivate an evangelist

Whitfield Career Academy teacher Eric White went on the first of the district's several visits to High Tech High, and he took to the school's rigorous project-based learning right away. Given his passion for the practice and his skills as a presenter, he became a key evangelist who explained project-based learning to his colleagues and led training sessions across the district. As usual, it helps for teachers to hear this message from a fellow teacher -- someone who understands the daily challenges of a classroom.

Pilot with a small group of enthusiasts

Rather than trying to convert their entire schools to project-based learning all at once, principals in Whitfield County started with a single grade and tried to place the teachers who were most eager to make the transformation in that group. That way, the enthusiasts could work out some of the bugs and demonstrate the benefits of PBL for their colleagues to see. The principals chose the earliest grades in their schools, sixth and ninth, because students in those grades would more likely be open-minded about a new kind of learning.

Use the available free resources

The nonprofit High Tech High aims to share its best practices openly, not make money off them, so it posts a host of materials on its website for free. The Projects page details projects created by High Tech High teachers, with timelines, assignment descriptions, and examples of student work. The Videos page contains dozens of videos on teaching and learning at the school, some produced by students. More resources and videos on project-based learning are available from the Buck Institute for Education and Edutopia's own PBL page.

Educate parents and the community

Helping parents and community members understand and buy into project-based learning is one thing educators across Whitfield County agree they haven't done enough of. "The word project can mean so many different things," Bradley points out. "Parents thought it meant we were going to cut out cute stuff and stick it on a poster. For us, project-based learning doesn't mean you have to use paint or glitter or build something. Really, it's about designing an experience that children want to be a part of."

School Snapshot

Whitfield Career Academy And North Whitfield Middle School

Grades 6-8 | Dalton, GA
Per Pupil Expenditures
$8761 State$7887 Whitfield County
Free / Reduced Lunch
37% Hispanic
4% Multiracial
2% Black

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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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