George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.

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Full-Speed Reform in Rural Georgia (Transcript)

Man 1: Oh, that's good.

Voice Over: These students are investigating a murder mystery. It's one of several projects developed by educators from Whitfield County in northwest Georgia, as they transition their schools to project based learning.

The process began two years before when Whitfield teachers and administrators visited High Tech High. The San Diego charter school specializes in project based learning and hosts workshops to showcase its methods.

Rob Riordan: -- What you know. So projects are key to our effort to serve a diversity of students within each classroom.

Voice Over: Inspired by their visit, Whitfield educators launched their own project based learning initiative just a few months later, beginning with the sixth and ninth grades.

Andrea Bradley: We were so excited, because it was like a tool that we could give to teachers. It was like the vision that we saw for our school and for our students.

Eric White: What we did, we looked at their core design principles, a common intellectual mission, personalization, adult world connections, and we said, "Are those good for our kids?" Well, yeah. Yeah, they are. They are good for our kids. That's not a High Tech High thing. That's an every kid thing.

We'll look at some of the--

Voice Over: A group of Whitfield teachers worked together to design projects integrating a variety of subjects, including history, math and forensic science.

Teacher 1: What we're studying now in genetics is DNA and fingerprinting.

Student 1: Some of these fingerprints are really--

Teacher 2: Now looking at these, you should be able to tell me about what degree they are. Remember--

Eric White: I remember thinking back when I used to teach in a more traditional format, it seemed to be me versus the kids. I gave you work. You don't like it. You're mad at me. You know, you give it back. I don't like it. I'm mad at you. It was very adversarial. It was amazing. Once we started giving kids work that was different, that allowed them to put their passion into it, to collaborate with others. All of a sudden, the conversation between teachers and students changed.

Voice Over: There are three major factors that help these teachers rise to the challenge of transitioning to project based learning.

One is collaborative planning time.

Michelle Underwood: That's just the beauty of it, because we've got a few minutes in the morning to plan, but once a month, we all get together and plan and work together as colleagues. And you don't have to design it all. Everybody takes their own part and contributes what their strength is toward this big puzzle of a project.

Voice Over: A second critical factor is freedom to experiment and even to fail.

Tim Fleming: I think a lotta teachers have the feeling that they are allowed to fail, and I think that's mainly because they're really responsible, not necessarily to the administration, but more to each other, and I think that's a really powerful thing.

Teacher 2: For example, I design a game--

Albert Coley: If I fail to completely organize a project from the beginning, it's gonna be a flop and I know that now. I know that I can't wake up and wing it from day to day. I can't do that.

Voice Over: The third factor is remembering that not every lesson has to be a project.

Teacher 3: What if I have--

Andrea Bradley: We at North Whitfield had to stop. You know, halfway through the year, you can get carried away with how a project works and really, it's about, are the kids learning? So I think it's supporting them and saying, "Whatever is best for your students, keep searching, keep seeking, keep designing."

Voice Over: Continued mentoring and free resources from High Tech High also help keep them on track.

Teacher 3: -- to have your teachers present as well.

Teacher 4: Yes. I think that would be a good idea.

We could do a focused, everyone together, and then break out into workshop?

Teacher 3: That'd be really fun--

Eric White: It's a little nerve wracking at first, but adult like conversation we're having with kids now, that's worth it all.

Liliann: Oh wow.

It's very, very different.

It used to just be a lot of tests, a lot of, "I'm gonna teach you this," and then just spit it back out on a test paper afterwards. But now it's more of, "I'm gonna teacher you this and you have to produce something that's actually meaningful from it." And it actually, it's more engaging and it makes you actually want to learn.

Albert Coley: And what's that for?

Logan: This is our way of learning. We're learning how to build, putting math and science and everything into our outdoor classroom to learn.

I like it.

Voice Over: With the growing support of teachers and students, Whitfield County plans to continue implementing project based learning across the district.

Tim Fleming: I watch students up and moving around. They're building something. They're talking to the students. They're presenting their work. They have something great they're fixing to home to show their parents. I mean, those are just awesome things, to watch the kids be engaged. It's just a fantastic thing as a principal.

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Video Credits


  • Ken Ellis
  • Grace Rubenstein


  • Grace Rubenstein

Editors/Associate Producers

  • Doug Keely
  • Mariko Nobori

Camera Crew

  • Doug Keely
  • Grace Rubenstein


  • Hilary Blair


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."

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jenn's picture
Vice-Principal and Teacher/ Grande Prairie and District Catholic Schools

I found this article very helpful. My school is in the second year of implementing Project Based Learning in all grades from Kindergarten to Grade 12. We too experienced "project burnout" in our first year and now are much more cautious about spacing projects across the school year and ensuring that the student workload is not too heavy. The level of engagement from students and our community because of PBL has been incredible to witness.

One of our major constraints has been building collaboration time into our school schedule. We are a very small school (290 students from Kindergarten to grade 12), and there is simply not enough staff to cover classes of teachers that need to collaborate for PBL. I am wondering if anyone has successful done this in a small school or has seen a clever solution anywhere?

Long live PBL!

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Hi Jenn, do you mean getting teachers time to collaborate without students, or combining classes who are working on a project together?

Jenn's picture
Vice-Principal and Teacher/ Grande Prairie and District Catholic Schools

We are a very small school with only 3 teachers for all of junior high so we actually find it quite easy to have groups of students together to work together and plenty of flexibility with working on different things in any class. My difficulty is trying to find time for the teachers to plan and collaborate together without students.


John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Jenn, I work at a very small school myself and we have successfully utilized using Google Docs to do quite a bit of collaboration. We typically begin our ideas with a face to face meeting but then as it progresses we throw ideas up on a Google Doc. Everyone has their own color for comments so we can track who says what. To get our face to face meeting our administrator provides us with PLC time during some of our staff meetings. Good Luck.

Jenn's picture
Vice-Principal and Teacher/ Grande Prairie and District Catholic Schools

Thanks for your feedback John, it is much appreciated. I am glad to hear that your school is using Google Docs as well, we have had great success with tool too. Our teachers often collaborate this way and we have trained our students in junior high how to use it themselves to collaborate with their peers and share their work with their teachers. I will be exploring the idea of PLC time during some staff meetings further. This seems like an excellent solution. We did implement this somewhat last school year but lost focus towards the end of the year. Sounds like it's a time to re-energize the idea! Thanks again.

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