Project-Based Learning, part four

I am convinced that the very best schools ask the right question, “How Is Each Child Intelligent?”  Moreover, the educators in these schools follow through by allowing students more control over what they are learning. 

Very often, this means project-based learning, where teams of students work together to create–not spit back–knowledge. You can find the first three parts of this series here, here, and here.

In these schools, it is the students–not the teachers–who are the workers, and the work they are doing is meaningful. What they actually do–their ‘product’–depends upon their ages and stages, but the concept doesn’t change. 

And what about the teachers?  In these schools, they are conductors, directors, supervisors, guides or docents. This observation flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that teachers are workers whose job is to produce capable students. That antiquated thinking is further bastardized when ‘capable’ is defined by test scores, until we end up believing, “The work of teachers is to raise student test scores.”   No, no, and no!

Here are two examples of outstanding project-based teaching and learning that I came to know first-hand when I was reporting: A 12th grade science class in a public high school in Philadelphia, and a journalism class at Palo Alto (CA) High School.

The Philadelphia 12th graders were serious workers. Their 2-part assignment was equally serious: to design age-appropriate toys for babies and infants that would not only amuse them but also stimulate their brain development. Stage two of the task: create an advertising campaign to sell the toy they designed.

That’s a serious project with a real product. Science teacher Tim Best designed it in broad strokes, with some clear goals, including learning a great deal about brain development. By 12th grade, students at this school were accustomed to working together on projects and holding each other accountable, although Mr. Best also monitored their progress.  Tim Best and other teachers at Science Leadership Academy told me that projects were designed to teach both content and process.

Like any worthwhile project, there is no one ‘correct’ answer.   However, projects can have wrong answers.  In designing toys based on neuroscience, those students might get the science wrong, or they might design something that an infant or toddler could not manipulate or might swallow. Answers to Question Two might be impractical or inappropriate, such as an advertising campaign for the toy that featured sexy naked people draped over sports cars.  For sure, the class discussion of that campaign would be a major teachable moment.

Process matters a great deal. Students get to try out their ideas with each other (and their teacher) during the project. Falling short–failing–is a huge part of the learning process.

Tim explained, “Although I learned by memorizing science words, I don’t ask my students to memorize science words. I’d rather have them experience the science and learn science by doing science, and, therefore, they’re learning science process in addition to science content. And the process of science, you could argue, is almost more important for the general person who is not going to be a scientist.” 

He added sagely, “‘Reading Chapter Two and answering the questions at the end of the chapter is not teaching either science or process.”

I think the journalism students at Palo Alto High School must be among the luckiest kids in the world. Their teacher, Esther Wojcicki, and her talented colleagues give them the opportunity to produce meaningful journalism in a number of formats: a newspaper, radio programs, a daily television program and five magazines.

This is real-world work: The print publications are advertiser-supported, and none can come out until the students have the signed advertising contracts in hand. “This is not selling Girl Scout cookies,” she told me. “This is how the real world works.”

With opportunity comes responsibility. At Palo Alto High, the journalism students hold each other accountable, the faculty is paying attention, and–most powerful of all–their work is public. Among Esther’s former students is actor-painter-writer James Franco. Recalling her class, he wrote, “(T)he important pedagogical aspect of working on the paper, that I understood subconsciously then, and that I understand explicitly as a teacher now, is that my work was being seen by a public, and that that changed the work. I wasn’t writing for a school grade as much as I was writing for independent readers.”

What’s essential in all project-based learning is the absence of a ‘right’ answer or ‘right’ product. Project-based learning truly is a journey, one which may also teach the instructor a good deal. Projects that have a predetermined ‘right’ answer are merely recipes, not a journey of discovery.   In ‘faux projects,’ the work quickly loses meaning, and most students do not retain what they were supposed to learn. They may absorb material and regurgitate it successfully on tests, but that’s not genuine learning. Good journalism is by definition an inquiry, because journalists are supposed to ask questions whose answers they don’t necessarily know. 

Those students in Philadelphia and Palo Alto are engaged in what’s called ‘blended learning,’ a mix of technology and human teaching. The machines and the teachers are interdependent, truly blended. Think of a chocolate milkshake, as opposed to putting oil and water in the same container.

Project-based learning is sometimes called “Learning by doing,” but that is an incomplete thought, a phrase lacking an essential object. Doing WHAT is critical. In the schools I described, kids don’t get free rein to do whatever they feel like doing. Adults design (or help design) the projects, and they monitor progress. Teachers help students formulate questions and give guidance when they go off track or get discouraged.

By the way, “Time on task” is another incomplete phrase that some educators throw around. What’s the task? Is it meaningful or trivial? Are students memorizing the periodic table and the major rivers of the United States, or are they measuring air or water quality in their neighborhoods and sharing the data with students in other places in order to make sense of it?  Many educators make the mistake of focusing on the amount of time students are spending on the assignment (believing that more is better, of course) but fail to think critically about the tasks they are assigning.

The adults in charge of the classrooms I admire were not obsessed about control. Sadly, too many schools focus on regurgitation of information, a process that is encouraged and rewarded by the focus on scores on standardized tests. 

Next time in this space I will conclude this series by trying to answer a question some readers have raised: How on earth does a teacher grade project-based learning anyway?

Feel free to post your thoughts (and your suggestions about grading!) on the blog itself, below….


7 thoughts on “Project-Based Learning, part four

    • I remember this wonderful piece, and I also remember (briefly) meeting the man who created this, at an education conference in Qatar quite a few years ago. He was being honored, and deservedly so.

      Have you followed up?

      Thanks for sharing (and thanks for all the great work you continue to do)…


  1. What is amazing about project base learning is that you can build in fundamentals in a way that is real to all kids. They learn faster and better when a project is meaningful to them

    We must remember that students open or close their minds when they decide, not when we tell them. And often they decide to open their minds when the information is meaningful to them

    If you want more information, try my book Stop Politically Driven Education at all dot coms. Think, while it’s still legal!


  2. Want to measure learning success with your students, dear teachers? Create a rubric with their participation BEFORE the project begins. That way they will know what’s expected of their work and how well.


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