Project-Based Learning, the final chapter

At its most basic, education is about ownership.  Students are not just studying History or algebra.  They are engaged in ‘building a self,’ which is the only company they will have for the rest of their lives. 

The ‘self’ that each individual student is building (with our help) must include more than test-taking, listening to lectures, and spitting back what the teachers and the textbooks have put forth.

Done well, project-based learning is a wonderful way to ‘build a self.’   It gives students more control over what they are learning, engages them in the process of creating knowledge, teaches teamwork, leadership, and other interpersonal skills, and reinforces the basic underpinning of a quality education: reading, writing, speaking, and working with numbers.

I’ve been writing about this for the past four weeks, and now I want to try to answer  questions about evaluating projects: How are projects graded?  Because it’s a group effort, does everyone get the same grade? What if a couple of students aren’t pulling their weight?  What if the project fails?

But before I go there, one more point: Projects can be entirely classroom-based, or they can take students out into the world.  Two quick stories.

1.  After deciding they would survey the community about its pressing needs, fourth graders in Yellow Springs, Ohio, built a portable kiosk, which they set up in a central park downtown.  From that booth, they proceeded to interview Yellow Springs residents.  They began with questions designed to put the adults at ease, like “How long have you lived here?” and “What’s the best thing about our town?”  Then they cut to the chase, asking the adults what they considered to be the town’s most pressing problem.

When ‘affordable housing’ ranked at or near the top, these fourth graders began studying the issue: how many square feet should a home be, how should it be laid out, how much would it cost to build just one home?  Would there be economies-of-scale?

Next, these fourth graders proceeded to design some possible homes….after which they built a large scale model of one design, which they planned to take to a City Council meeting.  I saw the nearly-finished model and heard some students practicing their presentations–which they later made to the City Council.

Talk about empowering education.  Wouldn’t you want that for your children or grandchildren?  I sure would.

My second example comes from my own teaching.  As a rookie English teacher in a rigidly tracked high school, I was assigned the lowest track students, basically the kids that weren’t the school’s priority.  I was assigned to team-teach with a History teacher.  Accustomed to years of insignificance, our 11th graders were completely indifferent to literature or History, to anything remotely ‘academic.’  She and I flailed daily.  Flailed and failed.  What we were doing wasn’t working….

In desperation, we decided to challenge them to write an original play. They could tell whatever story they wanted and they could create the plot and characters, while we would teach them about the arc of a story, the need for structure and complexity, the importance of language, and so on.

They took the bit in their teeth. The plot they concocted involved some ‘greasers’ from the wrong side of the tracks–kids like them–being accused of shop-lifting cartons of cigarettes from the local store.   They knew–but could not prove–that the real thieves were two students from the top academic track and the good part of town. In fact, the thieves were the school’s head cheerleader and the captain of the football team!

I can still remember the enthusiasm in that double-period class, as the students argued back and forth about plot twists and language.  And because it was a play, they had to visualize the action and make it credible.

In their play’s denouement, two of the ‘greasers’ caught the thieves red-handed, then alerted the stationery store owner. Justice was served!

Before long, they told us that they wanted to build the two sets, a run-down clubhouse, and the stationery store.  However, that required the permission of the school principal, so my colleague and I told our students that they had to invite the principal to class and convince him, with a thoughtful presentation.   Now we were also teaching public speaking, and rhetorical techniques of argumentation.

Of course he agreed, and our class moved to the auditorium.  The kids built sets, blocked out the action, and then began acting out the parts.  Lots of fits and starts, and lots of helpful criticism from what was now a real team of learners.  They owned what they were doing, and they were also learning all the stuff–speaking, writing, thinking, arguing–that had rolled off their backs till then.

Our 11th graders put on their play for the rest of the school, and suddenly our heretofore undistinguished and largely invisible students were heroes (well, maybe not to the kids in the top academic tracks).

Somewhere I still have a letter from Joey Levy’s mother, telling me that, until he was assigned to our class, her son was very close to dropping out.  Before that class, he hated going to school, and now he can’t wait to get there.  Now, she wrote, Joey wants to go to college.

Finally, how is project-based learning evaluated?  Here are two quite different reports from two classroom teachers. What these approaches to evaluation have in common are high expectations, high standards, and transparency.

One teacher I know well and about five of his students created a remarkable project last year: They took an old pickup truck with an internal combustion engine and set about trying to convert it to electric!  I asked him how he evaluated the project.

He wrote: The first test of the project is pretty obvious: You turn the ignition key and nothing happens. What steps do you take to figure out where the problem is?

Ideally there’s no grade, as with the truck project, which was and is motivated by pure enthusiasm.  However, some sort of assessment is helpful. In the case of the truck, everyone ought to have an understanding of how it works, what’s connected to what, et cetera.

Of course, the teacher can cook up a quiz to test for this sort of knowledge. A much better way of measuring learning, however, is an assessment that requires transfer of knowledge from our small pickup to other vehicles: What size battery pack would you need for a 20-ton semi, and what would its range be?

The most valuable assessment, and my preference, is to give students some materials (wire, magnets, nails, bearings, springs, et cetera) and ask them how they would make a rudimentary electric generator?  Would it generate AC or DC current?  Then let them try.

Groups can be a challenge if some kids aren’t pulling their weight.  I assign the laggards specific responsibilities and make it clear that I will be grading them.

(In case you’re curious, the project was a success.)

Esther Wojcicki, the English teacher in Palo Alto I wrote about here, explained how the publications her students produce are evaluated:

The students collaboratively set up the rubrics at the beginning of the year. They may modify them during the year based on the group input. Everyone has a say, including me of course.

Students recognize that they are building on a long tradition of student publications, and so they try to honor the hard work of previous students by keeping up the standards–or even improving on them. 

I evaluate group projects in the following ways:

1. We evaluate the overall quality of the product each production.   I evaluate it and the kids also evaluate it. Evaluation is done orally and in writing.  We strive for honesty, transparency, and respect.

2. The kids evaluate each other’s performance on each edition—their writing, collaboration, design, and participation 

3. The activities are awarded points, not as a threat, but as a way to show the kids the importance of each part.  They can change the points awarded by revising or being more collaborative. 

4. Every student can earn an A, if they have a good attitude and revise and improve their work.  We focus on being members of the community and striving for excellence. 

I hope that you are convinced that project-based teaching and learning ought to be an essential part of all school curriculum, part of every student’s experience in school. 

Please share these five reports with teachers, administrators, and policy makers.  School should be challenging and interesting, not tedious or ‘rigorous.’


9 thoughts on “Project-Based Learning, the final chapter

  1. The question is “Is anyone listening?”. So many spend their time saying how bad Charters are when they should be spending their time developing a vision for the future. I guess there are more speaking fees in talking about charters.

    When will we ever learn?


    • We’ve got to keep learning, Cap. We need to tease out what works and skip what doesn’t, even if speaking fees are a part of it. The good stories of what’s working and what yet needs working on must be told.


  2. John….I wish you were still out there, video-interviewing teachers and kids who are immersed in these life-changing learning activities.

    Your earlier PBS work was legendary and it catalyzed many of us to find new and better ways to teach and learn.

    I remember showing your video interview of the kids who were connecting with each using the internet and the new intimacy that Skype brought us and PBS told us about. We need it again.

    These new stories of betterment in teaching and learning need to be told again and again. Form a team of heir-apparents who can grab your baton and run the races. We, then, are all the winners for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, sir. I miss reporting, and I am sorry that Education Week wasn’t up to the challenge of continuing what Learning Matters did for so many years on the PBS NewsHour. Sometimes I wish I were a young man starting out, because there are so many stories crying out to be told, and because Americans need to see what outstanding public education looks like. I regret the drumbeat of harsh and unjustified criticism of public schools, and I find Betsy DeVos to be a disgrace and an embarrassment.
      Let’s not forget that certain US Senators KNEW that she was unqualified and yet voted to confirm her (or to send her nomination to the full Senate). Lamar Alexander knew better, as did Lisa Murkowski and the always-disappointing Susan Collins of Maine.


      • I’d like to note that the most widely disseminated project-based learning program in civics is called Project Citizen. The object is to teach the students how to make public policy by having them do it. The students canvass their parents and others to identify problems in the community for which a public policy approach is appropriate. Then they select one such problem to study. They interview relevant public officials and do research online (of course). They learn about or develop alternative solutions that might address the problem. Then they develop their own recommended policy and create a political action plan to get their plan implemented. Using this technique, a poor southern Florida middle school class managed to get a bill passed in the state legislature and it was signed into law by the governor at their school. Most projects are not that ambitious and deal with local problems like getting a stop sign or stop light installed at busy intersections. Every American student needs experiences like this. They might not succeed in solving the problem, but they make an intelligent attempt that turns kids on to civic learning.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. John thanks for all of these posts. The issue of engaging students in their own learning could not be important. In our community schools work we advocated for a curricular focus on community issues — environment. health, safety, or any other — so that students connected with the world around them. the public action we did fifteen years ago was our best seller and remains as relevant as ever today. The challenge as you and others point out is preparing teachers to teach this way and relating the space for them to do so in schools that remain far too driven by testing.
    Here’s link to our paper. Community-Based Learning; Engaging Students for Success and Citizenship.

    Click to access CBL_Book_1_27_06.pdf

    Marty Blank

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marty, the Community Schools Movement, which you spearheaded and drove forward with your relentless energy and commitment, are one of the shining lights of public education. Thanks for all you have done and are doing….and don’t stop!!!


  4. […] Projects, done alone or with other children, are an important part of learning, but in May 2020 projects are essential, because they give working parents extended time away from the kids.  While creating the projects will take some time, once underway, the children can work alone, or with their friends and classmates on Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts.   For some suggestions about worthwhile projects, go here, here, here, here, and here.  […]


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