A Guide to Surviving—and Thriving—at Project-Based Learning

column | Project-Based Learning

A Guide to Surviving—and Thriving—at Project-Based Learning

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Sep 8, 2015

A Guide to Surviving—and Thriving—at Project-Based Learning
Nicole Assisi, Thrive Public Schools's CEO, works with a student.

This article is part of the guide: Bridging the Chasm: Defining Success Beyond Traditional Academics.

Project-based learning--what a nuanced phrase. It means so many different things to so many different people, and evokes responses that span the entire positive-to-negative spectrum.

Positive: It's a great way to break the typical mold of standards-based, multiple choice assessments.

Negative: Wait, you want me to generate my own rubrics to track my students' performance on projects, AND it has to be Common Core-aligned? Yeah, sure, with all that ample time I have in the few first weeks of the school year when everything is completely nuts? No problem.

As project-based learning (or PBL) aficionados know, throwing a project at students and expecting them to learn exactly what is intended is a double-edged sword. Projects offer opportunities for students to acquire knowledge and skills simultaneously. But in the standards-driven society we live in, PBL doesn’t allow for the easiest tracking of student performance. And putting together rubrics take time and expertise.

In pursuit of some PBL-rich materials to provide to the EdSurge audience (so that you don't have to recreate the wheel), I ventured down to one of San Diego to visit Thrive Public School’s annual PBL conference. Thrive is a charter school in one of San Diego’s rougher neighborhoods and serves a low-income population that is 60% free and reduced lunch, including a small concentration of homeless students. The school had 242 visitors from other districts and organizations in the last year alone--and not just for their blended approach. A fair amount of Thrive's staff comes from High Tech High, an experimental school in the same area, where PBL is king.

However, Thrive wasn't founded only to educate its own students. It also aims to serve other schools, by way of "making things that are replicable," says Nicole Assisi, Thrive's CEO. To that end, Assisi and several Thrive faculty members sat down with me to share thoughts on integrating project-based learning into curriculum, including their “non-negotiables” and “nice-to-haves”.

PBL Non-Negotiables

1. Be flexible with expectations--especially when it comes to standards

Like it or not, standards are here to stay. And aligning projects to standards has made PBL that much more difficult and frustrating for educators. One California superintendent told Assisi he “wouldn't have been able to function in this standards-heavy, high stakes time when he was a teacher.”

Nonetheless, when it comes to lining up to standards, allowing teachers the ability to play around with projects is key. “We make it ok for people to make mistakes,” says Assisi. “We don’t want to force a teacher’s first project to be for the students to create a human-powered submarine--it's about making it comfortable for teachers to just do it, just try it.”

That being said, tracking student progress around projects is still vital to success, and Thrive has got a number of free resources--specifically rubrics.

2. Have both the steak and sizzle--which includes a good rubric

When asked to describe a typical PBL misstep, Assisi describes the relationship between “the steak and the sizzle.” She explains that while cool, creative, or inventive projects can be fun (the “sizzle”), a teacher must ensure that the content and learning is there as well (the “steak”).

“Sometimes, something that sizzles really nicely doesn't taste all that good,” she says. “The project still needs ways for students to practice so that students aren't behind, and have a basic understanding of content.”

To help out, Thrive has created three documents to get any teacher or school tracking that balance. First, Thrive Project Overview is a planning document that assists teachers in mapping the essential skills, knowledge, and strategies students will obtain from a project--so that the “steak” doesn’t get lost.

And then, there’re the rubrics: one that teachers use to test the validity of a project idea, called the Project Idea Rubric, and another that teachers use to plan the major project components, called the Project Development Rubric. Both of these documents can be adapted for either teacher or student use; student-assembled projects can certainly use a rubric for guidance.

“The use of co-designed rubrics are really powerful for students and teachers,” shares Joseph Acker, Thrive’s Dean of Students. “Students feel as though their input on deliverables and due dates gives them voice and choice. Teachers are able to refer to the fact this was agreed upon by all.”

3. Establish a positive tuning culture and give teachers time to tinker with PBL

According to Assisi, providing teachers with “time to tinker” and “the freedom to make mistakes is really important.” It’s the biggest challenge, she says, but it’s absolutely necessary for any school or district that hopes to go PBL. She adds that establishing a positive tuning culture on campus is key, as “the most critical component in PBL is getting teachers to give each other feedback.”

A “positive tuning culture” essentially means providing a safe and communicative environment for teachers and administrators to learn and work on PBL together.

For guidelines on how to establish and support such a culture, Assisi recommends checking out the National School Reform Faculty’s Harmony Project website. There, this collection of protocol exercises can be adapted into any school environment and help teachers feel safe with asking questions and experimenting. Check out this “Zones of Comfort, Risk and Danger” document, for example.

PBL Nice-to-Haves

1. Share the power

In addition to the non-negotiables, Assisi and her team mention a few nice-to-haves, beginning with distributed leadership--about which she's written. “You need to make decisions, but also share that power. Think, ‘how do you have power with people, as opposed to over people?’” Assisi asks. Vasko agrees, sharing that one of the things that can make or break PBL is staff collaboration, such as grade level teams implementing the same project.

2. Get teachers to visit other schools and experience other practices

Last, but certainly not least, there’s one more big nice-to-have; it’s not a non-negotiable largely because of the money and resources involved. “Get teachers to visit other schools!” exclaims Assisi.

But she adds a caveat. To get a well rounded understanding of PBL, teachers should visit schools where it’s working, and where it isn’t. Beyond that, sometimes seeing less-than-stellar programs inspires the watcher. Assisi explains, “Some teachers will come out of that and say, ‘I saw that, I can blow that out of the water.’”

Establishing substantial practices around PBL isn’t something that will happen overnight. And as Assisi and her faculty express, every school environment is different, and will have their own sets of PBL “non-negotiables” and “nice-to-haves.” But with the aforementioned collection of tips and resources to start, any school can give it a try--as long as they’re ready and willing to fall down and try again.

“No one is perfect,” Assisi laughs, “and that’s part of the beauty of projects. Failure is just a part of the process.”

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