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5 Lessons from Project Based Learning

Posted in Ed Tech on May 5, 2014 by

Jon Hirsch is the co-creator and current director of the LIFE School at Horace Greeley High School, in Chappaqua, NY. The LIFE School is a program for 11th and 12th graders interested in an alternative to the traditional high school experience. For more information, you may visit the school’s website:, or you can contact Jon via twitter @mrjonhirsch.

Since our inception, the LIFE School has been committed to building a healthy school community and to rigorous academics that emphasize connections to real world problems and social justice. Initially, Project Based Learning (PBL), wasn’t part of our vocabulary; as we have evolved, we have come to embrace collaborative PBL and its benefits. Here are some lessons that have been learned along the way.

Lesson 1. Community Matters

Our school has an advisory program and a weekly community meeting. When we began, we hoped that these initiatives would help our students transition from adolescence into adulthood. We hoped that establishing mentoring relationships with adults would help our juniors and seniors develop empathy and thoughtful self-reflection; this has, by and large, happened. What we did not foresee, but has been just as revelatory is the impact that community and advisory have in the academic classrooms.

In retrospect, it makes sense. If kids are to engage in challenging work collaboratively, they have to know themselves, know their classmates, and be able to be vulnerable together. A group that is able to begin with conversations like, “I’m good at big picture thinking, but I struggle with the daily grind of homework,” or “I have a really strong work ethic, but I don’t always know how to connect what I’m reading with a thesis,” are much more likely to be successful than groups that are made up of people trying to cover up what they’re not good at and workhorses that are quietly resentful of the other team members. Difficult conversations are difficult for adults; they can be anathema to teenagers. Encouraging honest dialogue and conflict management equip students for collaborative learning.

Lesson 2. Throwing a Kid in the Deep End and Yelling, “Don’t Drown!” is Not Teaching a Child to Swim

Content is no longer king and teachers are no longer the sole possessors of knowledge. In the information age, or as some are calling it, the age of big data, schools have to be willing to elevate skill development to a place equal to content acquisition in their mission statements. It is easy to generate a list of “21st Century Skills” (a term already generating backlash). A more compelling and difficult task is to list the evidence of skill development. What would a student have to do to demonstrate research skills, let alone grit or creativity? What does that look like? The delineation of what can be measured or counted is essential.

Once a teacher knows what to look for, s/he can develop projects that explicitly develop those skills. Students must be taught research protocols and how to weigh evidence before developing a thesis. Telling a student to manage their time is not enough. Students need to be taught how to break a big project into a timeline with daily assignments and benchmarks. We have known for quite awhile that Grant Wiggins, author of Educative Assessment and Assessing Student Performance and Understanding By Design and Schooling by Design, was right about backwards design, an educational method that involves setting goals before designing activities that will make those goals a reality. We need to do that for skill development too.

Lesson 3. Know the Past

The majority of high school students do not have a lot of experience with meaningful group work; much of their classroom time is still spent as passive listeners, recipients of direct instruction. They may have a project or two in a class or two each semester, but many of these projects will not go well. Typically, the students, without much thought, break the project into different puzzle pieces and then put them together a day before the final product or presentation is due. They have discussed very little, have not been working in the service of a shared thesis, and have not been touching base to ensure that all group members understand the information. When they do reconnect at the eleventh hour, to no one’s surprise, some of the group members have been hitchhikers (perhaps due to legitimate academic struggles) while others have done all of the work.

If there has been any teacher involvement, it has only been the day the product is due, when one group member, worried about his/her grade, confides in the teacher that it’s a mess but “not my fault!”. Confronted at this late hour, what can a teacher do but conduct a post mortem? This is why many students groan when a group project is assigned.

These experiences and “strategies” need to be unlearned. Students need to be taught to split up resources, not content or tasks. They need to be taught how to communicate and check in. They need to learn how to use the teacher as a coach who might help solve problems and not just punish. They need to learn, that while their worst fears might come true, they might not. The best case scenario happens sometimes, too. Students’ commitment to the process and full faith investment in all group members make the best outcome the most likely outcome.

Lesson 4. Time Management

Some teachers assign group projects as homework. Content is delivered during the school day and groups are expected to work on their own time. This is a mistake. Student schedules are very difficult to coordinate. They may not have shared free time during the school day and many students have after school commitments that make collaborating very difficult (and, like every person I’ve ever met, they may have competing priorities that have nothing to do with work).

In my experience, the hope that they can collaborate meaningfully online has not been realized. Facetime and Facebook messaging are fine for check-ins and quick hits, but there is no substitute for face-to-face when it comes to meaningful collaboration.

Lesson 5. Project Based Learning is Not Homework

Project-based learning is not homework; it is the primary academic work. A good project is challenging and working with other people can be difficult. Students need access to support and coaching in real time as problems develop. Teachers need to give them time and space to work the projects with the benefit of their help.

When successful, PBL offers opportunities to develop skills like creativity, problem solving, collaboration, and communication that traditional instruction can not match. People in “the real world” know this and recognize its similarity to their own work. Those of us in education, who may never have left school (I’m in 35th grade as of this writing), need to embrace it and to structure our practice to help PBL reach its full potential.

I attended a Knewton event a few months ago. I was struck by how much agreement there is about what quality high school education should look like. I am convinced that PBL is not a fad and is more than jargon. It is the way that many schools are structuring or planning to structure their classrooms in the near future. Like any other transition, it will be both exhilarating and messy. I hope that as professionals we establish honest dialogues and continue to share best practices, and yes, lessons learned.

For more posts from the leaders of innovative schools, check out this series on student-centered learning from Acton Academy founder, Kaylie Reed.