So, I’m at the Nova Now Conference at Kent Innovation High School and I’m watching the students working on an aquaponics project. At one table, students are debating the aesthetic design. In another area, students are using Sketch Up to work on a framework for the physical specs. Meanwhile, another group is scribbling facts about water temperature and pH levels.

As I walk around and talk to the groups, I am struck that this project is working because it is real.

It mirrors the type of collaboration I’ve seen in real projects that exist outside of the classroom walls. It reminds me of the work that Brad, Bob and I do when working on Write About or the kind of collaboration that happens when Christy and I are working on a novel. It feels natural and unforced, albeit somewhat chaotic and sometimes tense.

So what makes this project work?

  • There is an actual product: People often say it’s not about the product so much as the process. However, in this project, the product matters. If anything, the goal is fixed but the process is flexible.
  • Collaboration isn’t forced: Students are placed in teams that directly connect to their responsibility in the project. A group of students are arguing about details for their budget proposal. Another group is using
  • The roles reflect actual roles: The project has separate roles that actually made sense. So, while every student is doing design, research and writing, the groups vary in their tasks: a finance team, a physical space design team, etc.
  • There aren’t hoops to jump through: When I do a project in my class, I have objectives on the board. I have to follow the I do, we do, you do format for our district lesson plans. As I watch the students at Kent Innovation, they are free to work on a project in a way that actually fits the task at hand.
  • The  right space: Kent Innovation isn’t an open school with entirely open spaces. However, it is a place with flexible spaces. So there are standing tables and sitting tables, small enclaves designed for quiet group space and open common areas with couches. Every classroom has glass walls with doors that slide. The space fits the instruction going on.
  • Mixed grouping: The project has times when students are working in teams and hashing out ideas. However, they also break up the tasks and walk away to work in solitude. There are times when students from one group had to form new groups to meet with other teams (the design team meeting with the biology team, for example).
  • Trust: The teachers have worked hard at building trust between each other and between the students. It isn’t perfect. I saw moments where discipline was still required. As I walk around, I notice times when students disagree. The conflict is out there in the open. However, the foundation of trust allowed the communication to work.
  • There is a chance for failure:  This project may not work. There is a real risk in trying to pull off what they want to pull off. However, that’s the truth about some of the greatest projects we do. There is an excitement in the risk of it failing. It has me thinking that maybe I need to do more projects that aren’t quite so fail-safe.
  • Project management: There’s a certain gradual release that goes on in this PBL school, where the projects go from more rigid to more flexible. It takes time for students to learn how to break tasks down and keep track of where project progress.
  • Buy-in: The teachers I met (for the second year in a row) are passionate about project-based learning. They have the right beliefs and mindset for it. I don’t think you could put any teacher into that school and expect success. I’d even say that some kids might not thrive in that setting (though I think many would). However, I see a real buy-in from both the staff and the students.

Getting Started with Project-Based Learning

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

2 Comments

  • concretekax says:

    John,

    I think that you summarize many good points of a successful project. I think the biggest barrier for teachers new to PBL is the gradual release that you mention under Project Management. Students can not take on a project like this for the first time. They need to learn many skills that are intentionally taught. A huge project like the aquaponics one will not work out well as a first project. Teachers should start small and focus on teaching skills on smaller, more teacher-controlled project first and then launch and epic one.

  • Tom Panarese says:

    I've looked more and more into PBL over the past couple of years and find this particularly fascinating. I do wonder what some of the hurdles can be when you're dealing with a lack of sustainable resources, as well as when you have a data-obsessed administration. I hear a lot about "doing great things" but then also hear about what "data tells us" and benchmarking and making numbers, which means test prep, test prep, test prep.

    What would really be great would be a look at how this is done at a "typical" school or at least one that you can picture as existing down the road instead of in a perfect world.

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