The use of project- and problem-based learning (PBL) is spreading rapidly in schools. Even many traditional school designers incorporate projects in the learning opportunities they provide for students. But there’s considerable variation in how PBL is designed and employed. Let me share a brief story about one of our students and her projects.
Stephanie (not her real name) came to The Met, a Big Picture Learning (BPL) school in Providence, Rhode Island, as a tenth grader. She came from a non-traditional household. Her parents used drugs and played hardly any role in her life. Stephanie struggled in middle school and was kicked out of several high schools before she arrived at The Met.
Stephanie had many interests. In keeping with the BPL design, we helped her explore several of these interests as a way to engage her in productive learning. After several small and tentative starts, she focused on hypertension, primarily because she knew African-Americans were most at risk of this condition. Consumed by her interest, Stephanie produced a 25-page paper on hypertension. She surveyed about two hundred of her fellow students and computed a body mass index for each. She then conducted, with a nutritionist from Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, a series of workshops on healthy eating and exercise routines. She also organized a Community Health Fair with Brown University medical students. Finally, Stephanie presented her research and findings to medical students and physicians at a National Medical Student Association conference.
What a three-year run it was! Stephanie’s advisor (teacher) was in awe of her intensity, commitment, and accomplishments. Stephanie's progress, however, was far from a straight line. It took nearly two years for serious learning and work to take hold. And then, in six months, Stephanie accomplished what would normally have taken another student two to three years. Stephanie graduated from the Met, went on to college, and is now a phlebotomist studying to be a nurse practitioner.
Why do I tell you this story? Because Stephanie's projects represent for BPL the kinds of projects we help our students develop. Her projects—and career trajectory through those projects—look very different from the projects most students experience in school.
The Problem with Many Projects
Well-designed and executed projects help educators meet the expectations that young people have of schools regarding their learning experiences. They provide relevance, authenticity, relationships, and multiple ways of demonstrating competence. They help students bring the disciplines – what we call the "academics" – to their work, to understand the usefulness of discipline-based knowledge, skills, and mindsets in addressing real-world challenges. They provide a context for addressing social-emotional and workplace competencies. And, of course, these projects provide an opportunity to motivate and engage young people through active and productive learning.
Not all project-based and problem-based experiences provide these valuable benefits to students. PBL is not without its challenges. My own observations of how BPL schools and other schools implement PBL indicate that some of these challenges are significant. For example, many projects are conceived and designed by teachers rather than students. They are relatively artificial, not grounded in real-world contexts and settings. Another issue is that attention to the disciplines—traditional academic competencies—is poorly accomplished, if at all. Finally, the role of the individual student and accountability processes are seldom fully developed. In short, too often PBL does not live up to its promise or potential.
Common Features of BPL Projects
Even though the Big Picture Learning school design is more than a bit “edgy,” my guess is that there are some aspects of our work that may be beneficial to educators in more traditional settings who are attempting to address these challenges.
Stephanie's projects and her three-year journey are typical of many of the young people who come to BPL schools. They enroll as ninth graders with lots of interests, many of which they've never had an opportunity to fully explore. They “mess around” for a little bit, sometimes for a few months, before their learning trajectory narrows in on a particular interest, one in which they would like to go deeper. With support from their advisor, they take that interest out into the real world. They locate adults who are doing the work they would like to do someday and develop and pursue an internship that is wrapped around one or more projects.
Stephanie’s project work is different from the norm in several respects. First, her projects are individual, not group projects, although Stephanie works collaboratively with many individuals in each of her projects (most of them are adults outside of school). Second, Stephanie designed her own projects (though not in the early going and always with considerable scaffolding from her advisor and mentor). Third, her projects were messy and complex, often beginning with an exploration before settling in on a target problem. Fourth, Stephanie pursues her projects outside of school in real-world contexts and settings.
Most BPL student projects have these several common features and components. Students identify problems on their own or in collaboration with their internship mentor and advisor. They must show that they understand the problem in its context and who out in the community or workplace is working on the problem. What solutions have already been proposed? Most of this work requires a good bit of support from the advisor but that support diminishes considerably over time. By the 11th and 12th grade, students are expected to be fairly sophisticated in problem finding and describing, project design, and building a set of performances, artifacts, and other evidence of their competencies and the quality of their work and accomplishments.
The projects must have a client or audience other than their teacher. Typically, this audience is the mentor and others in the organization where the student is interning. The proposed solution, product, or performance must address real-world and relevant standards.
Students must conduct an exhibition of their project while it is in development and when it is completed. Exhibitions demonstrate a student’s “account-ability,” their ability to ensure that the project measures up against real-world standards in the community and the workplace. The student must provide evidence that the project resulted in improved communication, collaboration, and coordination competencies.
The Importance of Ownership
We believe that schools that are not quite as edgy as BPL schools can employ some of these features and components. There is, however, one preeminent feature of our approach to BPL that all schools should consider: The student must own the project. Nearly every project feature and component emanates from that basic requirement. It is, for us, the difference that makes a difference. Ownership matters.
Owning the project goes beyond interest. As our students mature in their projects, their work becomes who they are and what matters to them. We know from sociologists that the work we do is a major part of our stance—who we are in the world and how we relate to others and ourselves. So, the student asks: What will successfully completing this project and successfully addressing this problem do for me? What will it allow me to say about myself? To say to others about me? To set me up for my next work?
A project is not merely a way to learn and do. It's a source of identity, self-worth, and pride. It provides a sense of accomplishment, agency, and belonging to something larger than oneself. When students experience projects as originating outside themselves, they diminish their agency, their capacity to act in their environments. They risk weakening their pursuit of self-directed goals and opportunities to shape one's surroundings, connections, and future.
Psychologist Jerome Bruner observed: “Self is a perpetually rewritten story… In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we tell about our lives.” Neurologist Oliver Sacks noted that all human life is life-writing, that each of us constructs and lives a narrative that is us. This is the PBL sweet spot for BPL advisors. At this level of ownership, the advisor can truly be a guide on the side to provide equitable access to deep and productive learning. The advisor can ensure that every student has the opportunities that Stephanie had to pursue her interests, to find her special talents, to go with the projects that helped her establish her stance in the world and in her community.
We must be open to being guided by the lives of our students, and build our approaches — and yes, their projects — around their experiences. This openness will help them achieve the success they want and the prosperity our communities need.
That is the larger project all educators must own.