Replicating Success: Project-Based Learning

By Grace Rubenstein, Edutopia — April 13, 2011 5 min read
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Oftentimes in education, the most inspiring models of excellence can seem the most difficult to emulate. The more innovative a school and outstanding its results, the more impossible replicating it looks to educators elsewhere who are struggling with challenging student populations, limited resources, and unimaginative administrations.

There is a hardly a truer example of this than High Tech High, which Edutopia covered in-depth in 2008. The original textbook-free, nonprofit, public charter school—housed in a beautifully converted U.S. Navy training center in San Diego—is architecturally grand and educationally mold-breaking. Bolstered by a teaching culture that promotes constant collaboration and self-improvement, students there engage in rigorous projects with real-world impact, from building a fish pen to protect local white sea bass from avian predators to creating educational DVDs to benefit the local blood bank. Nearly 40 percent of the students come from low-income families, yet 99 percent of graduates go on to college.

You can almost hear the chorus of dedicated educators saying, “That’s nice for them, but I couldn’t possibly do that given the constraints at my school.” This installment of Edutopia’s Schools That Work is here to say, “Yes, you can.”

Around the country, dozens of schools and districts are making dramatic changes based on High Tech High’s practices and are doing so at workaday, non-charter schools with major hurdles to overcome—far less-glamorous settings than High Tech High.

Teachers and administrators from these schools begin by visiting High Tech High for one of its three-day residencies, which the school offers three times a year. Then, once back home, they benefit from High Tech High’s continued mentoring by phone, email, and Skype or even by having the San Diego-based trainers visit their schools.

Teachers can also access the wealth of free materials available on the charter school’s website.

The nonprofit school charges about $600 per person for its residencies (participants cover their own lodging and transportation), just enough to cover its expenses. The mission is to share best practices and learn from others.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Educators undergoing this transformation don’t expect their schools to emerge from it looking exactly like High Tech High. Every school has its own unique teachers, students, culture, history, and setting, and its path to change must uniquely match those. Yet the core design principles that shaped High Tech High—such as personalization, adult-world connections, a common intellectual mission, and teachers as designers—apply anywhere, and these are what guide the schools’ replication efforts.

“Those design principles are something that can be replicated even if you’re in a traditional school,” says Eric White, a teacher at Whitfield Career Academy, in Dalton, Ga., where they are in their second year of shifting to High Tech High-style project-based learning. “You can give kids work that gives them choices. You can have high expectations for all your students. You can involve presentations and critiques and involve students in work that real adults do. There are no barriers to that, only perceived barriers.”

The work of replication is hard and messy, with steps forward and back. It requires educators—many of whom are accustomed to working in isolation—to band together, leave their comfort zones, and learn from one another’s mistakes and triumphs.

“I’ve never been so exhausted and yet so excited at the same time,” says White’s colleague, English teacher Lisa Barber. “I absolutely love what we do, and it makes me want to work harder at it.”

In this coverage, you’ll meet teachers and principals from Eric White and Lisa Barber’s school and from North Whitfield Middle School, two schools that are at different stages in their transitions to project-based learning. You’ll also find best practices, advice, and lessons they’ve learned through their efforts.

Whitfield County Schools, Dalton, Ga.

The Whitfield County Schools serve more than 13,000 students in a rural area in northwest Georgia where the primary industry is carpet making and 66 percent of pupils qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In 2008, district leaders were looking for ways to modernize instruction and more keenly engage students when Whitfield Career Academy’s 47-year-old principal, Phillip Brown (who’s now principal at Coahulla Creek High School, which will open in August 2011), introduced them to High Tech High.

Brown took two groups of three teachers to training sessions at High Tech High. Struck by the San Diego students’ genuine engagement in their projects and eloquence in describing their own learning, the teachers came back to Georgia and presented what they’d learned to colleagues across the district. With that, the county’s five middle schools also decided to jump on board. Combining internal funds and outside grants, the interested schools cobbled together about $50,000 and sent 45 of their staff members to High Tech High.

The transformation to project-based learning formally began in fall 2009 in just grades 6 and 9. The principals set aside collaborative-planning time for teachers and gave them flexibility to shift their daily class schedules as needed to accommodate complex projects. Teachers started working together to design projects that blended multiple disciplines and allowed room for students to apply their individual interests and talents. Trainers from High Tech High and the Louisville, Kentucky-based Schlechty Center—a nonprofit devoted to building student engagement in classrooms—visited several times to coach them. The next fall, the seventh- and tenth-grade teachers joined the effort.

Today, daily life for the teachers and students involved has dramatically changed. Students still take some tests, but more often they participate in multidisciplinary projects ranging from writing and producing a scientifically based murder-mystery play to enacting a Japanese tea ceremony to building an outdoor classroom. The first time the Career Academy held a Presentation of Learning Night—a student-led showcase of projects (a concept from High Tech High)—a record-breaking 460 people attended. When the five middle schools held a joint Presentation of Learning event, an estimated 3,000 people came.

Teachers readily admit that they still have much room to improve; they need to weave state standards into projects, for instance, and win the hearts and minds of teachers in grades 8, 11, and 12 who have yet to make the change.

Yet teachers and students alike say they wouldn’t go back to the lecture/textbook style of old. “School used to be work sheets and a lot of tests,” says Liliann, a sophomore at the Career Academy. “Now, it’s more like you learn something and then you have to produce something meaningful from it. It’s actually more engaging, and it makes you want to learn.”

The bold educators from Whitfield County have been generous enough to share their still-developing experiences with us—the successes, slipups, and plans for the future. Dive in and see what could be possible at your school.

Originally published April 11, 2011 ©; The George Lucas Educational Foundation.


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