No Easy Project

By Bess Keller — September 18, 2007 8 min read
Science teacher Jeanne E. Smith and her colleagues at five small high schools in Charlotte, N.C., are working to make project-based learning a success in their classrooms. The approach is a prime feature of ongoing efforts nationally to make high schools more engaging for students.

When he got the chance to transfer into one of five new small schools opening here last year in a restructured high school, Timothy S. Cagwin didn’t miss a beat.

Feeling stifled at his old school, the 39-year-old English teacher was particularly attracted to the new schools’ plans to focus on “project-based learning,” a pedagogical approach high on the list of high-school-reform ideas championed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other like-minded philanthropies, academics, and critics of the status quo.

Like school leaders elsewhere amid the ongoing national push to improve U.S. high schools, those at the new community of schools believed that the approach would rally both teachers and students to work toward new, higher levels of learning.

Yet at Mr. Cagwin’s new school and the others formed from the restructuring of the 1,900-student Olympic High School, the hoped-for change in teaching did not get off to a fast start. Despite his high hopes, Mr. Cagwin wound up putting few of his plans into action.

“Over the summer, I worked really hard to make [projects] happen, but when the year started, standardized testing seemed to squeeze its way in,” he recalled.

Mr. Cagwin’s halting debut with project-based learning was not unusual.

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Experts Warn of PBL Pitfalls

So, starting last spring and for a week in August, teachers from each of the five schools—part of the 132,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district—gathered with an outside coach to recharge their commitment and draw up learning blueprints for the new school year.

That such reinforcement was needed comes as no surprise to experts in project-based learning. Given that textbooks or guides that lay out day-by-day lessons tend to rule in the standard classroom, making a success of PBL typically requires teachers to embrace new attitudes, hone new skills, and risk failure, said Michael Simkins, a former principal and teacher in California who has led PBL workshops for years.

“It’s a tall order,” he said. “It demands a lot of intelligence on the part of teachers, and skills they may not yet have.”

That teachers can meet that challenge has been suggested by several innovative schools that have spawned copies around the country. Those include the Minnesota New Country School in Henderson, Minn., the schools in the Big Picture Company network that originated at the “Met” school in Providence, R.I., and those run by the High Tech High charter-management organization based in San Diego.

Proponents see the method as helping to remedy a lack of “rigor and relevance” in high school coursework, which they believe contributes to the nation’s dropout problem. But making the approach live up to that promise, and even selling it to teachers, has been easier said than done.

Asking Good Questions

Project-based learning presents students with real-world problems that ideally can be solved only by application of the knowledege and skills that have been set for them to learn. Typically, students work in teams to meet explicit standards, just as adults do at work.

Pamela Wise, top, led a summer workshop in project-based learning for teachers from a community of small high schools in Charlotte, N.C.

The first and sometimes highest hurdle teachers new to PBL must leap is to stop worrying so much about “covering the material,” said Pamela Wise, the school coach dispatched by the Coalition of Essential Schools’ Northwest office in Seattle to run the professional-development sessions at the Olympic site. CES Northwest awarded a grant, with money from the Gates Foundation, that is supporting the Olympic High conversion. (Gates also provides funding for Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count report.)

In the view of the CES, a network of schools aiming for both personalization and intellectual challenge, less is more. That is the toughest principle to enact, longtime associates of the coalition say, because teachers are steeped in the something-for-everyone curriculum of the traditional American high school and intimidated by district- and state-enforced testing.

But even with a belief in depth, teachers face a lot of design work if their projects are to teach content as well as process efficiently. Ideally, they’ll approach the task with a thorough knowledge of one or more fields and settle on a question central to the content they have in their sights.

The project then becomes the students’ way of answering the question, according to Eeva Reeder, a mathematics teacher at Mountlake Terrace High School near Seattle, whose work was featured in Ms. Wise’s workshop. The learning sticks, Ms. Reeder has written, “because [students] have created something using their new knowledge.”

Settling on ‘Performances’

Educators must learn to think like assessors, envisioning student “performances” that can certify that students have mastered the relevant curriculum, Ms. Wise stressed at the workshop in Charlotte.

The performances can take many forms, from a traditional essay to a complex group task that involves making a plan and presenting it publicly.

The dozen teachers who gathered for the workshop had begun in the spring to read through the Project-Based Learning Handbook produced by the Buck Institute for Education, a nonprofit organization based in Novato, Calif.

They then formulated the questions that would propel their projects. Their goal was to complete the planning for one project by the end of the workshop week, and then launch it by Oct. 15.

English teacher Marie Ullrich, above left, used time at the summer workshop to work on a project on “the American dream.”

Marie Ullrich, about to start her second year of teaching, planned to ask her juniors in an honors English course about “the American dream”: What’s meant by the term? Is the dream attainable? Is it desirable? Among other assignments, she planned to have her students write reflections on interviews they were to conduct with immigrants to the country.

Veteran biology teacher Lori Jones wanted her students to address the ethical issues around the various ways of altering genetic material. The teacher planned to assign her students to craft skits and present them in class, as part of showing that they understand the workings of DNA, the building block of genes.

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Ms. Wise reminded the teachers that once they have worked out the questions and “performances,” they must pay attention to “scaffolding”—all the smaller lessons and tasks that get students ready for a final assessment. All the assignments need “rubrics”—scoring guides that spell out for the students exactly what constitutes acceptable and higher work along each dimension involved in the tasks.

“Teachers forget they can’t just expect this magic thing to pop up,” Ms. Wise cautioned. “Kids have to have exposure to it and time to practice it; you need a two-minute presentation [before] a 10-minute one.”

‘All the Little Pieces’

Teachers typically struggle over the rubrics. So at midweek, Ms. Wise had scheduled a morning dedicated to the scoring guidance. Small groups of teachers critiqued one another’s rubrics in a structured way.

Project Planner

Teachers at the summer workshop on project-based learning in Charlotte received a planning document aimed at guiding teachers through the project-design process. The guide came from LEARN, a nonprofit educational foundation based in Laval, Quebec.


1. What are my subject/learning objectives?
2. What are my interdisciplinary subjects and competencies?
3. What inquiry question/investigation will meet [questions] No. 1 and 2?


1. How will I hook or trigger the student’s interest in the inquiry question? What scenario will I use?
2. What kinds of information can I expect to be brought out of our class brainstorming session? What kind of misconceptions do I expect to encounter?
3. What rubric(s) will I use? Will I design it myself or with my students?


1. How will I organize the brainstorming session? How will we categorize and sort the information we come up with?
2. What kind of teams will work best for this project? (i.e., number of members, roles, responsibilities)
3. What computer technologies are necessary in order to accomplish these tasks? Do I need to review/teach any of these skills?
4. What research techniques will we need? Do I need to review/teach any?
5. What kind of final projects would lend themselves well to this type of investigation?
6. At which stage will I ask for product updates? What format will these updates be? (i.e., journal entry, oral presentation, etc.)


What kind of showcase will be most appropriate to display the student’s knowledge acquisitions? (i.e., museum display, PowerPoint presentation, play in front of an audience, etc.)


Will I ask my students to give an oral reflection or a written reflection of their learning, and thoughts on this project?


Suzanne A. Newsom, an English teacher in the arts-themed school at Olympic, wanted students to write an original story about a hero on a journey using their study of Homer’s Odyssey as the base. The idea was for students to grasp the ancient story pattern and understand its enduring appeal.

“I wonder if the supporting documents couldn’t be turned in earlier and graded separately,” one of the other teachers suggested to Ms. Newsom. That way, students would get critical feedback earlier.

The teachers praised Ms. Newsom’s treatment of the aspect of the work she called “interdependence.” Students will be graded in part on the quality of their peer editing, which they must show by turning in their corrections and commentary.

“I’ve used rubrics a lot, and they weren’t so specific” in the past, allowed Ms. Newsom, a 22-year classroom veteran. With the revisions, she said, “students will know more about how to get what they want.”

Science teacher Jeanne E. Smith was less worried about rubrics and more concerned about making her project efficient. She spent the workshop revising a project, which she had used in her 9th grade Advanced Placement course in environmental science, that asks students to find out how to control the fire ants that have invaded the region.

Last year, she had the students come up with questions for a survey about the problem and present their solutions in community meetings. Now she plans to pare down those activities—substituting for the presentations will be a contest for the best article, which a local newspaper has agreed to publish—to make more time for field work.

“My intent is for students to see the ants in their ecosystem, maybe do an experiment where they set bait for regular ants and for fire ants,” said Ms. Smith, whose worried mien and pile of materials testified to her conscientiousness. “You have to ask where you want students concentrating their time.”

Dedicated time and feedback from colleagues can make all the difference in the quality of projects, said the teachers, whose group would have been larger except for the competing professional demands that tend to go with new schools. The PBL pioneers plan to keep meeting this year and have agreed to open their classrooms to others in the school.

Despite her progress, Ms. Smith, who had a 25-year-career in the chemical business before becoming a teacher, represents how far project-based learning has to go to take hold at Olympic. She’s been mulling over the approach in her chemistry classes, where the state’s end-of-course test looms large. So far, no projects.

“It will take a lot of work to see how to pull a project together,” she sighed. “I think I assumed [PBL] would come a little more naturally, but now I’m seeing its almost like a business plan—you have to pull all of the little pieces together.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.


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