Posts Tagged project-based learning

The Long Overdue Death of 19th-Century Education

Published by — If all the information is becoming accessible on-line, let’s shift the balance to helping kids acquire skills.


The recent Greg Whiteley film Most Likely to Succeed looks deeply into the workings of a school that has turned its back on traditional education.  Gone are the rows of desks, the “cells and bells” (the prison of the 6, 7-period day), “drill and kill” test prep, and the glazed look in the eyes of passive learners.  Instead we see high school students in groups wrestling with design problems, and individuals riveted to the product they’re producing on the rich array of machinery the school makes accessible to them.  Kids are busy, engaged.  The school didn’t tinker around the edges, but built with a new strategy from the ground up.

It’s a refreshing welcome departure from education that seems more interested in teaching compliance and obedience than a love of learning.

The film focuses on High Tech High (HTH) in San Diego, California.  The filmmakers concede that it’s not the only radical school experiment that’s now in full flower.  But they shot footage there for a year because it shows a clear image of what else education might be.  Ed revolutionaries like Sal Khan of Khan Academy and Sir Ken Robinson, a guru of creativity, talk about how the current education system came about in the 19th century and how badly outmoded it’s become.  For example, if a job can be automated, it will be, and soon.  So the ability to be compliant to repetitive-task jobs that depend on an unchanging knowledge base is a fast-fading reality.  Far more important are creativity, collaboration and self-starting, characteristics highly valued by HTH.

Theoretically, education maintains a balance between content and skills.

Contrary to its name, High Tech High (HTH) is not a vocational school steeped in computer and software technology – like the excellent Advanced Math and Science Academy in Massachusetts.  Instead, HTH’s idea of “tech” is that young people now grow up in a world where all information is accessible through the internet.  The key, then, is to shift the balance to helping kids acquire skills, including knowing how to dig content out of cyberspace and make good sense of it.

So HTH is entirely “project-based.”  Student groups design the project and then divvy up the work among leaders of sub-teams responsible for, say, the costumes, set, or lighting.  On “Project Night” at the end of each semester, they present their work to friends, family and community.  One grade immersed itself in 5th century Greece and a group of them took on the task of interpreting Euripides’ Trojan Women in the contemporary setting of modern Pakistan.

The HTH teachers’ role is to inform, suggest, set broad expectations, and keep the projects from going off the rails.  Content-area teachers seem to pair off in odd couplings, like history and engineering (Physics).  One teacher pair charged their group with digesting certain documents, politics, arts, and social history into a theory of the rise and fall of civilizations — an intellectual reach to say the least.  Having created their theory, backed by historical research, each group then worked with the engineering teacher to build a device that will represent their theory.  I didn’t understand the connection, but the finished device in motion was gorgeous.

Larry Rosen, the school’s CEO (principal) says, there’s just nothing like “making something that wasn’t there before.”

Does High Tech High school “work?”

Despite the film’s competitive title, that question runs through the minds of everyone committed to the experiment.  But what does “work” mean?

HTH’s teachers and especially the parents worry that the school might fail at getting kids into college.  They might stumble on career paths that still depend on credentialing.   A HTH math teacher concedes that his students learn perhaps 40% of the content taught in a conventional math course.  Will that be okay?  The film’s experts argue that higher education needs an overhaul at least as badly as K-12 to accommodate the values of the new workplace.  Probably so, but good luck with that.

If “work” means that the school beats the expectations the education industry currently obsesses over, HTH students test about 10% higher and graduate 10% more seniors than state average.  This is not a soaring achievement, but it does show that engagement gets more content into the kids’ heads than the California average.  And is that important?  National test-score evidence shows that traditional schools aren’t making much headway on basic skills either, so do those schools “work?”  Those metrics might only measure the percent of kids with supportive families or a high tolerance to sitting.

The time has come to rethink what we want from education and to recalibrate the metrics when we know.  In the meantime it’s horrible to watch schooling dim the curiosity and engagement every baby is born with.  The people in the film do not claim to have the answer.  New school experiments haven’t been around long enough to produce long-term outcomes.  Likely we’re only at the very beginning of the journey out of the 19th century legacy of teaching and learning.

But it’s about time.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Graduating From High School With Great Work Habits

Published by — At this school students take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning.

“Aaaaah, someone let the chickens out.”

Melissa Hall, Vice Principal of Greene Charter School in W. Greenwich, RI, has been keeping an eye out the window behind her desk while she and others were answering my questions.  A staff member looks up from her work in the school’s cramped administrative office and offers to deal with it.  Pausing a moment, Hall says, “No… Not yet.  There are kids out there.  Let’s wait to see if they handle it.”

Clearly, the 9-graders responsible for tending to the school’s chickens got distracted and had an oops.  Chickens, compost and a garden are integral to Greene’s focus on the environment.  Each staff member heads up a “crew” of 15 students who meet daily, at least, and together they steward their local eco-system while learning to be a team.

After a bit, Hall turns her back to the window, pleased to report that the escaped poultry were back in their coop.  At no point were the adults particularly fussed about the problem.  They were on it, if need be, but far better to let the kids have a minor panic about their carelessness.  Natural consequences are great teachers.  Adults do kids no favor by jumping up to fix things for them before they have had a chance to make things right themselves.

This is huge.  And, as Head of School Deanna Duncan points out, it takes patience and gobs of attention to cultivate an atmosphere of accepting responsibility.  Many parents and teachers struggle mightily with just getting the kids to do their school work, never mind doing service in the community or turning compost.  But the Expeditionary Learning (EL) approach that Greene has adopted believes that “We are crew, not passengers.”  Adults and students alike are “strengthened by acts of consequential service to others.”  They have jobs and obligations for their mutual benefit.  They’re in it together, and they’re not passive.

But what’s even huger, to my mind, is that Greene and their EL design consultants have not only brought back from the near-dead, but enhanced one of my all-time favorite educational innovations: “advisories.”  Back in the late 1980s, the seminal work Turning Points insisted that public schools “personalize” education.  That horribly impersonal word referred to having small groups of students regularly hang with an adult to ensure that every kid was known well by at least one adult in the building.  Advisories were designed to counter the lack of attention kids were getting at home and in their communities.  So-called “factory-model” schools just replicated kids’ starvation for healthy attention, and in many ways made it worse.  Private schools have always had some form of advisory to make good on their promise to give “personal attention” to the student.

Advisories seem like a well-duh of education.

Sadly, these days, many schools that still schedule advisory time allow teachers to waste the time by letting the kids do their homework, talk or text.  At Greene “Crew” has a curriculum of its own designed to teach students Habits of Work (HOW), including giving them tasks they have to figure with their team.  The Crews stay together for 4 years, so if you’re not getting along, you’d better learn how to.  These behavioral expectations, the HOW, are spelled out in detail.  Students learn both the sort of chore-related reliability and good ‘tude habits that everyone needs to keep a job.  But math and literacy are also woven throughout.  One goal states:  “I can demonstrate basic financial math to promote my understanding of our economic system.”

The over-arching questions of Crew are:

* Who am I?

* How am I doing?

* Who do I want to be?

The habits are graded according to two big categories.  Students can get straight “A”s in their academic subjects, but if they blow their performance on HOW, privileges and choices are reduced.  If students fail either of the HOW grades, they’ll need to do 30 hours of community service over the summer.

So, for example, Jamiel, a senior from Johnston, says, “I had big trouble with the math.  Math is everywhere; it’s part of everyday life.  If you can’t do math, you can’t do much.  So I had to have tutoring over the summer.  But here at Greene, we have this “yet” thing.  I can’t do this YET.  You can’t say ‘I can’t,’ but you can say ‘I can’t do that yet.’  So I work with being in the moment with the work.  I’m growing a positive mindset.”

Crews explore colleges together and help one another with the applications.  They act as a peer-accountability system that helps emerging adults mature into habits of self-control and self-maintenance that are at least as important as academics when starting out post-high-school.

Duncan says, “Our students know what it means to learn the good habits that will help them be successful out in the world.  We intentionally spend as much time focused on climate and culture as on academics.  Students need to take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning.  We all have to be responsible to our community.”

Including those wanton chickens.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.


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Expeditionary Learning – Journeying Through Compelling Content

Published by — Expeditionary Learning is a project-based educational approach that takes students on intellectual voyages.

Open since 2010, Greene Charter School in West Greenwich, RI, is one of a network of a large and growing network of “Expeditionary Learning” (EL) schools.

“Expeditionary learning” sounds deliciously exotic, like maybe what Marco Polo was doing or Dr. Livingston on a scientific exploration of the African jungle.  Fact-gathering treks through terrain that requires shots and exotic transportation.

Heaven knows some students have a daily expedition riding Greene’s bio-diesel buses from as far away as Westerly, to the south, or super-urban Central Falls, north of Providence.  They arrive at the Greene campus out in Rhode Island’s boonies after as much as an hour-and-a-half each way, but boast an attendance rate above state average.  A donor gave the school the buses to support the Board’s insistence on creating a diverse school available to urban students.  (The current 9th grade class has 41 percent students eligible for subsidized lunch, up from the 12th grade’s 9 percent.  Word has gotten out.)But Greene’s expeditions are actually classroom voyages through topic areas, although working out in the field, outside or off-campus, is integral to the EL experience.  These academic explorations are semester-long, in-depth examinations of an issue that integrate at least two core academic subjects.  Greene has an environmental science focus, so one of those two is usually science.  (Most EL schools are either science or arts-focused.)

For example, the 9th graders begin their high-school careers studying food in all its complexity.  Greene’s Vice Principal, Melissa Hall, says that the students start by reading the The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  “They write food journals (recording precisely what they eat); they study mass-produced food products versus local.  What does organic really mean?  They look at food over the course of time and food seasonality.”  Together, kids and teachers draw a 100-mile radius from the school site itself to figure out what’s within that reach.  What does it cost to bring local produce to table versus the price of transporting strawberries from Mexico?  And what are the trade-offs of energy-intensive indoor farming in wintery New England, where nothing grows outdoors in the winter?

Fun questions.

Greene’s EL consultants work with the faculty to backwards-design such projects, so while kids pursue their hot topic, they’re also learning the straight-up academic requirements, specifically of the Common Core.  With students lured into questioning the food they generally take for granted, teachers make sure they test well, at least comfortably above state average.

A central idea of this approach is students “owning” their own learning.  Every classroom has a copy of the 10 EL Design Principles.  Number one, “The Primacy of Self-discovery,” explains that “People discover their abilities, values, passions and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected.”  If kids aren’t invested in their own learning, it’s an uphill battle for the teachers.  Head of School, Deanna Duncan, puts it this way:  “Good teaching happens when the teachers themselves are engaged in learning.”  Turning the pages of a textbook is a tedious way to teach and learn.

Demona, an 11th grader from Providence, describes “expeditionary” this way: “They take a large topic and put it in English, science, history and get it to all come together.  (The food project) makes you really aware of what you’re putting into your body.  I’ve changed my diet.”  She adds, “It’s a really rigorous course.  I did not feel prepared for the level of rigor here.”

So these expeditions are the ultimate in hands-on learning.  The originators of the approach wanted to infuse public education with the best practices of Outward Bound.  While expensive, OB has had great success with getting disengaged kids out into the wilderness, where skills and courage they didn’t even know they had rise to the surface.  Prospective Greene students too must be willing to go camping, which has been a deal-breaker for some.

The academic expeditions always result in some sort of product that demonstrates — or not — that students actually understand the topic at hand.  The food project culminates in an 8-course dinner that the 9th-graders prepare, only with local food, to the extent possible.  Kids work with local suppliers, farmers and chefs, bringing the real world to their learning.  Preparing the dinner has become one of the week-long courses called “intensives,” learning experiences that happen both in the spring and fall.  Intensives give the school a change to support the strong achievers’ pursuit of a big project or personal passion, or to give struggling students the academic help they need to keep up in academically-rigorous classes.  The dinner intensive is a plum project that motivates students to get their academic act together.

EL is growing quickly, with 32 schools in New England and many more elsewhere.  Two-thirds of the EL schools are regular district schools; the rest are charters.

The Greene Board is thrilled with how EL is working out for their students.  The reasons include EL’s approach to school culture and climate, which I’ll discuss next week.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Economy Tells Youth to Make Their Own Jobs

Published by — Project Breaker uses building a social-venture business as the center of their learning experience.

“School is often divorced from the real world. And Millennials believe they have to follow their passions, so they’re very frustrated. So how do we help kids create value (paid work) by learning the skills they need in order to follow their passion? Because young people are realizing that in this economy, they might have to create the job of their dreams for themselves.”

Juliette LaMontagne, long time educator and Ted Talk fellow, was A Better Word By Design’s keynote speaker. This conference is for innovators who believe that like the scientific process, the design process can reliably help anyone work a problem through a series of iterative steps to solution. LaMontagne concedes that she once knew little to nothing about design or business thinking. But what she did know, deep down, was that our education system is failing the students who find sitting in classrooms all day full-on painful.

For 15 years LaMontagne had a promising career with the New York City schools. She walked away in abject frustration. She couldn’t be part of schools that treat students as “empty vessels to be filled” with knowledge and skills, passively, compliantly. Teachers can’t be innovators; they get a curriculum and instruction in how to get the kids to “learn” to arrive at right answers. Instead of enjoying the peak of their youthful vigor and energy, students are parked in chairs and expected to receive learning. Wake me when it’s over!

LaMontagne says, “I have a bias towards action and a willingness to experiment.” So she turned education on its head with a project called Breaker. (Yes, an odd name) Home-based in New York City — though with projects elsewhere — Breaker assembles interdisciplinary teams to “drive social innovation and collaborative learning.” Breaker leaders pose social problems, like increasing literacy or inventing urban farming techniques, and invites young people (who apply) to work with experts who have relevant practical skills. Together, the team uses an open-source IDEO design toolkit which lays out a process for collecting information, brainstorming ideas and testing solutions. The point is to create a sustainable business that solves the problem on an on-going basis, if possible.

So instead of a kid learning enough math, engineering, social science, communications skills to build something useful or remarkable later on, maybe, someday in the future, when there’s a job — build now. Learn the necessary skills along the way. Yes, this is project-based learning, which is not a radically new idea. But Breaker’s problem-solving business is at the center of the work. Actually fix something. Don’t invent a little hands-on project intended to reinforce a lesson. Focus for real on designing a necessary product, service, business.

LaMontagne’s favorite team member was a high-school dropout who had terrific communication and community-organizing skills, and horrible academic skills. As the people-person best able to negotiate with businesses and the community, he was well respected by the team, and thus motivated — at last! — to learn what traditional classrooms made impossible.

LaMontagne’s TED talk describes the project he worked on. The question was how to bring more garden space to inner-city areas, so people could grow their own fresh food. The team assembled in Breaker’s New York City space and started collecting data. They discovered that U.S. urban areas have about a million acres of unused land that could be converted into farmland. But lots of these areas are stalled construction projects that lost funding during the recession. So the garden plots needed to be temporary, able to be moved relatively quickly when the owner or the Department of Transportation finally got around to needing the land back. The project became a business called “Farm Blocks,” which manufactures lightweight containers that become modular, raised planting beds.

Some of the Farm Blocks team stayed on to work at what had become a viable business. Others were content with Breaker’s rich learning experience, and moved on.

Currently, Breaker reaches out mainly to 18-24-year-olds, a group whose 15.1% unemployment rate is twice the nation’s 7.3% rate. But as a frustrated K-12 educator, LaMontagne passionately recommends that schools adopt this go-getter entrepreneurial technique for K-12 kids maddened by educational passivity. “Students say I wish I were out in the real world making something happen. Have students decide what question to ask. The teacher becomes the facilitator. The product is the evaluation.”

She adds, “Imagine the collective impact of non-empty vessels, and instead engines of innovation. Imagine moving from centralized schools to learning distribution networks with community stakeholders strongly invested in the issues.”

Imagine how much better communities might look and feel when youth is out solving neighborhood problems with the support of educators.

Btw: nationally, student achievement has barely budged in many years. The nation’s flat SAT scores are the most recent evidence. Our current educational methods are obviously not working for a good portion of the nation’s students — I’d ballpark it at a third. Why not let more of them try their hand at business, especially since many will have to invent their own jobs anyway?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Math-Haters Love Crunching Numbers for Business Plans

Published by — For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first.  A balance is best.

Five high-school seniors cluster behind a pillar in a lecture hall at Rhode Island College.  Behind them is a movie-sized screen, and in front looms a modest but intimidating stadium of seats.  With the giggling and “Oh my God!s,” they’re reviewing the game plan for making their upcoming presentation.

To my eye, these students, urban and suburban, don’t seem academically challenged.  But none of them passed the math section of last fall’s state test, which is now a graduation requirement.  Fully 38 percent of RI’s seniors are at risk of not receiving a diploma.  The field refers to them as the “Level 1s,” the lowest test level, “substantially-below proficient.”

While some people vigorously oppose the requirement itself, others organized “cram camps” to give these students urgent-needed help.  The Northern Rhode Island Collaborative, an education-support organization, hired Christine Bonas to assemble educators to develop and deliver this two-week summer intensive.  An ex-math teacher herself, and now guidance counselor, Bonas gets both the academic demands and the kids’ lack of motivation.

Because whatever kept the kids from learning math before, they’re into it here.  The program is brilliantly designed.  Teachers spent the first day asking students what they don’t like about their community.  Answer:  plenty.

Okay.  So get into teams and pick one problem — like, no place for teens to hang out, bad public parks, a need for animal rescue shelters.  (Yes, many shelters exist, but so what?)  Then, build a business model with a plan that will solve the problem.  Don’t whine; take an entrepreneurial approach.  With your idea in hand, research the costs of rent, labor, utilities, equipment.  Prepare multiple spreadsheets that explain income and outflow, start-up costs and maintenance.  Develop “what if” scenarios for unanticipated expenses.  Talk to local business leaders, provided by the program, about your calculations.

Lastly, learn how to pitch your idea.  To add a competitive game element, local businesses pooled $1,000 seed money for the winning plan.  I’m at their pitch rehearsal, but superintendents and business leaders will evaluate the final presentations tomorrow.

The giggly group emerges and makes a thoughtful presentation.  Their business eliminates the hated condition of teens depending on family and friends for rides.  They show us an example of eco-friendly electric mini-buses that will take kids to the mall, their friends’ house, wherever.  The team wanted a cost-free service, but crunching the numbers ruled that out.  (A snootful of Reality is such a good lesson.)  Taking turns, students walk us through slides of spreadsheets that show us they’ve been steeped in manipulating numbers effectively.

Apparently, the these students’ final presentations were so good, the kids surprised even themselves.  Business planning gave them a real-world feel for what they could actually DO with math skills.  Bonas says “The light dawned on them that this is what math is for.”  Bingo.  This should have happened long ago.

Why can’t school be like this all the time?

Bonas was blunt.  “As a former math teacher, I can tell you that you’re handed a textbook and told how to do it.  We’re not able to think outside the box.”  Partly that’s a result of the way teachers are trained, and partly because districts have gotten more and more prescriptive for their teachers.  She says, “It’s a manufacturing process.  You’ve got too much to do and you’ve got to get it done.  You don’t have time to be a dynamic teacher.”  She explains that “project-based learning,” where students actively pursue a project of interest to themselves, takes more work to plan.

“To teach them a slope, we (math teachers) put a formula on the board, give them graph paper and show them the rise over run.  There’s always one kid who says, When am I going to use this?  The teacher says, uh, well, see that roller coaster?  Parabolas are how to keep them from crashing.  That’s no answer.  They don’t care.  But if you ask a kid to show me how your business is going to make a profit, they can show you time on the “x” axis and increase in cost on “y”, suddenly we’re looking at a negative slope.  Oh!, they say.  Because we’re teaching in context.  Parabolas have to have something to do with their lives.  Making a profit is something they can care about.”

For far too long, project-based or “constructivist” learning has been at war with the “drill-and-kill” focus on building skills first.  Skills are critical, but as Bonas notes, the kids don’t learn if they don’t care.  Learning can’t be either/or.  Get kids hooked on solving problems that matter to them, but stop them here and there to teach and reinforce the skills they need.  Both/and.  Bonas’ kids talked to bankers, attorneys, accountants.  As one girl said about these interviews, “They, like, so opened my eyes to how much detail you need to have.”  Of course details matter.  Dream all you want, but the math has to work.  Skills and projects need a healthy balance.

We’d have fewer “Level 1s” of all kinds if school were more engaging, creative, meaningful.  Bonas says, “I’m amazed by the growth I’ve seen in just two weeks.”  Now imagine the growth after a whole year of that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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