by Suzie Boss
Unless schools make a wholesale transformation to PBL, project implementation tends to happen in pockets. Early adopters are quick to jump in, but others may be more reluctant. That means it can take time for everyone to experience PBL across grade levels or school divisions.
Such was the case at the American School of Bombay, an international preK-12 school in Mumbai, India, where I’ve been a regular visitor for the past few years. By last spring, there seemed to be strong buy-in for PBL in the middle school. Teachers and school leaders had read about PBL, visited project-based schools in the U.S., and participated in professional development. PBL fits well with initiatives to promote inquiry and increase student voice and choice across the division. Yet as middle school Principal Pip Curtis observed, “Some teachers have jumped on board and some haven’t.”
Enter Project Impact, an immersive PBL experience that engaged every teacher and student in the middle school. Curtis shared insights about the project in a recent conversation. Here are highlights.
What was the inspiration for Project Impact?
Pip Curtis: We had idealistic goals as well as practical ones. We wanted to give students a sustained block of time to dig deep into a topic. We also wanted to offer teachers a learning experience. What we know about professional development is that sometimes it’s the experience that shapes understanding and not the other way around. We imagined there would be something powerful about having everyone in the school working on the same thing at the same time.
How did planning unfold?
Pip Curtis: We invited teachers to join the middle school leadership team if they wanted to help plan a genuine PBL experience. Some declined, but others stepped up and said, “I want to drive this.”
The planning team took time to choose a focus for the project. We talked about, “What’s worth learning?” We eventually settled on the topic of “impact,” and specifically the impact of our students on the city where they live—Mumbai.
We scheduled the project for three full days after the end of the first trimester. That’s the equivalent of 12 lessons in our block schedule. Teachers had time during the trimester leading up to the project to build student understanding and interest in the topic of impact. Each grade took a different focus. For grade 6, it was the impact of water in urban Mumbai. In grade 7, it was sustainability. And in grade 8, infrastructure.
Before project launch, students brainstormed compelling questions they wanted to investigate around those topics. Those became the Driving Questions for the project and gave students voice and choice. Once the project began, students appreciated that these were their questions.
How did you launch Project Impact?
Pip Curtis: It varied by grade level. For Grade 6, we had a giant water tanker truck pull up to the school. Students were introduced to the idea of how many liters of water people in India have to carry from wells to use for daily chores. We set up tents and each represented a family unit. Teams were allocated the average amount of water for a household of their size. Then they set about chores—washing clothes from the lost and found with biodegradable soap or washing dishes in the lunchroom. They quickly found that their water didn’t go very far. Some realized this when they were standing there in a swimsuit, waiting to shower, and they ran out of water. They didn’t want to waste a drop of water after that experience. We collected all the water and had them use it to water the gardens on campus.
How did the project unfold from there?
Pip Curtis: After the entry event, students began to research. We had curated some resources with the help of our librarian to help them answer their questions. By the end of the first day, we asked students to consider how they wanted to make an impact: by raising awareness, advocating for a solution, or taking action. On the second day, we had experts come in to work with them. Students rotated through the expert panels. They knew that the same experts would be coming back on the last day to hear their presentations, and that raised the game.
What were some of the solutions they proposed?
Pip Curtis: Many of the sixth graders wanted to raise awareness about the need to conserve water. They researched statistics and made infographics (in Hindi and English) with tips for saving water to post on refrigerators at home. Another group wanted to advocate for less car washing. They made bumper stickers that drivers could display as a badge of honor—“Yes! My car is dirty!” Another group made kits with all the parts for assembling water filters out of recycled materials. To design the filers, students went through a rapid prototyping process in our makerspace. Then they put the parts into plastic baggies, along with instructions, so that these could be distributed in the slums.
What was helpful for keeping this ambitious project organized?
Pip Curtis: Teachers had a shared planning document with links to everything they might need—resources and readings, schedules, icebreakers for teams. Each morning, we gave students exit tickets that they would complete by the end of the day. That helped them think about daily goals. Our technology coaches developed a list of tools for students to consider as they developed presentations. And we emphasized assessment, even though we were not giving grades for this project. Teachers had rubrics for assessing collaboration and managing complexity. They gave feedback, and they also encouraged self-assessment and peer assessment.
What did you hear from students at the end of the project?
Pip Curtis: One student said he learned more in these three days than in “all my seven years of schooling.” Some students didn’t want to stop working on their issue once the project ended. They have continued implementing solutions as part of our service-learning program. One team meets with our facilities staff every week to work on sustainability issues on campus.
An important byproduct of this project is that kids know their city better. If you’re new to Mumbai, as many of our students are, it can be easy to oversimplify the challenges here. You might be dismissive of people and problems. Kids might say, “It’s so dirty!”, and not realize that’s an urbanization issue. It’s an infrastructure issue. Now they understand the city in a deeper way. We’re all better informed about our community and the impact we have on it.
How about takeaways from teachers?
Pip Curtis: PBL seems more achievable for them. They understand it better. Those who weren’t ready to try this approach on their own have had a chance to see how they can meet standards and benchmarks through PBL. And this was very powerful for our teacher leaders. They know that they accomplished something special.