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Topic tags: what is PBL, student work, how to do PBL


October 14, 2013
Quality Projects:  Put Relationships Before the Rigor

After working with the staff of ACE and Health Leadership Schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico for the past five years, I think it’s time we stopped assuming that rigor is something that happens mainly as the result of a teacher’s competency. Instead, we should start thinking about quality work as something that results from the design of a project that allows students to work effectively with their own assets, with their peers, and with adults, including the teacher but especially those with expertise far beyond that one person.

Working with One’s Self: Assets-Based/Positive Youth Development 

In its first year, Administration and Staff at ACE Leadership decided to adopt the Positive Youth Development framework. Students were asked to self-assess their internal assets, and then staff supported these with external assets, rather than punishing students for their deficits. This led teachers to powerful realizations about their students as individuals, rather than as a class roster or as aggregate sets of data. When confronted with a challenging project like building a rammed-earth foundation, students saw the project as an opportunity to learn some things they had been wondering about, or upon which they needed to improve. They would then start to make choices about which of these opportunities they were really ready to seize, and would focus on those with the aim of dealing with others later.

 As time went on, most of the students approached their projects from the assets they were confident they could bring to the project, because they wanted to see the project succeed. Yolanda might look at the rammed earth project as an excellent opportunity to use her speaking voice to explain this environmentally sustainable practice to those who didn’t understand it, but also a safe space to learn about research with a good research partner. Allie, on the other hand, may count on her research skills while taking some risks to grow her public speaking. When students are focused on understanding themselves as learners, this is how they approach projects. By the third year, ACE was done with “Carnegie unit” classes, and offering ONLY projects, and it became the advisor’s responsibility to support a student in thinking about what they could learn from a project, rather than the teacher’s task to think about what they had to teach every student.

I would argue this is how MOST students in most schools approach our projects, but that they’re afraid that we as teachers will fall back on trying to teach them everything they need to know because we want to be rigorous. This commitment to rigorous coverage means we’ll bore Allie to tears during the research part of the project, and do the same to Yolanda when coaching public speaking. IF, however we bore Allie in the research phase before getting to public speaking, Allie will check out, and fail to work to her potential. Some teachers might call her lazy, but a good teacher will realize the flaw was in the project design: its rigor only worked for some, not all of the students.

Working with Peers: Effective Teaming 

As soon as you admit that different students might try to learn different things in a particular project, you’ve unlocked the secret to effective teaming in Project Based Learning. In an earlier BIE blog, Building a Culture of Hiring, I discussed this issue as it first surfaced at ACE Leadership, but it merits more consideration in the context of producing quality work. Most PBL teachers put a ‘leader” in charge of a project, and that notion of leadership is almost always informed by a sense that the “leaders” can control the team when the teacher isn’t there. This isn’t leadership, it’s mere management, and it’s one reason this kind of team ends up with the leader doing all the work. The team will not be inspired by serving under a deputy teacher, and the deputy teacher is, more than likely, one of those students who always “grabs” on to what the teacher tells him or her to do. That’s why they got the job, after all, and that’s why they’ll probably try to do the whole job alone.

But when students are self-aware and given the freedom to shop around for those who can complement their skills, they begin to form teams that will actually collaborate to complete a quality product for the project. Allie might learn about public speaking from Yolanda, but the team will trust Yolanda to make the final decisions on how their presentation should be designed because they acknowledge that asset in Yolanda. Pair Allie and Yolanda with Joey, the kid who can’t keep his hands still because he just wants to be tearing stuff apart and rebuilding it again, and you have a team that can tackle a complex design challenge like a rammed-earth foundation, perhaps even without an appointed “leader.” Assuming personality conflicts can be managed by the teacher using one of several different minimally invasive classroom management strategies, the peers on the team will learn from one another, complement one another, and drive the quality of work to new heights because of the effectiveness of the team. This is no accident, however. It is the result of a teacher who worked, hard, to design a learning experience that had something for all the learners, rather than everything for every learner.

Working with Others: Subject Matter Experts 

As students get comfortable with the notion that different members contribute different things to the team, they’re ready to unlock the power of subject matter experts (SMEs) as true partners rather than outside judges. Far too many projects wait until the final, summative performance or demonstration to bring SMEs into the mix, hoping that the students will rise to the occasion to impress these credible outsiders. This often means that students will be awed, or terrified by these outsiders if they’ve never met them before. Outside SMEs are another complementary factor in producing quality work, but only when they’re part of the team along the way. At both ACE Leadership and Health Leadership High Schools, it’s not unusual to see the CEO of a leading New Mexico architecture firm, a public health worker in from the neighborhood clinic, or a veteran site manager with 50 years’ experience coordinating hammer swingers and concrete pourers. Each of these will be working alongside students and teachers in the design, assessment, and management phases of a project. When Tech Leadership opens in 2014, it will almost certainly be crawling with SMEs from the nearby Sandia Labs.

In many real-world projects, a teacher may simply lack the subject matter expertise to help students do the kind of work that professionals in these fields would respect. That’s why I think it’s indicative that all the learning outcomes used at ACE Leadership require “Quality” work as the baseline for meeting standards. When those standards are not met, it’s back to the drawing board for more practice until they are. But there’s a higher bar, too: “Value Added” is the term for the work that commands respect from industry professionals and builds a reputation for ACE Leadership students and the school. That’s not just a fun buzz-phrase to throw around. As student Josh Lujan said in his last year at ACE: “Getting Value Add is not just about building my reputation. Doing the little extra to earn Value Add gave me more practice and helped me make sure I understood.” Indeed, many of the students graduating from ACE are able to leverage that reputation into internships and jobs far beyond what they might have received with a mere high school diploma, and we have every reason to believe the same will be true for graduates from Health and Tech Leadership in a few years.

Looking at these three relationships and their role in PBL, it should be clear that students at these prototype schools of the future are working harder than their teachers, and that’s saying a lot because I know how hard the teachers at these schools work! The remarkable thing is that most of the students at these schools were written off as slackers, or under-performers at their previous schools. They changed, and began to do quality work, not because their teachers held them to rigorous expectations day in and day out until they learned to deliver what was expected. They changed because their teachers designed learning experiences for them that the students could actually see as learning opportunities, rather than mere “assignments.” If we had this kind of “design rigor” in more schools around the country, I’m quite certain we could stop talking about rigor in our schools, and start celebrating more results. I know this, because celebrating results is something ACE has been doing since it opened its doors, and the doors opening at Health and Tech Leadership are themselves celebrations of those results. When industries come to you asking to help them build a school, I think it’s safe to say you’re getting results worth celebrating.


Hangout with BIE: Quality Projects: Put Relationships Before the Rigor

Dr. Tim Kubik shares his experience working with ACE Leadership and Health Leadership High Schools in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which organizes authentic learning experiences around work in the construction and health industries.


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