Engaging students in authentic and meaningful project-based learning experiences can be achieved by making projects personally relevant. As educators, we have often been taught that project-based learning starts with a well-defined driving question. However, when a challenge question is firmly written with little room to shift focus, student engagement can be hampered.
The strongest project-based learning experiences use design thinking as a framework to solve problems through a “people-centered” lens. Pairing the design process with project-based learning allows students to define their own driving questions after both primary research and building empathy for others through techniques like interviewing, observation or surveys. Once students are engulfed in a self-defined problem, it becomes more meaningful, relevant and real.
At Holy Family Academy (HFA), where I am Head of School + Chief Learning Officer, we have found this approach significantly increases student interest, confidence, leadership and core content knowledge. We think of the city as a natural extension of our classroom and partnerships enhance learning.
When planning the shift from a more passive, lecture-driven lesson to a more active, hands-on project-based learning lesson, teachers at HFA use the design methods from the Stanford d.School, as well as the LUMA Institute. While almost all of the faculty at HFA has received professional development on integrating design methods into project-based learning, many tools and resources are available online for any educator. Visit dtk12chat.com or follow the hashtag to see more.
At our school, many faculty will work with our Instructional Coach, Roberta Brandao and in collaborative instuctional teams to plan a new project or driving theme. Faculty get 3 hours every Friday morning where all students are "out in the field" to collaborate and plan.
Often, most projects use six to eight design methods from start to finish. One of the core classes at HFA is called "integrated studies." The class focus is on building students' skills in identifying and solving problems within their own families, community eventually for real clients so they may become change agents for good.
Projects can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Discussion boards within our Canvas Learning Management System often start and sustain the conversation when students are not scheduled to be face-to-face. Blended learning and the flipped classroom approach allows teachers to remix how class space and time happens.
Groups and effective collaboration are essential pieces of leveraging and cultivating student passions.In our upper school, teams are designed based on student strengths derived from the Gallup Strengthsfinder. Students learn about their strengths and how they can use them best on a team project. Each week, HFA students meet with their learning hub coach and team three days a week to focus on building social/emotional intelligence and leadership skills. They also learn project -skills like creating gantt charts, weekly “status update” reports, and are permitted to use any digital media to support solving the challenge they identified.
Our school has a variety of devices for students to check-out and we have a 1:1 laptop program. Coupled with devices to support learning,students are trained in design methods that can support project-based learning. As students have gained the basic design skills to complete projects they are then paired with real clients in the Pittsburgh community, but also for global partners in places like Rio, Haiti, Kenya and Uganda. When students are pursuing their passions for real clients, building empathy for each other, learning how to fail fast and take calculated risks, they gain the skills needed to be innovators and change-agents. This style of project-based learning that infuses design thinking at the core leads to highly individualized, personalized and meaningful learning opportunities.
Here are a few of my favorite design methods to engage students and increase their passion for project-based learning:
What's On Your Radar: In teams of three to four students, use a bulls-eye diagram with three rings and between four to six pie slices to think about their priorities around a certain topic or theme. Give students a prompt that ties to your learning objectives for the project. We like to frame these prompts in the form of a “how might we” question. This method can take anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the number of ideas generated. Students take stock of the key priorities identified in the center ring and negotiate on ideas to move forward with exploring. They own the process and outcome.
Interviewing and Learning Walks: Don’t assume students know how to conduct interviews. Teach them how to develop interview questions, critique a mock interview and then analyze results to determine the themes that emerge from their research. We call the theme analysis process “affinity clustering.” Alternatively, have half of the class or part of the group take “learning walks,” where they practice observation skills and record them in a journal. We like using tools like Google Docs to keep digital records that are sharable to the teacher and other team mates.
Creative Matrix: This is an excellent method to use after students determine themes that have emerged from research. For example, in a past design-based project in Biology, students spent time (approximately three, 80-minute classes plus a 90-minute field trip) determining the key issues on our campus related to environmental sustainability. The top of the matrix listed things like recycling, composting, facilities and utilities, while the left side of the matrix listed new products, new services, events or wildcard for ideas that didn’t fit into the other three categories. The entire class broke into smaller groups and then generated ideas on sticky notes to fit each cell in the matrix. They then “visualized the vote” to pick their personalized project challenge statement and continued onto the rest of the project phases.
Using these design methods as the start of the project makes every student feel they have a voice. It contextualizes the topic and content, an important aspect of project-based learning, particularly for engaging for active youth. A combined approach to using digital media tools, design methods and allowing students to be agents of change will place their passions at the center of learning. Allowing faculty to collaborate, supporting it - planning for it and mentoring around it will prepare them to facilitate this approach in the classroom. It takes time, dedication and willingness to remake learning.