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Spotlight: Student Work In Project Based Learning

by Drew Perkins, Director of ThoughtStretchers Education

Recently Abby Griffy, a school leader from a district with which I’ve worked developing project-based learning capacity, graciously shared examples of their students at work. These teachers and students are in their first year of PBL implementation and while they are certainly experiencing some of the normal bumps and productive struggles along their journey these pictures are great evidence of what this shift in learning can look like. Interestingly, the subject of the forwarded email asked “Do these students have an edge?”

I could ramble on about the thinking we did in the workshop and how we work to refine practice but the student work here is the important focal point. I love that the Driving Question in the picture above poses an open-ended challenge with clarity around the product and purpose and you can easily imagine their authentic audience.

Do the students look committed or compliant? Are they refining their work as a craftsman would? Would the assessments built into the process be meaningful because they wanted to do their best because it matters…to them and not just the teacher? Do they have autonomy in how and what they create?

Those are all questions worth considering whether we’re refining, observing for feedback, or reflecting on student work. Clicking through the gallery of pictures below I like that the students are making, creating, and testing their iterations. They’re collaborating and you can see evidence of teachers formatively assessing and connecting to content. I like that the student products and solutions vary from a food bed to aquaponics to hydroponics and aeroponics and water filtration systems.

As schools and students engage in project-based learning it can and should look different but always founded in students creating and using rich inquiry to get there. Will you see and use some of what we might term “traditional” teaching methods? Yes, of course, but the dynamic shifts from one where teachers are telling students what they need to know to one where students are identifying that content and then essentially asking teachers for help in learning it.

As an interesting side note, Abby noted the reactions of some preservice teachers who were accompanying her on these learning walks. They pointed out the intellectual engagement and critical thinking they were seeing and wondered why their teacher preparation program hadn’t (yet?) empowered them as teachers to do this type of work. This brings me back to the earlier question for consideration. Do these students have an edge?


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