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How to measure project-based learning

At hands-on sites such as the Workshop School, officials say the key is to make students accountable. Children help assess what went well or badly.
  • workshop school harvey finkle
    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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By his own account, Khalil Hicks had an excellent first quarter at the Workshop School in West Philadelphia.

He created a website to share information about his life and emerging skills.

He worked with teammates to design and build a cardboard boat that was big enough to carry his thin frame most of the way across a swimming pool.

And in engineering workshop, he constructed a camera obscura – a pinhole camera – even figuring out a way to include a rudimentary zoom lens, using glass.

All this accrued to his credit in the first two months of 10th grade at the innovative District high school in West Philadelphia.

But there’s more: Even as Hicks was using duct tape and Latex paint to seal the sides of the boat and do all the other crafting that he did, he was learning the “soft” skills now in demand in the world of work. Among them: critical thinking and problem-solving. Creativity and entrepreneurship. Communication and collaboration.

On a recent morning, Hicks, 15, delivered an assessment of his efforts in a 20-minute presentation to classmates, his teachers, and his father.

His polo shirt was buttoned and tucked, and his wire-rimmed glasses caught the light as his PowerPoint flashed on the screen behind him.

“I did good, yes I did, but I could have put more time on the website and put more time into my script,” said Hicks.

New ways to assess students

Even as debate swirls around high-stakes standardized assessments, some schools are de-emphasizing tests and rote learning. Instead, they ask students to tackle projects that require brainstorming, concentration, big-picture thinking, and applying math, engineering, and science skills. Teachers, too, are learning new ways to assess students, offering feedback, rating students on setting and reaching goals, and translating the math and other academic skills used to complete a project into competencies on a report card. Others have embraced standards-based assessments, where students have a second chance to master content in order to achieve proficiency.

The common thread is the focus on student engagement in their own learning and an increasing awareness that when students learn by doing and reflect on their efforts, they are more likely to find satisfaction in school and see pathways to academic and career success.

The upshot is “making kids accountable,” said Matt Riggan, a cofounder of the school. Every quarter, students must describe and defend their work – and acknowledge what went wrong and what they can do better.

“If you haven’t done what you’re supposed to have done, you can’t really run away or hide from it,” he said. “Knowing that every quarter you’re going to have to stand in front of your classmates talking about your work is a very different level of accountability than that number you got on your report card.”

There are long-standing examples of this hands-on approach. The region’s numerous technical schools retooled their curriculum in the last years of the 20th century, attuning their various studies to the needs of industry and aligning instruction with industry standards. Outcomes-based education – trial and error, learning by doing – is part and parcel of “shop” class. The District’s creative and performing arts schools put the emphasis on honing talent and collaboration.

And there are the newcomers: the Workshop School and Science Leadership Academy, including its second SLA campus at Beeber and a middle school in University City due to open next year.

Last year, the District opened three new schools in North Philadelphia seeking to build on this model: Building 21, the U School, and the LINC.

Building 21 and the Workshop School both have won grants from the Next Generation Learning Challenges school reform initiative, which encourages educators to measure student success in four areas: content knowledge, creative know-how, habits of success, and “way-finding abilities,” including setting goals and identifying career and college possibilities.

Students solving big problems

High school students can tackle big problems in their communities, said Joseph Merlino, president of 21PSTEM, a research and advocacy consortium based in Conshohocken. It has played a major role in the design of five project-based, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) high schools that have opened in Egypt since 2011, with plans for four more. Students in those schools, Merlino said, have designed projects intended to help solve some of that country’s greatest development challenges, including water use, traffic congestion and disease prevention.

In Merlino’s view, what has worked with great initial success in Egypt, where a team of girls won recognition for their water purification project in a global competition earlier this year, can work in Philadelphia. To that end a nonprofit group including 21PSTEM has won $150,000 grant from the Barra Foundation to design a projects-based curriculum combining STEM education with arts and cultural studies. Planning began in November with input from teachers and other educators, and representatives of business, the arts, and various cultural institutions. The goal, Merlino said, is to launch the curriculum in two or more city schools, yet to be chosen.

Folded into the projects-based approach is a commitment to proficiency-based assessments, where the focus is on learning the material – getting to proficiency – instead of settling for a particular score on the day of the test. Teachers can find evidence of proficiency on a particular standard within the student’s body of work or by that student’s work on a formal assessment.

Failure or missed points are taken in stride.

“We consider failure to be part of the learning process,” said Merlino. “You practice a lot, you learn more, and finally you succeed.”

Does the project-based approach impede success on state-mandated Keystone tests in algebra, literature and biology? “We don’t see any problem,” the former math teacher said.

Kenrick Tan was in the Workshop School’s first small graduating class in 2012. He was part of the team that developed the Bright Ideas project, which identified a key reason for high energy use in buildings. The team’s research showed that six to eight bulbs in a household account for 80 percent of lighting use. If consumers were to use LED bulbs and also learn to cut back on those “high-use” lighting sites, savings would be significant.

The students developed auditing software to track the use of each bulb – and won funding, competitions and respect for their work.

“I made a lot of presentations,” said Tan. “I presented at City Hall. Mayor Nutter was there, [U.S. Rep.] Chaka Fattah was there. I used to be scared to stand up in front of people, but then I started promoting Bright Ideas.”

Tan continued his studies at Community College of Philadelphia and wants to study energy engineering at Penn State.

This past year, Workshop students refurbished an old van into a food truck to teach children in West Philadelphia about the benefits of healthy food. “No junk in our truck!” was their motto.

And in June 2014, a team of students and school cofounder Simon Hauger won praise from President Obama at the White House Maker Faire for their lightweight car with a Volkswagen engine that they had modified to run on fryer oil.

“At this school, they want you to be honest about your work – if you did good, if you did bad, what you can do to improve. We reflect on every piece of work that we do,” said Hicks, standing in a hallway with his father, Tony Robertson. “This school is way different than other schools. It gives you lots of opportunities to do what you want to do.”

Robertson agreed. “This school is based on individual attention, and at the same time, they give students a chance to give each other feedback and to ask questions. I think that’s really important when it comes to learning.”

Proof of learning

Student Michael Ware, 15, said he’s identified himself as a kinesthetic learner. He recalled not being enthusiastic in the early, talk-it-through stages of the boat-building project, “but I just exploded with energy when we started building the boat.”

When it came time to put the boat in the water and row it across the pool, “it was really fine, it didn’t fall apart. Ours didn’t sink,” he said.

His teachers would call that proof of learning.

Khalil Hicks also felt that he learned a lot, even though his boat didn’t quite make it all the way across the pool.

In his presentation, Hicks told classmates that overall he was satisfied with the project, but next time, he would “make sure everything gets painted two, three times because that boat sunk.”

Overall, he said, his attendance has been good, with few tardies.

“My goal for this year,” said Hicks, “is to make sure I hit all the deadlines and keep up my grades. I think I can achieve more, push more and be more persistent.”

His classmates responded with a round of applause, and the two teachers in the room and his father joined in.

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Connie Langland

Connie Langland is a freelance education writer.