Out with the Test, in With PBL: How Project- Based Learning is Transforming Remote Learning

By: Kyle Wagner


Imagine if learning wasn’t driven by tests, state mandates or overloaded bureaucracies, but by real-world learning experiences and community contribution.

Imagine if rather than shifting from class to class, six times a day, students instead managed their schedules and attended class a few times a week.

Imagine if teachers, rather than being deliverers of content, are able to become designers of experience.

Dreamers like us no longer have to imagine. The time has come.

Earlier this month, as a result of the coronavirus, schools in 49 countries across the world closed their doors. A week later, many also announced that they would be canceling mandated standardized tests.

The most innovative educators have seen this announcement not as a setback, but as a call to action. It has allowed them to do what they always knew was best for kids.

Project-Based Learning.

This article is an attempt to capture the stories of projects that students are leading to develop the creative, empathetic, resilient, learners in our world so desperately needs.

Most importantly, the article is a call to action for you, the innovative educator to use this unprecedented time to try something new with your students as well.

The Recipe for Critical Thinking: The Digital Cookbook Project

Driving Question: How can cooking unite a community during social isolation?

Imagine your students skyping with their grandparents on the other side of the country to discover the secrets of their family’s infamous beef stew. That’s exactly what fifth-grade students are doing in Alexa Lepp’s class. She has tasked students with creating a class digital cookbook that includes favorite family recipes, videos of how it’s made, and a narrative for what it means to the family. In the process, students are learning how to conduct effective interviews, organize and classify information, create visual content, calculate ratios, and write descriptively. For Alexa, adapting this project to an online environment is nothing new for students. As she succinctly puts, “Students are already comfortable with solving problems, they just have to apply the framework to this new challenge.” I can’t wait for the Carne Guisada burrito.

Alexa’s Tips for Teachers:

  • Organize a project around something you are excited about. Alexa explains that the project idea was inspired by a regular holiday cook-off that her family conducts. (This year her mac n’ cheese was the winner).

Get other teachers and administrators on board. Alexa describes that after launching this project, her whole 5th-grade team wanted to try something similar.

Additional Resources and Connecting with Alexa Lepp:

Here is a link to the hyperdoc Alexa uses to guide students in the process. Connect with Alexa at [email protected] or on Twitter @alexalepp.

Packing Empathy in a Suitcase: ‘The Refugee in a Suitcase Project’

Driving Question: How can we use storytelling to share the plight of refugees?

Imagine having less than 24 hours to pack your whole life in a suitcase. What would you take? This is the hook Andrea Nieto, a 7th/8th-grade teacher in Denver, Colorado uses to help her students empathize with the plight of refugees. In the project, students pack suitcases, construct accompanying narratives, and prepare a museum to honor and commemorate refugees of the Holocaust. To adapt to the new remote environment, students can find a way to synthesize their findings in a virtual museum. Andrea helps make things even more real by taking students on a virtual field trip to the Holocaust Museum in Philadelphia to hear from survivors via Skype. Andrea notes that with an effective project-based learning, while she “provides the vessel, it’s up to students to fill it.” They have certainly filled the vessel, a few students took it upon themselves to create a podcast for listeners to tune into while touring their museum.

Andrea’s Tips for Teachers:

  • Reach out to the community. Before running a project, Andrea contacts NGOs and community organizations who are more than willing to support through talks, visits, activities, and related mini-projects.

Additional Resources and Connecting with Andrea:

Here is a link to some free resources Andrea has developed to support teachers. Connect with Andrea on Instagram @UnicornteacherCo.

E-Learning From the Future: Using creativity to make e-Learning easier for students in the West

Driving Question: How can we best support those new to e-learning?

After 8 weeks of continuing to deliver PBL in an online learning environment, Mike Mantelow, a 6th-grade teacher at Yew Chung International School of Beijing and his fellow teammates, has embarked on an ambitious project that links the content and standards to one simple concept: the real world. With 8 weeks of online learning already under their belts, his students are busy creating resources, tutorials, videos, handouts, and even animations to support those new to e-learning. Students are free to choose their products and partner/ group with classmates who share their interests. Mike also isn’t going at this project alone. “I’m not a one-man band, I collaborate with two western teachers and a Chinese teacher; the experience of the team all add to the experience that the students have in their learning journeys.” In addition to the creative mindset, students are gaining in their learning journeys, they are also developing persistence as Mike insists that students “demand a rubric.”  As he puts it, they want to know what “success looks like.”

Mike’s Tips for Teachers:

  • Focus on one small step of PBL at a time. If you can construct the driving question, Mike insists that you can go “leaps and bounds” from there.
  • Work in teams. Whether grade level, subject-based, or cross-curricular, Mike concludes that working in a team has helped create effective structures for sharing work, offering feedback, and improving products.

Additional Resources and Connecting with Mike:

Here is the planning guide Mike uses for this project and some more resources to help you get started with PBL. You can connect with Mike at [email protected] or [email protected].

Activism Through Art: How ‘project intensives’ create global citizens at The Harbour School

Driving Question: How do we foster activism through art?

During Arts Interim week each year, teachers across The Harbour School in Hong Kong scrap the traditional timetable to instead participate in ‘project intensives.’ These ‘intensives’ are organized by cross-disciplinary/cross-grade level teams to address real-world problems combining passion, content, and purpose. Elizabeth Micci, the High School Principal describes one of her favorite projects, Abandoned Hong Kong. Students in the course engaged in a series of walking tours across rural and urban settings in Hong Kong and assembled drawings, photographs, and visual narratives that capture the unique history of the city. And while typically such Arts Interim projects are exhibited by transforming their school into a museum, because of the recent school closures, they will instead find a way to create interactive exhibitions online for this year’s courses. As Elizabeth succinctly states about the creativity and flexibility that students must display due to the coronavirus, “There’s no lesson more important in their lifetime than this lesson.”

Elizabeth’s Tips for Teachers:

  • Build-in time for reflection. Elizabeth insists that we have a “rare opportunity” to make learning more reflective and less busy.
  • Use real-world events as opportunities for cross-curricular projects or courses. This will increase the engagement of both students and teachers

Additional Resources and Connecting with Elizabeth:

Here is the guide for the project ‘intensives’ described above. Connect with Elizabeth through email at [email protected].

Building EQ by Connecting with Our Bodies: The Emotions Through Body Connection Project

Inquiry Statement: The art of engineering emotional human connection is at the heart of storytelling.

Imagine your student’s storyboarding, filming and animating a 3-d environment that featured a range of human emotions. This is exactly what students did in the cross-curricular and flexibly organized 7-day interdisciplinary unit by Jemima Khalli and her team. Jemima describes the project as the result of a meeting in the cafe between the Science, English and Design Teachers. “We wanted to create an opportunity for students that was engaging and purposeful. We got ideas from everyone and then picked one we all liked.” Wasting no time, the team put together a short introductory video, sample production company and potential product featuring the effect of emotions on the human body. Students were given similar freedom in their project, attending ‘workshops’ and online classes most relevant to their interests and needs. There were open workshops on storyboarding, camera angles, and how to create 3-d environments. In another interdisciplinary project at the school led by Ian Huffaker and his team, students also met virtually with mentor groups to share ideas, work through challenges and gain feedback. Projects like these transform more than just the students: “I had never learned and explored psychology in my classroom before. It was great to develop my professional development with this project” the Science Teacher writes.

Jemima and Ians’ Tips for Teachers:

  • Instead of focusing on negative ‘what- ifs,’ focus on the positives that can come out of PBL
  • “The more you force normality on our kids, the more you aren’t acknowledging this is a bizarre situation” – Jemima
  • Find time to collaborate with other teachers. More time=better results.
  • Social interaction and collaboration are hard in an online space. Set up small groups and protocols to help the groups interact.

Additional Resources and Connecting with Jemima and Ian:

Here is the link to the project calendar (s) with embedded links. An example product can be found here. Get in touch with Jemima at [email protected] @jemimakhalli on Twitter, and Ian at [email protected].

Developing Cross-Generational Communities: The Citizen Scientist Project 

Driving Question: How can we as young innovators design a scientifically based model to impact our community?

Imagine your young students installing bioluminescent lights along the city’s bike path to increase the safety of bikers at dawn and dusk; or designing an app to help update school traffic congestion in real-time. These ideas are only a few of the many innovations thought up by citizen innovators in Linda Amici’s 5th-grade class. The inspiration behind the project came from COSIscifest; an annual event hosted by the local science center’s cryogenics lab to bring together the world’s most intriguing inventions and inventors. Linda explains that she wanted to “make things authentic and connect students to real issues.” Students are doing far more than just connecting. For example, after discovering the community’s needs through a survey with over 600 responses, two students have organized a transportation service that families can use to get to nearby events while also learning a second language. Drivers are recent immigrants in need of a job, and passengers are connected families in need of a ride. Just like real scientists, students must collect relevant data, pitch and beta test their idea with real users, and ultimately communicate it in a short elevator pitch. Think the students are too young? Linda excitedly states, “Fifth graders don’t have the same bias as adults and can innovate much more quickly.” I’m looking forward to their app that helps me organize my remote learning day!

Linda’s Tips for Teachers:

  • Make learning authentic and connect students to real issues
  • Listen to your kids. Don’t worry if you don’t know something. Your kids will teach you.

Additional Resources and Connecting with Linda:

Here is the spreadsheet that lists individual student design ideas and questions. Connect with Linda at [email protected] or at @LindaAmici on Twitter.

How Will You Use PBL to Re-Imagine School?

Project-Based Learning is not an obscure concept reserved only for the savviest educators amongst us.

Rather, it is for educators just like me and you.

Curious, hungry, and impassioned to help our students do school differently.

As my good friend, author and courageous leader, Daniel Bauer of Better Leaders Better Schools insists:

Coronavirus is like a coin. Unlike a random coin toss, you have the power to choose what side the coin lands on. Heads=fear. Tails=opportunity. Heads=school as we’ve always done it, but online; Tails=a different better way forward.

For the benefit of your students, I hope you choose tails.

Start Planning Your Remote Project- Based Experience Right Away

The following is a simple planning process guide with a sample template for how to design your project with students.   

For more, see:

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Kyle Wagner is a ‘Getting Smart’ Staff Writer, author, and founder/ lead trainer of Transform Educational Consulting; helping forward-thinking schools create more socially, emotionally and globally aware citizens through project-based learning. Connect or learn more about how he can help you transform student learning at [email protected], Twitter @kwagssd3, or through his website www.transformschool.com.

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Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

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