What Does Project-Based Learning Really Look Like?

Ellen Ullman

In the early days of education technology, districts would purchase hardware and software on a whim, require teachers to attend one-day training sessions, and then cross their fingers and hope that enough people would figure out how to use the product so they could justify the purchase.

Sadly, some places still do this.

But what if you were able to build a school from scratch, using a successful blueprint that infuses technology in an organic way? What if this school featured small classes, authentic project-based learning (PBL), and teachers who participate in professional learning simply because they are eager to learn? And what if this school offered students the opportunity to enhance skills that would help them in life, including creativity, decision-making, information literacy, and social responsibility.

For the lucky residents of Albuquerque, New Mexico, this school already exists. Welcome to the nex+Gen Academy High School, a 21st-century, project-based learning academy where one-to-one computing is part of its DNA.

A Network of Schools

Nex+Gen is a public school of choice within the Albuquerque Public Schools as well as a member of the New Tech Network, a national nonprofit that works with school districts and communities to help high schools promote deeper learning. There are 120 schools in the New Tech family, and the organization provides them with technology, professional development, and coaching to help them create their own cultures using the proven New Tech model: PBL + integrated technology + a collaborative school culture = success.

“Our district has 13 high schools, but there were few alternatives within the district,” says Michael Stanton, principal of nex+Gen. “Our school was started because people wanted to improve learning opportunities for families in the community.”

In January 2009, Stanton was assistant principal at a large Albuquerque high school when he was chosen to run nex+Gen. At the school since its inception, he helped plan everything from course offerings to the building’s design and layout. “We have a unique blend of things that makes us effective: our design, our commitment to project-based learning, our commitment to one-to-one learning, and our culture,” he says.

Described as a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility, nex+Gen was designed to accommodate PBL. “We built a two-story building from scratch—form meets function,” Stanton explains. As a result, there are no cookie-cutter classrooms with neat rows of desks. Instead, classrooms are outfitted with rectangular and odd-shaped tables on wheels that teachers can move around or slide together, based on whatever the students are doing. Chairs are also moveable to encourage collaboration.

Authentic PBL

Too often, PBL follows this model: teach, teach, teach, lecture, worksheet, reading, movie, reading, lecture, worksheet, final project. According to Stanton, PBL at nex+Gen is nothing like that model. “Here, we have wall-to-wall PBL. Much like in the business world, teachers present the students with a problem or driving question, give them the resources they’ll need to solve it, and send them off in search of solutions.”

Teachers look at the standards and come up with challenging projects that allow students to learn as they demonstrate their mastery. The projects, which are often multi-departmental, usually last for two or three weeks and start with an entry event like a letter or a speech. “It’s a constructivist model of teaching and learning that is student centered,” says Stanton. “Teachers are called facilitators; students are called learners. “

For one project earlier this year, an Albuquerque CPA firm that had not updated its magazine advertising for several years asked the 12th-grade digital media class to create four different ads for New Mexico Business Journal. The students and their teacher discussed the firm’s problem, figured out the steps they needed to complete the project, and went to work.

Students go online for primary source materials and manage their work through Echo, a learning management system designed by New Tech Network to support PBL. Teachers, students, and use Echo to access course resources, project plans, assignments, gradebooks, online groups, and instructional resources.

At the end of each project, the students present their findings. Often, the presentations are open-ended since each problem can have a variety of solutions and resolutions.

The PBL model is a little different in math and foreign language classes, since those disciplines typically demand one correct answer. Here, students do problem-based learning (PRBL), which is a three- to five-day version of the PBL model.

Throughout all of this instruction, students are also developing skills referred to as enduring skills or school-wide learning objects. They are assessed on four school-wide learning outcomes: written communication, oral communication, work ethic, and collaboration. Critical thinking, content, and technology underlie these four outcomes.

Nex+Gen offers no AP or honors courses; instead, juniors and seniors do mentorships at local companies such as Sandia National Laboratory and CNN. This is part of the New Tech model, which encourages the upper grades to connect with both the community and future plans. “Our curriculum prepares students to do college- and career-level work,” says Stanton. “Half of my juniors are getting 40 hours of experience in one of their career fields.”

The Icing on the Cake (aka Technology)

Stanton says he chose Dell Latitude laptops for the one-to-one program because they are robust. Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office are loaded onto each one, along with Google Apps and other cloud-based software, including the Echo LMS. The laptops also feature applications that enhance the curriculum, such as math software, technology training software, and programs that improve reading and writing skills.

Thanks to the opportunity to design the building, the wireless network is solid and powerful. As Stanton puts it, “We never have issues downloading YouTube videos.”

Google Apps for Education is integrated into Echo, and with that comes a powerful suite of communication and publishing tools including Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Sites. Students log in with a password and use Google Apps to collaborate, create presentations, and use calendars, email, and spreadsheets.

Because it’s a one-to-one school, Stanton bought longer-lasting batteries that go for six to seven hours, as well as extra batteries and chargers to eliminate the need for cords and plugs. Instead, there are a few charging stations where students can exchange dead batteries for fully charged ones.

Teacher Training

One of the biggest factors in nex+Gen’s success is its strong professional development. “A year before we opened, I went to the local union and we crafted a set of agreements between our teachers, our leadership, and the district to better support teacher PD and our professional culture,” says Stanton. “It’s one of the best things we’ve done.”

Each week, teachers spend approximately five hours in PD and collaborate in various professional learning communities (PLCs). “The teachers put in even more than the 100 required hours of PD. Our PLCs are unique, and our teachers create their own professional learning opportunities.”

Nearly two-thirds of the staff has completed the Intel Teach Program to learn how to integrate technology into the PBL curriculum. Teachers also continually participate in webinars and online software training sessions. “Usually a staff member can lead some of our software training, but when we implement new software we start with the vendor,” says Stanton.

Nex+Gen teachers don’t even take the summer off from learning. Instead, it’s a time for reflection, planning, and attending the New Tech conference—something the entire staff has done for the last three years. As part of the New Tech partnership, an on-site coach visits regularly and is always available to lend a hand electronically.

Contrary to reports that teachers don’t like PD, nearly 400 teachers have applied to teach at nex+gen, which currently employs 25. Stanton believes it’s because “they are treated as professionals, given ownership, and their voices are heard.”

C is for Community and Culture

Community and culture are also a large part of nex+Gen’s success. Staff members have very high expectations and promote such values as trust, respect, responsibility, integrity, and perseverance. “We talk about these values a lot, and when you have that along with PBL, everything supports each other. It makes a huge difference and offers a better recipe for success.”

Although Stanton’s the first to admit the school is not perfect and struggled to identify and clarify its image, after two-and-a-half years he believes “we are well on our way.” Others appear to agree. Last March, New Tech Network named nex+Gen  a New Tech Exemplary School and demonstration site. “They recognize schools that implement with fidelity, and we couldn’t be more proud,” says Stanton.

Students who came to the school with average scores are now scoring 12 points higher than the district average, an accomplishment that exceeded the school’s goal. Attendance is at 98 percent, and there was no staff turnover last year.

“When we opened nex+Gen Academy, we were challenged to re-imagine teaching and learning,” says Stanton. “It is evident through our hard work that our students are being better prepared for life and college.” 

At A Glance: 
  • nex+Gen Academy High School is a public school of choice in Albuquerque, NM, and is part of the New Tech Network. Opened in 2009, it serves 254 students.
  • Approximately 48% of the district’s students are Hispanic/Latino, 44% White, 3% Black, 3% Asian, and 1% American Indian. 40% receive free or reduced-price lunch.
  • In 2011, nex+Gen Academy’s building won the top K-12 Education project at the annual Awards of Excellence by the New Mexico chapter of NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association. 
  • In 2012, nex+Gen Academy was selected as a National Demonstration Site in the New Tech Network for epitomizing the New Tech mission of helping students gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life, college, and the careers of tomorrow.
  • In this 1:1 school, each student and teacher has a Dell Latitude laptop that is loaded with Google Apps, a customized learning management system, Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, and various other programs.
  • The school was built with collaboration in mind, and each room has tables and chairs on rollers so teaches can reconfigure based on activity. 
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