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Key Components of a Quality Project

September 16, 2010
As an advocate for a project based learning approach to instruction, I am aware that critics often point to the idea that some projects can border on busywork. In the September issue of Educational Leadership,  John Larmer and John Mergendoller shared ideas about the key elements for a quality project. Here is a recap of what they say about developing projects that involve meaningful inquiry and engage students:

A need to know – A unit should begin with a “hook” or “entry event” that grabs students’ interest and motivates them to think, I need to know this to meet the challenge I’ve accepted. The need-to-know event can be a video, a provocative discussion, a guest speaker, a field trip, or a mock letter setting up a scenario.

A driving question – Larmer and Mergendoller note that, “A project without a driving question is like an essay without a thesis. A good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn.” Examples: When is war justified? Is our water safe to drink? How can we improve this website so that more young people will use it?

Student voice and choice – The more, the better. This might involve students choosing a topic under the guiding question, choosing from a limited menu of options for creative products, or students deciding what products to create, what resources to use, and how to structure their time.

21st-century skills – Collaboration is a key component of project work – teams of three or four students planning their tasks, figuring out how to produce their product, and monitoring their work quality through self-assessment.

Inquiry and innovation – For example, students working on an air pollution unit might generate a series of specific questions: What diseases can you get from air? How much do I have to breath it to get sick? Where do bacteria come from? Pursuing answers in books and the Internet – coached by the teacher – should lead to further questions.

Feedback and revision –  Students need to learn that most people’s first attempts don’t result in high quality and that revision is a key aspect.  Students need to be taught that revision and reworking an idea or issue is a frequent feature of real-world work. (See Heritage/Woodland Meadows Campus pick-up & drop-off process) The teacher should provide ongoing feedback, bring in experts and mentors to look over students’ drafts, and provide rubrics and other guides to help students self-assess.

A publicly presented product – Students should present their final products to an audience that might include parents, peers, community members, and government officials in a big-deal exhibition night. “Schoolwork is more meaningful when it’s not done only for teachers or the test,” say Larmer and Mergendoller. “When students present their work to a real audience, they care more about its quality.”  Our staff is very good at providing opportunities to share work with a larger audience.  Look no further than HornetTube to see that sharing student work outside of the classroom is becoming the norm here in Saline.

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