What’s So Great About Projects?

By. Andy Shaw, Dean of Curriculum and Innovation

“Why should I have to summarize the book? The teacher has already read it!” My mother still chides me for making this remark, which I uttered sometime during my elementary school years, in response to a book report assignment. Every student in the class read the same book and was assigned to write a report on it. Adults like me, who didn’t benefit from attending a school like Bay, have likely had versions of this experience through most of our educations. At its worst, and unfortunately often, a project was merely a different mode for regurgitating content in a standardized way.

The word “project,” however, has an entirely different connotation for most of us in adult life. A project could be a group of coworkers from a variety of departments, coming together to launch a new product. It could be a new creative endeavor, the execution of a new artistic work that will challenge an artist or craftsman to dig deep and reach outside their comfort zone in order to achieve their vision. A project might be building raised beds in one’s home garden, requiring research about carpentry, irrigation, and landscaping. I suspect for many adults, projects like these are the ones that get us excited, that drive us to keep late hours or work ourselves to exhaustion, not for monetary compensation but because the project is of our own choosing; because it forces us to grow, learn, and discover; and because it feels like it will have an impact in the world, even if on the smallest scale. It is these traits that distinguish the projects that energize us as adults from the soul-crushing book reports of yesterday.

When Bay teachers talk about our growing utilization of project-based learning (PBL), these “grown up projects” are the ones we are speaking about. We work to design projects that align with core traits that include, first, an element of self-direction – a student should have some choice such that their project aligns with their own interests and curiosity, and should have some guidance in finding a topic that does so. Second, a student should feel that their project matters in some way, that it is connected to a real or interesting problem, that it is relevant to people outside in the “real world.” These characteristics can be hard to achieve with high school students in a trimester, but we have found great learning benefit from even small steps that increase the authenticity and purpose inherent in a project. Finally, a good project is not about summarizing what a student already knows, but driving them to dig deeper into content, learn new skills, and grow as part of the project; it should include and require rich learning, rather than simply documenting learning that has already happened. In the words of the researchers at a group called Connected Learning, a good project creates in the student a “burning need to know.”

Our own experience, as well as the academic research, suggest that implementing well-designed project-based learning can increase student engagement and motivation, improve the transfer of skills from the classroom to the real world, and build a host of critical life skills in parallel to classical academic skills. For these reasons, Bay teachers are hard at work integrating this kind of thinking into Bay’s curriculum in ways large and small. Some courses, like our unique interdisciplinary electives, Research in the Community, or Senior Signature Projects, are oriented predominantly or fully around one of these rich projects. In other courses, it’s about working to integrate these core traits into new or existing projects within a unit or a lesson. Throughout the school, though, the goal is the same: to create academic experiences where students feel personally connected to the work, authentically driven to learn and dig deeper, on assignments that feel like they really matter.