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What Project-Based Learning Is -- and What It Isn't

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Screenshot/High Tech High

The term “project-based learning” gets tossed around a lot in discussions about how to connect students to what they’re learning. Teachers might add projects meant to illustrate what students have learned, but may not realize what they’re doing is actually called “project-oriented learning.” And it’s quite different from project-based learning, according to eighth grade Humanities teacher Azul Terronez.

Terronez, who teaches at High Tech Middle, a public charter school in San Diego, Calif says that when an educator teaches a unit of study, then assigns a project, that is not project-based learning because the discovery didn’t arise from the project itself. And kids can see through the idea of a so-called “fun project” for what it often is – busy work. “They don’t see it as learning; they see it as something else to do,” said Terronez. “They don’t see the value.”

For Terronez, the goal is to always connect classroom learning to its applications in the outside world. He’s found that when the project is based in the real world, addressing problems that people actually face, and not focused on a grade, students are naturally invested. “If you inspire them to care about it and draw parallels with their world then they care and remember,” he said.

It takes a lot of diligent planning by the teacher to design projects that give students space to explore themes and real-world resonance to make it meaningful for them. And it takes trust in the students, as well.

When Terronez assigns a writing project, it’s rarely just for a grade. Rather, the goal of the assignment is to be published in an anthology or in some other way relevant to the world around them.


Here are just a few examples of some the innovative things Terroniez has tried.


When students arrived on the first day of school they found an empty classroom. The first project Terronez asked his students to undertake was designing their own learning space, one that would support experience-based, collaborative learning. “I wanted to see what would happen to my instruction and the student’s learning if we didn’t let the classroom design, desk, chairs, whiteboard, etc. form the way I teach class,”Terronez wrote on his blog. “What would come of the studio space that used to be my classroom if students became the designers of their own space?” From the outset, the project mattered to the students and they took it seriously.


Terronez asked his students to design an iPod app that would solve a real-world problem. They came up with an idea, designed the display icon, figured out how users would navigate the app, prototyped sample tabs, then pitched their mock-up to an audience. They didn’t actually code the project, but they did all the conceptual product development. A sample project, the Virtual Yard Sale, allowed yard salers to post a virtual sale, listing the items that corresponded to their actual yard sale. This way, buyers could bid on items before stopping by to pick them up.


In a project exploring air pressure, Terronez’s students built their own hovercrafts using a leaf blower as the engine. When the hovercrafts worked, the students designed 3D representations of themes from “Freedom Fighters,” a Discovery School education video about racial struggles featuring the stories of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Their creations were featured in a hovercraft parade on Election Day.

[RELATED: What’s the Best Way to Practice Project-Based Learning?]


To understand the reasons behind colonization, Terronez explored the spice trade with his class. Students participated in an “Iron Chef” competition where they each picked a spice important during the Imperial era in Europe, learned its history and then had a cooking competition featuring both the history of the spice and a dish. Other students then judged both the cooking and the content.




These projects were all undertaken without Terronez “teaching” anything. The learning developed along with the project, guided by an educator who had already put a lot of planning hours into the intended outcomes. Students took the projects in whatever direction most interested them and the teacher’s job became pushing students to think through the real implications of their choices.

[RELATED: Life in a 21-st Century English Class]

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