Students at Elizabethton High School in Tennessee might have trouble choosing their most memorable learning experience. Was it winning a national podcasting challenge? Collaborating with an FBI profiler to identify a serial killer? Or helping a wrongly convicted grandmother secure an early release from prison?
These are all outcomes of project-based learning (PBL) experiences facilitated by Alex Campbell, veteran teacher and PBL coordinator for the 850-student high school. He and I will be teaming up at ISTE22 for an interactive session, Taking PBL From Good to Great: Aim for Impact with Authentic Challenges.
Along with inspiration, Campbell offers practical wisdom about how to tackle authentic challenges.
“For any teacher who says, ‘I could never do that,’ I tell them: You’re right. You can’t do it. But if you get the right people around you,” he promises, “your students can do it.”
Three keys to success
A project called Justice Can’t Wait offers a good case study in PBL design. By the end of the project, Campbell’s sociology students advocated for the release of a woman who had served more than 20 years in prison — for a violent crime that students were convinced she did not commit. Getting to that outcome required thoughtful planning and facilitation on the teacher’s part.
Here are three strategies that he employed, and which other teachers can adopt for more authentic PBL.
To design the project, Campbell carefully considered the major standards for sociology while thinking about a way to engage his students in the content. “Socioeconomics, criminal justice, in-groups and out-groups — those all tie in with true-crime topics,” he says. “It was easy to connect this to the standards.”
Campbell gives students considerable choice in determining the direction of a project, but he starts with a structure. This project unfolded in key stages, including:
- Project launch: Campbell showed students a video about the release of a prisoner who had been wrongly convicted. He facilitated a discussion that got students emotionally invested in the topic, asking them: “Imagine being innocent and imprisoned. Wouldn’t it be cool to help someone like that?” Students were ready to dig in.
- Research: Working in teams, students began their research to identify individuals who may have been wrongly convicted. Each team narrowed its focus to one inmate and then presented their candidate to the rest of the class. As a whole group, students decided to take up the case of Suzanne Johnson, a grandmother and daycare provider who was serving time in a California prison for causing the death of a child in her care. Campbell had never heard of her. She was being represented by the California Innocence Project.
“I didn’t tell them which case to take on,” he says, but he did have a plan for how to proceed. “I wanted them to learn how to analyze a case, how to collaborate. What does the evidence say? There’s a structure, but I can’t go too far with planning. Once they choose [the case], then I have to figure out what they need.”
- Final product: As a final product, students had to create a packet of information to present to then-California Gov. Jerry Brown. As he neared the end of his term in office, the governor was considering commutations. That meant students had an authentic audience — and a hard deadline.
Campbell knew his students needed access to experts to tackle this complex project. He arranged for them to interview a wide range of sources, from a defense attorney to a prison guard to former inmates. Students read Just Mercy, the biography of death row defense attorney and social activist Bryan Stevenson, and interviewed a staff member from his foundation. When students needed to learn more about medical issues, including emerging science about traumatic brain injury and shaken baby syndrome, they reached out to the health sciences class at their high school.
Connecting with experts helps students formulate questions and advocate for themselves as learners. “It makes them more independent,” Campbell says. “They have to make sure they have what they need.”
He will also describe how his students leverage social media, digital filmmaking and other technologies for their real-world projects. Experience has taught him that he doesn’t have to be an expert in every tool that students want to use to achieve impact. When a technology question comes up, he says, “I’ve learned to ask my students, who knows how to do this? I’ve become more at ease with not having to be the expert myself.”
Suzie Boss is an author and educational consultant from Portland, Oregon. She has written several books for educators, including the ISTE bestseller, Reinventing Project-Based Learning, 3rd Ed. She is a regular contributor to Edutopia and a member of the Buck Institute for Education National Faculty. A frequent presenter at education conferences, she has helped project-based learning take hold at schools in India, Europe, Mexico and South America, as well as all over the United States. Follow her on Twitter @SuzieBoss.