Technology and Project-Based Learning

Technology and Project-Based Learning

Alt School was founded with an audacious mission: to enable all children to achieve their full potential. Founder Max Ventilla, a serial tech entrepreneur and the child of a teacher, has a driving belief that technology can transform the classroom experience — providing greater transparency, accountability, and quality for everyone involved — but that the way schools have historically used technology is flawed.

In 2013, Ventilla gathered a team of educators and technologists to explore how technology might better support a more personalized and whole-child education, then open schools based on the findings to serve as lab environments. Quickly growing from a single AltSchool classroom of 20 students in the first year to 400 students across eight schools two years later (in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and New York City) meant creating those practices and processes in real time. AltSchool’s 50-person educator team has the unique experience of working alongside an equal number of engineers and designers to do so. Even so, early on, one specific area posed a particular challenge for AltSchool educators: project-based learning (PBL).

Back in the early 1900s, John Dewey championed the learning-by-doing approach to education. Today, it’s viewed as a model for classroom activity that shifts the focus away from teacher-centered instruction and emphasizes student-centered projects. But as any educator knows, implementing a PBL program that is engaging, rigorous, and replicable is not easy. Adding dozens of educators spread out across multiple locations makes it infinitely harder. Although many AltSchool educators were running high-quality PBL arcs, they were fairly isolated. There was no shared platform for designing meaningful content, implementing best practices to support deep thinking, or evaluating student outcomes.

AltSchool educators knew they needed a framework for PBL. But as the team stepped back to evaluate the situation, it realized the work was actually much bigger. AltSchool first needed a learning framework, one that could empower educators to more easily create world-class learning experiences and to document student learning across both academic and nonacademic realms. At the same time, Ventilla understood that the AltSchool community needed to achieve a “network effect,” whereby all participants could benefit from the wisdom, failures, and options collected within the network itself.

Creating a Learning Cycle

Before they could successfully tackle PBL, AltSchool educators set about creating what is now known as the AltSchool Learning Cycle (ALC), a shared definition of how children learn best. The educators spent many months developing this approach, poring over and pulling from numerous influences, including constructivist pedagogy and educational thinkers such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Seymour Papert.

The ALC is designed to foster growth in three primary and interdependent learning outcomes: motivated learning, constructed knowledge, and applied understanding. Each outcome is accomplished via a pair of actions that oscillate between an outward and an inward focus, thus situating student agency within real-world investigations.

The ALC includes three phases. In the “Wonder and Engage” phase, students are inspired to chart their own inroads into wide-ranging subject areas, through an array of provocations and essential questions that engage a child’s prior knowledge and curiosity to learn more. The “Investigate and Create” phase, in turn, provides students opportunities to practice the academic and nonacademic skills necessitated by researching and constructing artifacts to demonstrate learnings that address the essential questions. Finally, the “Share and Reflect” phase requires students to apply their understandings from the prior phases to answering those essential questions and thinking about and assessing the self as a learner.

Together, the three phases comprise a cyclical and ongoing relationship between student as lifelong learner and the world as subject, building perpetually toward future iterations. By using the ALC to design learning experiences, teachers create the conditions for students to be motivated to learn, to construct knowledge, and to apply understanding within the world’s ever-changing context.

Educators and Engineers Form Unique Partnership

With the ALC defined, educators and technologists got to work creating the necessary processes, tools, and curriculum that best support it. For AltSchool educators, this means curating and designing personalized learning experiences for each child. Educators not only personalize traditional academics, they personalize for the whole child, emphasizing areas such as grit, empathy, and collaboration. In fact, educators strive to personalize the entire classroom experience, which includes a combination of individual, small-group, and whole-class instruction, along with real-world projects that happen within each context.

For technologists, this means building tools to “superpower” educators daily to facilitate the deeper learnings that fuel the evolution of students’ passions into life pursuits. In the earliest stage, technologists began by observing educators in the classroom and building workflows that enabled both teams to create a meaningful partnership. Over time, as each team better understands the successes and challenges, those processes and tools will continuously improve and become more aligned with the student experience. In the first few years of operation, two tools emerged from the partnership that are now core to the AltSchool experience: Portrait and Playlist.

Portrait provides educators a rich picture of each child. It includes a comprehensive record of each student’s progress, such as how often he or she has practiced a skill or worked on content. It also tracks each student’s trajectory toward competency by incorporating additional data, such as scores from third-party assessments, teacher narratives, samples of each child’s work, and internal educator notes.

Playlist is a set of tools that enables educators to manage what each child does to meet his or her personalized learning goals, and functions as a customized workspace for students to cultivate agency by managing their own work. Educators create, sequence, and remix curriculum units to curate a Playlist for each student where he or she can view assignments, communicate with the teacher, and submit work generated both on- and off-line. Education teams review student work to provide feedback and assessments that in turn update the Portrait in real time to keep each student’s progress current.

Learning from Early Missteps with PBL

Imagine if you were to take a snapshot of all the various PBL programs and results across the nation’s schools to see what was working and what wasn’t. Then imagine if you were tasked with implementing a single PBL framework to all those classrooms — and then somehow evaluating how that program was actually working for teachers and students. That’s the challenge AltSchool found itself facing in 2015.

The team was pondering deeply complicated questions, similar to those echoed in a recent list published by the Buck Institute for Education and Getting Smart, two organizations supporting innovation in education:

  • How do you share content between different teachers at different sites?
  • How can teachers learn from the best practices in one classroom and challenges in another?
  • How do you tie PBL arcs back to the core academic subjects and standards?
  • How do you capture the time and planning involved?
  • How do you communicate all of this with parents so that they understand the relationship between practices and outcomes?

During the 2015–16 school year, AltSchool began studying how teachers implemented PBL and aligned its phases with the ALC. It created a PBL task force comprising classroom teachers, heads of schools, and members of its central pedagogy and product teams who used design thinking, research, and pilots to identify the most effective process for designing, implementing, documenting, and assessing PBL.

That task force set out requirements for a successful PBL framework:

  • Teachers should be able to design part of the PBL unit, each sharing responsibility for the whole unit.
  • Lessons should be built within the Playlist tool, enabling teachers to easily navigate the project each step of the way with their classes.
  • As the unit itself was underway, teachers should share how the implementation was received by the various students in their classroom.
  • Students should share their projects and learning along the way— with their teachers, parents, and across the network.

This model was initially tested with four pilots, receiving feedback from teachers, students, and parents to improve it. Educators analyzed student engagement and progress and identified the strengths and weaknesses of the framework, and the taskforce adjusted the processes accordingly. Then, with these learnings, AltSchool began the 2016–17 school year by introducing the new PBL framework to schools throughout the Bay Area and New York.

Project-based learning at AltSchool

PBL Snapshot: K–2 Students Explore the Unknowable

In the fall of 2016, the lower elementary classes (grades K–2) across AltSchool’s network embarked on their first collective PBL arc. The driving question with which they began was: How does one come to know or understand the unknowable? This big question, with no single or right answer, was specifically put forth to students to engage their imagination. It asked them to interchangeably explore the cultural narratives of societies around the world and scientific theories such as the big bang and evolution.

The intent was to give the children an authentic experience of the interconnectedness of these overarching analytical frameworks for making sense of the world’s mysteries, as well as to provide them with a broad enough field of inquiry in which to navigate their own personal approaches to learning. Students were asked to construct their own artifacts, in order to grapple with the idea of “beginnings” as a specific kind of “unknowable” and to formulate their unique positions on how they themselves can come to know the unknowable.

This was the first test for the newly designed PBL framework, along with Portrait and Playlist tools that provided the scaffolding for educators and students to explore the lessons in a transparent, immersive, and interactive way.

For example, as students worked toward creating their individual artifacts, Playlist cards helped to document the products of their work and their process for creating it. Educators were able to track growth in multiple areas such as math, writing, and public speaking via Portrait. This alignment with both the creation and assessment of artifacts gave educators and parents alike the confidence that children were gaining competency in their basic academic skills while also being exposed to more complex critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. It further enabled student learnings to be framed within the larger context of provocations initially curated by the educator, their responses to which were also captured in Playlist cards. Finally, the continuum between Playlist and Portrait enabled all parties involved to draw a correlation between educator input and student output, without limiting the range of either.

At the highest level, educators from all of the AltSchool lab schools were able to initially collaborate on the curriculum using the AltSchool platform and to create a “master Playlist” of activities aimed at fostering growth in a predefined set of learning objectives. As each classroom embarked on the study, however, the Playlists of individual students and groups of students were able to become more personalized and emergent. That meant that while the framework provided the infrastructure to support a shared lesson, each classroom and student had the freedom
to explore the lesson in his or her own way — using the tools and PBL framework to ensure that the necessary standards and goals were met.

Some classrooms and individuals began to take a more artistic direction, exploring how music, the plastic arts, and written narrative function as modes of expression. Others dove deeper into a more ethnic-minded approach to cultural norms of understanding. Those who focused on science explored how knowledge is defined by the ways it is displayed.

Playlists gave students agency to guide their own learner experiences, track and reflect upon their work, and create a means to manifest their voice and choice. Consequently, student artifacts varied greatly across the network, ranging from musicals to stories and artist books to maps and science exhibitions. At the same time, educators used Playlist to better sequence curricula to help students accelerate in those areas where they were already advanced and to practice those areas where they were still developing.

With each iteration, each student’s Portrait evidenced unique learnings yet remained contextualized within the larger pedagogical framework and collectively defined set of targeted student outcomes. In turn, each student’s Portrait profile became a rich, personalized, whole-child picture of the student, mapping student growth against a set of collective academic and non academic milestones. It further helped to give educators actionable information for planning instructional experiences around a framework of outcomes and methodologies toward whole-child development.

Digging into these types of big questions required children to embrace uncertainty while also engaging with the great wonders of the world in a systematic way (in order to make any sense of it at all). Similarly, the framework that the ALC and AltSchool tools provide serve to scaffold learning toward a productive end in the same way. The AltSchool PBL approach is personalized for each student, meeting each at the intersection of his or her interests and abilities, and documenting the learning along the way so that the student, teachers, and parents can all see the child’s growth. But with greater personalization there must exist a spectrum of knowable correlations that can support the greater uncertainties of self, so that modifications can be made in the inputs by which we foster greater student growth.

Together, the ALC and AltSchool tools aim to know the unknowable in an actionable way, so that personalized, whole-child learning can be both attainable and meaningful.

Moving Toward a “Network Effect” in Education

While early results for the PBL frame work and tools are promising, AltSchool’s mission remains much bigger than empowering a few schools that only a few hundred families can experience. Its newly introduced PBL framework will now move into the next phase of exploration and scrutiny. Beginning fall 2017, AltSchool’s network will expand to include schools outside the initial AltSchool system.

The AltSchool team will soon be able to test whether the tools and processes that have originated from these first years of collaboration can help support other schools, too — all who bring their own pedagogy, processes, curriculum, and challenges. This new group of schools includes Berthold Academy, a Montessori school near Washington, DC; The Greene School, a progressive school with a constructivist approach in West Palm Beach, Florida; and Temple Beth Sholom Day School, a Reggio Emilia program in Miami Beach, Florida.

These schools will be the first to join this unique partnership between educator and technologist, all working toward that network effect central to Ventilla’s vision. Soon, partner schools and their educator teams will continue the cycle of innovation and iteration, pushing the boundaries of what the AltSchool platform can offer — and pushing the envelope for how technology might someday “superpower” educators everywhere to help deliver a more personalized, whole-child education for each child.

Alex Ragone

Alex Ragone is the head of school for AltSchool East Village and AltSchool Union Square, starting fall 2017. He brings 18 years of experience teaching in and leading independent schools in New York City, most recently as the director of middle and upper school for City and Country School. He also serves on the NAIS Innovation Task Force.