Eight elements to great project design

My former Pepperdine professor, Gary Stager states in an article for Creative Educator that “teachers instinctively know that projects are worthwhile, even if they do not understand every facet of a good project or have experience supporting project-based learning”.

I have taken great pains to change my Computer Applications course from a skills-based computer competency class to a project-based approach – using technology tools to further explore topics that aren’t normally covered in a traditional “computer” class.  Yes, we learn technology but we also explore the bigger picture – making the world a better place, evaluating our eating habits, matching careers to our personalities, reducing lunch waste … being a digital citizen.  These topics give us plenty of opportunity to analyze data in Excel, write blog posts, learn mail merge, create posters and present research in creative and authentic ways.

Too often “traditional” computer classes fail to help students transfer the skills learned to other classes.  My goal is to use my thematic units to teach a variety of technology skills but in a manner that is authentic and relevant.  This also gives the other teachers in my school a model of how they can use technology in their curriculum to explore and examine curriculum topics.

I used the backwards planning approach outline in Understanding by Design (Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe) to plan most of thematic computer units.  UbD works “within the standards-driven curriculum to help teachers clarify learning goals, devise revealing assessments of student understanding, and craft effective and engaging learning activities.”

Stager’s eight elements to great project design go hand-in-hand with Understanding by Design.  Just make sure the focus of your projects is student learning and understanding.

eightEight Elements of a Good Project

Purpose and Relevance. Is the project personally meaningful? Does the project prompt intrigue in the learner enough to have him or her invest time, effort, and creativity in the development of the project?

Novelty. Few project ideas are so profound that every child needs to engage in its development in every class, or year after year. In a healthy community of practice, learning continues and knowledge is shared naturally without coerced repetition.

Time. Sufficient time must be provided for learners to think about, plan, execute, debug, change course, expand, and edit their projects. Class time affords students equal access to expertise and materials; projects may also need sufficient out-of-school time.

Complexity. The best projects combine multiple subject areas and call upon the prior knowledge and expertise of each student. Best of all, serendipitous insights and connections to big ideas lead to the greatest payoff for learners.

Intensity. Children have a remarkable capacity for intensity that is rarely tapped by the sliced-and-diced curriculum. Projects provide an outlet for the exercise of that intensity.

Connected. During great projects students are connected to each other, experts, multiple subject areas, powerful ideas, and the world via the Web. The lessons learned during interpersonal connections that are required by collaborative projects last a lifetime.

Access. Students need access to a wide variety of concrete and digital materials anytime, anyplace. Personal student laptops make this possible, but we also need to think about the quality and quantity of craft materials, books, tools, hardware, software, and Internet access that allows learners to follow paths we may never have anticipated.

Shareable. This is the big idea of project-based learning! Students need to make something that is shareable with others. This provides a great deal of motivation, relevance, perspective making, reciprocal learning, and an authentic audience for the project.

Photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulwatson/254286204/

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