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Project-Based Global Learning in an Era of High-Stakes Accountability

Today Terri Holden, Principal, Winton Woods High School in Ohio, shares how her school has moved to a project-based learning focus for all students, marrying rigorous academic content with 21st century skills and global competence.

By Terri Holden

On August 22, 2013, the new version of the Ohio Local Report Card (LRC) for schools and school districts was released to the public. This new local report card uses a letter grade system, and high schools are evaluated on five measures: Student Achievement; Gap Closing; Growth (value-added); Graduation Rate; and Prepared for Success (college and career readiness indicators, most likely including PSAT and ACT test scores). The report cards are used for school accountability purposes (with the final version scheduled for release in 2015), and are designed to give the public an indication of how well their local schools are performing.

Schools should be held accountable for the academic achievement of students. As principal of Winton Woods High School, my primary role is to make sure my students graduate, and in the words of the Ohio Department of Education, are "prepared for success." However, at Winton Woods, we believe making a student prepared for success goes beyond rigorous academic content, which can be measured through the types of assessments that are listed on the local report card, to a group of skills and behaviors typically referred to as "soft skills." These soft skills tend to be the most prized by universities and businesses (think Apple, Google, even Proctor & Gamble), but are rarely taught.

At Winton Woods, we marry rigorous academic content with soft skills through project-based learning. There are five main characteristics of project-based learning. Students must have voice and choice. There must be an authentic need for students to learn content and engage in the project. Each project should be built around a driving question with in-depth inquiry in the academic discipline. There must be some presentation to a public audience. Revision and reflection are part and parcel of the project-based learning experience.

Our journey with project-based learning began two years ago, when the Academy of Global Studies (AGS), a school-within-a-school, opened at Winton Woods High School through funding from an Ohio Innovative Schools Grant. Now beginning year three, AGS enrollment stands at 270 students in grades nine through eleven. Partnered with the New Tech Network and the Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network, AGS students learn solely through project-based learning, in an environment where every student has his or her own computer. AGS students are assessed on eight school-wide learning outcomes: critical thinking; communication; collaboration; creativity and innovation; media literacy; global awareness; work ethic; and academic content. In the past two years, attention to these learning outcomes through the vehicle of project-based learning has resulted in data that indicate AGS students generally perform better academically than their peers in the traditional path on standardized tests (EXPLORE, PLAN, and the Ohio Graduation Tests).

More importantly, however, are the qualitative changes we have seen in our students. Through project-based learning, 10th grade students have learned about, investigated, and explained the structure and function of cells and how they fight infectious diseases. Students read Richard Preston's non-fictional bio-thriller The Hot Zone, and did lab experiments on bacteria found in various locations in the high school. They presented their lab findings to a panel of professionals, including employees from the Cincinnati location of the Centers for Disease Control. Through project-based learning, 11th grade AP Government and English 11 students answered the question "Does the U.S. Constitution still mean the same thing as it did when it was written?" which was posed to them by students from the High School Affiliated to Fudan University, one of our sister schools in Shanghai.

Because AGS students present so often through the project-based learning experience, they have presence. They are not afraid to speak in front of large groups of people, from statehouse legislators on Digital Learning Day to members of a local architectural firm to employees at Cincinnati Financial Corporation. They have experience in the collaboration process. They have lived through times where members of their project group did not perform their assigned tasks or were not timely in meeting deadlines. They had to figure out how to navigate through these issues and still complete a viable project. AGS students are forced to think creatively about problems and how to effectively communicate their ideas. These are real-life skills that we all face each day in our own work environments. Three of the four dimensions of college and career readiness identified by David Conley (content knowledge; cognitive strategies; learning skills and techniques) are inherently part of the project-based learning experience. I would add two more dimensions to their readiness: everything students do are based in real-world contexts, and to complete an assignment is to take and defend an action that promotes positive change, as they define it.

Because of our success with project-based learning in AGS, this year we are leveraging our partnership with the Asia Society's International Studies School Network to roll-out the project-based learning experience to the entire school of 1,000 students. At Winton Woods, the foundation of our projects will be the Common Core curriculum situated within the global competency framework. Winton Woods students will learn to investigate the world, communicate ideas, recognize perspectives, and take action.

Project-based learning engages students. It gives students a mechanism through which they can direct their own learning. Embedded in 21st century skills, project-based learning prepares students for success. But, project-based learning is hard work. It takes time: Time for projects to be rolled out. Time for teachers to collaborate. Time for students to collaborate. It requires a paradigm shift for teachers and students alike. Its advantages—collaboration skills; communication skills; creativity; innovation; problem-solving—while highly valued, remain largely unmeasured.

I asked my rising juniors why they preferred a project-based learning environment. These are students who hated project-based learning as freshmen and wanted to quit the program. They were passionate in their responses:

"I now have skills for business and communication."
"My mom says these are things she has to do in her job."
"I have learned how to work with others."
"It helps us keep an open mind."
"It prepares us for work."
"It helps us develop leadership skills."
"It helps us become independent."

This is the story that the local report card does not tell.


Follow our project-based learning tweets: @terriholden and @wwcsag.

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