Since beginning in 1996, our practice has evolved greatly. Originally, multimedia tasks drove our curriculum with more narrow and specific projects making up the bulk of work students did in the academy. Thus, if we wanted to teach students web design then we would force a web design project into the academic curriculum wherever they were. The results were most often impressive visually and technically, but empty intellectually and academically. Though we as teachers saw this, the fact that the results fo these projects so impressed observers, and won so many awards (19 state multimedia awards in 7 years), made it difficult to change. It was working, right?
Then, beginning in about 2003, we began to re-evaluate how we conceived of projects. Projects became multifaceted design problems with multiple outcomes. Instead of being artificially forced into the current academic content, we made the media we used fit a relevant academic problem to be solved. The shift was subtle but profound.
Students now solved real problems using technology and design. And, they used their design to commuicate specific knowledge to the world at large. Our student’s critical thinking improved. Their design improved. Our community grew stronger as the tasks we put them to began to demand increased team work and time on task.
Today we conceive of all projects as problems to be solved and have attempted to formulate these ideas of project design into The Innovation Model for Project Design. Developed by academy teachers Randy Depew and Heather Nevis with significant contributions by our main community partner, Mark Westwind, this model has proved to be an extremely successful tool for the design of high interest, highly rigorous and highly successful academic projects.
See exciting examples of our own academic projects focused on student innovation for 10th to 12th grades at our Digital Safari Project Wiki.
The Digital Safari Institute for Innovation in Education, founded by Randy Depew, Heather Fontanilla, and Mark Westwind, sponsors the annual Digital Safari Innovation Fair, an entrepreneurial business design competition held annually in Concord. Additionally, the Institute offers consulting services to academies interested in developing more effective and successful academic integrated project based learning strategies for their own programs. Contact Randy for more information.
The DSA Innovation Model
- Ensure Innovation
If our answer to “what are the students going to do?” is, “create a biography of Abraham Lincoln,” we’re in trouble. It is important to conceive of the project as a problem for students to solve. The problems we ask them to solve must have many answers, many approaches and require a spirit of innovation. Projects in which students simply research and “tell” have invariably been disappointing and are a haven for plagiarism, bored students and disappointed teachers. Projects should be active quests. There should be many answers. There should be many possible approaches. As products of traditional educations, where recall was king, it is not easy, or necessarily natural for us to always conceive of our content in this way. However, it is vital if we want consistent engagement and rigor. If our task has students retreading ground done many times before by people with far greater credentials there is no problem to solve and no room for innovation.
- Encourage Varied Outcomes
Projects that ask students to explore large concepts and create innovative solutions to problems demand multiple ways of showing learning. Students should be asked to demonstrate knowledge and skills in a variety of ways and a variety of modalities. This strategy meets the needs of different learners in the classroom and provides opportunities for all students to demonstrate excellence. Written, visual, oral, and interactive components should be required in all projects. Requiring varied outcomes more closely models real world expectations.
- Output, Not Content, Defines Relevance
It doesn’t need to about skateboarding or music or shoes to be relevant. As a current educational buzz word, relevance loses some of its, um, well, relevance. However, we take relevance to mean producing outcomes that matter, not necessarily changing the nature of the subject matter. We believe any content can be made relevant through its application and output. If students are engaged in problem solving and producing stuff people will appreciate they generally like it, regardless of the subject. Regardless of the subject matter, relevance is lost when the project dies at the classroom door.
- Create With an Audience in Mind
The most successful way we’ve had of creating relevance is through the consideration of audience. If a project is worth working on for 2 months then certainly it is worth someone else seeing. If we find ourselves designing a project that no one would want to see we immediately reevaluate. Consideration of audience is the single most important aspect of our current project development efforts. Every DSA project culminates with a public presentation. Whenever possible, we use community members to take on roles and serve as our presentation evaluators. For example, we’ve had panels of community members take on such roles as venture capitalists and members of an international aid foundation. When students know their work is to be reviewed and evaluated by other adults, and when it fits naturally with the problem they’re solving, quality jumps.
- Encourage Competition
Provided all students have opportunities to excel through a variety of outcomes, peer competition promotes higher quality work in students. Competition does not mean a zero-sum game in which one student wins and everyone else loses, but rather a way of promoting competition against a known standard of excellence. Students want to be recognized for their work in a way that is relevant to them. Success in a competitive environment provides this relevance. In a problem based learning environment, competition promotes independence and innovation leading to creative, critical thinking.
- Connecting Academic Standards and Subjects to the Project
No cross-curricular project should be developed without a strong connection to the California Content Standards. Even projects based in the career technical course should ensure attention to academic standards in addition to their own. Project-based learning is too valuable an exercise and too hard to implement well to not take advantage of the opportunity to deeply address the standards we’re all required to teach. Additionally, in an academy setting, projects should demand the kind of real world complexity that goes beyond a single subject. Thus, integration between classes is a must. The career focus of the academy is a way to ignite the relevance of the core academic content. Projects that seize the opportunity to integrate traditional academic content with career skills provide a more complete and relevant experience for students.
- Take Inventory of the Tasks Required
It is vital to create a list of the specific tasks (and sub-tasks) that students need to accomplish to achieve our desired end result. Listing all of the skills required to complete the project ensures we really understand what we are asking students to do and allows us to then evaluate the importance of each task in relation to our project goals. For example, is researching an objective of the project? If it isn’t then a set of resources should be provided. If it is, then our planning has to account for research time and, potentially, teaching research skills. For each task we ask ourselves, “Do students have the skills for this task?” and, “How much time will it take to accomplish?” Answering these questions helps create well defined projects where we get from students what we want. Ultimately, tasks included unwittingly bog the project down and frustrate everyone involved.
- Build Flexibility into Project Calendars
The DSA’s First Law of Calendaring states, “Everything takes a little longer than you plan for no matter how long you plan for.” This is of vital importance because we are asking community members to be involved in the process. Thus, firm dates for their participation, including final presentations, mentor meetings, speaking engagements and the like is essential if we want them to do it again. Any adjustments to the project should remain true to these dates. So, build a fudge factor into your final calendar. If your students finish early, by some miracle, they have time for rehearsal and revision. Finally, again, the skills and tasks needed for the project need to be completely accounted for, otherwise our plans become impossible to adhere to due to additional time requirements of these previously unforeseen tasks, leading to frustration and confusion among everyone involved.
- Group Dynamics
Our experience with projects says the magic number of students in a group is 3, but within an academy project the total number of groups can’t exceed 15, otherwise the attention received by each group drops too low and the project becomes too unwieldy for the teachers. So, with small classes use 3 with larger classes use 4. Never use 5. As often as possible, students should be allowed to set the direction of their group. This includes the role each group member will play and the solution to the project problem. Students who emerge as leaders may need guidance from teachers surrounding leadership skills and promoting positive group dynamics. However, while guidance may be necessary, it is important for students to always attempt resolution to internal group problems on their own. This further reinforces independence and confidence in the long run.
- Evaluating the Work
If a team of teachers works together to execute a project, the team should grade the project together (including papers, presentations, media, etc.). This ensures that a common understanding of quality exists and is communicated to students. Additionally, grades assigned should be the same for all disciplines involved to send the message that good work is good work, and to avoid students learning to neglect aspects of a project because it won’t be graded heavily in the class they most care about. Involving community members in evaluation of the projects is a good way to get students critical feedback they pay attention to and provides us with a unique perspective on our students. Finally, projects should be weighted according to time spent and content standards addressed, with weights up to 50% of the overall grade for the courses.