Choice projects in the 21st century.

The school project has evolved, and it is exciting for students and teachers. It may take a big shift, but many teachers are reaping the benefits!

The olden-days way to assign a project was to give specific instructions as to how each individual component was to be completed. This was less learning opportunity than learning recipe. If students assembled the ingredients in the correct manner, they got a good grade. There was little interest in displaying knowledge or learning, just completion.

Eventually, most of these projects gave in to a less compliance-based experience. It has been popular for some time to have choice projects. In this model, students are to show their learning by doing any one of several designated projects. The best part of this model is that students can seek the type of project that best suits their learning style and interests. Choices may have included poster, diorama, skit, model, etc. The more tech-savvy of these projects may come with several digital tools which students may choose to show their learning.

Even better, is a real shift in the teaching and learning dynamic. I call this the choice project on steroids. The students learn the entry-level material and are given several open-ended questions to research. The project is literally the display of learning.  In this project-based model, the means of showing learning is not specified, only the final criteria for evaluation. The instructor creates or collaborates with students to create a rubric that represents the ideal learning represented in the project. Quality indicators may include professionalism, accuracy, research, product, fidelity, etc. Notice that there are few references here to the poster or website. Students will choose those as they please. One student may begin preliminary research and feel they can adequately show learning through the building of a scale model. Another student who is adept using Photoshop, may choose to show what they have learned by way of a video scrapbook. Another student whose passion is music may express the learning in an epic ballad. Minecraft model? Why not? Does it meet the learning targets? If so, go nuts!

The beauty of the third model is that it is the learning that is the focus of the effort, not the medium. When the learning targets are emphasized, the resulting in increased autonomy and self-direction, as well as increased learning. Students enjoy the openness of the challenge, and the ability to build upon their passions. Some students may need a bit of a nudge, so it is a good idea for teachers to allow for some brainstorming and sharing or proposals early, so students can bet a better idea what they can do based on the choices of others.

There are a few keys to making this kind of project meaningful: First are clear learning goals and criterion by which learning can be evaluated. This should be built into a detailed rubric. Second is enough research or exploration to happen BEFORE the manner of learning expression is chosen. Finally, a reflective proposal is important so students build their own parameters and plan to follow.


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