March 24, 2017

Personalized Project Based Learning Targets Individual Student Needs and Interests

Lydia Dobyns, President and CEO New Tech Network


For the past 18 months, our network of nearly 200 schools has been engaged in “making project based learning personal.” The New Tech school model features project based learning (PBL) as the primary instructional practice, and we believe powerful and relevant PBL supports and encourages meeting the needs of individual students.

I recently spoke with Kelley McKaig, New Tech Network (NTN) School Development Coach, regarding her work leading a design cohort with experienced New Tech teachers from elementary, middle and high schools.

“This Design Group identified challenges in intentionally combining PBL and Personalized Learning to tailor the learning environment to the specific needs of individual students. These experienced PBL teachers want the very best for their students. Their willingness to innovate and learn together exemplifies the power of being in a network that values and supports active innovation,” said Kelley.

Project Based Learning is a way to challenge students, through genuine inquiry, so that students can master rigorous standards aligned to college and career readiness. The aim of Personalized Learning is to tailor the learning experience to the specific needs of individual students ─ holding the individual growth of students as the primary design driver for teaching and learning.

New Tech Network’s intentional efforts to marry PBL and personalized learning aim to:

· Make student passions and interests central to their intellectual development

· Increase the “fit” between an individual student and their school environment

· Reorient teachers’ approach to learning outcomes, elevating student work as among the most important sources of data teachers can access, and

· Empower students as designers of their own learning

“These classroom teachers wanted to learn how to be ‘design thinkers’ because they’re lifelong learners and constantly looking for ways to strengthen their practices,” said Kelley. “Most already thought about personalizing tasks within projects, inspired by what they’ve learned from other teachers across the Network at New Tech conferences. They were also eager to utilize the many new personalized features contained in Echo ─ NTN’s project-based learning platform. One aspect of Echo that teachers, students and parents mention as powerful is the multi-outcome grade book that recognizes discrete learning outcomes that mirror the skills and attributes essential for students to do well in college and career work.”

What did it mean to be a ‘design thinker’ in this effort? As Kelley explained, “There was an ‘ah-ha moment’ that occurred when we were conducting ‘empathy interviews’ (to determine the “why” behind our actions and perspectives). Going directly to the source ─ students for whom we were planning projects ─ impacted the PBL design efforts and opened our eyes to the complexity of personalization,” continued Kelley.

I asked Kelley what aspects of “Personalized PBL” resonated most? “The teachers did many things to personalize their projects,” said Kelley. “They used the Echo Grouping and Clipboard features to group students based on like interests and ability levels and share personalized resources specific to each student’s needs. They explored ways to capitalize on students’ interests and also looked at ways to encourage stronger collaboration in their groups through peer reviews, grouping teams with like interests, and using protocols to leverage individual strengths in a group.”

Mark Darket, Social Studies teacher from Belleville New Tech in Michigan, offered these examples from a recent project entitled “Living The Dream.”

“Students research their dream careers, what it takes to get to that career, and how to be successful. All students learned about financial planning and investing and created a monthly budget based on the entry level salary for their dream career,” explained Darket. “They also interviewed a professional who works in their career field and produced a podcast (search: We are Belleville New Tech) to highlight their project experience.”

“We grouped students by interest, grouped them in Echo in the project itself, and then created smaller groups by topic. Students led workshops based on their topic and interest,” said Darket.

Teachers across the network offered these two paths to personalize projects:

Student Interest: Strengthening teacher and student relationships and encouraging deeper peer relationships allows students to feel more connected to their school. This, in turn, allows students to draw from personal experience and build a deeper connection to their community through the design of projects that have an authentic community connection.

Agency: Through the tenets of “agency,” we help students see effort and practice as a path to learning, and associate both as growth paths and, ultimately, success and mastery. Students develop the necessary skills to rebound from setbacks and build confidence when they face challenges.

Next up for New Tech teachers and school leaders? In July, members of the Design Cohort will lead sessions at the New Tech Annual Conference in St. Louis. This summer gathering serves as a powerful way for educators to learn, share, collaborate and be inspired. It is the absolute highlight of my summer, and I cannot wait to get my “learning on.”

This blog is part of our Top NTN Resources of 2017 list. You can view the entire list here.

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