No Courses, No Classrooms, No Grades — Just Learning

| April 24, 2014 | 41 Comments
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By Christina Farr

It took just a few weeks for a group of Boston-based teenagers to develop an affordable prosthetic hand for children. These teens took a brief hiatus from school to enroll in NuVu Studio, a project-based learning program in Cambridge, Mass. that pairs students with real-world projects.

On their first day at NuVu, students were split into groups of 10, assigned a mentor (typically a doctoral student) and a theme, like “the future of global warming” or “balloon mapping.” In the most recent health-themed studio, one of these teams mocked up the prosthetic hand, after conducting interviews with patients, the families of amputees, physicians, and engineers in the Boston area. The students ultimately hacked MakerBot’s original files to make their design on a 3D printer.

NuVu is the brainchild of Saeed Arida, a former PhD student from MIT who believes that young people should be taught to solve real-world problems, like using new materials to design higher-quality prosthetics.

“Studios are not subjects in the traditional sense, as they involve finding a solution for a very real human problem,” said Arida. “What students do here is a very different kind of educational experience.”

Here’s How NuVu describes the program:

NuVu is a full-time magnet innovation center for middle and high school students. NuVu’s pedagogy is based on the architectural Studio model and geared around multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects. We basically teach students how to navigate the messiness of the creative process, from inception to completion.

No Courses: Instead, we have studios. Around 12 kids work closely with their 2 coaches on solving big (and small) open-ended problems.

No Subjects: Instead, everything is fused together. Students find themselves moving between a studio that requires them to design a telepresence robot to another that requires them to re-imagine Boston with a cable car system.

No Classrooms: Instead, we have an open space that changes all the time to adapt to the needs of every studio.

No One-Hour Schedule: Instead, students spend two weeks from 9-3 solving one problem.

No Grades: Instead, we have portfolios that document students’ design decisions and show their final products.

But can anyone visualize this happening in today’s public schools? Project-based learning programs like NuVu are not particularly common throughout the U.S., with notable exceptions like High Tech High and New Tech Network. Most K-12 classrooms in America are fairly new to project-based learning, or don’t offer it at all. Typically speaking, only the most elite schools in the wealthiest neighborhoods can afford to experiment with PBL.

NuVu got its start by partnering with Beaver County Day School in Brookline, Mass., an elite independent school attended by the sons and daughters of Harvard and MIT graduates, which is positioning itself as digitally-savvy and progressive institution. Notably, it was the first U.S. school to make it a requirement for students to take computer programming lessons.

NuVu’s program doesn’t come cheap. It costs $8,000 per student per trimester. The company offers scholarships, and to Arida’s credit, he’s looking for ways to involve students from public schools in the area by forging partnerships with neighboring public schools to make NuVu available as an elective.

But for most entrepreneurs, selling schools (particularly budget-strapped public schools) on incorporating PBL programs into their core curriculum is an ongoing challenge.

“We haven’t seen many of these project-based learning programs scale rapidly,” said Michael Staton, an investor at education-focused venture firm Learn Capital. “Partnering with schools is fine if you can figure out how to do that efficiently,” Staton added. “But most entrepreneurs have no idea.”

The crux of the problem, according to Staton, is that most schools are sticking to core subjects and the bell system, which doesn’t leave much time for exploratory projects. Outside of school, most students can only access project-based programs online and in their own time. The best known services are DIY.org, an instructional guide for budding makers, and the various project-based learn-to-code courses from Code.org, General Assembly, and Khan Academy. But most high schoolers would tell you that they’re already overwhelmed with juggling college admissions, after-school, clubs, volunteering and homework. Good luck adding another project to their plate.

The Tide Is Turning

To make PBL more mainstream, the change may need to come from within. There’s a movement afoot to make project-based learning an integral part of every child’s education. Organizations like P21 (Partnership for 21st Century Skills) and Buck Institute are helping to bridge the gap between entrepreneurs, businesses, teachers and state superintendents. P21 partners with representatives in 18 states, including Arizona, California, and Massachusetts, and provides teachers with tools and resources for project-based learning. In addition, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation habitually provides funding to PBL schools, particularly those that foster digital skills. These organizations’ aim is bring PBL programs into classrooms, rather than expecting students to participate in their free time.

Schools don’t need to follow NuVu’s model to the tee. In fact, this approach may seem radical, as students do not receive grades or formal examinations and the learning doesn’t happen in physical classrooms. But teachers can take inspiration from NuVu and the various interactive online courses. For instance, Muscatine High School in Iowa has found success with its G2 Global Generation Exponential Learning initiative. High schoolers learn math and engineering in classrooms and by making water purification systems, or building statistical models for new bus routes. Younger students at middle school research trash statistics, and participate in oral history projects.

Arida hopes that NuVu’s program will pave the way for ed-tech entrepreneurs to launch similar ventures in other states.

“We’re presenting a different way to think about education, he said. “Students are empowered to be creative, and actually execute on their ideas. Isn’t that the lesson we should be teaching our kids?”

Christina Farr is a San Francisco-based journalist covering health technology. She previously wrote for Venture Beat, The Bay Citizen and SFGate.

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  • Luba V.

    RE: “Typically speaking, only the most elite schools in the wealthiest neighborhoods can afford to experiment with PBL.” I don’t understand the rationale for this statement. Yes, it’s possible to do PBL in an expensive way (like NuVu), but it’s also possible to do it in an inexpensive way, with less costly materials. Resources can also be shared or borrowed; there are people who would probably volunteer their time to mentor the kids; and facilitators can take advantage of social capital within a community in other ways too. It’s not intrinsically expensive.

    • tbarseghian

      Good point Luba. The thing that makes this program unique and difficult to replicate in public schools is that it’s off-campus and the projects happen in intensive weeks-long periods, not in typical schools’ 50-minute periods. Yes, project-based learning can and does happen in public schools, but it’s a different experience than what’s described above. What we’re interested in is, how can a program like this be replicated in current public school systems? We mention High Tech High and New Tech Network, where it is happening, but these cases are by far the exception. Not impossible, no, but how likely is it?

    • Alice

      Exactly. I taught my first year in an extremely impoverished area and they have fully embraced PBL in their high school.

  • Bob Gotwals

    The problem is how to scale stuff like this, especially in a resource-poor environment (doctoral students? External mentors? Really???? Maybe in Boston, but not in Podunk, NameYourState). Volunteer mentors? You need a full time volunteer coordinator (probably several). Attracting and managing volunteers is very difficult and very labor-intensive. And your mentors better be stable and dependable….AND, there still exists some core knowledge that kids need to learn, and that’s often hit or miss with PBL-type programs.

    • cyd carson

      Right, but if we take all of the time we are currently using to practice for the standardized tests, we could do some of this kind of thing in our classrooms. Perhaps it would not be as fancy, but you don’t need expensive equipment to engage young minds in creating and solving real world problems. We are giving our kids the short shrift, because of these tests. And who really benefits from all of that? Not the students. A friend said to me recently, “Do what you can with what you have.” I like that. Cheers.

  • Elisa P.

    The PBL initiative is already successfully being implemented via Big Picture Learning in close to 100 public charter schools nationwide. More of an equitable system as admission is by lottery and accessible to all students in a district, not just the ones who can afford it. http://www.bigpicture.org/schools/

  • Ryan Sager

    As a former industrial arts teacher, I can’t express how exciting it is to see this comeback. Some of the worst students in the typical classroom were my best students. My first concern is teacher training, are there any universities that still provide certificates in Industrial arts?

    • mdispensa

      Excellent point.

    • http://hardwonwisdom.blogspot.com rosabw

      We (America) were innovators when the shop classes were open, too. This “teaching to the test” is the exact opposite of what hands on learners need. Kids are making their own, now, and calling them “maker’s spaces”. Georgia Tech has a program that runs independent of classes.http://makezine.com/2013/03/28/georgia-techs-makerspace-is-a-model-for-higher-education/ Makes me hopeful for the American dream again.

      • cyd carson

        I couldn’t agree more. We used to know how to fix things, too. Maybe with a focus on this again we will have a new generation that knows how to build things and to work with their hands and minds together.

    • usethebrainsgodgiveyou

      Woo-hoooo! Since last I was here, my son (20 years old) met the inventor who is running a Business–GA Tech liason called “Inventors Studio”…joined “Freeside Atlanta” where he will be able to work with a metal lathe,3D printer, movie studio, and a bunch of other equipment if he is able…and for a monthly fee and acting like a grown up (no goofballs who won’t take it seriously or clean up after themselves), you have access to thousands of dollars of equipment for “makers” to get together, teach each other in a centralized location, and pool their resources! Shane, the inventor, said there are currently 9 maker spaces in the Atlanta area…and we have talked with a guy who is interested in starting one in our little town (Atlanta is 25 miles north). What a cool time to live!!! Things are changing, fast. And none too soon for young men like my son. Ryan….maybe y’all need to look into one in your area!! rosabw AKA usethebrainsgodgiveyou

  • mdispensa

    Lots of good comments here especially about the expense of these and training mentors. While I agree these types of environments are hugely beneficial to some, how well does it scale? It’s really nice to pick an anecdote of a success story but how will apathetic unmotivated or shy students do without a lot of coaching and guidance?

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  • Corey Topf

    PBL is even more uncommon in international schools. But we’ve recently launched a program at The American School of Lima that collapses our schedule on Mondays and Thursdays, and enables students to dive deeply into interdisciplinary projects all day long. The projects combine English, media, and business, and we’ve had great success with the program so far. The first pilot group was made up of 12 students, and next year there will be a total of 50 spanning 10th, 11th and 12th grades. Here’s our website if you want to know more: http://www.rooseveltinnovationacademy.com/

    Or follow the students through our Twitter account as they produce documentaries that combine the study of economics, government and film: https://twitter.com/fdrinnovate

  • http://www.themcguffeyreader.com Oscar Ortiz Duarte

    Amazing to see what students can do when given the chance! On the other hand, I must point to a passage from the article: “helping to bridge the gap between entrepreneurs, businesses, teachers and state superintendents…” No doubt PBL should be an essential component of a child’s education, but am afraid much of the opposition towards it will come from the sector that asks: “What’s the purpose of education; is it to develop cultured citizens or worker-bees? Is PBL really education, or, is it just child labor? Are solving-problem skills (PBL) the same as critical thinking skills? So and so forth…”

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  • Bob M

    For those interested in PBL, See how the Mountain View-Los Alto High School District is addressing PBL withiin a public school system in California.

    http://www.freestyle.mvla.net/about.php

  • tim10ber

    We have a Big Picture School in my city. I thought this was structured more for individual projects. Group projects only work if everyone is held accountable for doing their part otherwise one or two do the work and all get credit for the final product. Are the teams able to kick out of the group those students not doing their part? Just curious…otherwise this is fascinating…

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  • @makingeducation

    Love this! I work in middle school special Ed. I try and do as much PBL in my classroom as the standards will allow. Unfortunately, I often feel like I am reaching the students too late. They have already been conditioned by the American classroom that learning is about successful performance. They have often long since shut-down. Asking them to experiment, try regardless of outcomes is very challenging. It’s a mind shift, that needs to happen.

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  • slburns

    Wow, what a great discussion. “What’s the purpose of education; is it to develop cultured citizens or worker-bees? I thought this was a really compelling question because what is a cultured citizen? Art, music, philosophy? Do these have to be mutually exclusive? I know we HAVE to give our students skills to be successful in the real culturally diverse world that we now live in. Is a student who is given a real “authentic” problem, put on a team where they have to solve this problem using real life skills (budget, tech, communication, advocacy, success, failure and old fashion grit) to solve their problem is that not a cultured citizen? Look at Da Vinci builder, maker, creator cultured citizen? We can be both and it looks different today then it did 30 years ago.

    • cyd carson

      Great point. And I have found that students WANT to learn when the subject matter is relevant to their lives. They are itching to get out and do something interesting and valuable. One of the best vehicles for this is a hearty Service -Learning program, not just the volunteer “community service” work that is promoted as service learning in high schools (which is fine, but is missing a lot when it comes to integrating the classroom and community). All of that can be tied into a wonderful curriculum that teaches the basics alongside problem-solving. We just have to get our heads out of the standardized testing BS.

  • sshlex

    It takes a wonderful teacher to facilitate this experience and while one might find such a teacher to volunteer time, it is important to pay people for their valuable expertise. Why should we assume that a teacher doesn’t need fair compensation to meet financial needs. Also, our students’ time is valuable and facilitating project based learning can make the difference between a useful day and a wasted day. Independent schools sometimes have the resources to vet and evaluate the people providing this experience and/or training teachers and providing materials. I expect the material cost is a small part of the total, but that more expensive materials allow more interesting projects. All that being said, as more affluent communities try these program, they should be encouraged to share their experiences so that all educational systems can replicate and improve on future programs.

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  • iyell4

    Curriculum? Standardized testing? NCLB? Special Ed? How big would the school building need to be to house 2,200 students? How many teachers would have to be hired? What is the annual budget per pupil?

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  • Kathleen Sullivan

    This type of learning would work wonders for kids who have more to offer than answers on a written test. So many of my students are “brilliant” but they give up or just don’t do well because they don’t give us their best in this data driven educational environment we have created in our public schools. There is a place for testing but what we are losing are some of our best thinkers and innovators who think “outside the box” of data only. What does smart look like? Does it mean only proficient test scores?

  • richardvahrman

    This is so much the way forward in education – embodies everything that is exciting about learning. It’s going to be a (necessarily) slow journey from schooling to unschooling, and allowing students to hack their education (self-managed learning), but as we see the successes of these approaches (cf. the failures of traditional, even Victorian, methods), it will be an inevitable journey.

    • cyd carson

      I am not sure it has to be as slow as you think. We just need to do what people around the country are doing – stand up to the corporate control of public education through the standardized testing scam. Most teachers and administrators would embrace giving students more creative control if they knew they were not going to be punished for it by losing their jobs or needed funding.

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