How Project-Based Learning Helps Students Process Challenging Personal Experiences
Students who follow a project-based or a portfolio curriculum approach are typically encouraged to “learn from life.” These approaches afford students a greater latitude to explore personal experiences and beliefs in relation to what they learn at school. For many students whose lives have been upended by the pandemic and the social and racial divide roiling the nation, that charge has taken on new significance—school has become a place for processing these changes.
But how does that actually look? Recently, I spoke with three such students, who say that the scientific temperament developed in their schools helped them analyze challenging personal experiences and derive real, meaningful learning.
Escaping the Information Bubble
Two years ago, Thomas (a pseudonym) got caught up in the alt-right movement, a set of far right ideologies popularized by social media. He tells me about his journey into the movement, how he drew himself out and how the experience shaped what he is doing now, after graduating high school.
At the time, Thomas felt “fragile:” He just left home to study in the U.K. The “red pill,” or the thing that hooked him into the alt-right, was a headline about extremist feminism, intended to turn people against feminists. With two mothers, Thomas says he was on a journey to discover what kind of feminist he is.
But after a while, he began to think critically about what he was reading. Studying at a project-based school, Thomas developed a discipline for inquiry, fact-checking and reflection which he tells me: “stopped [him] from being so angry” about the headlines he saw in the movement and motivated him to investigate the facts. Each project at Thomas’ school is driven by a question, broken up into “advanced inquiry targets,” or sub-questions that students explore through research and tasks. These tasks are then recorded, shared and discussed with advisors using a special learning management system, called Headrush.
The pivotal school project which facilitated Thomas’ gradual withdrawal from the alt-right was a museum exhibit he curated to illustrate the history of Syrian refugees fleeing into Greece—a complex topic with conflicting sources of information. For his project, Thomas visited and interviewed the curator of The Propaganda Poster Art Centre in Shanghai. That is when, he tells me, he got "the first whisper” that the alt-right movement is a system of information warfare.
Visiting the museum, Thomas began to appreciate the power of existing in an echo-chamber where only one side was presented: “[I] had to wrap my head around it, how people believe something that looks so ridiculous from the outside,” he says. “It started to make sense in my head. You see...all of these really powerful [propaganda] posters.... I can see how terrible this stuff is, because it created an information bubble.”
Thomas was lucky in that he had solid support mechanisms through a challenging time in his life, namely his parents, who confronted his views but never him personally, as well as his teachers, who showed interest in his views and that they cared about him.
At Thomas’ school, the students are assessed for their mastery of 21st-century skills, including multicultural literacy, or as his school defines it, “the ability to understand and appreciate the similarities and differences in the customs, values and beliefs of one’s own culture and the cultures of others.” His school says it is on a journey to ensure this resonates with every student’s experience. For Thomas, a rigorous project-based learning approach and the experience of taking different points of view into account when studying complex socio-historical contexts like the Syrian refugee crisis or Maoist propaganda, have helped him to be more multiculturally literate and inspired him to investigate the drivers behind the hatred felt by parts of his society.
Currently pursuing a gap year program, Thomas is completing an internship on the topic of information ethics at The Millennium Project, a global participatory think tank, with a renewed sense of purpose: to “give everyone access to broad information and not be controlled [by it].”
“I took my gun out of my holster and shot until I couldn’t shoot”
Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School (FLHF) is a portfolio curriculum school located in Bronx, N.Y., and part of the Big Picture Learning network. I connected again with principal Jeff Palladino shortly after the murder of George Floyd and, together with two of his staff, reached out to 10th graders, Michael and Raheen.
Following Floyd's murder and the ongoing protests, Michael and Raheen admit feeling scared to be on the streets: “It makes you realise you can die any day. Killed not by the people who hate you but those who protect you,” says Michael.
In their curricula, FLHF makes space for current events and things that students care about. This year, one of the topics for the 10th grade final paper was "violence"—assigned before George Floyd’s murder. Raheen, who feels personally close to the issue of police violence, picked it as his choice: “If you make the question interesting, I will want to read the evidence and take the time to do the paper,” he says. Given his personal encounters with the police, Raheen believes that police officers grow up in anger, “are made to see stuff” and “join the police to take their anger out—mainly on Black men.”
In his paper, Raheen searches for his answer to the violence between police officers and protestors that he is witnessing on the streets by drawing both his personal experience as well as what he learned in his interdisciplinary curriculum.
Raheen weaves in the history of the Emancipation Proclamation, which legally freed Black slaves, but, as he writes, “does not mean that they were treated equally” to whites. He also cites a guest lecture he saw about the philosophers Thomas Hobbes’ and Jean Jacques Rousseau’s theories of social violence and control delivered by Jamaican philosopher Charles Mills. Raheen rejects both Hobbes' ideal of absolute power and the Rousseauian ideal of a police-free state: “The protests have not been sincere,” he tells me. Then adds: “I don’t think Floyd wanted [people] to be stealing.”
Written well before the protests spiralled into further violence and shootings, Raheen concludes: “If everyone is killing to get justice, it will continue to lead to a lot of people harmed and too many dead bodies.” In his paper, Raheen invites his community to seek inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement instead.
In May, his classmate Michael was watching the George Floyd protests on the news, when he saw a Black cop in tears, being told: “You are Black, how can you do this?” Michael too chose the topic of violence for his 10th grade paper because “It has an impact in real life.”
Michael’s paper isn’t a synthesis of philosophy and research but rather a dystopian fiction, stretching the news into a dark fantasy.
The backdrop to Michael’s short story is an overpopulated world where each cop kills at least five people a year and earns a bonus check. Frank Stan, Michael’s fictional character, is a Black cop making his first kill: “I saw a group of people running towards me. I looked at my holster and looked up again. I took my gun out of my holster and shot until I couldn’t shoot.”
Michael wrote this five months before Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back.
Through the process of writing the short story, Michael expressed his nuanced understanding of the human stories behind the news headlines and he sought to reconcile his belief that: “Police brutality is a plan” with an important personal ambition, he says. “If I could change one thing, that is how people view someone’s skin color.” Michael believes that underneath the racial divide lies the important issue of poverty. To him, Frank is a man who needs the extra money to take care of his family.
Ultimately Frank cannot live with the consequences of his act and commits suicide: “I was so shocked that I was still holding my gun. I shed a tear.... I just shot innocent people,” Michael’s character says at the end of the story.
Michael’s personal experience of being a Black student in America was scarred by the recent events and he has decided to attend a historical Black community college when he graduates. It is a choice made out of fear, and not opportunity. “I just want to feel normal,” he says. “I want a place where I am welcome”.
Ultimately, it is everyone’s responsibility to build a more cohesive society today, for every student to thrive in the future.
Project-based and portfolio curricula of the type that Raheen, Michael and Thomas engage in are helpful tools for giving all students agency and building their skills and mindsets to think critically and to learn from life. The ability of these young men to dissect, discover and make sense of the truth away from the headlines gives me hope for a better future.
But the present that we are shaping today also greatly impacts their future. When racial divide and violence force our students to make important life choices from a place of fear and not opportunity, it is our collective responsibility, and not just the educators’, to change course and present them with better opportunities for which to thrive.