In the The World is Flat, Friedman (2005) notes that students acquire the skills and commitment for lifelong learning so as to be “really adaptable.” “Really adaptable” workers are resilient, patient, adaptable, persistent and responsible.

They are self-directed learners with responsibility for their own learning. Martinez and McGrath (2013) identified three commonalities in developing self-directed learners. These were: disrupting traditional expectations of teaching and learning; socializing students into a school culture signaling the expectations for learners; and using a consistent pedagogical approach in which students manage complex projects and assignments, seek feedback, revise work and reflect on what they’ve learned.

Understanding the need to support the development of adaptable workers, the Tri-Creek School Corporation focused on college and career readiness. To accomplish this, we needed to find an approach that would ensure students were, as our mission statement indicates: Engaged to Learn, Equipped to Achieve, and Empowered to Succeed. An examination of several approaches led the corporation to look at the instructional and programming strategies of project-based learning and the New Tech Network. Strategies were identified and implemented to ensure students not only mastered content, but also had an understanding of college-level and workforce expectations within the context of self-advocacy.

Engaged to Learn

Project-based learning (PBL) is at the heart of engagement and exemplifies the “really adaptable” worker. In PBL, students engage in purposeful, collaborative projects requiring critical thinking, creativity and communication during the learning process, which is different than having students complete projects at the end of a unit. Students in PBL are motivated to learn through the process of working to solve a real-world problem. Instruction is guided or facilitated by faculty who have some understanding of what knowledge the student brings with them and what might be needed in order to complete the problem-focused project.

A traditional classroom project typically follows these steps:

Lecture – Activity – Quiz – Lecture – Activity – Quiz – Review – Exam – Project

A PBL unit project is launched with an entry event, rubric creation, “Need to Knows” and next steps. The framework looks as follows:

The New Tech Network advocates the PBL approach using 1:1 technology integration and inquiry to engage students in relevant experiences. Students think in complex ways and apply their knowledge and skills in integrated and cross-disciplinary projects to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.

The project entry document frames the project providing the overall expectation. Imagine entering a classroom where the teacher hands you a letter from a congressman requesting your help in investigating energy efficiency, as he must provide an energy recommendation to Congress. The project culminates in your group’s recommendation to the congressman in person. How exciting would it be for a student to engage as a genetic counselor for a young couple planning a family? Can you imagine the passion generated as a teacher tells a class they have been asked to study the vegetation issue of their local lake and the resulting tourism impact and then to make a recommendation to the Town Council on how to alleviate the problem? Standards are embedded into each project ensuring the content is taught. Brainstorming generates a list of what is known about the project and what they need to know in order to solve the problem and complete the project. Groups of students identify their project manager, sign a contract for roles and responsibilities and begin their work. The teacher develops scaffolding activities to help students master the content and skills. They engage in “workshops” that may be direct instruction on “just in time” information needed to continue.

A Lowell High School teacher states: “With the implementation of project-based learning, I have seen tremendous growth in my students’ abilities as critical thinkers and communicators. Students are learning to analyze what they need to know in order to be successful with a given project; exploring various ways to tackle the task at hand; and possibly most importantly, how to ask thoughtful, clear and professional questions. Students see the reason behind what they are learning. My favorite moments are when my students come up with a better way of presenting their ideas than I came up with, or when they ask me to teach them more about a specific aspect of the discipline.”

With the implementation of project-based learning, I have seen tremendous growth in my students’ abilities as critical thinkers and communicators.

Another high school teacher stated: “Learners are expressing ownership in our projects. Our driving questions are directly related to our learning goals and the themes of our projects; in-turn, our students don’t spend a day in the classroom without knowing exactly why the benchmarks and tasks are absolutely necessary in the process of successfully completing each project. I leave every day exhausted but feel fulfilled in knowing that each class-period is receiving the differentiated instruction necessary to fully prepare each unique learner for college and career readiness.”

Equipped to Achieve

Project-based learning is presented in a 1:1 technology environment. The technology is the collaborative tool that enables the student to delve deeper into learning. Collaborative learning technology enables the student to continue learning in and outside the traditional classroom. One fifth grade teacher expressed her excitement regarding the impact of technology on her students after school learning, “What I find so exciting is that my students are having this conversation about their writing from home at 6:00 p.m. This is not homework, just information I shared if they wanted to know more. They are engaged and talking about themselves as authors outside of the school day. One group of students was having a conversation about tonight’s homework assignment. They ask each other questions and by the time I give my feedback, they have usually already solved their problem. For me, that is something to be excited about.”

The experience of the Tri-Creek School Corporation seems to have demonstrated that appropriate use of technology as a learning and creation tool is extremely important in learning. Utilizing the technology early ensures that students understand digital citizenship and digital literacy. It is imperative that we equip students with the knowledge, skills, tools and desire to extend their learning.

Empowered to Succeed

A strong focus on self-directed learning and learner outcomes promotes trust, respect and responsibility. Working on projects as teams makes students accountable to each other and reflects what they will experience in the work environment. Education and learning should be about empowering students to reach their goals and dreams. Students must have the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills in familiar and unfamiliar ways to continue their learning and build their confidence.

Assuring that a student has developed the skills to be a self-directed learner includes identifying, teaching and assessing those skills. The New Tech Network Learning Outcomes include:

  • Knowledge and thinking
  • Written Communication
  • Oral Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Agency (time management, work ethic, persistence, etc.)

Students sometimes find the focus on learner outcomes hard as so often school has become an isolated, individual game of memorization to answer questions and gain a good grade. It is not about learning skills. The culture of project-based learning is about ownership of the learning and the environment. One middle school student indicated that, “Project-based learning is good for me because I do better learning when I’m one-on-one with others or in a group.” Another felt, “Project-based learning has taught me how to work well with others effectively.”

PBL embodies a culture of support and empowerment. By engaging, equipping and empowering students, they acquire the knowledge, skills and attributes to be successful in college, careers and life. Transitioning to PBL is not an easy task for teachers or students. It is a disruption of the status quo. As one middle school teacher explained, “Teaching in a PBL environment is a lot of work, but the processes and outcomes are so worth it that I want to put in the effort. It’s also exciting to teach, talk and learn in a PBL environment. There’s no other way of teaching/learning for me. PBL has changed my outlook on education and our future…both are looking great!” Another teacher sums it up for all of us, “It is the most important thing I have done at work in 10 years!”


Friedman, Thomas (2005). The World is Flat. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishing City.

Martinez, M. and McGrath, D. (2013). “How can schools develop self-directed learners?” Kappan V95 N2: 23-27.

Our elements: elements

Project-based learning:

What is PBL:

Debra Howe has been the Superintendent of Tri-Creek School Corporation since 2011 and was previously the Superintendent of Rochester Community Schools in Rochester, Indiana. She has led both school systems through the transformation process to a project-based instructional model with the New Tech Network. In her three years at Tri-Creek, graduation rates have risen from 87 percent to 95 percent, the high school rating has risen from a D to an A, and suspensions and expulsions have been significantly reduced. In 2010, Dr. Howe was named one of “20 To Watch” in Technology and Learning by the National School Boards Association, and in 2011 she received the AdvancED Innovation Award. The school system website can be accessed at