Project Context Matrix

Defining project quality in project-based learning can be a tricky thing to do.  What outcomes are we trying to measure?  What determines the effectiveness of a project?  New Tech Network’s Project Quality Checklist utilizes Adria Steinberg’s 6 A’s to determine if a project is ready to roll-out or to assess its quality after implementation.  BIE’s Gold Standard PBL offers an outline for the essential elements of project-based learning, as well as, for project-based teaching.  While both tools are vastly effective, many times we forget to evaluate the context in which a project lives.  Below, I provide a very simple project context matrix to examine what type of authenticity is embedded in your project.  No project is wrong in itself, but it is important to understand the role context and authenticity play in a project-based world.



Fake-Fake projects can sometimes be the most fun.  These projects generally live in the world of imagination and unfiltered possibilities.  Many times the context in which fake-fake projects live is outside the realm of reality.  As closely aligned, the authenticity provided is built upon creativity.  These projects can play a vital role in stretching the thinking capacity of students when it comes to moonshot ideas.  A great example of a fake-fake project I saw was examining ecosystems and our solar system.  Each group created a habitat for the life forms that were already living on a different planet.  Now we know that space travel and life outside of Earth is a whole different conversation, but the students knew that their ideas weren’t going to be implemented tomorrow.  However, the project was structured to stretch their belief of what was possible in relation to the world they knew.

Is there really life on Mars?


Real-Fake projects take a very concrete principle and set of skills and apply it to made up scenario.  In these projects, the context generally stretches our imagination and the authenticity is rooted in practical application.  A great example of a real-fake project was one I did my last year of teaching.  We used the book World War Z to guide us through a conducting a Model UN for the zombie apocalypse.  Obviously, until the zombie outbreak occurs, the context was made up (no, the United Nations is not currently trying to solve a zombie crisis), but the principles studied were rooted in foreign policy and how the United Nations works.  Students examined real global issues through the lens of the book and were even coached digitally by staffers in New York City.

Выступление Михаила Горбачева на сессии Генеральной ассамблеи ООН
The United Nations preparing for the next zombie apocalypse.

Fake-Real projects are generally rooted in a very real problem or issue.  But 9 out of 10 times, the students solutions are not realistically considered by the stakeholders involved.  Many fake-real projects will have a context rooted in working with actual community partners.  They might even go through the same process that varying entities go through to examine the issue at stake.  However, the culminating events in these projects are not always put into practice.  A great example of a fake-real project is a local one from here at New Technology High School in Napa, CA.  Students examined a local land dispute between a rock quarry and public park.  Groups took on the perspective of varying stakeholders groups and presented their recommendations to representatives from the community, the quarry, the park, and the city.  The project was very real and the context was unfolding before their eyes.  Whether or not the stakeholders put the students ideas into practice is yet to be seen.

New Technology High School students conducted soil testing at Skyline Park.

Real-real projects are at the apex of the project context matrix.  These projects live in a truly real context and hold an authenticity to be rivaled.  Real-real projects allow students to be a part of problem-finding, problem-solving, and solution design that is embedded in something that is actually happening.  These projects can be the hardest to plan and the hardest to find.  It wasn’t until I decided to try and rethink my approach to the traditional economics course that I understand how powerful a truly real-real project could be.  The Believe in Your Business project is an 18 week entrepreneurial economics experiment.  Students learned the traditional economic principles of opportunity cost, supply and demand, and fair trade, but they did it through the lens of creating their own business.  In working with a group of mentors, students used the lean start-up model to develop their ideas and then pitch them to investors.  Ultimately, a few businesses were selected each year to receive seed funding, small business supplies, and continued mentoring.  Multiple ventures are still up and running even years after the students “finished” the project and graduated.
The moral of the story is that all four types of projects have a place in a project-based learning environment.  As a facilitator, it is important that you are examining the ratio of your implementation (too many fake-fake projects can lead to lack of student buy-in; too many real-real projects can lead to burnout).  Wherever you stand, reflecting on the context and authenticity embedded in your projects can lend to a more fluid and consistent project-based approach to prepare students for living in a project-based world.


It’s All One in the Same

Innovation is a tricky animal by itself. Add education to the mix, and it gets even crazier.  You can find a slew of opinions and ideas around innovation in education.  I have seen hundreds of examples of amazing innovative school settings and practices; I’m even blessed to work in a real transformative school in New Tech High.  However, we must take a step back and really think about what is stopping systemic change from occurring. A lot of times we get stuck in the sameness of repackaging what we now or think we can do.  Here are a few barriers to systemic innovation:

School as School

One of the toughest parts of true innovation in education is school itself.  Many humans love to learn, but hate the idea of school.  The concept of school is to promote and foster this love in a purposeful manner, but many times it can get lost in conformity and hoops.  There is some great thoughts out there about “deschooling” education. Mindshift has a great article from my friend, Adam Holman, titled “How ‘Deprogramming’ Kids From How to ‘Do School’ Could Improve Learning“.  In the article, Adam shares a revealing comment from a student, “For the first time in my life I am trying to learn everything instead of just get a 70 [percent]”.  That is powerful and the hurdle from not seeing school as something that is done to us or a building we go to must shift for change to happen.

The Accountability Animal

We must ask ourselves always, “what does it mean to be accountable, what are we accountable for and who are we accountable to?”  We know that the fear of accountability can cripple innovation in education.  Both schools and educators alike are forced to constantly think about performance and meeting standards set out for them. But should this stop shifting the way we think about education?  We all know amazing examples of public schools and teachers that are both highly innovative AND perform well on accountability measures.  We also must admit, that we know, accountability is always a moving target.  And maybe that isn’t quite so bad.

Accountability can easily become a scapegoat in stopping innovative practices from spreading.  Teachers feel so tied to meet the standards in front of them or schools feel like they must do everything they can to focus on improving state testing metrics.  Factors such as tenure and seniority can also play a devious role in teachers outlook on implementing innovative teaching practices.


However, data shows, that even the teachers that fail to meet these “accountability” measures rarely get dismissed.  The National Center for Education Statistics have released numbers that show less than 2% of tenured teachers get dismissed for performance.  As well, the American Enterprise Institute looked at teacher dismissal in New York.  They found that from 1997 to 2007, only 12 New York City teachers were let go for incompetent teaching.

The point is that accountability is important.  But vary rarely will your school get shutdown or will a teacher get fired.  So why not try something new and outside the box?

Answering to Higher Ed

This might be my favorite one.  Still being relatively fresh to California, I was puzzled by the A-G requirements from the University of California for high schoolers.  Now I know in a state the size of California, it is important to have some metrics in place for what high school students need, but I was blown away by the influence it has over what happens in high schools.

As well as this, I recently overheard a conversation from one of my high school students about a college class they were taking.  The professor had stated to the whole class that, “high school students should be worried”, “he didn’t understand why they were allowed to take his class anyways”, and “they would probably fail because high school is easy and college is hard”.  It was hard for me to not chime in, but I wanted to find him and ask him who anointed him the gatekeeper of all education.

The point is, these are just two small examples of how high school must answer to higher education.  Data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that on average 30% of students that enroll at 4-year institutions don’t finish…at ANY institution.  Whether it be the SAT & ACT or even perceived elitism, higher education has a stranglehold on what happens in high school, many times without the accountability measures listed previously.  Preparing students for college is a vital component of a high school’s role; sometimes I just wonder why the institutes of higher ed have so much influence on us and it seems like the many innovative high schools out there have so little influence on their practices.

full_time_part_time.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeLimits of Humans

Lastly, being human is tough.  The energy, empathy, collaboration, and time necessary to be innovative can be draining.  Hell doing a crappy job can be even more draining!  We must recognize that as humans, we put many limits on ourselves.  We are confined to the practices we know, restricted to our opinions and beliefs, and resistant to change.  As we look at innovation in education, many times it is all just one in the same.  Taking the same box and painting it a different color, moving from a 7 period day to a 6 period day, or using the same ole sustained silent reading everyday are just part of those limits.

HOWEVER, we have seen and will continue to see we are capable of so much more.  When we remove the barriers to entry, we are able to see clearly and re-imagine the role that schools and education play in our communities.  In my next post, I will explore some potential avenues in which I believe innovation can help us re-imagine education, not just repackage it.  I am not saying throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I am saying lets not get stuck in this “it’s just all one in the same” and really think about what can be next for school, teaching, and learning.