Sunday, 11 May 2014

How do we evaluate Big Project learning?

Our values, the rubrics and some co-construction....

Where do we start with assessment in Big Projects?

There are three key elements to the "timetabled" learning at HPSS; hubs, learning modules and the Big Projects.  Big Projects have been identified as having the framework and learning outcomes that allow for the growth and development of ALL our school values, in a truly authentic, real world context. These values are:    


Excellence - both academic and personal.

Inquiry - the process that engages life long learning.

Connectedness - relationships between learning and being connected to the world students live in.

Collaboration - working effectively together to create outcomes greater than the individual parts.  

Innovation - addressing and embracing worthwhile challenges through thinking creatively, differently, strategically.   

Big Projects brings these 'values' to life in a tangible, and hopefully student-centred, way with relevant, engaging contexts for learning. How many schools can honestly say that their underlying values are explicitly developed and nurtured within their students? Would they be able to measure/track the development of these values?  Some values perhaps, but certainly not all!

The Big Project vision is an assessment framework which is holistic, relevant, meaningful, and involves more than just one voice.  I have a goal, to involve everyone; students, project guides, outside partners, audiences, all giving each individual student feedback on their learning and outcomes which have been documented and evidenced.  Not only that, but embracing the mantra of 'so what and what now?' by giving useful, realistic and truly helpful advice on how to improve their project based learning in the future.  

Looking at the research and practitioner advice:

One of the wonderful things about Big Projects is this is not a world first.  For years really innovative and inspiring teachers have been engaging students in project based learning to help make education more meaningful, relevant and purposeful.  In developing our own Big Project assessment structure, we have looked at others who have already forged a path in this area.

Of course, the Buck Institute of Education (BIE) was my first port of call, with 25 years of experience and a huge data base of resources on assessment in project based learning. It may not completely align with all the Big Project elements, but the ingredients around student centred learning are the same. 

A blog from Cady Smith really helped put my mind at rest - assessment should be co-constructed, it HAS been co-constructed, and it improves student outcomes.  Her ideas are found here. Her blog also contains a webinar that explores student and peer assessment and the role of a public audience in assessment - just what I was thinking - audience assessment!  John Larmer has made some insightful observations about quality of work in project based learning - His ideas are found here.  

It was really important for me to have academic, evidenced based research guiding decisions about Big Project assessment. Beyond BIE, Edutopia (while based in the Northern Hemisphere again) was able to provide even more of that research - the link is here. 

Rubrics and Exemplars - the key to assessment success...

More than any other strategies, using rubrics and student exemplars have been identified in the academic research as being the most powerful tool for enhancing student learning and achievement outcomes.  So, we shall embrace these in Big Projects. 

Here at HPSS, we are working with SOLO taxonomy - a model that describes levels of increasing complexity in a students understanding.  My colleague, Megan Peterson, has written her own insight into SOLO in her blog - which can be accessed here (thanks Megan).  So, trying to merge SOLO into my rubrics was my first challenge.  I am new to SOLO, but have quickly seen the huge value in empowering students with a meaningful language and simple structure they can use to track and evaluate their own learning and achievement.  It is a tool.  

Produced by Pam Hook (@arti_choke)

So, with the following in mind...
1) This is our first year of Big Projects and we have a cohort of Year 9 (13yrs) students.
2) Our assessment criteria should begin with small steps and build over the years as the project complexity increases and the skill base of our students grows.
3) The school is new, staff are finding their feet.  Keep things simple and straightforward as much as possible.
4) Embrace the start, but make it a 'work in progress'.  Let it evolve through a process of co-construction with our students and let it be personalised.

... I (along with lots of help from my colleagues - thank you Di,Megan,Liz and the PPT team) developed the very first BIG PROJECT RUBRIC...  the aim was to allow students the opportunity to see how their project learning would be commented on, judged, scrutinised, evaluated, assessed, etc etc. Personally I sometimes feel uncomfortable trying to label this, however, at the end of the day, this is a form of assessment.  

And it looks like this: 

The whole 3 page document - including 'unpacking the language' can be seen here - HPSS BIG PROJECT ASSESSMENT RUBRICS VERSION ONE 2014

This is truely a work in progress.... and I look forward to the feedback and feedforward we get from students and staff after the first Big Project finishes at the end of this term - 2nd July.  

But it needs so much more... co-constructing this with our students.

While a rubric in itself is useful and helps everyone understand the learning, skills, tasks and outcomes required, it is not what will generate a quality Big Project.  Project guides are required to unpack the rubric with their project teams and re-build them again BUT together and with the specific project context in mind.  

So what does THAT look like? The first initial stage could look like this....

Unpacking the Big Project rubric with my Restore Our Region students
What is this?
I'm afraid I have yet to explain the first fully fledged Big Project at HPSS. Look out for a "Build Our Culture" blog post soon. 

This image above represents the unpacking of the initial rubric (shown previously) in the context of a Big Project called "Restore our Region".  It involves a small group of students with a passion for being outdoors, at 'one' with nature AND destroying weed species with sharp implements!  However, to ensure this project fits the criteria of 'making a positive difference in our community' , these students are using their experiences to inspire others in Hobsonville Point to do the same.  They hope to educate locals about weed species, special native plants that live here and the importance of protecting areas of forest on the point.  

BTW - This is my team in action (another Blog in the pipeline about these guys!) 
Nikita, Jalen and Nick proud to be out attacking our weeds.  Watch out Wattle!
The co-construction of ideas involved in our group discussion whereby the students identified how their plan of action involved the HPSS values of inquiry, connectedness, collaboration and innovation. They came up with their ideas and I helped develop others that perhaps they had overlooked.  In the end, they felt like all the values had been 'engaged' within their project.  They also focused on Excellence - a value that will be judged on the level of authentic difference or the significance of impact a project will make.  They feel they have the components to show 'excellence' but they will need to accomplish all they have planned to do... and there is a mere 7 weeks left.

Next week we will work together to turn our initial ideas into a "Restore Our Region" rubric, based on the SOLO taxonomy.  For example, developing criteria around the value of inquiry.  We can move from the uni-relational stage of 'asking a question about plants' to a more extended abstract skill of 'engaging in purposeful questioning with local experts about native plants and weed species to provide the knowledge needed to fulfill our goals of producing informative resources for the community'.  We will need some outside help to get it right and it probably wont be perfect the first time around.  But over time lessons will be learned and the co-constructed rubric will become more powerful.

I'll keep you posted on that one....

What about the student exemplars?

Hmmm, this is slightly more problematic.  Over time we will collect a wide range of excellent student work that will inspire others and help students see the potential within project based learning.  We have a focus in Big Projects around telling the story and recording the journey.  These can be shared and give so much more of the picture than a final product.  That is exciting.  But for now we have little in the way of quality exemplars.  Over the next few weeks I intend to find some relevant ones.  In many ways they will not be for students as unfortunately it will be too late for our first project.  But instead, I hope to use them with our project guides, to help us all gain a similar understanding of what our values and quality project based learning looks like.  We need to make judgements in a fair and consistent manner when it comes to assessing the true outcomes, or as Pete would say - the story, of a Big Project.  I hope to turn to Albany Senior High School, a neighbouring secondary school that has had a Project Based Learning programme, in place for just over five years.  Hopefully, with exemplars from globally renowned teachers and our local expert colleagues (in the process of developing their own best practice), I will find the exemplars we need to ensure the first assessment of Big Projects is as close to 'our best practice' as we can possibly make it.  

I'll let you know how it goes!


  1. Awesome post Sarah! So detailed and descriptive of the process and practice. It's SO exciting to be on this journey with you. Thanks for all you do and your enthusiastic leadership of Big Projects; keep sharing - it's inspiring stuff.

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