How Do We Encourage Students to be Advocates of Their Own Learning?

Project-based Learning at High-tech High

I often ponder and worry that students are not prepared and engaged to learn in school and are not prepared to be continuous learners. I personally believe that in order to be productive, highly-functioning citizens, we need to prepare our youth to be life-long learners with a thirst for knowledge, continuous personal development and learning.

While we cannot fully predict the world that Generation Y and others will face, we do need to give them the skills to carry the torch of their own learning. Doing so will provide students with the toolkit necessary to continue acquiring new skills once outside of the classroom environment and help students engage in learning while inside the K-12 environment. As students move out into the world, they need the confidence and skills to teach themselves. Ultimately, we need to pass the responsibility of education back into the hands of students and teach and encourage them to be advocates of their own learning.

Engage students in the learning process.
In my last post, I talked about how we need to teach students the skill of learning. One way to teach students how to learn is to place the process in their own hands. With this, I’m referring to the instructional approach called Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL provokes students to grasp hold of central concepts and principles to discipline their minds for organization, time-management, self-assessment, reflection and leadership of projects.1 The key ingredients to a project-based learning activity include:

  • bringing students’ outside interests in to choose (to some degree) the topic of their own project
  • involving multiple disciplines that require the cross-collaboration of different subject areas
  • and planning and building different stages of the assignment over time.

Teaching Today provides great ideas on how to use PBL in mathematics; below is an example activity you can do with your students:

“In a middle school or consumer mathematics class, students take the role of a state official preparing a statistical report on the state, choosing a topic such as education. The end product can be a presentation with graphs and written descriptions of significant findings. Consider collaborating with a language arts or social studies teacher for this project.”2

Create a context for powerful learning.
To begin this PBL project your students will need to:

  • identify the topic of their state report and the specific aspect to focus on
  • plan out the project to identify the outcome and how to measure the results
  • plan what and where to gather research and then collect information about the topic
  • organize the facts and details and refocus the topic
  • determine how to structure the information in clear, well thought out materials that everyone can understand
  • and then prepare to write a report, develop a presentation, and create other forms to communicate their knowledge and learning.

To help students work through these steps, provide them with some strategies. Mapping ideas and outlining in list form are two strategies that are great for brainstorming, planning, and organizing ideas and information. Students can map their ideas using the diagram environments in Inspiration® 9 or Webspiration Classroom™ service.

Students can also use the powerful outlining environments to organize and structure their work. Visual thinking is a great way to help students brainstorm, plan, organize, and structure research and writing. It addition, it can help them stay on track with the end result in mind while they work through each stage of the project.

Then, after completion, students can evaluate the success of their project, plans, research, and more by referring back to the diagrams and outlines that they created during the brainstorming, planning, and pre-writing processes.

If a presentation is a major outcome of the project, Inspiration 9 is great because the students can use the tool from the beginning of their thinking through the delivery of their presentation. The beauty of working in Webspiration Classroom is that students can work on their projects while at school, at home, at after school programs or at a library. Their plans, notes and documents are always available and ready to develop or reference. If the project is a group project, Webspiration Classroom makes it easy to collaborate, share documents, co-create, review work and more. What’s more, you can download your Webspiration Classroom project to Inspiration 9 to then create a presentation.

What does student learning advocacy look like?
PBL can be applied to an activity in any classroom in order to engage students in their own learning, create learning that results in a demonstration of performance, and give students an opportunity to function like adults with hands-on, in-depth and applied activities.

What if this learning model was applied to the entire culture of a school? High Tech High, which consists of a network of nine schools spanning grades K-12, has done just this. This school has modeled PBL as a fundamental basis of the school’s mission, structure and function in order to create a place “where all students develop the academic, workplace and citizenship skills for postsecondary success.”3

I want to leave you with this video about High Tech High to ponder the possibilities of how we encourage students to become advocates of their own learning.4 What would that look like? Would it include Project-Based Learning and a school model like High Tech High?


See you next week!

Mona Westhaver, Inspiration Software, President

Mona Westhaver
President and Co-founder, Inspiration Software

Mona Westhaver, President and Co-founder of Inspiration® Software, Inc., has more than 30 years’ experience in visual thinking, systems thinking, and educational learning tools and technology. She has a passion for helping people learn to clarify thinking and feelings and to communicate knowledge and views in a positive way.
Mona Westhaver
View all posts by Mona Westhaver
  1. “What Is Project-Based Learning?” Project Based Learning. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <>. []
  2. “Teaching Today | How-To Articles | Project-Based Learning in Mathematics.” Teaching Today | Home. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <>. []
  3. “About.” High Tech High. Web. 16 Dec. 2010. <>. []
  4. “YouTube – Project Based Learning at HTH.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. <!>. []

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