In Partnership with The 74

After school, students are ‘playing the whole game’ in activities from drama to sports to debate. Backers of project-based learning ask: Why can’t all of education look like this?

Greg Toppo | September 30, 2019



In 2013, attorneys at the California Innocence Project, weighed down by a backlog of casework, turned for help to an unusual group: humanities students at High Tech High Chula Vista, a nearby charter school.

The students, all juniors, trained on a past case handled by the San Diego nonprofit, which reviews pleas from prisoners who maintain that they’re innocent. Then, in teams of three or four, the students reviewed prisoners’ files and ultimately presented them to Innocence Project attorneys, with a recommendation to either champion a prisoner’s case or take a pass.

The project lives on with a new group of students each year, buoyed by a strain of progressive education philosophy that says students learn best with real work that resembles what they will likely encounter outside of school. It has been kicking around K-12 education for decades but has yet to be widely adopted. In recent years, however, the idea has quietly gained ground as more schools try project-based learning and subscribe to a philosophy known as “deeper learning.”

But does it work?

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor emeritus David Perkins calls it “playing the whole game.” He sees it as an alternative to schools’ traditional approach, which often presents students with atomized, decontextualized pieces of a subject. He conceived of the idea after thinking about the most meaningful experiences he had in high school, which were mostly “outside of the conventional curriculum”: drama, music, science fairs and the like. These and other large-scale endeavors, he said, “seemed more meaningful and I reached out for opportunities.”

Laid out most fully in his 2010 book Making Learning Whole, the idea goes something like this: Let students do something big and useful, from start to finish — perhaps a simplified version, but keep it intact. Give them extra help and lower stakes and they’ll work harder, learn more and come up with creative applications and solutions that adults couldn’t imagine.

Though it has yet to be widely adopted outside of project-based schools, “playing the whole game” has quietly thrived for generations in another context: afterschool activities, from team sports to debate club, drama productions and marching band.

“We know intuitively that when we get really serious about a domain of education, it looks more like this,” said Jal Mehta, also a professor at Harvard’s education school.

When students go out for the baseball team, they get an attenuated version of baseball, but they go out each time and play the entire game. “It’s not ‘baseball appreciation,’” Mehta said. Likewise with just about anything that takes place after school.

Afterschool activities also offer a system that supports teachers. Imagine, for instance, a classroom art teacher who wants to mount an exhibition of student artwork. She’d need to figure out how to give students longer blocks of time to complete the pieces, find an exhibition space and arrange it for exhibition night. Finally, she’d need to get people to attend.

Harvard scholar Jal Mehta in the classroom. “We know intuitively that when we get really serious about a domain of education, it looks more like this,” he says. (Photo by Lisa Abitbol)

“Now imagine you’re that same teacher and you’re directing a play after school,” Mehta said. “Basically, you need the same things.” But in most schools, these pieces are already in place: long rehearsal blocks, a dedicated performance space, and the expectation that students will annually mount a version of a big Broadway musical and the community will show up to see it. All of that support, he said, is already built in.

“The question we should ask ourselves is: If that’s the kind of method we use when we really want someone to learn something, why don’t we use those methods the rest of the time, for the rest of the students?” Mehta said.

Chris Lehmann, principal and co-founder of Science Leadership Academy, a small public high school at the edge of Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood, said afterschool experiences have another plus: They have student choice “baked-in.”

“You’re getting the kids somewhere they want to be,” he said, “so you already have an advantage there.” These experiences are also usually built around a performance of some sort, with a natural structure, deadline and audience.

Mehta said the best examples he has seen during the school day are in science classes. In one school, instead of “imbibing scientific knowledge that was discovered long ago by famous scientists,” sophomores learned about the scientific method and designed rudimentary experiments — he remembers one that asked whether studying while listening to music through earbuds produced better or worse results.

“That’s not an earth-shattering question, but it’s a real question,” he said. In the process, students learned how to develop a hypothesis, gather data, review the literature and write up their results. By 11th or 12th grade, they were doing more advanced work, including partnering with nearby labs, he said. But students credited the sophomore-year course with getting them excited about — and familiar with — experimentation. “It was the place where they really learned how to do science,” he said.

Sarah Fine, who directs High Tech High’s graduate teaching apprenticeship and who last spring co-authored a book about deeper learning with Mehta, said the larger goal of “playing the whole game” is a kind of authenticity that often eludes students, especially in high school. “Ultimately, school is a contrived situation. There’s no way around that,” she said.

Fine recalled a student once saying to her, “‘Ms. Fine — school is just fake.’ He’s right — school is fake. We are designing experiences for the sake of kids’ learning.”

Yet the goal of the Innocence Project work isn’t necessarily to make students into lawyers. It’s to give them the sense that there’s “some professional domain that has rules and rhythms to it,” as well as a base of knowledge, she said. “It just has to feel real enough to kids — it has to be resonant enough with the real world that it compels them to feel like it’s worth engaging with.”

The students who reviewed prisoners’ cases “talked about feeling like they sort of had people’s lives in their hands,” Fine said. “And that is not a feeling they’d ever had in school before, that something they were doing had real consequences for people beyond themselves.”

Alex Simpson, associate director of the California Innocence Project, addresses students from High Tech High Chula Vista before they give presentations on their clients’ cases. (Courtesy of Mackenzie King)

Rebecca Jimenez, 18, who graduated last fall from High Tech High Chula Vista, said the Innocence Project gave her a sense of working on “an important cause.”

The more research she did on each prisoner’s plea, the more engrossed she became. “I wanted to keep reading and understand the person’s story,” she said. Eventually, she and her classmates would research a case that resulted in a judge throwing out a 20-year-old murder conviction and handing down new charges against the suspect’s nephew.

Novices vs. experts

One important aspect of “playing the whole game,” Mehta said, is interacting with professionals in the real world. “If you do an architecture project and you have real architects examining your work, that’s project-based learning. But it’s really powerful project-based learning because you’re not only showing students something about architecture. It gives them a conception: ‘I could be an architect.’”

But Tom Loveless, a California-based education researcher and former director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, advises caution. “Generally speaking, I think we should be skeptical of the whole idea,” he said.

For one thing, playing the whole game confuses novices with experts. “A novice can’t ‘play the whole game’ because a novice doesn’t know the whole game. In order to learn most games, you have to learn the bits and pieces that go into knowing the whole game. And with project-based learning in general, the idea is that you’re giving kids projects to do in order to learn about a particular topic.”

That’s a mistake, Loveless said, since students typically require “a tremendous amount of background knowledge” before they can execute a respectable project on, say, World War I. Without deep background knowledge, he said, “you have a lot of novice learners kind of sharing their ignorance and having a shared experience out of their ignorance — and there’s no guarantee … that they’re necessarily going to gain knowledge, because you’ve left all that in the hands of the students themselves.”

Harvard’s Mehta said “playing the whole game” actually demands more of teachers, implicitly asking them to not just be familiar with a subject but to remain, in a sense, practitioners. Just as we’d expect a good drama director to direct community theater on weekends, so do these schools expect the same of subject-matter teachers: English teachers who publish poetry or novels, or art teachers who sell their paintings, and so on.

Loveless said he hasn’t seen good evidence that students will necessarily enjoy school more if it’s inquiry-based. “It could be that exactly the opposite is true. It could be that actually what kids like is a lot of structure to the presentation of learning. They like the teacher taking responsibility for that.”

A bigger problem, he said, may be that because project-based learning tends to minimize the importance of prior knowledge, “playing the whole game” might work better in wealthy areas or in private schools, where students arrive with a measure of background knowledge about, for instance, World War I or how defense attorneys work. Elsewhere, it’s a riskier strategy.

SLA’s Lehmann would disagree. His school boasts that it draws students from every zip code in Philadelphia, and he can easily bring to mind the challenges that his students — past and present — bring the day they set foot on campus as freshmen.

A 2016 meta-review was cautiously optimistic about project-based learning, saying the evidence for its effectiveness is “promising but not proven.”

Ron Berger of EL Education, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group for project-based learning, pointed to a 2016 study by the American Institutes for Research that found that students in high schools that subscribed to “deeper learning” were slightly more likely to attend college — about 53 percent, versus 50 percent in other high schools. AIR also found that 22 percent of students at “deeper learning” schools enrolled in four-year colleges, compared with 18 percent for their peers elsewhere.

But the schools had little to show in terms of college retention — in both “deeper learning” schools and others, only 62 percent of alumni remained enrolled in college for at least three consecutive terms; about half enrolled for at least four consecutive terms.

Berger said the modest college-going results shouldn’t be the final word on these schools’ success. For one thing, he said, many of them are works in progress: his nonprofit, originally a partnership between Harvard’s education school and Outward Bound USA, has spent years pushing project-based schools to improve the quality of their projects, requiring field research, participation of outside experts and “an authentic audience,” among other factors. That’s not always a given, he said.

Where these conditions persist, Berger said, “the schools feel different,” with students able to articulate what they’re learning and why they’re there.

“It’s visceral,” he said. “When you walk into a building and kids are more polite, more mature, engage with you right away and want to tell you about their learning, [they] have a sense of social responsibility — it’s hard to collect quantitative data on this.”

‘Why do I need to know this?’

Lehmann, the Philadelphia principal, embodies this attitude perhaps as well as any secondary educator in America. In conversation with his students, he reminds them endlessly about how much they’ve grown and matured since he met them as freshmen. He has become well-known among educators for his head-on challenge to the notion that the job of high school is to get students ready for what comes next.

“School shouldn’t be preparation for real life — school should be real life,” he said. “We should ask kids to do real things that matter.”

Most significantly, Lehmann asks teachers to rethink the idea that high school is a “moratorium” for young people, a kind of holding pen where they wait out adolescence.

Kiana Thomas, Lauryn Lewis and Naima DeBrest, students who serve as part of the design team at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, work on laying out furniture for the school’s new campus, which opened in September. (Photo by Chris Lehmann)

“‘Why do I need to know this?’ should be a real question,” he said. “And the answers we should search out for kids should not be ‘someday’ answers — ‘If you want to major in this, you might seek out this information’ — but rather, ‘Why do I need this information now to be a better human being? To effect change in the world?’”

For Jimenez, the High Tech High graduate, playing the whole game changed everything. Early in her high school career, she thought she might major in business. “It sounded really cool and had money attached to the name,” she joked.

But Jimenez liked the work at the Innocence Project so much she spent the entire month of May 2018 interning there — High Tech High juniors undertake monthlong internships each spring. “During school, if I want to do something, I might as well be doing something that might actually make a change,” she said.

Now a freshman at the University of California, Riverside, Jimenez is studying political science and plans to attend law school. A first-generation college-goer, she wants to work someday for the Innocence Project.

“It would be great to be back in that environment,” she said.


This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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