MET:Project-based Learning in Alternative settings

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This page was originally authored by Karen Jones (2010).


Project-based learning (PjBL) arises in part from Seymour Papert’s extension of Piagetian constructivism that he called constructionism. In this context, students design and construct personally meaningful long-term projects with the guidance of a teacher (Stager, 2001). A technologically rich environment provides authentic tools with which to research, to synthesize information, and to create presentation strategies for the project (Papert, 2009).

Applications in alternative settings

PjBL may take place in a classroom, a school, and in a community. The following will provide a summary of how PjBL has been used with at-risk learners in several settings.

The Constructionist Learning Laboratory (CLL) inside the Maine Youth Centre (MYC)

Setting & participants

From 1999 to 2003, Dr. Papert along with David Cavallo of the MIT Media Lab, Gary Stager of Pepperdine University, ran the first full scale example of constructionist learning environment inside a correctional facility in order to educate a group of ten incarcerated youth, ranging in age from twelve to twenty who were mandated by law to attend school. Low motivation, poor literacy levels, and learning disabilities characterized many of the youth (Cavallo, Papert, & Stager, 2004). In the CLL, students worked in an ungraded, multi-aged interdisciplinary setting on long-term projects without the “coercive influences” of curriculum, testing or timetable (Stager, 2001). Assessment was done using journals and electronic portfolios created with multimedia materials.

Lego phonograph invented and built by CLL student.

Eight big ideas behind the Constructionist Learning Lab (Stager, 2005)

CLL students learn skills and concepts in order to create projects, turning the traditional structure upside down.
  1. Learning by doing
  2. Technology as building material
  3. Hard fun
  4. Learning to learn
  5. Taking the proper time for the job
  6. You can’t get it right without getting it wrong
  7. Do unto ourselves what we do unto our students
  8. Digital technologies are as important as reading and writing, with the most important purpose being to use them now to learn about everything else

Downtown High School (DHS)

Setting & Participants

Downtown is a continuation high school for grades nine to twelve in southeast San Francisco that educates students whose truancy, lack of credits, early parenthood, poor behavior, or prior incarceration have put them at risk for dropping out. In 1999, in a response to weekly fights, and rampant absenteeism, DHS restructured its curriculum to be entirely project-based. Students choose from one of seven semester long learning pathways or projects that feature thematically integrated, high interest courses, and partnerships with outside agencies. Assessment is done using school-wide rubrics (Morehouse, 2008b).

DHS Starstruck project involves experiential learning opportunities.

Core tenets of the DHS project-learning curriculum

Positive effects of PjBL

Data about the effects of PjBL in alternative settings is hard to gather due to small and fluctuating student populations (Cavallo et al., 2004; Morehouse, 2008). Anecdotal reports indicate improvements in behaviour and attendance, as reflected in reduced vandalism and improved participation in scholastic activities (Stager, 2005). Students increased their belief in their academic competence, which positively affected their ability to work independently, and took risks with work that was “outside of their comfort zone” (Morehouse, 2008). The use of multimedia in learning and assessment reduced the obstacle of low literacy, and engaged more students in problem-solving and reflection (Cavallo et al., 2004).

Research has indicated that this approach may help also develop critical thinking and social participation behaviours, and better match learning styles of students who do poorly in traditional classrooms (Thomas, 2000). As well, many students with weak academic skills are motivated by the open-ended, collaborative, creative approach, and may be stimulated to match or exceed the quality of examples of the final product, which simplifies the need for lengthy written instructions at the start of the project (Handley, 2008).

Challenges and directions for future research

PjBL is a growing movement, but research has not had a substantial influence on its practice, which leaves teachers alone to develop materials and methods without much support (Thomas, 2000). As well, implementation requires substantial transformation of classroom and curricular structure, especially with regard to allocation of time, availability of technology, and requirements for standardized testing (National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE), 2000). Further research is needed to explore the best practices of PjBL associated with learning, and the effectiveness of PjBL on:

  • domains other than subject matter knowledge, such as life-skills or process skills
  • long term effects on students months and years after their experiences
  • students of different age groups and abilities

One of the most important features of an alternative school program is that curriculum is delivered in a manner that is different from that with which students have been previously unsuccessful. Future research might investigate if PjBL and other constructivist pedagogies improve scholastic success for at-risk learners, and also if they may be used to design learning environments that lead fewer students to become at-risk in the first place.

See also


Cavallo, D., Papert, S., & Stager, G. (2004). Climbing to understanding: lessons from an experimental learning environment for adjudicated youth. In Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Learning Sciences (p. 120).

Handley, R. (2008). Using technology to motivate student learning. In Emerging Technologies Conference 2008 (p. 10).

Morehouse, L. (2008, October). Diplomas for (would-be) dropouts: Project learning serves the most at-risk students | Edutopia. Edutopia: What Works in Public Education. Retrieved February 13, 2010, from

Morehouse, L. (2008b). How to design assessments for project learning | Edutopia. Edutopia: What Works in Public Education. Retrieved February 20, 2010, from

National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE), K. A. (2000). Project-based learning and information technologies. In Connecting the Bits (p. 47). Retrieved from

Papert, S. (2009). Seymour Papert: Project-based learning. Edutopia: What Works in Public Education. Retrieved October 10, 2009, from

Stager, G. (2005). Papertian constructionism and the design of productive contexts for learning. Proceedings of EuroLogo 2005.

Stager, G. S. (2001). Constructionism as a high-tech intervention strategy for at-risk learners. In Paper delivered at National Educational Computing Conference, Building on the Future.

Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. Autodesk Foundation.

External links

Further reading

Carr, T., & Jitendra, A. K. (2000). Using Hypermedia and multimedia to promote project-based learning of at-risk high school students. Intervention in School and Clinic, 36(1), 40-44. Retrieved from

Wheeler, J. L., Miller, T. M., Halff, H. M., Fernandez, R., Halff, L. A., Gibson, E. G., & Meyer, T. N. (1999, November 1). Web places: Project-based activities for at-risk youth. Current Issues in Education: Volume 2 Number 6. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from