The Learning Cycle with Projects, Part 4: Culture Making | Edvance Christian Schools Association
Skip to main content

Articles Archive

The Learning Cycle with Projects, Part 4: Culture Making

Written on January 31st, 2014

In thelearning cycle with projects past few blog entries, I’ve been breaking down what I mean with The Learning Cycle with Projects. This final part focuses on project based learning as a design process for authentic culture making, inspired by our learning with Andy Crouch among others, and finishes by showing how the graph is an actual cycle for learning. Some of my writing here first appeared in the CEJ’s issue devoted to project based learning, and I want to thank the CEJ for letting me use some of that writing here too. With Andy Crouch having just come to Redeemer (read about his visit here….), the timing of this focus seems especially appropriate.

The power of the biblical narrative and the clarity of the invitation to make culture for shalom makes project based learning (PBL) a compelling pedagogy. PBL roots communal learning (ethos!) in culturally embedded projects. In PBL, students don’t sit passively receiving content to regurgitate for a grade, they are actively involved in envisioning responses and products (vision!) for actual cultural purpose. As Ron Berger points out, too often we separate scholarship from character. “Good work” involves not only excellent quality but also virtuous purpose, or a common good. This is the formula for beautiful culture making. And kids desire this type of meaningful purpose in their learning. We are created for it, and Ron shares that we vastly underestimate children’s capacity to do it. Christ shares with us that children will show us the way to kingdom citizenship.

PBL often starts from an entry event and driving question that try to create a convergence of important product, virtuous purpose, and student empowerment. Once engaged, students pursue learning as an answer to the initial question by means of tangibly producing something and presenting their product and learning to a real audience (culture making!). Lastly, students are invited to reflect on the project experience (memory!), crystallizing what was important learning in both their successes and failures so that they can build on that learning in subsequent projects as they continue to move into new project cycles. Project questions often pursue an understanding of culture for shalom by inviting students to face real cultural concerns and to implement their solutions. In their work with the Buck Institute, a leading organization of PBL, Larmer and Mergendoller highlight eight essential elements for project-based learning as an introduction to it.

The best way to understand PBL might be to see it in action. You can see our article of Justin Versteeg’s project here, Arn Boonstra’s project here, or my blog post of Lisa Eelkema’s project here. Along with a philosophy class taught by my good friend Richard (@rve50), one of my senior writing classes published Mobius through You can download the iBook version or buy a hard copy here if you like.

[caption id=”attachment_4946” align=”alignright” width=”300”]Perspectrum, a collaborative project from HDCH, RE-create Outreach Art Studio, and Notre Dame House School, exhibited at Urban Arts Initiative during an art crawl on James St. N. in Hamilton, ON. Perspectrum, a collaborative project from HDCH, RE-create Outreach Art Studio, and Notre Dame House School, exhibited at Urban Arts Initiative during an art crawl on James St. N. in Hamilton, ON.[/caption]

Many of these projects were designed by participants at the Ontario Christian Teacher Academy last August. Interested in coming this summer? The website to register just went live, and the application for coaches might still be accepted, even though the deadline may have just passed. In this photo, academy coach Jonathan DeVries collaborated with other educators in an amazing culture making art project called Perspectrum.

The fact that our Christian schools have many stories to share about dynamic education is exciting to me. Clearly, it’s hard for me to stop sharing links and photos of amazing projects like this one from Smithville Christian High School. We are on the move! I’m excited to continue our exploration of the pedagogy at our four Edifide district pd days in the upcoming months. I can’t wait to play with the design with such incredible teachers from all over the province. The collaborations are also happening in many different sources globally: websites like Edutopia, the Buck Institute, and Expeditionary Learning have countless resources addressing a wide variety of contexts, for instance, and people engage each other on Twitter with the hashtags #pbl and #pblchat.

The value of PBL has to be evident in student engagement and products. I have been profoundly blessed to participate in what students dream and accomplish in projects like the ones above. Not all projects will work. We have to be okay with risk-taking and failure, both in our students and in our own practice. But we have to believe that we can create sustained student engagement in our school communities. We have to allow them to tell us whether the learning environment is stimulating and meaningful or not. And when a majority of them are disengaged, it is our problem, not theirs.

[caption id=”attachment_4886” align=”alignright” width=”300”]engaging schools handbook graphic The Engaging School Handbook, p. 13. Published by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, May 2012[/caption]

My own professional learning clearly comes out of a narrative involving project based learning. But let me be clear; PBL is not the end goal. Flourishing students involved in culture making for shalom is the story that we all mysteriously participate in. I’m fully aware and celebrate the dynamic learning that other communities are focusing on in assessment, Differentiated Instruction, Understanding by Design, Teaching for Transformation and Throughlines, etc. These are also dynamic approaches to learning that honour the unique gifts of our students. What I hope unifies them in addition to honouring diversity, though, is a desire to bring students into deeper contact with their cultural contexts, not further removed behind the walls of a school that assumes learning only occurs in its own rooms. Although it might require more explanation than I can provide, I really appreciate this graphic taken from The Engaging School Handbook which asks us to consider schools as learning “base-camps,” from which learning excursions can be taken in partnership with many other cultural institutions, resources, and partners. In order to make culture, we must immerse ourselves in culture with the right postures: critically evaluating and cultivating the cultural gifts history has given us and creating new culture that is inspired by a vision for flourishing. Andy Crouch has helped us to see this clearly in his book Culture Making.

In my latest blogs, I have outlined The Learning Cycle with Project and the importance of the four elements individually—Vision, Memory, Ethos, and Culture Making. I also want to reveal the way in which they create a learning cycle through a pedagogy like project based learning. Perhaps this graph reveals that cycle. Imagine that learning in projects occurs in an elevating spiral from the bottom left to the top right. A learner encounters a project, collaborates with fellow learners, designs a product that realizes a vision, then presents a product and reflects on what was learned, applying that learning to future projects as the narrative of learning cycles continues. Moving right toward vision, a learner is trying to create tangible products for flourishing culture making. Moving back toward memory, a learner is reflecting on what she has accomplished, what went well and what can be improved. She needs trustworthy people in community to help her in this reflection.learning cycle with projects

Who is this person we’re describing? Perhaps you assume that she is a student. Although I think she certainly can (and should!) be, I get excited to think about her as a colleague. I appreciate this Twitter tag from @tonyvincent: “the only thing I like more than teaching is learning.” What if teachers all saw themselves as lead learners in designing the learning and culture within classrooms? Or, perhaps the learner in the model is a principal. How has  learning affected the way principals fulfill their calling to their community? I’m learning a ton as I move from the classroom into my work at the association level. What tangible products am I creating through a PBL approach? I hope I’m able to continue to invite others into exciting learning opportunities for culture making, learning that leads to tangible products and results that inspire everyone to move further up and further into the kingdom of shalom inspired by the reign of the Prince of Peace. Let’s be bold to believe in learning that leads to tangible culture making where power is shared and all are honoured.

Let me leave you once again with a set of questions that I would love to pick up with you in dialogue. (Feel free to comment below!)

  • Of the (too) many links to resources and stories here, which one is most inspiring for you?
  • Are you and your colleagues willing to learn new pedagogies? How are you and your colleagues moving deeper into realising your vision for flourishing and culture making? Is there a learning approach that you would recommend here?
  • Is your school community proud of the work students are producing? Do you have celebrations of learning that allow you to honour all of that good work?
  • If you could visit any other school or cultural location as a model for your own school community’s inspiration, which one would it be? Why? What would it take to go visit that specific corner of culture?
  • I’ve clearly endorsed PBL here. Do you? Why or why not?