Project Defenses

Students present/defend their researched, edited, and polished work.

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This idea has students presenting their self-driven learnings to an authentic audience; having to defend their findings pushes them to dig deeper into the project at hand, communicate their work, and be an expert on their topic.

Many schools emphasize acquisition of knowledge as the way to succeed in school.  We need students to have a reason to take learning into their own hands, an opportunity to explore an unanswered question and find what they think is the answer.  This is important because students cannot fall back on cramming for a test or being naturally good at school.  It requires them to use critical thinking and anticipate the questions other people will have about their project.  It promotes deeper learning, independence, empathy, communication skills, and hard work.

All educators want their students to be ready for the “real world.”  What does the real world provide us?  A constant barrage of unanswered questions, problems with no solution, and a need for self-efficacy.  Learning information and being able to repeat it does not provide them with the opportunity to prepare for what the world will throw at them once they are beyond our four walls.  With Project Defenses, they are not only exploring an unanswered question to discover their own findings, but they are being asked to present and defend what they believe to be true after spending time wrestling with a problem.  This gives them confidence to tackle problems in the world after graduating.

To begin, decide if the defenses will be held during class or outside of class.  If outside, get permission from an administrator.  See if you can get a thinking partner to help you plan the unit around a project defense - it takes a lot of legwork to understand the format of a project based unit, and it is helpful to talk it through.  Map out when you will be doing this unit and when the potential defense could be.  Most importantly, decide on a topic that is both integral to the community and relevant to your learners.

I was part of a school who adopted this as a model.  We had the dates of school-wide “exhibitions” already set on the calendar at the start of the year, invited parents, discussed it in all of our classes, and worked towards it as a school.

To begin, decide on the question that students will be answering.  It must be an unanswered question with multiple solutions.  If all students will end up having the same answer, this project will not encourage deeper learning and thinking.  Also, it should be related to the community and have the public perspective in mind.  For example; our city is voting on whether or not to enact a Soda Tax.  You are the scientist who is hired to research whether you recommend that it pass or fail.

Once you have an authentic question, hold a special kick-off lesson where you hook the students!  Make it exciting, with related videos, music, snacks, or new materials they have not seen (project folders for them to decorate, etc).  Put a big countdown on the board showing how much time is left before their defense so they always know what they are working towards. Make ‘project time’ feel different than the routine so they know that this is their time to prepare for the final test of defending their project.

You will need computers or access to an up-to-date library for research, guest speakers who are experts on the topic, permission from admin to welcome authentic audience, a projector and presentation board and possibly speakers if they are showing a video.  Other helpful materials include a checklist of all the steps in a project (hypothesis, research gathering, first draft, ask an expert, second draft, etc), a question sheet for audience members to reference and for learners to practice from, and a lesson on presentation skills.

To keep up with how this idea is evolving, check out our google doc:


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