Teens work together on a project, sitting at a table.

UVA Researchers Awarded $1.9M to Evaluate an Inquiry-Driven School Model

Tara Hofkens will lead an effort to assess the impacts of an inquiry-driven learning model designed specifically for middle school students.

Audrey Breen

As educators innovate, working to move beyond a centuries-old education model, it is critical to know if the innovations meet students’ learning and developmental needs. The recent calls for innovation, especially for middle school, have been far and wide, and one innovative learning model becoming increasingly popular is project-based learning.

With $1.9M in funding from a larger $3.8M grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Program, researchers at the University of Virginia will be assessing the impact of an inquiry-driven school model that integrates the core content areas with interdisciplinary project-based learning and portfolio-based assessment. The project will be implemented by educators and school support staff at Orchard View and Reeths-Puffer School Districts in Michigan in collaboration with the Human Restoration Project (HRP) and Open Way Learning (OWL). 

Tara Hofkens
Tara Hofkens

“HRP, OWL, and these districts have been doing this work for a while and have a lot of expertise they are honing,” said Tara Hofkens, research assistant professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development. “As the evaluators, our UVA team will work to bring the tools of systematic evaluation to help them capture what they are doing, assess impact on teacher and student outcomes, and develop insight and tools to help expand to more students and schools.”

Hofkens will lead the team conducting the evaluation, which includes UVA School of Education Professor Tish Jennings. 

Instead of the traditional model of learning science in a science class, math in a math class and so on, teachers of these core content areas collaborate to facilitate days-long, or even weeks-long, projects focused on a real-world problem that integrates multiple subjects with other skills, like critical thinking and social-emotional skills. An example of a project the team at HRP is considering is focused on how to effectively tell stories, where students might visit a local senior citizen care center and conduct interviews. Students might then create everything from podcasts to poetry to various types of multimedia, which then could be packaged into a book, and perhaps used to raise money for the school or senior living center. These projects are rooted in community connections, experiential learning, and purposeful outcomes. 

“It becomes interdisciplinary because students examine how we, the United States, take care of our society’s elderly and how that might be different from international perspectives,” said Chris McNutt, executive director of the Human Restoration Project. “Students engage with math when they examine how these things are funded or with science when examining longevity and health, for example.”

The grant will be focused on assessing both the impact of high-quality, project-based learning and the effectiveness of using feedback-driven portfolio-based assessment instead of traditional grades. Instead of being exclusively graded on assignments like tests and quizzes, the students will choose what to include in a portfolio that displays their best learning –like a lab report, podcast, or poetry. 

“Teachers will provide feedback to students, with the goal of showcasing growth over time as opposed to one-and-done, often demoralizing, grades,” McNutt said.

This model has been specifically developed for middle school students, integrating adolescent development benchmarks into its design. It is designed to combat declining school engagement, motivation, well-being, academics, and school attendance – which were falling prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and has exacerbated in recent years. In part that is the result of listening to students themselves.

“We've spoken to hundreds, perhaps even over 1000 students this year, about what they're seeing in their schools,” McNutt said. “And what kids tell us every single day is that they struggle to be engaged at school, they find most of their learning is fairly irrelevant, and they're not really connected to their community. Motivations start dropping off, especially in middle school.”

Hofkens, whose expertise is in child and adolescent development and schools as a fundamental developmental context, believes this focus may be what sets this model apart.

“This model is unique because it integrates what we know about adolescent development,” said Hofkens. “They train teachers and school leaders to implement it in a way that meets students’ developmental needs and gives ample space for students to have agency in the work.”

This fall roughly 100 students in sixth grade at Orchard View Schools will pilot what the team calls a “school within a school” by engaging in project-based learning. Though it will last as long as and be housed within a typical school day, it will be scheduled and structured very differently for the participating students. The project will follow this cohort of students through 8th grade, while expanding to other schools and grades through the 2028-29 school year. 

Human Restoration Project

Human Restoration Project is a non-profit organization focused on listening to students, enacting systems-based change, and reimagining education. HRP centers its work on conducting focus groups with young people in schools across the country, analyzing their findings to help schools restructure their classrooms and schools to best serve students.

Open Way Learning

Open Way Learning is a non-profit organization that emphasizes assisting schools in creating, maintaining, and expanding learner-focused innovative systems that more effectively equip students for the challenges of the 4th Industrial Revolution, particularly those students who have traditionally been the most underserved. 

US Department of Education, EIR Program

The contents of this article were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Program. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

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Audrey Breen