Complex Learning Scenario- Project-Based and Service Learning idea

I would love to lead this project with some groups of students from my son’s school. (My son is ten years old.) Maybe I should speak with the principal? This idea isn’t from my experience but I could see it being very fun and useful for both the school and the community. It would be a project-based learning, with an element of service learning. The problem would be to dramatically reduce the amount of food waste in the participants’ school. I could see this project going on for a few weeks with a couple of sessions a week.
Our local council currently runs an annual competition to find the schools who waste the least food in the school cafeteria. The winning school receives a pizza lunch and ice cream. My son’s school displays a running tally of number of kilos of discarded food and how it compares with the year before.
As a facilitator, I’d like to put the children into two or three groups to work together, and have an adult to coach each group. The first task for the groups would be to run “norming” activities and discussions as described in the Woods paper cited below. The activities may need to be adapted for children but the initial outcomes would be:
  1. Each child would understand their personal communication and group member style.
  2. All group members understand the objective of the project and rights of all group members.
  3. Each group selects a chairperson.
  4. Each group member has a clear description of their primary role in the group.
As the sessions continue, the group coaches would help the teams to learn good techniques for communicating and handling conflict effectively. Each session would have concrete objectives and potentially a suggested meeting agenda, as this may be the students’ first time working in such a large-scale project.
Then I would structure milestones so that the students work through the steps as described in the Cornell University method, using some questions and available data to help the children ask more questions, ponder, research, and deepen their understanding. (Parenthetically, this is a classic method which we use in management consulting all the time.)
Examine and define the problem: 
  • How much food are we wasting in the school today, and how does this compare to past years?
  • Do we know which groups in the school are wasting more or less? What are the impacts of wasting food, to the school, environment, etc.?
  • What would be the benefits to the school if we wasted less?
  • Who else would benefit if we wasted less?
Explore what they already know about underlying issues related to it.
  • Same as above, with perhaps some tangents they want to explore further
Determine what they need to learn and where they can acquire the information and tools necessary to solve the problem.
  • Perhaps the students want to do some interviews with their classmates about what they are about to throw away and why. This will help them develop reasons why food gets thrown away.
  • Are there other people who might have ideas about why food is wasted?
  • Are students the only ones wasting food? Is there food wasted beyond what is visible in the bin? Hmmm…
  • Ask them to bring this to life by presenting the results in an emotionally-impactful way. First, the emotional reasons for the waster, then the impact on all of the other stakeholders involved in the waste (cafeteria worker, animal whose flesh was wasted, farmer whose product was wasted, refuse worker, etc.)
  • How much is the waste costing in money and what else could the school use that money for?
Evaluate possible ways to solve the problem.
  • Students can brainstorm ways to minimise waste.
  • Coaches can help the students come up for criteria to evaluate and prioritise their best suggestions for improvement.
Solve the problem and report on their findings.
  • Students have some time and several coached rehearsals to work on an emotionally-engaging, multimedia presentation of their findings and prioritised recommendations to a selected evaluation committee. I would imagine this committee including the principal, the lead chef, perhaps someone from city council’s waste management department.
The committee would decide which recommendations to implement. Potentially the students could make their presentations to the entire school as well as the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). In the longer-term the committee should track whether the recommendations had an impact and report it back to the students and the PTA.
As follow-up activities I would encourage:
  1. Students work with one or two peers to do a confidential peer review of their work in the group. We could use Dr. Woods’ group assessment scoring sheet as a guideline.
  2. Each group conducts a coached discussion on what went well in the activity and what they could have done better.
  3. Each individual student does a self-assessment and discuss one-on-one with the group coach.
  4. Seek to publicise the entire effort in the city’s “Kretslopp” (Lifecycle) magazine, which covers topics around city waste management and the environment. This magazine is distributed to all households in the city.
  5. As mentioned above, school leadership should report regularly on whether the project had a real impact on reduced food waste. This is the ultimate Authentic Assessment.
I’m convinced of the benefits of reflection in learning, particularly for such a long-term project. I looked for a bit of additional evidence to back up my conviction (Briggs, 2015). Even if the children are ten to twelve years old, a good coach can help them begin to master this important skill.
How this concept is student-centred: the students will have coaching and structure available to help them succesd, but they will do the research, decide on further areas for exploration, and develop the final presentation. Additionally, the process is just as important as the outcome, as they learn important emotional intelligence skills for working in groups, and how to structure a group to work effectively.
How this concept is authentic: Wiggins (1998) says an activity is authentic if it meets these criteria:
  • is realistic: The students are working on a real problem related to their daily life in school, which has a wider impact on the community and environment.
  • requires judgment and innovation: The students have to be creative to decide on the best places to conduct research, as well as their methods and how to summarise their findings.
  • asks the student to “do” the subject: The students will be asked to conduct field research as part of the project.
  • replicates or simulates the contexts in which adults are “tested” in the workplace or in civic or personal life: This one may not be quite as applicable but see the first bullet.
  • assesses the student’s ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skills to negotiate a complex task: The project will by its nature be multidisciplinary, including: arithmetic, communication, emotional intelligence and scientific reasoning.
  • allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products: The groups will get ample support from coaches and time to refine their presentations.
Rice, D. (2015, October 8). Southern California wasters, listen up. Retrieved from
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Woods, D. R. (2012, January 17). Having Students Work in Groups? 5 Ways to Get the Results You Want. Retrieved December 6, 2017, from
Cornell University Center for Teaching and Innovation. (n.d.). Problem-Based Learning. Retrieved from
Briggs, S. (2015, July 5). What Meaningful Reflection Can Do For Student Learning. Retrieved from
Wiggins, G. (1998). Ensuring authentic performance. Chapter 2 in Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 21 – 42.