“At the end of the day, we all work in groups. Now we’re not in cubicles anymore; we work as a team. [No] single problem is solved by a single discipline anymore. And so again, we need to work as a team. Those 21st-century skills that the students need: the four C’s of collaboration, communication, creativity, and communication – all of that makes PBL work, and those skills are the skills that the employers are asking for in the real world. I’m an administrator at a school. Do I do some things alone? Absolutely. But more often than not, I’m in this workspace with two other administrators and we’re working on one project at a time sometimes. So it’s so applicable in real life.” – Dr. Josh Ornelas

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full podcast episode here or using the player below.


PBL World 2022 Conference
PBL Works
“How great leaders inspire action,” TED Talk by Simon Sinek
#PBLproject on Twitter
STEM Resources from the Department of Education Florida
EL Education (Expeditionary Learning)


Michael Arnold: Dr. Josh Ornelas, who is currently the assistant principal at Bishop Conaty Our Lady of Loretto High School in Los Angeles, California, joins The Teacher’s Lounge today. We’re going to talk about a specialty of his, project-based learning; but before we do, let me also share that Josh has been a Catholic educator for over a decade, which includes the Director of Technology and other positions of instructional leadership. He received his educational doctoral degree from California State University, Fullerton, with a focus on project-based learning; and he also specializes in technology infrastructure. He enjoys coaching teachers and the embrace of technology and other 21st-century skills in the classroom, and we’re honored to have you here to talk with us today, Josh. Welcome.

Josh Ornelas: Oh, thank you so much. So excited.

How Josh Ornelas got into faith-based education

Michael Arnold: It’s great to have you, and I wanted to begin by just hearing about what drew you to faith-based education. How did you get into Catholic education?

Josh Ornelas: I was a recent college graduate and didn’t have much plan or anywhere to go and so reached out to a couple of schools. And one of the schools that reached out to me hired me as a social science teacher. And they just saw that my hobby was technology. Was at the school for a little bit and ended up transitioning into public school.

But because I had that emphasis of technology – Apple, they had just come out with the Apple iPad – and when I was at this school, they were like, “Hey, you’re using this technology pretty interestingly,” (I don’t think that’s a word,) “but you’re using this technology in an education way and not a consumer way.” So I stayed in contact with them, talked to them a lot about different technology, and when I had gone to the public sector, I still kept in contact with them.

St. Anthony’s High School in Long Beach was looking for a technology director and the Apple rep said, “I know just the guy,” so reached out to me. I had, believe it or not, six or seven interviews, because the school was about to do an iPad program, one-to-one iPads, and there was no high school that had done it, and they wanted to make sure that someone was responsible to do it.

So I got into Catholic education by pure accident. Just because my hobby led me to my career; just because I mess with technology in the classroom. I wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade, but one of my priest friends always has told me that the easiest way to make God laugh is to tell him your plan.

Michael Arnold: Yeah, that’s true.

Josh Ornelas: And so as fate would have it, I ended up finding myself as a director of technology at St. Anthony’s High School in Long Beach; ran their iPad program. We did a lot of technology stuff, but then, in about 2015, schools were starting to look at STEM, STEAM, STREAM, everything. And one of the biggest components of those disciplines was project-based learning. Now I had known a little bit about it, but I didn’t know too much about it.

So when I got told, “See what these schools are doing and how they’re doing these things,” one of the things I had learned about was project-based learning, and I just fell in love with it because of the fact that it is so applicable in life. Like, how do you not learn something by just practicing with your hands?

So because of that, I got myself very immersed with the technology, and maybe it’s just because, like I said, I love to work with my hands. I have a green thumb. I love woodworking, and it’s just a lot of fun to do.

That’s how I got into project-based learning: just by pure accident. And the same thing with faith-based schools. I have been asked to go into the public sector but the fact that I could bring in my faith and my God is one of the biggest things that I enjoy. Because I get to tell a student that God made you in a special way, and I get to express how I got through my troubles with my faith. Because faith, for me, it’s something that has helped me get through a lot of struggles in life. And no matter how many times things have looked bad or gone bad, I just remember that there’s always a reason and I just have to put my faith and trust in God – and I have been.

And since then, I’ve been flourishing with project-based learning and in education. And I love it. Not a day goes by that I wake up and I go, “Ugh, going to work.” I’m excited to go to work. I’m excited to work with my students and especially excited to work with my teachers and bringing in faith has been a real powerful tool.

Technology and project-based learning

Michael Arnold: Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting. I think the recent growth of, what seems to be a growth in project-based education, somehow is connected to one-to-one devices. I think it does seem to simplify the process; maybe I’m wrong. So tell me what your thoughts are there? Do you see a connection between one-to-one and project-based learning?

Josh Ornelas: Absolutely. The fact that you have a device where it has a wealth of knowledge all over is just so great. There’s so much – as a person that loves doing research, there’s new research that’s coming out every single day. And having students being able to look up the latest research or the latest study, or what does the data say about something or how do you put something together. Or, you know, they always say that there’s multiple ways of doing things so why not learn about those multiple ways? There’s so many different things that I have learned through the internet with YouTube and just Google searching it.

And one of the things I like to tell my students is that: “Just Google it,” And the reason why is because I guarantee someone else has had that same issue or has an answer for you. But when I work with the teachers, I try to make sure that it’s something that’s “Un-Google-able.” That’s one of the things – and the technology in project-based learning is only great because of the fact that it allows the connection between professionals and students.

We are in Los Angeles and the Aquarium of the Pacific is all the way down in Long Beach. How awesome is it that our students get to talk with marine biologists that are in Long Beach, or just other scientists around the world? We’ve recently put in applications to talk to the astronauts out at the space station. So the technology is just, it’s only bringing us together. But I always tell people too – I’m a big comic book fan with technology – Uncle Ben said it best that “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Michael Arnold: That’s right. Amen.

Josh Ornelas: And so the teacher’s role with that technology is to guide them. How do you look up reliable sources? How do you know this is a reliable source? And one of the things I think teachers have had, the hardest thing to grasp with the advent of technology, is that they’re no longer the smartest person in the room.

Michael Arnold: Yeah that’s a big fear that I hear from some educators. I think I had that too. I was in a one-to-one pilot program at the school that I was teaching at. We brought in iPads for students, and my biggest question at the time, because I was stuck in, you know, typical teacher mindset, is “How do we keep our students from cheating on the test if they all have a device?” And obviously the answer is, well, you make your test so that they can’t cheat. You use the technology to help them and not to cheat. So you can unpack that a little bit, but I think that goes back to how you use technology in the classroom and how the teacher’s not the expert any longer necessarily in the classroom.

Josh Ornelas: Yeah. And any classroom management too, it’s being accepting that you are a guide now. And most teachers have embraced that and used the technology to their advantage.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. When you think about the explosion of information that’s available today – I just saw, and this is just coming to mind so I’m not prepared to share a link or anything, but I saw there’s an archeological firm or a website that is doing reconstruction, on some web-based reconstruction. You can see these Seven Wonders of the World, or whatever, being reconstructed in almost a 3D experience on your tablets. What an amazing opportunity for students to explore!

And the problem is that there’s more for students to learn today than we could ever fit into kind of a linear instructional path. So one of the benefits I think of technology and project-based learning is that it helps diversify learning based on students’ interest and things that they would naturally be interested in.

Josh Ornelas: Student interest, and not only – like when you’re working with a group of students, you’re able to work in anywhere, as long as there’s internet connection. We’re very fortunate and blessed that the Los Angeles Archdiocese provides iPads for underprivileged individuals and they have LTE on it as well. So the fact that we’re able to work – the students are able to work anywhere, any time, is such a beautiful thing.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And for non-geek kind of people, LTE is just cell service, right? So they could access the internet with, through their cell service rather than Wifi.

Josh Ornelas: Yeah. I know a lot of big push of that was because of the pandemic doing a lot of that. And of course, just serving students and families if they have internet at home. And yeah, there was that whole, we’d go a whole another route with that.

Josh Ornelas’s doctoral work in project-based learning

Michael Arnold: Yeah, another topic, another day. So you did some of your doctoral work in project-based learning as well, right?

Josh Ornelas: Yes. A big focus of it was just project-based learning and why schools need to – high schools especially – need to work on integrating this into the curriculum. And so I focused on the implementation of project-based learning at a school, because they had tried to implement it and it wasn’t successful – so getting feedback, interviews, talking to teachers; looking at what research says about implementation, what is PBL World – PBL World, by the way, is one of the biggest PBL companies. They have a big conference in June. I don’t know the dates, but it’s called PBL World. An amazing conference. I highly recommend if anybody is interested in PBL, that would be something that you would want to check out: PBL World. Just seeing all this, getting all this information and then interviewing the teachers and asking them what was missing when project-based learning was implemented or attempted to be implemented at the school for the first time.

And so I focused on that, and that was something that opened my eyes as to why some schools just give up on project-based learning. And a lot of it comes down to the person in charge of the implementation and administration. Biggest thing that teachers say that they need when it comes to project-based learning, it’s not professional development, it’s feedback. They need feedback because they don’t know if they’re doing it right. So that was probably the thing that I enjoyed seeing, because it just shows that us teachers are still students. We need to know how we can be better.

Benefits of project-based learning for schools

Michael Arnold: So I want to unpack that a little bit more. Interesting that you focused on why it failed where it was attempted, or maybe it was abandoned – or maybe failure’s too strong of a word. But let’s back up and just talk about why it should be embraced. What would be your sermonette? Two-minute sermon on why schools should lean into project-based learning if they aren’t already.

Josh Ornelas: Yeah. At the end of the day, we all work in groups. Now we’re not in cubicles anymore; we work as a team. The other thing is that no single problem is solved by a single discipline anymore. And so again, we need to work as a team. Those 21st-century skills that the students need: the four C’s of collaboration, communication, creativity, and communication – all of that makes PBL work, and those skills are the skills that the employers are asking for in the real world. I’m an administrator at a school. Do I do some things alone? Absolutely. But more often than not, I’m in this workspace with two other administrators and we’re working on one project at a time sometimes. So it’s so applicable in real life.

Because again, using your hands is another thing. My daughter, she’s nine years old and I remember at my age already knowing how to use a saw. And so we need to help these kids grow as well because, as great technology is, it kinda hinders these students for the real world, because they’re not exposed to real-world problems. And that’s another reason: the exposure to real world problems.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And along with that would be, I’m thinking about my own kids and the fact that they’re on their tablets a lot playing games. Failure’s not a real thing in the game world, whereas real-world problems come with real-world messiness, real-world failure. And that’s something that we need to help our students learn to deal with.

Josh Ornelas: Yeah. As much as I enjoy and feel that everybody is a winner and stuff, that’s not the way it works in the real world.

If I apply for a job and I don’t get it, they don’t send me an Olive Garden gift card saying, “thanks for trying!” Sometimes they don’t send anything. We have to prepare these students. Because I wanna make sure that, heaven forbid, if I have to have surgery, this person that’s going to operate on me actually operated on a cadaver or whatever they did. Because they know what it feels like; they know how the pressure – again, technology, great, but how would something that’s virtual show me how much pressure to put when I’m slicing something open. It’s so applicable in real life.

One of the biggest things I like to say too is the fact that you could read a book all day, but when you start putting it into play – if I read a book about climbing trees, I’m not going to climb the tree that well. But if I go to a tree and say, “Let me look at this tree, put my hand on this branch. This branch is really bendy. I shouldn’t go on that branch.” So again, it’s just applicable in real life all over.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And we think about how we learn as small children, as toddlers, and how we learn as adults, it is very project-based, right? Problem-based, project-based. And for some reason, in those middle years, K to 12, we have adopted this mindset of we’re going to teach math isolated from science, isolated from social studies, whereas project-based learning can bring all of those disciplines together. I think that’s awesome.

Josh Ornelas: Not only does it bring them together but one of the things that project-based learning does is that it makes the student excited about the project. It makes the student excited about learning. Your child, when they were small, naturally curious – “what does this do?” My 18th-month-old, the other day, put his hand over the stove. I’m like, “What are you doing, man?” He learned that you don’t do that.

All the time we were told as a kid, “Embrace that curiosity, embrace it.” But then like you said, when you get into school, suddenly it’s, “No more curiosity. These are the subjects you need to learn. If you want to go to the bathroom, you need to raise your hand. If you didn’t do it the right way…” And then when they get into high school, it’s “Excuse me, Miss or Mister, how do I do this?” They’re asking constant questions because they want to make sure they’re doing it right. Why can’t we let the student just figure it out on their own and then show them, guide them again? So we’ve lost – in education, there’s a point where we tell the students to forget about that curiosity, and then when they go into college, they’re told to bring that curiosity back. But by then their mind is set in stone a little bit, I don’t know.

Allowing students to take more initiative in their learning

Michael Arnold: I hear you. I’m going back to what you said, that the main thing that those schools who’ve tried it and maybe abandoned it were looking for is feedback: Am I doing this correctly? And that really resonates with me because as a teacher, we want to teach properly, effectively. We don’t want to lose control. And there’s an aspect about project-based learning, and maybe this is revealing my own ignorance about it, but it feels like it’s a complete loss of control or at least a partial loss of control. In other words, I’m supposed to hand the learning over to the student to identify what they want to learn. How do we even manage this? So what would you say to someone who might find themselves in that camp?

Josh Ornelas: Yeah, and that’s actually a really good point. Like you said, it’s like giving the keys to the car and saying “Go ahead and head out on the freeway.”

Michael Arnold: Yeah, it’s okay to fail.

Josh Ornelas: It’s okay to fail. Don’t worry about it. A lot of it comes down to trust. You need to establish trust from the very beginning. Students, kids, teenagers inherently do not trust adults. So you got to lower yourself down – not lower yourself, but lower your walls a little bit and let the students see, who is Dr. Josh Ornelas? Who is Mr. Michael Arnold? Who are these individuals? And then when you establish this trust and not only, and you don’t even have to have the students agree with you on something; you can say “I like to go to the beach. What do you like to do? Oh, you don’t like to go to the beach? Where is a place you’d like to go?” So again, you establish that trust. Once the trust is established, then you can hand over the keys to the students. But you want to work on this together with the students. It’s a collaborative project. Work on the rubric together. What are expectations that you have as a group, as a class, and as the teacher?

I taught a music production class, and that’s what I did with my students. And I said, one of the things is on the rubric, “How long should the video be?” And I left it up to them. I wanted five to seven minutes, six minutes would have been beautiful. I said, “This is what I’m asking of you to do.” And it was a good list.

Students say, “Two minutes.”

“You guys are gonna be able to do all that?”

“Okay, okay. Maybe five minutes.”

One of the students, “Why don’t we do five to seven?”

So they came up with it on their own. And then it’s checking in with the students. Every Monday I’m meeting with Group One: “What are you doing? What is something you’ve encountered?” A reflection journal: “What is something you worked on today for your project?”

The check-ins are probably the best way to go about it because it could be that’s your participation for the day. “Show me what you’re working on. Is there any friction in the group?” You could be that mediator between the students if there’s any friction amongst shared duties. So that’s one of the things I like.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And I like that you say establish trust. It sounds like that also involves establishing trust in your own, maybe, philosophy of education, or trusting that students are natural learners, that people want to learn. You have to trust that instinct. But then also trust that they’re people. So you outlined accountability, guidance, checking in, mediation. Students are people and they’re going to need a lot of the same support that people everywhere need when it comes to living and working together, so trusting that they’re going to fail, but also trusting that they’ll succeed. Both sides of the coin. That’s an interesting idea.

Josh Ornelas: Yeah. And it’s good because then you, as the teacher, get to bring in your struggles in faith that helped you, you know – what Bible verse has helped me get through some of these times like, “Oh, I was so stressed and everything.” “Maybe you should pray to God on this. And let’s pray about this together.”

Process of starting project-based learning

Michael Arnold: Why project-based learning? But let’s talk about the process. Let’s say that I’m a school that recognizes that we have several steps to take before we can launch into project-based learning, or maybe we just have a lot of hesitation. What process would you encourage a school – or steps would you encourage them to take as they lean towards more project-based learning?

Josh Ornelas: First thing is, if this is a decision that needs to be made, it needs to be made as a group, as a whole collective school. For us as a school, we’re one individual school so we don’t have to follow any real guidelines set. So we get to decide initiatives. So as a school, you decide:  “This is what we want to do. This is where we want to go.” Because if you just tell people, “We’re going to do project-based learning. Okay, you need to have a roadmap. And on that roadmap is…” versus telling the people what we’re going to do and explaining why. The “why” of it is important. Simon Sinek, everybody knows the video of Simon Sinek’s “Always Start with Why,” and if you haven’t seen that video – that’s a plug actually, you could actually have people see it. It’s such a great video.

Michael Arnold: I can confirm that; that’s a great video.

Josh Ornelas: And then the other thing is, just say “Do we have any volunteers that would love to be interested in…” and I guarantee you’ll have at least one or two people. And then those two people become your leaders, the PBL leaders for this initiative. And they are responsible for looking up schools, finding schools, doing observations at other schools, talking to people, going to different workshops and professional development, pilot it.

Then you, the teacher who was a volunteer, you pilot it in your class. And then as the administrator, like if I’m the administrator in charge of it – I’m a hype man, so I’m the type of person: “Y’all check out what Mr. Arnold did in his class today with project-based learning!” And it’s just like laughing in a room where there’s no laughing and someone starts laughing; eventually it’s gonna catch on, and so those teachers that don’t want to do it, don’t worry about it, don’t invest your energy; invest your energy in the ones that really want to do it.

And then as you go from the teacher and you’re like, “Hey, this is working.” Then you start sending some to workshops and then you have them be the coaches. And then you work with, either as a department and you say, “Alright let’s have the Spanish Department do it and the Social Science Department do it the first semester. And then the second semester, we’ll look at the other ones.” So it’s just a matter of telling people your roadmap, explain the why, asking for volunteers, and then it’s about doing your research. I’m a very hands-on administrator, so I work with my team; I guide them and help them as much as possible.

Safeguards established to meet minimum curriculum requirements during project-based learning

Michael Arnold: What safeguards, checks and balances, or warnings have you built in, to make sure that we’re not just doing fun things, that we’re still covering the guaranteed minimum curriculum? How do we make sure that we’re still getting our skills, the content that has to be covered no matter what? How do you process that?

Josh Ornelas: So a lot of it is just working on a project that could possibly embed a lot of those things that you’re going to be covering in the content. We had a math teacher not too long ago who did something on angles and shapes for her geometry class. And one of the things that she had her students work on is designing, cause we had what’s called the Bishop Conaty Market. And so they had to construct where booths would go based off of angles, shapes, length, width, height, all that. So it’s “Alright, you’ve learned it. Now let’s go use it in the real world.”

When we were working from home and students were learning from home, that’s one of the things I told these teachers: have these students work on something that’s real life. Have them go look on Google Maps; have them measure their front yard or a front yard, and they are responsible for resodding and putting new grass in there. So if you’ve learned square feet, inches, all that stuff, you could use that in those classes. Or you could do it reverse and you could say, “Alright, you’re responsible for making a garden. How are you going to design it, and what’s going to be the best method of designing it?”

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And then I’m sure there’s built-in opportunities to collaborate, to refine, to make suggestions, to redirect and even bring in micro lessons to help students along the way.

Josh Ornelas: Exactly. That’s where those meetings will happen. When you have those check-in meetings with your students and you’re asking, “Okay. Are you understanding this?” “You know what, this calculation just doesn’t make sense to me,” or “This theorem doesn’t make sense to me,” blah, blah, blah. “Okay, let me look at what you’re doing wrong. Ah, I see what’s going on.”

So again, you are still checking in on the students.

Michael Arnold: Yeah, but in the context of a real-world problem or real-world project, where the student’s going to be more open to that input and that direction is going to make more, it’s going to be more relevant; which I think is what’s amazing about project-based learning, is just the high degree of relevance that you can get out of this instructional approach.

Josh Ornelas: Yes. And that’s one thing we have to work on with our students, is to let them know that we’re just trying to help. That’s all.

Student testimonies on the effectiveness of project-based learning

Michael Arnold: Yeah. So how do students typically receive this? What are maybe some stories that you could share about how students have been receptive or maybe not as receptive and why?

Josh Ornelas: So the students that I have worked with have been very receptive to it. They’ve liked it; they’ve even gotten jobs and internships because of things that they learned with project-based learning.

One of the students I had, she was the video – it was again a media productions project; it was a CBL, CBL is challenge-based learning – so there’s so many, there’s IBL, inquiry-based learning, there’s problems/project-based learning, which is PBL, there’s challenge-based learning, which is where the students challenge themselves; they come up with the challenge.

So I gave them a CBL assignment and that CBL assignment was: what is something that is happening in the city of Long Beach that we could help prevent? And one of the biggest things one of the groups came up with: littering, pollution, that there’s a lot of trash that comes off from the rivers and everything. And so they made an amazing video. They interviewed the mayor of Long Beach. It was such a great video; it was a video on pollution but it was a media productions class. And this student – I had a student that interviewed for the Port of Long Beach to be part of their like social media team and making videos. So she took that video that she made, used it for her job interview, and got hired.

Michael Arnold: Wow.

Josh Ornelas: So her doing a project-based assignment led her to a job, where she’s using things that I helped her learn in that class.

Michael Arnold: Yeah, we talk about college and career readiness. It doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

Josh Ornelas: Yeah.

And then the other thing is how to talk to people. One of the things that we had to establish is: how do you interview people? What do you say? What do you not say? How do you respond? So another student had gotten a job with the the Long Beach Telegram. and then the best one, I think I have a story, it’s like a project-based learning story, but it was a student that was working with his hands; and this young man didn’t – he was at a college-preparatory school, didn’t care to be there because he he told me that he did not want to go to college. He’s like “I don’t need to go to college. I want to be a barber.” “Okay, you still need to go to beautician school and learn how to do a proper haircut.”

And he was frustrated. “I want to get an internship or an apprenticeship to do this,” and I made a deal with him and said that: “If you get your grades up to at least a high C average, I will let you cut my hair every two weeks.” And he did.

Michael Arnold: Wow.

Josh Ornelas: He cut my hair every two weeks and he was so scared. He was so scared, cause he’s, “What if I mess up?” And I said the difference for me between a good haircut and a bad haircut, is two weeks. But using that technique, he got a barber gig. So hearing these students that have actually used their hands and got a job out of it.

Feasibility of project-based assignments for elementary students

Michael Arnold: Yeah, that’s amazing. What about the other end of the spectrum? So I’m an elementary school teacher; what age level, what grade level can we start? And in your opinion, start implementing these principles of project-based learning, challenge-based learning, inquiry-based learning? And how might that look, from grade to grade? Any thoughts along those lines?

Josh Ornelas: I haven’t really focused too much on the younger grades, but I know that it does happen. A lot of it revolves around the idea of – cause sometimes kids just, they have no filter. They’ll just say, “You should put a park here, you know? Slide.” And so it was like, “Alright, then if you got the chance to design a park, what would you have in the park?” You know? Like now it’s the kids saying, “Oh! I want a T-Rex slide.” “What would the T-Rex slide look like?” And then they’re designing it. I saw a video, I think it was Edutopia, of a group of kids. and they did that. And they were in the lower grades, where they met with the mayor and said, “This park is in shambles and we need to do something about it.” And the mayor figured out a way to get money and the students’ designs were there.

I’ve also seen things with showing an actual picture of a butterfly and then showing a picture of a butterfly and saying “What’s the difference between this picture and this picture?” And then showing the students and demonstrating what iteration is. “What does it look like?” And then you show them another picture and “Oh, is this getting better? Or “What would you add to this if you wanted to make it better?” So those are the ways I have seen it with the younger ones.

Helpful resources for project-based learning

Michael Arnold: So when you talk about, you mentioned a few resources: Edutopia and others that might support this, what other resources would you recommend? You’ve mentioned PBL World. What else is out there?

Josh Ornelas: So PBL World is actually part of a company called PBL Works. They’re based up in Central California. Bob Lamar, I want to say, he’s like the one that’s the PBL guy. I get a lot of my sources from there. Edutopia, and the biggest one that I love is Twitter. Twitter is for me the biggest one. I’ll use #PBLproject, see what individuals are doing at other schools, because it’s just like a beautiful message board. And then you as a teacher could say, “Oh, this would work really great” or “This wouldn’t work really great.”

Michael Arnold: Yeah, I know. And so STEAM is an avenue of project-based learning, STEAM, STEM. We’ve got a lot of schools in Florida, and Florida has some great resources for STREAM projects. So that’s another resource. Expeditionary Learning; are you familiar with that? I think that might be another; eleducation.org. And that’s more, I would say that it’s probably more inquiry-based but it could involve some projects as well.

Josh Ornelas: Yeah. Gotta check those out.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And I’m certainly not an expert, but I think what I’m hearing you say, though, is network, right? Reach out to other people, ask questions, learn from other people. That’s a great practice just across the board.

Josh Ornelas: We tell our students to always do it, to go ask questions if you don’t know how to do it. We need to practice what we preach. Yes, I have my doctorate, but I’m still a student; I’m still learning. I still go to class.

Difficulties in project-based learning

Michael Arnold: Yeah. This has been a great conversation. Maybe I think I asked you earlier, but I don’t know if we got into this. What about pitfalls or warnings? So I’m getting ready to jump in. Maybe I’m going to jump in with both feet and I’m going to try something in my classroom, whether the rest of my school wants to do it or not. As a teacher, what would you warn me about? What would you tell me to just be on the lookout for, to watch out for as I dive into this?

Josh Ornelas: Just be open. You have to be open-minded. It may work; it may not work. It may fail; it may drastically fail, but you’re not going to know until you try. So just be aware. You may think of every possible scenario of where it could go wrong or could go but at the end of the day, you don’t know. So you just gotta be ready, quick on your feet. And then being honest with the students. If  the website isn’t working that they have to go to for that particular project – “Oh, that website’s not working anymore. Oh my gosh.” It’s not a failure. “Alright let’s try and find something new.” I think that’s probably one.

And then the other one is letting go. Cause you’ve been used to – and I’m not speaking to anybody directly – you see your students out there, and now they’re in rows and now we’re getting desks that are rolling. So it’s the idea of, your classroom is a classroom, but it’s also a workspace as well for these students. And so you’re going to have to be prepared for chaos, where there’s paper, there’s cardboard boxes on the floor, there’s cardboard knives over there, electrical stuff – but organized chaos. And then have students create duties for the students – group member number four is always responsible for picking up the trash. You just gotta be on your feet. And us educators, we are always thinking on our feet. And hey, if the day went great, awesome. But if it didn’t –

Michael Arnold: Try again tomorrow.

Josh Ornelas: Try again tomorrow, because you showing students that you’re accepting failure shows them that it’s okay that it didn’t work.

Michael Arnold: Absolutely. Yeah. And I’m also thinking, where we are with the last two years in education, it’s been so disruptive, as it is. So why not? Why not do school differently? Why not try something new, and just branch out? We’ve tried new things already, right?

Josh Ornelas: Yeah. And see, the thing is, like you were saying it just a little bit ago about trying new things; a lot of disruptions. Students have computers, they have iPads, but those computers, iPads have a lot of distractions. You don’t think I want to play Candy Crush sometimes during admin meetings?

Michael Arnold: Guilty.

Josh Ornelas: So you have to do stuff that won’t distract students. You have to create projects, like I said earlier, that are “un-Google-able.”

Michael Arnold: Yeah.

Josh Ornelas: A CBL project had the students come up with a problem. Doing those things prevents students from being distracted. Also keeping an open mind and letting students do something that they are so passionate about. Like our students, a good group of them, are into anime. So why am I going to focus on something that I like, as opposed to what they like? We’re having this conversation about project-based learning because that’s something that I love. But if you asked me, “Let’s talk about grading procedures and stuff,” I’m going to be like, “I don’t know.”

Grading project-based assignments

Michael Arnold: Not as fun – which is probably a big question, like how do you grade this stuff? And I know that there’s a lot of information out there. So maybe just to wrap things up, I just wanted to ask you a question about predicted student achievement. Here I am as a teacher, putting myself in the shoes of a teacher’s life, but my main job is to prepare my students for what comes next. And if I back away from all of this control and hand it over to the students, if we have this huge element of unpredictability in the classroom, because now we’re going to pursue some projects, how can I ensure that my students will achieve what they need to achieve this year, in order for them to pick up where they need to pick up next year? So what are your observations when it comes to student achievement and project-based learning?

Josh Ornelas: The research that has been out already has shown that students that do project-based learning in classrooms, outscore students significantly, that actually use the books and that type of stuff the traditional way. So the data’s there. I mean for me, it’s like that the proof is in the pudding; it works.

The other thing is that – a big thing – you have to communicate. Communication is a 21st-century skill; it’s a life skill. I need to communicate with my wife and my friends and my family and everything, to let them know what’s going on in my life. So it’s the same thing with teachers. If I’m teaching algebra or geometry and then the next teacher is teaching Algebra Two – I tell my teachers: “In March, you need to talk to that next teacher and make sure that you’re doing what they need to do next year, because the end of your year is the foundation of next year.” So it’s communication with the teachers. It’s talking to one another, “I have to get through this and this because I need to make sure Mr. Arnold has his students already good to go for that.” It’s communication.

Michael Arnold: And just because you embrace project-based learning doesn’t mean you’re stepping away from standards or your conceptual framework for your courses or your course outcomes. You’re still going to keep those in mind, but achieve those more in a project-based way.

Josh Ornelas: Achieve them in a project-based way. Your learning objectives, still the same; nothing’s changing. It’s just how you’re going about it to achieve that objective.

Michael Arnold: But you’re giving your students the opportunity to achieve more and maybe even enjoy it more, which is, you know, a blessing.

Josh Ornelas: Enjoy it more and they’re going to be more involved. Because at the end of the day we know what we’re passionate about, and having students grouped together and “Hey, I’m really good at movies and recording and doing this. Can I do something like that?” Getting your talents and utilizing them for something you enjoy. Because that student enjoys that technology, he is probably going to look for a job in technology. He’s not going to not – I’m going to pick on my history folks cause I’m a history person – but if he doesn’t like history, like why am I going to have him focus on Abraham Lincoln when he doesn’t like Abraham Lincoln? But you know who he does like? He likes Thomas Jefferson, or he likes George Washington or any of these other presidents. So then he or she is going to be very involved in that project because you’re letting them enjoy something that they enjoy.

How faith-based education and project-based learning fit together

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And I think that brings us all the way back around to, why faith-based instruction in the first place? Like we recognize that our students have been uniquely created with a set of gifts and talents and interests and quirks that make them human and make them a blessing to be around. So why not tap into that?

Josh Ornelas: Absolutely. Our Lord God the Creator. Our world was a project-based – is a project. We were a dark abyss and God says, “I’m going to get a little bit of this.” And then you put it all together. And our faith tells us that we need to be great stewards, and being a great steward is about doing things for God.

Michael Arnold: Yeah.

Josh Ornelas: What better way to do something for God and for our faith than doing something that’s going to help the community, the world, the society, everything. Peter 4:10, I have some quotes here cause I went through it, and because some of my papers did have some faith involved in it because I was at a Catholic high school when I was working on my doctorate and I said, “This will be fun to do,” so I did integrate it. And one of the things is Peter 4:10: “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” So right there, like I said a little bit ago, your student’s gift is technology and video production? Tap into that. And then go from there.

Michael Arnold: Yeah. And you might even get a free haircut out of it!

Josh Ornelas: Exactly. You never know.


Michael Arnold: Josh, it’s been great to have you with us today in The Teachers’ Lounge. Hopefully, if people have questions or concerns, we can maybe filter them your way and let them pick your brain a little bit. That’s one of our goals here at The Teacher’s Lounge, is just to share resources and expertise that might help raise the level of education. And so thank you for your time, to share with us about project-based learning and connecting it back to why we do what we do; so thank you for that.

Josh Ornelas: Absolutely. Happy to help and you keep doing your great, awesome stuff, Mr. Arnold and Curriculum Trak. Really blessed to have you guys in our lives. So thank you very much.

Michael Arnold: Thank you very much.

Josh has been in Catholic Education for over a decade. Over the past nine years, he has served as Director of Technology for two high schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese and has presented at several conferences. He received his Educational Doctoral degree from California State University – Fullerton, where he focused on Project-Based Learning in Secondary Schools. He specializes in technology and schools’ infrastructure and played an instrumental role in implementing St. Anthony High School’s “iPads for All” initiative. He enjoys assisting and coaching school leaders and teachers with educational initiatives by building strong long-lasting relationships and establishing various support programs that assist faculty with incorporating PBL and 21st Century Learning into their classrooms. Josh Ornelas is currently the Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Innovation at Bishop Conaty – Our Lady of Loretto High School.
As an educator, curriculum director, and the product of faith-based education myself, I make the success of every school we serve my personal mission. There’s nothing better for me than witnessing curriculum breakthroughs and instructional victories. I appreciate the opportunity to be part of that journey.