Prison Abolition? With Project Based Learning

Photo by Nicholas Ganz

Project Based Learning offers students the opportunity to  contextualize their education to discover the possibilities of addressing everyday issues that impact them. Additionally, PBL can equip students with research skills,  critical thinking opportunities, teambuilding opportunities, and groundwork to establish portfolios.  This seems like an optimal tool for students to utilize when discussing the growing movement to abolish prisons.


Challenging Question:

Should the prison system in the United States be abolished?


Sustained Inquiry:

  • Step 1 Using the Question Focus process students will be presented with the following quote to stimulate questions. Students will respond to the quote below: “I heard Patrisse Cullors from the Black Lives Matter Global Network say a while ago that somebody had to actually first imagine prisons and the police themselves in order to create them. Everything you see in the world—somebody thought of it first. I think that’s true and I think that’s right. I also think that once things are actualized into the world and exist, you can’t imagine how the world functioned before it.” – Miriam Kaba, Prison Abolitionist
    • Step 2: Students produce questions using the 4 rules
      • ” The four rules are: ask as many questions as you can; do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; write down every question exactly as it was stated; and change any statements into questions. Before students start generating their questions, the teacher introduces the rules and asks the students to think about and discuss possible challenges in following them. Once the students get to work, the rules provide a firm structure for an open-ended thinking process. Students are able to generate questions and think more broadly than they would have if they had not been guided by the rules.”


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  • Step 3: Students Improve Their Questions.
    • Students will juxtapose open and closed ended questions by shifting questions to the opposite.
  • Step 4: Students Prioritize Their Questions.
    • Students will identify 2 questions they want to use towards their research.
  • Step 5: Students and Teachers Decide the next exercise.
    • An example that could work for this particular discussion is

Advocate Decision-Making Debate – Students are placed into groups of three and assigned a topic to debate. One person is in support of the topic, one is against, and one acts as the judge. The judge, or “Decision maker,” will create a list of questions to ask the advocates, which students will use as their debate outline. Then the judge will decide at the end of the debate who the winner is. This can be done in front of the class or in groups at the same time.


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  • Current public discourse calling for the abolition of ICE meet the threshold for authenticity.


Student Voice and Choice

  • This will be incorporated throughout the process. Any Focus Questions will be guided by student interests and ultimately, questions and style of presentation will be student driven.




Critique & Revision:

Students will revise and critique work throughout this period using a speed dating peer review technique as found in Chronicle of Education. Students will identify one of their project (e.g research arguments) and will be given specific feedback on how to improve in under 4 minutes. Students will have to briefed in advance on what constructive feedback is useful for this an continued exercises.


Public Product:

  • The final product will be a recording of the debate and an executive summary of information about the carceral state in America.
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