Project Design Framework: The 4 Es

Educators, students, and community partners at urban public schools can use 4Es to build rich, rigorous, relevant learning experiences for their students:  

  • ENVIRONMENT: What are the places, challenges, and assets in students' schoolyards, neighborhoods, and cities in which we can root their learning experiences? 
  • EXPECTATIONS: What are the academic standards that we need to help students reach through experiences in these places?
  • EXHIBITIONS: What are the real products, performances, and work for real audiences -- that help students stretch toward and reach these high expectations?
  • EXPERIENCES: What is the sequence of learning experiences -- in and beyond the classroom -- that will help students explore their environments, reach these expectations, and excel in these exhibitions of their learning and leadership?

The projects shared in this section of the Teaching Our Cities web site -- developed by teams of educators at K-8 and 9-12 schools across New England -- are organized using this 4Es framework. The framework was developed by Common Ground staff -- inspired by tools and resources developed by other place- and project-based educators, rooted in our own school's experience, and strengthened through our work with our Teaching Our Cities colleagues. 

Interested in understanding and mobilizing this framework for place-based, project-based learning? Keep reading to access resources that will help you root students' learning in their schoolyards and cities. 


This project design framework starts with our urban environments -- our schoolyards, the neighborhoods surrounding our school buildings, the cities our students call home. We aim to engage these places as classrooms (places of learning), textbooks (sources of understanding and knowledge, and teachers (people who can facilitate learning). But we start just by deepening our relationships with these places and people, rooted in a broad definition of "environment" -- including water, air, land, climate, plants, and animals, as well as the social, human, and build environment of our cities.  

Key Questions

  1. What are the assets and challenges, natural and social, of my students’ schoolyard and city, in which this learning experience is rooted?
  2. How will this experience deepen students’ connections to and understanding of their place? 

Key Resources

We are inspired by and indebted to the work of Akiima Price, who was a thought partner in the early stages of this project, and who has worked with Common Ground and Teaching Our Cities on past projects. We used a framework that we learned from her as a starting point for understanding our urban environments, and build up from there:


Projects need to be rooted in a clearly articulated set of learning goals, just as they need to be rooted in the places our students call home. Part of our goal through this collaboration between Teaching Our Cities and Common Ground's Schoolyards Program was to develop projects aligned with Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core standards in particular -- recognizing both that many urban public schools are eager to integrate NGSS in particular, and that there are rich opportunities for place- and project-based learning when working with NGSS and Common Core. Common Ground and our partner schools are eager for our students to master other standards and develop other competencies, as well -- so they can grow into powerful environmental stewards and changemakers; strengthen their skills and understandings as artists, historians, social scientists; move along pathways toward careers that sustain themselves, their families, and the planet; develop the capacities they need to lead health, happy, sustainable lives. All of these expectations (and others) are valid goals for project-based learning. 

Key Questions

  1. What critical grade level content standards, as well as with other key learning outcomes that matter for your students, do students learn through this project? 
  2. What are the big, important questions that students will grapple with? What are the key understandings that they are developing/ What are the tangible, measurable learning objectives? 
  3. How is it intentional about connections between the disciplines, to support deep and connected student learning?

Key Resources

  • Evaluating Interdisciplinary Project Possibilities. Kevin Sinusas, a science teacher at Common Ground and collaborator on this Teaching Our Cities & Schoolyards project, developed this mini-course to help our Teaching Our Schoolyards & Cities teams deepen their thinking about interdisciplinary projects. 
  • Project Brainstorming Tool: Expectations, Environment, Exhibitions. This simple tool is designed to help educators identify the range of standards they are trying to help students master, and to brainstorm connections to the urban environment and opportunities for exhibitions connected to these projects. 



Students need opportunities to demonstrate and apply what they have learned -- and we think the most powerful exhibitions involve real work, with a real purpose, for real audiences, making a real contribution to their urban environments. 

Key Questions

  1. What are the culminating products or tasks? 
  2. Who is the real audience? 
  3. What is the real impact/contribution of students’ work on the urban environment? 
  4. How does the exhibition align with and assess rigorous academic standards? 

Key Resources

  • Exhibitions: Deepening Authenticity and Relevance. This tool offers a set of questions, some examples, and template for thinking about increasing the authenticity and relevance of student exhibitions -- focusing on what students are exbiting, how, to whom, and where. 
  • 6As of project-based learning. Common Ground and our Teaching Our Cities partners find Adria Steinberg's work on project-based learning really practical and motivating. This simple tool -- drawing directly on ideas from Steinberg's Real Learning, Real Work -- is another tool for designing and strengthening projects. For a deeper dive, get a copy of Adria's book!


With expectations and culminating work defined, it's now possible to define the arc of experiences that will support students in moving toward these goals.  As a starting point, we suggest putting the key expectations and culminating products you have for students on the right hand side of a white board, wall, flipchart paper, or jamboard. Start identifying the key activities -- launch experiences, mini-lessons, investigations, interim products, field experiences, work sessions, critiques/ -- that will build toward these goals. Put these steps along the way on post-it notes, real or virtual. If you are working across disciplines, color code them by subject -- to identify where classes are working in parallel and in collaboration. Start organizing them in a sequence or calendar that will scaffold students' experiences while giving them agency and responsibility for their own work. There's back and forth here: Does the final exhibition, or your expectations of what learning students can demonstrate, need to shift?

Key Questions

  1. What is the sequence of learning experiences -- building background knowledge, case studies, field experiences/stewardship opportunities, workshops, and other components -- that build to your exhibition? 
  2. What are your anchor texts and anchor community partners?