PBL Insights

Project Based Learning with an Advisory System


At Avalon, a 6-12 charter school in St. Paul, Minnesota, we do a few things differently. We are project-based, we focus on student-centered learning, letting our students create the rules, and we have no principal. However, none of this would be possible if it were not for one important practice: the advisory model.  As one teacher at our school said, “Advisory is the most powerful thing we do.”

The Advisory Model

Advisories are groups of about twenty-two multi-aged students and one or two advisors (licensed staff). Students remain connected to the same advisory group for the duration of their time at Avalon: three years in middle school or four years in high school. These advisories are the base from which all work at Avalon grows. 

Students meet in advisory groups for the first twenty minutes of each day in order to check

In, plan group activities, discuss community issues, and set goals for the day. After the meeting, students begin their day’s work either at their desk within their advisory space—designing, implementing, or presenting independent projects—or by going to a seminar.  

Students work with their advisor throughout their school career to propose and execute projects, to develop graduation plans, and to figure out each students next steps. The advisor becomes the main point of contact for both the student and the student’s family, conducting conferences several times a year throughout the student’s time at Avalon.  

Why is the Advisory Model Important?

The advisory model is at the heart of everything we do; it is the foundation from which all work grows. The advisory system creates a safety net for each and every learner in the building. This in turn creates an environment that encourages growth in both academics and character development. 

Monica Martinez (2014) describes the essential nature of the advisory model in the first chapter of her insightful book, Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools are Transforming Education in the Twenty-first Century: “Students having solid, meaningful connections to teachers, other students, and to the experience of learning are preconditions for true academic rigor.” 

Building Community

The advisory model helps foster peer-to-peer relationships that would not otherwise occur—relationships that bridge gaps that differences in age, background, and interest often create. This, in turn, helps prevent negative and damaging social behaviors like bullying and the development of cliques. Students simply cannot learn if they do not feel safe and connected; the advisory model encourages both.

Foster 21st Century Skills

Beyond the important work of creating a supportive community, the advisory model also helps students develop some of the soft skills vital to success in today’s world.

Since advisory groups are multi-aged, student roles change and mature as the years pass.  New leaders are needed as the old ones graduate, and older students feel a responsibility to serve as mentors and positive models to the younger students.

Students also get a chance to practice important communication skills as they lead each other through discussions every morning. Skills like active listening, self-awareness, and collaborative problem solving are routinely discussed and modeled.  

Within an advisory, students engage with people from diverse backgrounds. As they learn to navigate and utilize it, they learn important character building skills and develop the ability to motivate themselves. Engaging in the advisory system gives our students control over their education and the chance to become strong self-advocates. The self-advocacy has made all the difference for Avalon graduates. It is key to their success in choosing colleges and planning careers confidently and with deep reflection and decision-making skills.