ABCs to ATMs - The Case for Paying Students to Learn

Chapter 7: Project-Based Verification

Introduction: The Changing Role of Teachers

The traditional image of a teacher standing at the front of a classroom, lecturing to students who are expected to passively absorb information, is rapidly becoming a relic of the past. In the landscape we are envisioning, teachers become empowered facilitators, guiding students through hands-on projects that prepare them for micro-assessments. But their role goes beyond that; they become the gatekeepers who verify a student’s readiness to take these assessments, thereby directly influencing the student’s financial incentives. 

In this chapter, we’ll explore how this new role for teachers enhances the educational experience and aligns with the broader goals of our revamped educational system.

Financial Power in Teachers’ Hands

In this new system, teachers wield an unprecedented level of influence—they literally hold the keys to a student’s financial rewards. But this is not power for its own sake; it is power vested in the teacher to ensure that learning is authentic, meaningful, and verified through real-world projects. Before a student can take an assessment and potentially earn money, the teacher must confirm that the student has successfully completed the required projects. This financial dynamic underscores the teacher’s role as a mentor and guide, providing both motivation and accountability in the learning process.

The Advantages of a Project-Based Learning Environment

Project-based learning is not a new pedagogical approach, but in the context of this new educational model, it takes on even greater significance. Projects are not just assignments to be completed; they are the proving ground where students demonstrate mastery. 

  1. Collaborative Skills: Students learn to work together, often in teams, to complete projects. This fosters a sense of community and teamwork that is often lacking in traditional educational settings.
  2. Real-world Application: Projects often involve solving real-world problems or creating tangible products, making the learning experience more relevant and engaging.
  3. Deep Understanding: The project-based approach allows for a deeper exploration of subjects, moving beyond rote memorization to a more nuanced understanding of the material.

Examples of Projects

English Literature

  • Group: Conduct a roundtable discussion on symbolism in a chosen novel. Each student is responsible for presenting one symbol and its relevance.
  • Individual: Create a character diary entry, exploring the thoughts and feelings of a character from a novel studied in class.

U.S. History

  • Group: Collaborate on a timeline of significant events during the Civil Rights Movement. Each student contributes by researching and presenting one event.
  • Individual: Write a letter from the perspective of a soldier in the Civil War, discussing the hardships and ideology of the time.


  • Group: Conduct a simple chemical reaction experiment and document the results. Share findings with the class.
  • Individual: Create a poster that explains a specific element, including its atomic structure, uses, and properties.

Algebra II

  • Group: Work in pairs or trios to solve a sheet of complex algebraic equations. Discuss your strategies and solutions.
  • Individual: Create a how-to guide for solving a specific type of algebraic equation.


  • Group: Design and conduct a simple experiment to demonstrate Newton’s Third Law. Share results with the class.
  • Individual: Develop a mini-presentation explaining a physics concept like inertia, using everyday examples.


  • Group: Create a 10-slide PowerPoint presentation about a Spanish-speaking country, focusing on its culture, geography, and language. Present to the class.
  • Individual: Record a 2-minute video introducing yourself and discussing your hobbies, entirely in Spanish.


  • Group: Collaborate on a mural that represents a social issue. Each student contributes a section to the final piece.
  • Individual: Choose an art movement (e.g., Impressionism) and create a piece inspired by that style.

Computer Science

  • Group: Develop a simple website using HTML and CSS. Each student is responsible for one page.
  • Individual: Write a Python script that solves a simple problem, like sorting a list of numbers.

Physical Education

  • Group: Design a 15-minute workout routine and lead the class through it. 
  • Individual: Create a personal fitness plan for one month and present it.

Music Theory

  • Group: Compose a short piece of music as a team and perform it for the class.
  • Individual: Analyze a song’s chord progression and present your findings.

These kinds of projects immerse students into the topic and help them have a deeper understanding of what is being taught. They will also give them the social and emotional experiences of working with peers.

Schools as Nurturing Grounds for Success

In this revitalized educational landscape, the metric for a “good school” shifts dramatically. No longer solely judged on the basis of standardized test scores, schools are evaluated on their ability to nurture students in a more holistic manner. A successful school becomes one where students are engaged, where they approach their studies and projects with a mature, focused attitude, and where the student body collaborates effectively. 

This is not just something that sounds good but is not practical. I am involved with award-winning schools who’s students learn construction by building homes in collaboration with habitat for humanity, and who learn manufacturing by building prosthetic limps to be donated to countries where they are needed.

Lifelong Friendships and Professional Networks

One often overlooked advantage of this approach is the type of relationships it fosters among students. When students collaborate on projects, they’re not just learning academic content; they’re also learning how to work together, how to communicate, and how to solve problems as a team. These are skills that will serve them well in any future career, and the friendships they form during these formative projects often become lifelong bonds, rooted in mutual respect and shared achievement.

An Educational Renaissance

By shifting the focus from standardized testing to project-based learning and verification, we are not merely tweaking the educational system; we are redefining it. 

Mastery is not a new approach. But by combining it with micro-assessments, payments, and outside verification, it completely transforms the experience and outcomes in education. Classrooms more closely align with innovative work environments. Many great solutions and transformative leaders will be developed in this environment.

Teachers become more than educators; they become mentors, guides, and the catalysts for real-world success. Students become more than test-takers; they become collaborators, problem-solvers, and, most importantly, lifelong learners.

When you pay students to learn, you’re not just building scholars; you’re building entrepreneurs, leaders, and community builders.

Ron McDaniel

Founder, Outstanda

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Ron McDaniel
Author of “ABCs to ATMs”
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