Project-Based Learning

Boring! Defining terms – such as project-based learning – is lackluster at best. Besides, according to Shawn Cornally, who quit his job and started his own school, students misconceive the meaning of gold-standard words in our teaching profession. Words like project illicit ideas of PowerPoint; learning doesn’t count if there is no test; and never, ever can students’ personal interests influence their learning. Shawn begins his article, We Don’t Like “Projects”, with these lost-in-translation mix ups, and he proceeds to break down each assumption.

Surveying 16-year-olds about their perception of projects, Shawn found that “hardly any students indicated doing something project-like as a way to enter into new content.” Hidden in this misunderstanding is a revolutionary idea: projects are more than assessment. “[Projects are] the assessment and the learning simultaneously,” Shawn relates as he describes one of his proudest projects with a student that combined programming, math and psychology. The idea for the project originated with the student, who read a personally intriguing article about psychologists’ attempts to mathematically quantify what describes a beautiful face. Noteworthy about this learning experience is that the student had no programming experience, so the teacher (Shawn) collaborated with the student to figure out what he would need to learn with a “reasonable amount of workload and frustration.”

Before starting any project with a student, however, Shawn asks these important questions:
1) Is this something you’ll be proud of in five years? Or will you at least be proud of the younger you for taking this on five years ago?
2) Does this combine two or more disciplines?
3) Will you work on this when no one is watching over you?
4) Who else cares about the results of your project?
5) What content do you think you’ll learn?

Shawn mentions that question five is the best. Students’ learning expands without bound, and Shawn has to “call time on their final presentations.” Wow. Students are gushing with learning.

Ben Johnson is a H.S. principal, consultant, author and instructional learning coach, and he speaks directly about the role of a teacher in project-based learning. The title of his article, Great Teachers Don’t Teach, catches the unsuspecting off their guard. What do you mean, “Great teachers don’t teach?” Before burning Ben at the stake, rest assured that he lists – and agrees with – many of the defining characteristics of good teachers: they care about students, know the content and how to explain it, and expect and demand high levels of performance of students, to name a few.

Ben makes the contrast between good and great when he writes that “great teachers engineer learning experiences that maneuver the students into the driver’s seat and then the teachers get out of the way” (emphasis mine). An igniting spark for such a learning experience is “an urgent reasons to learn skills or knowledge and then let [students] show they have learned it by what they can do,” which Ben cites as project-based learning, or inquiry. He shares sentiments with Shawn that “students must do the heavy lifting of learning” and that they “learn best when they are in control of their learning” (Ben). Encapsulating his ideas on inquiry-based learning, Ben uses an informative analogy to playing cards: “[Teachers] stack the deck so that students have a reason to learn and in the process can’t help but learn mainly by teaching themselves.” Ben touts that this kind of learning sticks with the student, who cherishes it in their memory.

In her article PBL Key Piece of Deeper Learning Puzzle, Suzzie Boss defines the deeper learning of project-based learning (PBL). She is a journalist and PBL advocate who cares about the best ways to prepare students for the future. She cites that The Deeper Learning Network (Deeper Learning for short) is an “ambitious attempt to accelerate the shift” that needs to occur between teaching and learning.

To find out more about Deeper Learning, Suzzie talked with the organization’s education program officer, Marc Chun. He said that through their research, the organization compiled a list of competencies that are paramount for today’s student: “critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and metacognition – learning how to learn.” Chun also emphasized the importance of an “academic mindset, which enables [students] to persist through challenges and develop confidence as learners.” As Suzzie points out, all of these competences rest on the mastery of core academic content and students’ ability “to transfer their understanding to new situations – an essential skill in an era of rapid change.”

PBL plays a central role in helping students develop all of these competencies. Chun explains, however, that “PBL is part of a larger set.” Advisories for fostering relationships between teachers and students, portfolios, and “student-led parent conferences” comprise the full suite of educational experiences that prepare students for the future according to Deeper Learning. To share their experiences, members of the Deeper Learning Network “offer tours so you can come see these schools in action” (Chun). Suzzie also points out that there are “online libraries that showcase examples of high-quality PBL” such as the Expeditionary Learning Center for Student Work.

Reading this articles greatly informed and encouraged me about PBL. However, I’m already a proponent who wants to reconstruct the types of learning experiences in his algebra 2 classroom. What I really need are solid, well-detailed examples of how to accomplish this shift to doing PBL with my students. I clicked through every link and perused every website provided in these articles. I held my breath until I was blue in the face, disappointed yet again. No one seems to be able to deliver. I need at least one of two things: 1) a project-based learning example that helps my students meet some of the Core Curriculum Content Standards, or 2) An entire curriculum of such projects that satisfy state requirements. If these resources are impossible to assemble or find, then Shawn had the best answer to this conundrum: quit my job and start my own school.

Edutopia houses all these articles and is as a treasure chest of ideas regarding contemporary education from professionals who serve in the trenches of the transforming classrooms of today.