The Power of Hands On Learning

Why new schools are choosing an old model to bring students into the 21st century.
By Wayne D’Orio

Here’s a riddle: Imagine there is a learning technique proven effective through 100 years of use that is now enhanced by the power of today’s technology. Imagine it can excite learners to continue their work well past the parameters of the school day. What is it, and would every school in the country do it?

It is project-based learning, and the answer is yes, and no. Project-based learning can be traced back to John Dewey and it has come and gone since the early 20th century. As a pedagogical method, it often meets resistance since it doesn’t fit the skill-and-drill model that typically dominates education. But today, it is enjoying a comeback as cutting-edge schools demonstrate just how effectively it imparts the skills students need in today’s workforce.

Why Project-Based Learning?
The big payoff for PBL, as its advocates refer to it, comes when engaged students learn not only the curricula and the concepts involved in a project but also learn how to organize and present their thoughts, how to manage a complex project in a limited amount of time, and how to collaborate with members of a group. Sound familiar? That’s because as an educated working adult you do these things all the time. For the next generation, these skills are only going to get more important.

While project-based learning can be decidedly low tech, the recent surge of interest has been driven by the increase in technology capabilities in public schools. Today’s technology, from Web 2.0 tools to data collection devices allow students to produce work akin to that of professionals, whether they are checking soil samples on the Hudson River or creating a Blu-ray DVD to accompany their high school’s yearbook. Perhaps equally influential is Thomas Friedman’s 2005book, The World Is Flat, which crystallized the changes in today’s global marketplace, from outsourcing to the digital revolution and made clear the necessity of changing the aims of American education for the 21st century.

“Friedman’s book had an incredible impact,” says John Mergendoller, executive director of the Buck Institute for Education in Novato, California, a nonprofit research organization promoting problem- and project-based learning.

“I think many people are starting to recognize the divide between the world of the classrooms and the world of work,” says Jane Krauss, coauthor with Suzie Boss of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age.

While there are no official PBL statistics to track, the push toward project-based work in the last few years is obvious, most pronouncedly in the rash of schools built specifically around this model. Of these, New Technology High School in Napa, California, is the epicenter. Opened in 1996, this high school was created to help students gain the skills needed for the new economy. Three years later, the New Technology Foundation followed, its mission to help replicate Napa’s school model throughout the country.

There are now 40 New Tech schools from coast to coast, including eight in California and four each in Texas and Louisiana. One of its newest models is Tech Valley High School in Troy, New York. Its principal, Dan Liebert, has worked with project-based learning for more than 25 years and says the ability to create a school from scratch has big advantages. First, every student at Tech Valley has a computer. Second, the school’s schedule is open enough to give students the time they need to delve deeply into projects.

A similar movement began in San Diego in 2000 when business leaders and educators created High Tech High, featuring a project-based environment to combat low student engagement and poor academic achievement. Nine years later, High Tech High encompasses eight charter schools, including two middle schools and an elementary school. Its philosophy is simple, according to Chief Operating Officer Ben Daley: have students use technology to research, produce, and present. High Tech High students regularly make movies, robots, and websites, and finish by presenting their work publicly to real audiences. 

Getting Kids on Board
While younger teachers may seem more willing to try projects than20-year veterans, some of the classroom’s biggest doubters are its youngest members.

While teachers can certainly debate whether PBL would work in their classrooms, one aspect seems unassailable: the idea that when done properly, students receive much more knowledge than can be recorded on a bubble test.

What Makes a Great Project?
Creating a great classroom project is more complicated than taking a single lesson plan and stretching it out over several weeks.

“Have clear, strong instructional goals,” says Suzie Boss, coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning. Speaking about the common habit of turning to PBL as a year-end “reward,” she says, “The idea is not to get our vegetables and then have our dessert. The core curricula needs to be the project itself.”

Gary Stager, the executive director at the Constructivist Consortium and an adjunct professor of education at Pepperdine, says the elements of a good project should include relevance for students, ample time to plan, change, and complete the project, and enough complexity to inspire intense work. There should also be a way to connect the project with people across the hall, on the other side of town, or across the world, an opportunity for students to collaborate with peers, international experts, and anybody in between, and a way for students to share their completed work.

“Projects are the learning that students remember,” says Stager, “longafter the bell rings.”

Overcoming Opposition
Even with all this momentum, PBL faces an uphill climb at most schools. Terry Smith, a fourth-grade teacher, sums up the typical roadblocks. “Teachers are in a real bind,” he says, facing testing pressure, compartmentalized subjects, and a schedule that sends students onto the next subject before they can delve deeply into a topic. There’s not “enough time to do anything.”

Still, Smith chooses a different path for his fourth graders at Eugene Field Elementary in Hannibal, Missouri. He favors projects that connect his poor, urban students with peers from across the globe, from playing chess with students in London to creating a digital “monster” via e-mail with classes across the country. With interest in PBL rising, Smith says, his fellow teachers “accept it more now.”

Part of the opposition has less to do with technology and testing than it does changing people’s opinions of what school should be. “Some people are worried that if someone walks by a classroom, and it seems disorderly, it will look like students aren’t on task. It’s a problem for people to tolerate more movement and conversation,” author Jane Krauss says. “Chaos is a scary word that’s not really scary,” agrees Smith. “It means freedom.”

Some teachers are reluctant to commit to PBL because they fear it means scrapping a style they are comfortable with and starting over. “It’s hard to teach in a way we were never taught,” Krauss says.

While projects do require rigorous preparation, Smith says it doesn’t mean the end of lectures, small-group work, or other techniques used by most teachers. These techniques can be sprinkled into a three-week project when appropriate, and, in fact, can help assure teachers that their students are gaining knowledge.

“It’s not an additional burden of work, it’s a transition of work,” says David Ross, Buck Institute’s director of professional development. Instead of creating daily lessons, teachers do their planning before the launch of a project. Once the project starts, their job is to make sure students stay on track and cover the objectives.
The move to PBL doesn’t have to happen overnight, Ross notes. “We encourage small steps, projects that take weeks, not months.” PBL newbies can join existing projects or team up with others.

“There’s no denying the first time around takes time,” Ross says. “We hear this again and again from teachers.”

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