I’d like to dedicate this blog post to answering a question. It’s one I’ve heard asked and it gets asked routinely. But the answer has changed subtly over time. And it’s always worth going back and answering it, because everything we do ought to be scrutinized and evaluated. After all, our kids’s futures are at stake!
Why are projects, specifically project based learning, part of the instructional program in Goochland County?
(Photo courtesy xslim via Flickr.)
Looking Back At Our Own Experiences
For the record, growing up, project based learning (PBL) was not a typical pedagogical instrument used in my schooling. The teacher was the authority figure who knew the answers. They held onto knowledge. And they shared that knowledge through talking, videos, worksheets, book reading, and practice. I think I turned out okay. I felt with flashcards I had a great tool to be prepared for tests. I knew as a musician that practicing something—even not musical things—helped me get better at them, even just plain memorization.
The Goochland Way
It’s worth taking a look at our strategic plan, first published in January 2014. Specifically, some take-aways from the plan.
- A vision of inspiring the next generation to make a positive impact,
- a mission of to maximize the potential of every learner,
- a belief about excellence that we believe that instructional excellence occurs when students exceed our expectations for how much they can grow,
- a belief about creativity and that we will emphasize the use of imagination, intellectual curiosity, and human ingenuity in our instruction,
- and a primary goal that students will be prepared for life though deeper learning, and specifically, to maximize each student’s academic potential through engaging experiences and deeper learning, preparing our students for the challenges of learning and working in the modern global economy.
I could dig in deeper to the plan, but these alone paint the background of a canvas that we metaphorically hand to each teacher, who paints their own version of these ideas using the art and science of teaching.
The words of George Couros, author of the book The Innovator’s Mindset, and a principal in Canada, resonated with me when I read these on page 9 of his book:
My focus is not on whether kids can knock it out of the park on some science test in grade three. What I care about is that kids are inspired to be better people because of their experiences in my school.
Inspire the next generation, inspired to be better people—both profound and synergistic ideas for what we want for students. Couros quotes William Pollard in his book too. I copied the quote because it resonated with me, too.
Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.
There’s no reason our education system should stay stagnant in a culture of rapid change. We must be reflective. We must also get outside our bubble and talk to families, to business leaders, to politicians, to scientists, and to one another! And most recently in Goochland, Dr. Geyer led a process of defining what we want when students graduate. It’s called the Profile of a Goochland Graduate.
The challenge for the next six years in our division will be how to develop students that, by the time they graduate, are:
- hard working and resilient,
- critical thinkers and creative problem solvers,
- effective collaborators and communicators,
- ethically and civically responsible, and
- respectful and personally responsible.
To achieve these goals we have to have classroom paradigms that are learner-centered. This is no doubt one of many educational buzzwords, but it means that the action taking place in the room by students isn’t passive. It isn’t taking notes and listening. It’s being an active participant in a variety of learning activities that are designed around student voice and choice.
As it turns out, projects embrace student voice and choice. And they are designed around solving problems, developing communication, and hard work.
Projects As Hard Fun
Raking leaves is hard work. I know when I’ve raked, I sweat, and the physical exercise is good for me. But I have other things I’d rather be doing. And to be honest, I don’t like raking leaves. It’s hard, but it’s also not fun.
My education hero Seymour Papert used to talk about hard fun. It’s a colloquial way to describe pursuits that are innately interesting to us, but also at a challenge level that is appropriate for us. I remember being given an assignment in college by my composition teacher. He’d arranged to have a singer perform a piece I’d write. I had several weeks. I had to write a piece for piano and soprano.
It was hard. But it was also fun. I got lost in the pursuit, relying upon my creativity to “solve” the problem of setting text to music. It’s all I thought about for a long time.
Projects require us to think differently about planning for instruction. At first, projects may seem daunting for a teacher to orchestrate. But with experience and support, projects can be opportunities for deeper learning. Specifically,
- projects can allow students to engage with content in a more realistic way,
- projects can allow us to combine learning across multiple disciplines,
- projects can allow students to develop interpersonal skills and work on collaboration and communication while working together,
- projects can be personalized for students by allowing students to solve problems, develop creativity, and make important decisions.
Projects Are Deep
In Goochland, our strategic plan calls for preparing students that are both college and career ready. And while the last test students take may not be in Goochland High School, real life looks a lot more like a project than it does a traditional twentieth-century schoolhouse lesson. I may be preaching to the choir, but our educational system today is stronger for giving students multitudes of different, challenging experiences that develop the resilience called for in our profile.
That said, projects aren’t the only game in town. But they should remain in the short term an important instrument for learning across grades and academic disciplines. Deeper learning specifically is targeted at satisfying student curiosity and giving them more than an exposure to facts. Students have the world at their fingertips and the real world, since Dewey, has been something we’ve been challenged to bring inside the institutions we call schools.
James W. Pellegrino (see National Research Council (2012). Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press) has described deeper learning as the process through which an individual becomes capable of taking what is learned in one situation and applying it to new situations. The Hewlett Foundation defines deeper learning around mastery of core academic content, the application of twenty-first century skills as part of the learning process, students learning how to learn, and students developing academic mindsets. At a basic level, we view deeper learning as student-initiated (“I’m curious about this, and I want to learn more”). We view it as open-ended (there may not be a “test” at the end) and the experience, at best, is personal to a child (what one child learns about the water cycle may be different from what another child learns).
Projects, in the end, are a mechanism for practicing and developing skills by using that “core academic content” for something beyond regurgitation on a test. We believe projects are what fuel our capacity for being respectful, responsible citizens. We want the world to be a better place, for ourselves, and our offspring. And that’s what it means to grow here in Goochland County, Virginia.