Fully Engaged, Project Based Learning

Fully Engaged, Project Based Learning

If we want more students to learn more effectively, if we want to retain at-risk kids, and if we want to inspire the pursuit of knowledge then something has to change. I bet you already knew that, but what are we supposed to do differently?

1. First, GIGO has got to go. Garbage-in-garbage-out is so old school. Force-feeding data into students is a sure-fire way to shut down interest in schooling.

2. Actual learning is in. What does that mean exactly? It means the mind is engaged. It means a bridge has been constructed between information and real world application. We have to deliver information that’s interesting, stimulating and clearly useful. At the end of each term, students should be able to identify what they learned and accomplished, perhaps through a personal portfolio.

3. Even better, we should aim to deliver something students find personally meaningful and inspirational. The best educational experiences light fires inside students, really getting us excited about learning. If we lose track of the time because we’re so engrossed in what we’re studying, we’re on the right track.

So we need all of the above. In many cases, this can be rolled into a multi-dimensional package that connects “schooling” to hands-on “doing” – also known as Project Based Learning. What might this look like? Check out this short and sweet summary of project based learning, put together by the folks at www.bie.org

How might this apply in real life schooling? Consider learning about flight.

Old school: read stories about flight, fact and fiction. Read about birds. If you’re really lucky, take a field trip to an Air and Space Museum. Give a report in front of the class, maybe with pictures pasted on cardboard. Receive a grade. Probably have no idea how to fly.

New school: All of the above might peripherally occur, but the main event would include chats with a flight engineer, perhaps printing a 3-dimensional model plane, a close-up examination of an actual airplane, riding in an airplane, sitting with the pilot in flight, helping service the plane, assisting with the construction of one, designing and building one, and finally coming up with improvements and new designs.


(Photo courtesy of Fielding Nair International Architects, from Meadowdale Middle School, Washington. An instructor guides students through product design and production, utilizing a 3D printer.)

How about nutrition?

Old school: read and hear a lecture about good nutrition. Answer questions about the food pyramid. Probably go drink a diet soda.

New school: Much of the above might happen, but the main event would include planning, composting, preparing the soil, planting, tending, growing, harvesting and cooking good food, helping in the cafeteria, running the cafeteria, creating a student-driven menu, improving the food service, starting a catering business, opening a student-run coffee house and seasonal fruit stand.

What about the basics? Like learning English?

Old school: work your way through early readers, then middle readers then advanced readers, mostly geared toward skills rather than enjoyment. If you find it painful, avoid ever reading again.

New school: All of the above can be in the mix, but in addition, consider the following:
• Provide eye exams.
• Add audio books to enhance interest, comfort and retention.
• Let students pick books according to interest.
• Have students write sentences, rhymes, jokes, stories and novels that amuse them (first and foremost, reading should be fun).
• Have a professional story teller guide group story-telling.
• Recruit a professional writer to lead group novel-writing.
• Have students write guides for younger students on important skills, like how to tie shoes or plant a garden.
• Write a novel based in a time period being studied.
• Integrate writing with other subjects being studied. Such multi-dimensional approaches can open doors in unexpected ways. For example, take a look at this clip from the Science Genius program in New York, in which kids wrote science raps – and in some ways, found themselves:

Easier said than done? Sure. But I do believe that school should be an engaging, stimulating experience. It’s truly painful to think that so much of schooling is not.

Tod Schneider
Written by Tod Schneider

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