Project Based Learning: Invigorating It — or Re-invigorating It

The Problem

Along comes a new idea for teaching and learning — project based learning — but it isn’t really new at all. However, it becomes an educational fad, and suddenly a good idea is ruined by being forced on teachers. Dropping a fresh mandate on already over-controlled educators pretty well guarantees that, understandably, it will be resisted, either openly or quietly.

And there’s another problem. Project based learning as it’s described by many proponents means elaborate teacher-planned units, meaning that the teacher does most of the most essential work. Who has time for that? And will the students even be motivated to be marched through all the steps?

And this brings up yet another concern. What’s the point? Why will the topic matter to the kids? And what skills and knowledge will they gain?

A Solution

If you’ve followed this blog, you know where we’re going here: engaging students in community improvement, through a few key elements that can transform a burden into energized, meaningful learning:

  • Teacher choice — decide for yourself whether this is something you want to bring to your classroom. We know it will be fun and exciting and a source of in-depth learning. But it would contradict the heart of the strategy to force it on you.
  • Focus on real concerns — issues or challenges in the school or community, leading to actions that help to address those concerns in some structural way.
  • Student choice — students can be guided to thoughtfully choose an issue or concern, make decisions about how to learn about it, and determine actions to take to address it.

An Example

Wonder whether this can really work? Here’s what it looks like in a middle school English classroom at Reilly School in Chicago.

About 30 students in sixth through eighth grade have joined a Student Voice Committee and are especially concerned about growing gentrification in their predominantly Mexican-American community, with its resulting enrollment decline in the school. They’ve divided into three sub-committees, focused as follows:

  • Aiding the campaign to keep the school’s annex building open and thereby preserving jobs for teachers and space for school activities. Their contribution is to send letters to the neighborhood Alderman to convince him to actively support the campaign.
  • Promoting the high quality of the school by creating a video based on interviews with students, teachers, administrators, and parents.
  • Creating and distributing personal supplies bags for homeless people nearby. While this is more like “service learning” and doesn’t directly address the larger issue of gentrification or school enrollment issue, the Committee feels that it demonstrates the caring and commitment of the school’s students.

I’m volunteering to aid the team and its sponsoring teacher, Betty Garcia. On a recent Thursday the students were drafting their letters to the Alderman, the interview questions, and the lists for local store managers who will be asked to contribute goods for the supplies bags. At the end of the period they moaned and pleaded to stay and continue their project work rather than go on their next class — just the sort of engagement that projects like this always inspire. Whether the students succeed in their effort or not, they are doing work they believe in and learning essential academics (writing, speaking) and civic skills and knowledge.

Help for Making It Work

OK, there are important activities and facilitation strategies for making projects like this go smoothly, and for providing structures that help students make thoughtful decisions as the work proceeds. So here are two resources for you:

Mikva Challenge, Issues to Action Curriculum. . Website to obtain it.

Steve Zemelman, From Inquiry to Action. Heinemann. Website to obtain a copy.