#8: What is project-based learning?

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It’s not a car.

It’s the best time in history to learn anything! There are more resources and more supports than ever before. Of course, learning can be complicated. This week, Andrew explains the core principles of project-based learning. At The Workshop, projects are, well, just about everything.

In Beginning to Read, Marilyn Jager Adams compares cognitive reading processes to the mechanical system in an automobile. Individual parts in a machine, she explains, have specific tasks. For example, the spark plug ignites a car engine, and the steering column directs the wheels of a car to turn. In the same way, specific systems in the brain direct specific reading processes. “Within this analogy,” Adams writes, “print is like gas. The engine and the mechanics of the car are the perceptual and conceptual machinery that make the [reading] system go.”

Of course, the analogy is not only limited to reading. Learning anything is a complex and intensive process. Inside our brain, divergent systems help us identify, describe, and understand new ideas and information. And, generally speaking, the machine works really well! We’re able to learn complex concepts or skill with facility.

When teachers present information with clarity and focus, students can effectively memorize target content and skills. But education is most effective when we’re driving our car with purpose. When we learn information in isolation, we’re operating only a single information system. The pistons are firing, but there’s no engine at work. No radiator. No ignition. The car isn’t going anywhere. To really learn something, we need something to connect systems and structures together.

At The Workshop, hands-on, collaborative projects are the gas that makes our learning go!

Project-based learning helps students place learning in context of their own ideas, interests, and understandings. Because really significant learning is called ‘learning transfer’: the ability to apply learned content and skills to new and different contexts. In other words, learning the Pythagorean theorem is an isolated system. However, the application of geometric math to the construction of a sailboat hull? Well, that’s what’s it’s all about.

The Buck Institute explains that many schools may repackage traditional education as project-based learning. However, the “gold-standard” project-based learning includes certain fundamental principles that drive advanced learning.

At The Workshop, our learning is driven by gold-standard, immersive learning projects. This means that students learn advanced academic concepts and skills in the context of really large challenges. Key elements of truly successful project-based learning include:

  • Learning is organized by a larger project or challenge. For example, when students work on a Science Fair exhibit, they are working on a larger project that helps them learn underlying scientific principles along the way.
  • Students work on a specific project for extended period of time. Brain research helps explain that students need time to develop mastery. Best practice helps students acquire and advance target learning over several weeks.
  • Units of study investigate complex ideas and questions. Project-based learning should inspire deeper learning: complex content, advanced skills, and growth habits that support a meaningful and sustainable commitment to learning.
  • Units of study promote authentic, practical projects that leverage content or skills domain specialists use in real-world practice. Because learning is best applied in authentic contexts and situations.
  • The most effective projects emphasize formative, process learning. Students develop more advanced understandings in steps and stages. A supported learning process should include sustained inquiry, research, experimentation, and exhibition. In other words, it allows for creativity, curiosity, and, you know, mistakes.
  • Students produce or publish their project for a public audience. Because true accountability helps drive students to do their very best work. And the goal of effective project-based learning is truly outstanding student learning.

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The Workshop Independent is a middle | micro | maker school for diverse students and families in Brooklyn, New York.

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