Have you ever seen pictures of students sitting perfectly behind aligned wooden desks? Their hands folded, eyes reading across on the same page from the same text? All while the teacher dutifully directs from the front of the classroom? Ah, the days where teacher maintained full control and the students all needed to learn at the same pace and at the same level.
Thankfully, those days within education are quickly melting away. More and more, student-centered learning is becoming the new face of our classrooms. One mode of learning that is becoming prevalent within the student-centered environment is known as project-based learning (PBL). In this model, (as is the basis for all student-based learning), direct teaching takes a backseat. Educators become more like facilitators and students take the lead in their own lessons and their own learning. Below, we look at how two schools, described in an article outlined by Stephen NooNoo, utilize PBL. Through which, each created the opportunity for students to take center-stage in their own learning.
At Tampa Preparatory School in Florida, Stephen NooNoo describes that “a firm commitment to PBL means that teachers give up much of the control over their classrooms, becoming instead facilitators who activate student-led learning.” At this school, Victoria Lewis, (the school’s technology integration specialist), reports that there are general guidelines and rubrics given but students really tailor their learning to their interests and skills to create a final product”. As NooNoo outlines, students are encouraged to explore topics in depth and take them in directions that suit themselves”. In other words, students are given the opportunity to find ways to learn on their own terms.
At the Tampa Preparatory School, NooNoo describes how students are given opportunities and options to customize their learning using the tools available to them, such as iPads (the school is one-to-one with the Apple tablets), desktops, projection screens, voice amplification systems, and tech-free solutions like meeting with experts and mentors. He further describes how “teachers serve as coaches and guides, helping students craft polished final products while allowing them independence and flexibility”. This independence and flexibility can be scary for some educators making the transition within their classrooms. However, as NooNoo describes, many reports have shown that those schools that have made a transition to a more student-centric approach, report that the potential for learning is unmatched.
“Students are encouraged to engage with topics for breadth and depth, and then are asked to share what they’ve learned/discovered with others. Clearly, academic variety and expectations are significant in establishing engagement within PBL based schools.
Stephen NooNoo continues his exploration of PBL by highlighting Lydia Withrow, an eighth-grade English teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in West Virginia whose teaching is likened to what she calls “organized chaos”. In her classroom, NooNoo describes that students are often left to explore their own learning during class time, collaborating with peers and figuring out the problems on their own.
When diving into Withrow’s teaching mentality, she explains a different way of viewing project-based learning. Withrow explains that each year, she polls her students on their favorite and least favorite activities in English class. She’s often surprised to discover that projects rank among the least favorite. Withrow explains that students need to understand that there are no failed projects and that even when a project produces inadequate results, it’s still successful. Withrow explains that the learning is found in the attempt and further adds that by the end, most students learn to love projects as much as she does.
In NooNoo’s article, he explains how projects play a big part in Withrow’s class because they “exhibit students’ understanding more deeply than other types of assessments, and also because they jolt students out of their comfort zones”. In exploring Withrow’s PBL classroom, NooNoo also points out how Withrow’s own teaching role and position within the classroom changes as these projects take form. Withrow describes “Giving up control requires me to play different roles; I become the ‘hired hand’ in this lesson. Whatever they need me to do or need me to be, I become.” For many of us, this ever-changing role of the educator in a PBL classroom creates a refreshing environment; not only for students but for the educator as well!
One fascinating aspect of PBL is that teachers can integrate a variety of disciplines into their own focus. As NooNoo describes, Withrow utilizes science and other content areas within her English lessons. In one such project-based lesson on forensics, from an online PBL source called Defined STEM, introduces students to the basics of fingerprinting and DNA analysis. NooNoo further describes how “once the discussion is open, students are allowed to freely explore the topic, choosing their own focus area and developing a project nearly from scratch.
“I leave the entire field of study open for exploration, the end result is for them to educate the rest of the class. They must become the teachers.”
NooNoo also indicates that while PBL classrooms are reportedly highly successful, they have their course of challenges. NooNoo points out that the classroom can be noisy and students can lose focus or become overly demanding of time. Withrow admits that “Patience is hard to find at times,” and project-based learning can often require a mindset shift from being the one preparing lessons to watching students prepare their own lessons.
Withrow advises that educators “must have the willingness to be approachable and the skill to speak one-on-one to each and every student on-demand, nonstop, throughout the process.” NooNoo also points out that because the learning is so open-ended that the “role she plays in the classroom—are often radically different from year to year”.
The benefits of PBL are demonstrated as teachers and students alike are benefiting from changing roles within the classroom.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.