by Robert Todd Felton
The vast majority of the teachers I’ve interviewed over the last twenty years have spoken with intelligence, passion, and dedication about their classroom work. They can expound on their approach, methodology, and pedagogy. However, when I’ve asked them to tell me about their students, it’s a bit different. Their eyes light up; they lean forward a little: “I had this one student who…”
Much of the discussion about improving education reform is rightfully about approach, methodology, pedagogy. But too often, the discussion misses the education, the exciting things that happen with students. I’d like to hear more stories of student success -- not drastically improved test scores, although that is an important story to tell when it happens -- but that moment when it “clicks” for a student. These are the stories that get teachers excited, that get them thinking “Yeah, I could do that with my students.”
Project Based Learning is unique for its ability to create those moments for students. Although an inspiring teacher may make a subject come alive through lecture (Mrs. Austerlind was that for me in 11th grade US History), BIE’s 8 Essential Elements for PBL create the circumstances where “clicks” happen more often. In good PBL, the rigor and real world relevance of projects allow for transformative educational experiences to happen.
For example, here is one of my favorite stories I’ve heard recently:
Sally’s Story: Net Impact
Sally preferred to work alone and was slowly withdrawing from classmates. Her Asperger’s syndrome made the uncertainty of small group work difficult and uncomfortable. When faced with choices for projects, she would choose the solo option every time. However, when Angela and Jamie, Sally’s fifth grade teachers, decided to do something different than the usual “project in a box” diorama of marine animals for the required unit on the Gulf of Maine, something happened.
With support from BIE, the teachers looked to the very local problem of unsustainable groundfishing and quickly settled on a project with real-world significance. Their driving question was “How can we, as engineers, design a groundfishing net that will sustain the local fishing industry while minimizing damage to the Gulf of Maine?"
With a list of need-to-knows that included understanding fishing regulations, the life cycle of the target fishing, and fishing net design, the rigor and relevance of the project caught the students’ attention -- it certainly hooked Sally. With plenty of training in effective collaboration, the students worked in groups of four to design their net. Sally fell into the rhythm of working with her group, taking on more and more responsibility, and even presenting for her group at the local mall. Sally’s a different student now -- engaged and active. She’s no longer the one who got away.
There are places where student stories are being told. The BIE video collection is one. Edutopia is another.
What is your story? Help us tell it by sharing in the comments below.
Join author Todd Felton who has been documenting PBL success stories and will be sharing a few of his favorites as well as talking about how to tell your own stories of students doing great work. Hangout with BIE: PBL Success Stories can be viewed live on September 25, 2013, at 5:00 pm pst or 8:00 pm est or archived there after.