Project Based Learning

Rigor and Relevance. The latest trend in educational buzz words. Look closely, Des Moines, it’s there – just not in your mainstream classrooms featuring your stereo-typical advanced placement students hooked up with the best of the best teachers.

Des Moines, Iowa claims an alarming number of high school dropouts. In an effort to reduce the dropout rate, the ‘experts’ are listening to students in an attempt to understand how to keep more kids in school. Beyond societal problems such a poverty and family issues, students often referred to boredom and irrelevant information as reasons to stay away from school. Too many outdated rules, a lack of respect for students and being treated like a number instead of an individual were also frustrations. Hmm, kinda sounds like common sense.

If your objective is to keep kids in school then:

* treat all students with the same respect you would like to be shown

*keep material in curriculum relevant to the lives of students

*adapt a necessary rule or two, but NOT the rules that humiliate students such as not using the restroom, not getting a drink, not eating, listening to music through ear buds when instruction is completed

*make sure each student has a staff member he/she trusts who will serve as an advocate for that student

 Hey, teachers and administrators! The days of micromanaging students because ‘I’m the adult and I said so,’ are over. Bury it in the schoolyard and move on. Rid the system of the spewing of useless lectures with trivial information getting sucked up then spit up on a test, never to be used in real life.

Des Moines Public Schools’ metro high schools need to implement some of the methods and pedagogy featured in the city’s alternative schools. Try Project Based Learning (PBL) designed from the Buck Institute*. PBL goes way beyond the simplistic ‘volcano-for-a-science-project’ vision taking students deeper into topics of interest rather than learning more on a shallow basis.

In other words, they learn to dig deeper, get perspectives on a topic, and make adult connections, instead of covering more time with shallow information presented from the teacher’s perspective. Kids help design and build a project which leads to authentic assessment and ‘real world’ connections and applications. UbD (Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe*) meshes with projects and serves to measure individual student growth through mastered skills and reaching greater understanding.

This whole process takes place in the scenario of teacher and student working as a team. The teacher guides and facilitates but allows the student to research and refine. Only in its third year with some positive results, the program has some big bumps to smooth over and some internal housekeeping that must be completed before it can begin to reach potential progress. (Not the least of which includes inexperienced teachers unfamiliar with conferencing and in-depth critiquing of student work and teachers who don’t even buy into the individualized instruction and support needed for many students in this type of program.) Criteria for experienced teachers who undergo extensive training is imperative for success in this progressive program.

Project Based Learning is just one sample of capturing student’s interest to keep them in school. There are other trends offering positive results. If we want to reduce drop out rates and increase graduation rates, the archaic public schools system must slay the dinosaur and do what’s best for kids.

*Project Based Learning by the Buck Institution for Education

*Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe