The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Bringing Project-Based Learning into All Classrooms

on November 2, 2016

Last month I read an article about a California elementary school that changed its basic structure to emphasize project-based learning. Because I was absorbed with other topics at the time, I saved the major parts of the article, but did not record its source. Today, when I decided at last to analyze the article and write about it, I could not find it using the search engines on my computer. The best I was able to do was use the content I had saved to explain some of the changes at that school, give examples from my own experiences with projec-based learning, and make suggestions for new types of high schools.

Five years ago, under the leadership of a new principal, Katherine Smith Elementary School in San José, CA dedicated itself to becoming a hub for 21st century learning. The school, in a high poverty area, with a large percentage of English language learners, was determined to change its traditional structure and teaching methods to project-based learning, involving both teachers and students in collaborative work and focusing on the skills needed for successful careers and active citizenship.

The new principal, Aaron Brengard, and the many experienced teachers who transferred to the school knew their job would not be easy, but they dedicated themselves to working together and teaching students to do the same.

By traditional measures the school has not become more successful. Standardized test scores are still very low and behavior problems still emerge from time to time. On the other hand, student and parent surveys show high satisfaction with the projects and teaching methods. Also, in frequent presentations of projects, students exhibit much improved speaking and critical thinking skills.

In a recent economics project for third graders, for example, students designed new products and studied marketing skills. When they had finished their work the results were presented to a group of adults acting as possible buyers in a “Shark Tank” presentation. Afterward, there was a fair for parents to examine the products closely and talk to students about their manufacturing costs and the design processes.

As I read this article I admired the efforts the school was making, but also wondered if the principal and teachers had a strong enough grasp of what project-based learning means. Although the students were working on interesting projects, it did not look like those projects were related to the academic skills and knowledge that were the main focus of their class curriculum. I had hoped that project-based learning meant that students’ projects grew out of the things they were studying in math, English, etc. and the knowledge and skills they were learning.

Over my long career as a teacher and a principal, and later as an observer in other elementary schools, I became familiar with some programs that emphasized project- based learning as I understand it. Below I will briefly describe some of the projects that I participated in or observed.

While studying a particular topic or practicing an academic skill, students were also

creating their own math problems similar to the ones being taught

writing about historical events as if they were participants in them

turning a fairy tale they had read into a puppet performance for classmates or parents

creating birthday cards for classmates, the teachers or the principal

producing a set of original products to sell in the school store, pricing them to justify the time and effort needed, and then creating advertisments for their products to be placed in the school hallways

making a video with classmates to demonstrate safe playground behaviors

working with classmates to create a new set of classroom rules when they felt that the ones the teacher had established earlier no longer worked well

interviewing grandparents or older neighbors about what school was like when they were young, in order to write articles for a book they were making about the schools of the past

choosing appropriate stories to read aloud to children in lower grade classrooms and figuring out which pictures to show and words to explain while reading

creating a table game for traveling west on the Oregon Trail

Performing a classroom job, such as putting books back on classroom book shelves correctly, for one week and then training another student to do the job for the following week

Learning how to read a map by drawing an imaginary island and indicating mountains, rivers, cities, major highways and other physical features

drawing the outline of a covered wagon to scale on the classroom floor to see how many people and how much baggage could fit into it

“adopting a road” near the school and cleaning up the roadsides as a group three or four times a year

writing a set of directions for a robot to do a particular task, and then testing the order and precision of those directions by having another student act them out

I didn’t describe any projects for high school students because I can’t remember any from my time as a high school teacher. Actually, I think that project-based learning is  impossible for a high school to provide in fifty minute classes held in multiple classrooms.  The only way I can see for high school projects to be carried out right now is at times and places outside of school; and the problem with such arrangements is that they would separate projects from the learning experiences that stimulate and inform them.

Perhaps the only solution is to restructure high schools in a variety of ways, providing  not only training in specified areas, but also laboratory-type classes that would be equipped with different sorts of  equipment and materials and last for at least two hours at a time. Although making such changes would be difficult and expensive, they might provide   better education experiences for the large number of students who want and need project based learning to keep them in school, help them graduate on time, and prepare them for the realities of living and working in the real world.

2 responses to “Bringing Project-Based Learning into All Classrooms

  1. Carol Lam says:

    Hi Joanne: This is cool. I am stealing some of your suggested projects for my classes. Thank you so much!

    Carol Lam
    Your Chinese friend met at this year’s OCTE


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