The Promise of Implementing Project-Based Learning (Steven Davis)

Steven Davis is in his tenth year teaching English to high school sophomores and seniors in a large northern California urban school district

I have reached a turning point where I can implement the day-to-day standards-based
curriculum for most of my students, preparing them for high-stakes testing, while providing highly individualized and sometimes project-based learning for some students in each of my classes. The catch is that this level of individualization does not scale easily, especially for sophomore English classes, because much responsibility for learning is on the student and some students may be uninterested in the projects you offer them. It’s one thing to differentiate instruction by scaffolding or accelerating the curriculum, it’s quite another thing to truly individualize the learning process with topics and activities that each student will find relevant.

In the past, I have had the latitude to plan for students to do their own learning but some students were confounded as to what to learn when left to their own devices. It seemed that they wanted me to do the learning for them. I am not blaming the students for being apathetic; I am condemning the system of schooling that has made them complacent consumers of education rather than active participants in the pursuit of knowledge.

Several of my sophomore English language learners have started coming in before
school, and at lunch. I provide them with a safe environment to eat and play chess,
checkers, and cards. I decided to direct more energy towards this group of students (it
was a goal of mine) and it has paid dividends. On occasion, I am able to
rally one or two of these students to complete projects that they never even dreamed of.
Two of my students from the breakfast/lunch club wired up a mechanical turtle kit I
bought for them. The turtle uses a battery powered electrical motor to propel itself across
the floor.

The students had to snap together parts, mesh gears, and do basic wiring.
It took them a few weeks because they constructed the turtle before school and during lunch. Then I had them write about it, do revisions, and then write about their writing. I managed to work the writing components into the class period. I believe that they learned more from the turtle project than from many months of class.

None of that experience was traditionally “planned” or linked to standards or assessed
with a rubric. However, many reading and writing standards were met in their work by frequent and student-initiated assessments. Project-based learning worked for those two students, but two others balked at the same opportunity. How does something so hit or miss make its way systematically into the regular period that rigidly adheres to a pacing calendar?

Now consider a field trip. I took 24 of my sophomore English students to the Martin Luther King Library in downtown San Jose. Again, there was no backwards mapping from assessments to standards, yet it was one of the most productive lessons of the year. The students were not left to their own devices. I chose the topic of study: racial profiling. And the day’s activities were structured around doing high-level academic research using MLA style for annotation.

Each student had to get a public library card to earn the privilege of attending. Students learned how to use the library’s electronic databases to access scholarly journal articles. Perhaps most importantly, the trip increased our levels of trust in each other. Sometimes students need to engage in activities that boost their self-efficacy, and such experiences are in short supply in today’s data-driven education climate.

I recently helped four students learn how to solder electronic components at lunch.
They’re making a “wheel of fate” for choosing students to speak in class. When you press the button, the lights go on and off in rapid succession until the capacitors lose their charges and the “spinning” ceases. The project has been less about teaching than it has been about
providing students with mentoring, tools, and the setting in which they can learn for
themselves. A lot of planning went into this, but none of it had anything to do with
standards. I bought a cordless soldering iron and tried building the wheel of fate myself.
It took me three tries, but I finally made one that works. Building the wheel of fate
allowed me to simplify the process for my students and to really know what I was doing
and talking about. Are they going to solder electrical components for a living? Probably not, but that wasn’t the point. It was learning for learning’s sake and you never know where that will lead, maybe to more learning.

The best California Exit Exam lesson that I did this year was sitting with eight students
analyzing two M.C. Escher drawings. No multiple guesses. No process of elimination.
We saw details and discussed our thoughts. Will it pay dividends in terms of exit
exam scores, i.e., was it “successful” teaching? Who knows, but it seemed like a “good”
lesson to me, and the students agreed.

How did I come up with the lesson? I used a publicly released test item about the experience of studying something in detail. I quickly abandoned the idea of having students work through the writing process because I thought they probably didn’t have a true, deep experience to pull from. So I decided to give them such an experience. You have to take risks with projects and you have to allow students to make their own mistakes.

All of these great learning experiences have meant a lot to my students, and me but they’re not given much value in today’s data driven climate. They are not easily quantifiable and can’t be reduced to neatly measured metrics. However, I guarantee that there are two young men out there that will remember building a mechanical turtle, and soldering their first circuit; a whole class will remember going downtown to the library and several other students will remember being introduced to M.C. Escher. Who knows where project-based learning experiences will lead?



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

4 responses to “The Promise of Implementing Project-Based Learning (Steven Davis)

  1. I compliment Steven on his commitment to his students, his willingness to try new things to reach them, and his time-consuming efforts to individualize. I wish I had had Steven as a teacher.

    His post makes me sad, however, because it shows the incredible difficulty of trying to do PBL in an environment where PBL is not the norm, and where school structure does not support PBL. I am also struck by the serendipitous, “hit-or-miss” character of the PBL he describes. My belief (and my experience — although it’s been a few years since I was in the classroom) is that there are three things that maximize the probability of a successful teaching/learning experience: planning, planning, planning. I have seen PBL be a powerful instructional approach, but it requires careful thought about what the purpose of the project is, how outcomes will be measured both formatively and summatively, and attention to both hard and soft learning scaffolds. Colleagues (and a school leader) who share the vision, are working toward the same goals and using the same instructional strategies can make a challenging journey more rewarding. I hope Steven has some fellow travelers.

  2. The students are so lucky to have Steven as a teacher. He clearly understands the purpose of schooling and it is not to score correctly on paper/pencil tests. Thanks to him for being willing to take risks with his teaching. His students were also willing to take risks with their learning. This type of education is a new concept to many of us who have been in the field for a long time, but also for those young ones who have just completed teaching degrees. Not too much time is spent in class considering optional learning strategies. I feel better having just read the article and will continue to encourage my teachers in these areas. Thanks.

  3. Steve you have done some great work with his students and provided true learning experiences for them to draw on. You mention you are unsure how to assess the learning and prove that he is meeting learning outcomes. Using action research to support evidence based practice (EBP) would enable you to use these experiences to demonstrate to administration, colleagues and parents that project based learning plays a huge role in student learning and success. Inquiry based learing lends itself to EBP as you are continously assessing students learning needs and their understanding. Simply ask them to fill out a KWL sheet prior to the learning experience, during and then at the end. Can you see the difference? Use their writing to assess their learning. You are doing inspiring work with students and will be able to work collaboratively with other staff members if you can demonstrate the learning. Work in the field of EBP by Ross Todd and Carol Gordon would be worth reading, as well as Carol Kuhlthau’s work on guided inquiry. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Pingback: School Architectural Design as a Tool for Student Success | Education for the 21st Century

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