From Emulate to Apply: Project-Based Learning with a Modern Twist
From Emulate to Apply: Project-Based Learning with a Modern Twist

Terry Kessel, Middle School Director

A number of years ago I attended a workshop entitled Problem-Based Learning at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference. I was already familiar with project-based learning, an approach to interdisciplinary, collaborative, hands on pedagogy that has been an occasional practice in middle schools for decades. As Joseph Krajcik writes in his chapter, "Project-Based Learning" from The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2006), this method of teaching and learning was described by 19th century educator John Dewey and put into practice in 1896 at the Laboratory School in Chicago. "Dewey argued that students will develop personal investment in the material if they engage in real, meaningful tasks and problems that emulate what experts do in real world situations."

Nothing revolutionary here if we knew about this at the turn of the 19th century. Yet the elements of project-based learning are the building blocks described now as 21st Century Learning: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity, among other skills. We teach these skills in middle school just as we teach skills in writing and math.

The Problem-Based Learning workshop at NAIS was a repackaging of project-based learning, but with a new twist. It is not enough to "emulate" what experts do in the real world; we must apply our learning to real world issues. In our interconnected global community, projects can take on real world relevance and application in ways that were impossible as recently as the close of the 20th century. For example, in a recent unit on Urban Gardening based on the book Seedfolks read in English class, our history classes sought out the first-hand experiences of Syrian refugees and others who have come to the U.S. and sought the comfort of fresh food from home. The Nationalities Service Center in our own school neighborhood helps refugees establish urban gardens. Our students were tasked with creating scaled models of ideal urban gardens that made the best use of limited inner-city green space. Our relationship with Bartram's Garden, a 45 acre "living laboratory" begun in the 18th century by Quaker John Bartram, in our science curriculum will further inform this study next year.

To create truly interdisciplinary units of study, there are some basic conditions necessary: a collegial faculty who seek each other out with excitement, a community of innovators where taking risks and failing is an acceptable learning model, a connection to the neighborhood that is authentic and deep, and perhaps most importantly, time to plan and time in the schedule to execute. While we are on solid footing for the first three conditions, that last one is an ongoing challenge.

To further train our teachers in design and innovation, 21st century skills, we have engaged in professional development across divisions. Most recently, 6 teachers, 2 from each division, attended a workshop at Stanford's d.school. Those teachers ran a workshop for their peers at our recent In-Service Professional Development Day where we examined the intersection of design and diversity. To further train our students, we use methods of project-based learning, explicitly teach the 21st century skills, and engage in design projects that address real world problems.

We continue to learn together as a community. This is an ongoing, important initiative.

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