Sunday, November 15, 2015

Project Work vs Project-Based Learning

At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, our administration brought in a speaker for professional development from the Buck Institute. We were introduced to BIE's version of project-based learning. During the day, we learned about how we should develop and implement a project. It seemed as if there were many rules to follow and that the structure was quite rigid. During the afternoon, we had time to begin planning one that we would implement in our classrooms that year. The overall feeling in the room among the faculty was a sense of doom and feeling overwhelmed.

I will not kid you. I struggled with what our speaker said. He indicated that in order to have a project unit that was worthwhile, it had to be solving a real-world problem. I chose to focus on my opening unit in social studies, exploration. My essential question was: How was the world changed by explorations of European nations? I felt my students would have choice and voice during this unit, but when meeting with our speaker, he indicated that I was missing that authentic problem and the unit wouldn't work without it. His suggestion was to relate the explorers to street names in our community named after explorers, noticing what direction the streets faced - if facing south towards Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. I have to say, this very off-putting to me. I did not see how relating the explorers to street names made the unit more relevant and/or how it made it authentic.

My students completed the unit anyway. They each chose an explorer in which they were interested, researched him, wrote a biographical piece about him, and created an illustration to go with it. The students wanted to put their finished pieces together creating a book, which we then shared with a school in Montgomery.

Fast forward to this year. The same speaker came back. He no longer works for BIE and it seemed he had quite a shift in attitude. The information he shared seemed much more flexible, and he even said it was important to make it work for our school and our kids. The mood in the room was much different than the first year he visited us.

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit The Duke School in Durham, NC with twelve other teachers and administrators from my school. The Duke School has been a project work school for a very long time. They began with Katz and Chard's model and have tweaked that for their older students. Their model of project work follows three phases and really allows the students choice and voice in following where their interests are during the inquiry process. The first phase is where students access their background knowledge about their inquiry topic. The students not only tell their stories, but they write them and put them on display. From there, they generate questions they want answered. During phase two, the students engage in fieldwork, where they investigate. This is different than a field trip because there is no passive learning going on. Students have clipboards with them in order to take notes on their learning, they have questions to ask/interview experts, etc. They will read to find answers, and during this time, they generate more questions and/or revise the questions they had originally. Based on student interest, each one decides what topic he/she is most interested in and will then become the expert in that area. These groups work together to create a product for their culminating event, which they present to the parents.

I really loved how engaged the students were. I loved the process they used. I loved how the students were able to have choice and voice during the project. After have professional development in both these styles of project learning, I think The Duke School is definitely the style I connect better with and that is more in keeping with our school's philosophy. What I will say though, is after seeing some of The Duke School's culminating piece, my school already does an awesome job at this. I feel like the choice and voice has to extend to how students want to present their learning. I love that my students can choose to create an iMovie, use Google Slides, Powerpoint, Prezi, create a poster, a website, write a book, etc. for any given project. It is a very rare thing at my school that when students present their learning, you have a room full of posters.

We are moving towards becoming and project work/project-based learning school, and after attending The Duke School workshop this past week, I believe we are well on our way. We have great teachers at our school that are willing to step outside their comfort zone and really do everything they can to engage our students in 21st Century Learning. I'm excited to see how we move forward as a school. If you ever have the opportunity to visit The Duke School, I cannot recommend it enough! It was a fabulous experience. The faculty and students were incredibly welcoming and so willing to share their wealth of experience and knowledge with us. If you're interested in checking out some of their project work, just follow the link by clicking on the name of the school: The Duke School.