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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Kindergartners Explore Through Project Learning

The Auburn Early Education Center immerses young children in self-directed projects.
By Ken Ellis

VIDEO: Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project Learning

Running Time: 9 min.

"Don't go yet, because there's lots of airplanes and birds covering the sky!" warns a wary air-traffic controller from his cardboard perch above a mockup of a plane loaded with his classmates. But it's only a minor delay for students of the Yellow Pod, a small segment of the 460 kindergartners who attend the Auburn Early Education Center, in Auburn, Alabama. Soon, they will be virtually winging their way to Brazil on a fantasy flight aboard their handcrafted plane, culminating two and a half months of preparation for the role-playing exercise as part of a yearlong study of South America.

At this award-winning kindergarten learning center, shared with a special education preschool, the students decide what projects they want to tackle, and teachers guide them to resources, on the Internet and in books, that help them create something from what they learn. Whether they're building an airplane or a cruise ship, or conducting a funeral for the class praying mantis, AEEC students are learning more than basic facts and skills. They are acquiring a taste for the process of lifelong learning.

"These kids have a very authentic, real purpose for learning," says AEEC principal Lilli Land. "When you want to find something out, what do you do? You go to the computer, you get on the Internet, you get a book. You don't go to an adult and just have them feed you all the information. You have to learn to be a problem solver; you have to learn to be resourceful. So we teach them to be lifelong learners, and you have to keep them excited about the process of learning."

Although the project-based curriculum generates much of the enthusiasm for learning here, a recent infusion of technology -- putting interactive whiteboards in every classroom -- has raised the bar for students and teachers. Touching a giant screen, teacher Sandy Armstrong calls up a wall-size map of South America and points to Brazil. "That is a big place!" shouts a boy kneeling in front of her. And when she starts a video clip of an imposing anaconda, he says, "I'll bet he's gonna slide and slither and try to bite him."

"When they put it in our classroom and I saw everything that it could do just playing with it, and my kids were so excited, I could see what a difference it made in a matter of weeks," says Armstrong. "Even the teachers that have been teaching for twenty-five years that are afraid to jump into technology, they have jumped in with both feet. It's rejuvenated their ideas and their motivation."

As part of the school's literacy focus, a dedicated technology coach gives one-on-one instruction to students, who can manipulate giant letters on the interactive whiteboard. "They have a lot of problems when it comes to m and w," says Armstrong. "When they can flip the m over and it becomes a w, they get it. They'll say, 'Oh, it's standing on its head!' It's so much fun for them to do, and they're actually in charge of it. They have the power and, therefore, it's more pertinent to them."

As standardized-test pressure bears down on even the youngest learners and their teachers, Lilli Land challenges other principals to adopt AEEC's project-based-curriculum approach.

"We're teaching all the required content area, but we're doing it in a way that's more innovative, creative, that's off the path of what most people choose," Land says. "But there are many people who think, 'Well, we have to have the workbooks; our kids have to do drill and practice.' That's just scratching the surface, and it's also turning kids off to learning. And so you have to really be confident and trust in what you know is appropriate and good for young children, and believe that if you're actually involving the children every day in activities that are going to make progress in the academic areas, they're going to be fine on assessment."

Ken Ellis is executive producer of Edutopia video.

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