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Turn Traditional Units of Study Into Deeper Learning Experiences

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Visit elementary classrooms across the country and you're likely to find plenty of students studying state geography and state symbols. But how often does the learning stop with memorization, recall, or perhaps a short-term activity? How many students get a chance to think critically and apply their understanding? Years from now, what will stick with them from their state studies?

To see how a traditional unit can be remodeled into a more authentic project that leads to deeper learning, consider how third grade students at St. Michael's Country Day School in Newport, Rhode Island, spent this school year.

During a lesson on state symbols, students raised an interesting question: Why doesn't Rhode Island have an official state insect? After all, 46 other states do.

Teachers Lorie Loughborough and Linda Spinney could have shrugged off that question and continued with their lesson plans. Instead, the question became the springboard for in-depth inquiry and a student-led campaign that took them all the way to the statehouse.

Here's what Rhode Island State Senator Susan Sosnowski had to say in May when she introduced a bill to the Senate, designating the American burying beetle as Rhode Island's official state insect:

The students behind this bill have worked hard to make their idea a reality, negotiating the democratic process like adults and exercising their rights as involved citizens. It's been an excellent civics lesson for them, and they've been a great example to other kids of how any citizen, at any age, can be engaged in their government and make a difference.

I'm willing to bet that those real-life lessons -- along with an understanding of ecosystems, environmental science, and more -- will stick with students long after their elementary years are over.

Let's take a closer look at how a traditional unit can be remodeled into more authentic, and memorable, project-based learning.

A Project Takes Shape

I had a chance to hear from St. Michael's students (and their teachers) earlier this year, before they succeeded in getting their bill passed unanimously by the state Senate. Students were eager to explain why they had taken up the cause of the American burying beetle.

Once they decided to lobby for a state insect as a class project, they had to make a choice. Students investigated various options and thought critically about which insect would make a good symbol.

Other states have already designated the monarch butterfly, European honeybee, and ladybug. (Back in 1974, a second grade class from Lulu M. Ross Elementary School in Milford, Delaware, convinced their state legislature to have the ladybug designated as their state insect.) So St. Michael's students took their investigation deeper, asking: Is there an insect that's unique or special to Rhode Island?

When a conservationist from Rogers Williams Park Zoo introduced students to the American burying beetle, they found their candidate. Students learned that the beetle is a "natural recycler," enriching soil by feeding on dead animals. Once common across the Eastern U.S., the American burying beetle has been on the endangered species list since 1989. Block Island, a tourist destination and nature preserve off Rhode Island's coast, is one of its last remaining habitats.

Students next used their communication skills to advocate for the beetle. That led to letter-writing campaigns to local newspapers and interviews with TV stations. Students supported their arguments with carefully researched scientific information. Those letters and interviews helped get them ready to testify before the state senate committee.

Throughout the project, teachers made key decisions that took learning to a deeper level, including:

  • Giving students more voice and choice in their learning
  • Connecting learning goals (such as understanding habitats and food chains) to a real-life issue (protecting an endangered species)
  • In-depth inquiry (starting with a student-generated question)
  • Producing an authentic product (advocating for legislation)
  • Learning from expert sources (such as the zoo's conservation scientist)
  • Going public to take learning into the world beyond the classroom

Did these teachers have every lesson planned out in advance? Far from it, they'll readily admit. But as the project unfolded, they took advantage of each opportunity to encourage in-depth inquiry and respond to students' questions with just-in-time teaching.

Hands-On Remodeling

Are you interested in remodeling a traditional unit into a more student-centered, inquiry-driven project?

That's the focus of "Hands-On Project Remodel: Rethink PBL to Take Learning Deeper," an interactive ISTE 2015 session that I'll be co-facilitating later this month with Mike Gwaltney (@mikegwaltney), history teacher and PBL veteran from Oregon Episcopal School. (Read an earlier post about an inspiring, real-world project from Gwaltney's government class, How PBL Creates Engaged Citizens.

If you're planning to attend ISTE 2015, please join us on Tuesday, June 30, from 12:30-1:30 p.m. EDT at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Bring a traditional unit idea or lesson plan that you want to remodel, and be ready to roll up your sleeves and start remodeling.

Meanwhile, please use the comments to share your thoughts and suggestions about project remodeling.

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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Lee Anna Stirling's picture

Susie, Great, practical information about a challenge-solving project. It sparks ideas teachers can translate to their situation for involving students in deeper learning. Kudos to you for all you do for learners.

(1)
Josh Thompson's picture

Thanks for the post! Im starting my first year as a high school teacher in August (I've been teaching at a university for the last two years), and I'm becoming more interested in how I can further innovate and revamp my instruction for deeper learning for my students. Do you have any other resources to recommend for those of us who aren't able to attend your session on remodeling traditional units?

(1)
kakraeger's picture
kakraeger
Elementary Gifted Specialist from Atlanta, GA

This is a wonderful post! It shows that even young students can engage in PBL involving real problems, not just teacher developed situations. Definitely gives me ideas for how I can use this same framework to transform some of my units. I wish I were able to attend the ISTE session in Philadelphia! It sounds like a fantastic opportunity for collaboration and learning!

(1)
Matt W.'s picture

I'd be willing to do the deep-learning-research necessary to decide an official cup of coffee for my state

Matt W.'s picture

@Josh T:

Interesting! a colleague of mine made a similar move from teaching English at a community college to a HS.

I know one of his biggest struggles was classroom management. I would recommend Fred Jones "Tools for Teaching" because it addresses a variety of issues in a fun, engaging book: making lecture easy to understand, how to avoid information overload for students, seating charts, dealing with "brat" children, and how to incorporate games into your lessons.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Josh,
Sounds like an exciting career transition. Without being too self-serving, I'd suggest you take a look at my books about project-based learning (which we'll be referencing in the ISTE session). A couple recent titles: Reinventing PBL, 2nd edition, co-authored with Jane Krauss (ISTE, 2014), and Implementing PBL (Solution Tree, 2015), which focuses on some the literacies students can develop through innovative project experiences. Good luck!

asamper's picture
asamper
Education Consultant with over 30 years experience in PK-12

Very interesting experiences. Thank you for sharing. Have you looked into Teaching for Understanding and what Project Zero is doing with Reggio Emilio approaches to all school levels?

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