Teachers, Like Students, Learn by Doing: Project Learning at Envision Schools | Edutopia
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Teachers, Like Students, Learn by Doing: Project Learning at Envision Schools

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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A quote by experiential-education pioneer Kurt Hahn projects brightly onto a large screen: "We are crew, not passengers." After a brief welcome, the thirty-five new teachers at Envision Schools are asked to respond to the quote in their journals. Then, following some quiet reflection time, the teachers meet their fellow group members.

A quote by experiential-education pioneer Kurt Hahn projects brightly onto a large screen: "We are crew, not passengers." After a brief welcome, the thirty-five new teachers at Envision Schools are asked to respond to the quote in their journals. Then, following some quiet reflection time, the teachers meet their fellow group members. (Groups are heterogeneous -- teachers come from different schools and content areas and have varying levels of technical expertise.) Within their new group, teachers then discuss their response to the quote and how they think the quote will impact the way they work as a whole over the next two days.

Credit: California State Parks

The Envision Schools facilitator then leads an activity on the attributes of high-quality stories. Next, she asks, "What do you think is happening in this photo?"

After discussing the photo, she then projects the graph below. "What could this data possibly be describing?" she asks, challenging this group of teachers-as-students.

"Together, we will explore the essential question 'Why do we exclude people?' by exploring the Angel Island Immigration Station," the facilitator explains. "Each group will propose an answer and present their findings through a digital story and free-verse poetry. Hopefully, your curiosity is piqued. Let's go -- we have a boat to catch!"

The teachers and the facilitator catch the next ferry to Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, to spend the day learning about immigration and exclusion by visiting the Angel Island Immigration Station, a facility that detained Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s. Teachers will spend the day learning from expert docents, exploring primary source documents, reading and writing free verse (the walls of the Immigration Station are covered with the immigrants' original poetry), studying challenging historical documents using literacy strategies from the Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI), and finding answers to the questions raised by the above photo and chart at the Angel Island museum.

After a long day on the island, the students are given their assignments: Consider the question of why humans exclude others and create a response using evidence gathered on Angel Island. This homework is also aligned with the Envision Schools performance-assessment system. (If we, as facilitators, had more time, this homework assignment would be the first step toward an essay that could be used in a Lower Division Benchmark Portfolio or a Graduation Portfolio.)

The teachers will then use the Oracle Education Foundation's Think.com Web site to post their responses. This assignment will prepare the teachers for their tasks the next day: To answer the question of exclusion, they must create and present a short digital story using Apple's iMovie and create and present a free-verse poem. In addition, both assignments have benchmark assignments that must be completed and assessed by one of the school's facilitators.

The next day, teachers arrive early and ready to go to work -- the power of public performance motivates younger and older educators alike. The groups work diligently and frantically during the morning to complete their digital story and their poetry and present them to the larger group, in addition to other members of the Envision Schools professional-learning community, that afternoon. Through the experience, teachers learn that a project-based-learning classroom feels a little like chaos -- managed chaos. It is definitely clear PBL is active learning. They also learn that the power of performance can motivate even the most reluctant learners.

As great as the learning is during the "doing" stage of PBL, the real learning occurs during reflection. The facilitator asks folks to reflect in three ways: as individuals, as a work group, and as a large group. Teachers quickly move from making generalizations about the experience and its implications to applying what they've learned to the teachers' future classrooms, their integrated project-based teams, and their schools as a whole.

They introduce the tools used for design -- the Six A's of PBL, Simultaneous Outcomes, and Balanced Assessment (see below) -- and discuss how to use them. It is clear these are the types of activities and projects expected at Envision Schools. Finally, the teachers get to use these tools to design projects with support from facilitators (this type of support continues throughout their career at Envision Schools, with fifteen days of student-free professional-development time annually, five hours of collaborative time weekly, and monthly classroom mentoring).

Though this two-day experience is merely a slice of a project and is really just a PBL teaser, teachers leave excited and motivated to design their own powerful experiences. Envision teachers leave as members of the crew, ready to change lives and prepare students for success in college and beyond.

What do you think of this learning/teaching assignment and process? I'd be interested in your comments.

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LuAnn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are two things that I like about the project learning.
One is the cooperation among the members of the group to complete the task together. Students need to be taught how to sucessfully work as a team. It was mentioned that the participants all had the opportunity to benefit from the motivational experience.
Secondly, the students'learning is enhanced through the use of the senses in the hands-on experience. I believe it also opens up more possibilites for teachable moments that have not been predicted to happen.
I have been so fortunate to have had many active hands-on staff development experiences. It is so much better than sitting and listening to a lecture. I need to remember that when planning my own students' lessons.

Becky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great change of pace from the usual lecture format of most teacher trainings. Even though we are adults, we all still have different learning styles. The opportunity to practice new methods, with constructive feedback and personal reflection, is a valuable learning experience. Like most of our students, we retain much more by actually doing, not just listening.

Becky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great workshop as opposed to the traditional lecture format. Even as adults, we all learn differently. The project-based lesson allows the teachers to practice new skills, in a stimulating environment, while receiving constructive feedback. Isn't that what textbooks have been stressing for years? Why do we save it just for our students? Adults too enjoy hands-on lessons.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we all learn better by doing. The first time I experienced group project learning, I was a bit intimidated. When I was in school we did not learn that way. For me, it was out of the box thinking. I was comfortable working on my own, not with others. The experience opened my eyes to a new way of learning and teaching. It is still uncomfortable for me, but I have to admit that what I learned seemed to stick with me better than just listening and taking notes. It would be nice to have some professional development days where the learning we do is specific to teaching this way. Take a day trip to a museum and work through a lesson geared for our students.

Students today are become more comfortable with it and desire hands-on projects within a group setting.

One suggestion to spice up Social Studies and Science in the classroom, that I have seen work well, is to have the students work in small groups or pairs and research and create power point presentations. They can work on a region/state/planet/map of cell/travel to the center of the earth travel brochure with details and descriptions promoting a visit to their particualar area of study. This has been a very successful method of learning for the students in one school that I teach at. The students get very excited about this creative outlet. If you do not have access to computers, they can make three-fold brochures instead. The students have to discuss and listen to one anothers suggestions. They have to research their topics as a team. They have to agree on how to write it up, choose graphics, special effects, music, etc. They are motivated to create interesting, unique, research projects this way.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is a wonderful way for teachers to continue to learn. Hands-on always seems much more real. We learn things so that we are able to live in a society outside of the classroom. We teach so that students will be able to do the same. Why shouldn't the practice of learning for the professional in the business of teaching be the same way? Real.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Just curious... how do your reflection parts of your lessons play out? Are they a group activity or an individual look back? Do you do these with allof your plans?

Thomas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Learning is something that all teachers should be doing on a daily basis, and what better way to do that than by doing hands-on activities. Hands-on projects get both children and adults excited and motivated. While at the same time the hands-on projects help the learner (teacher) become more proficient in the content matter or subject material.

Melissa Yeager's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree...this is an age old idea that I have forgotten.
And, like you I am in a Master's program having to do some hands on, learning as I go. It has been a very meaningful process for me...experimenting.
I hope you are enjoying the stimulation as much as I am. :-)
I look forward to incorportating at least 2 new project/learning activities next year, in each subject area. How about you?
Melissa Yeager

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in agreement as well. Often times teachers get too wrapped up in what they are supposed to be teaching that they forget who they are really there for, the student. I wish every teacher took the time to make learning enjoyable through hands-on project based learning.

Lindsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many of us are used to the lecture-type of presentation as adults and, in fact, are more comfortable with this type of approach now; however, we know that this is not the most beneficial approach to learning. We almost have to go back and teach ourselves a new way of learning by actually experiencing project-based learning ourselves. What a great way for teachers to learn first-hand the benefits of real life, project-based learning experiences.

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