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.

Comments (113)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sabrina McAuliff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the article, I teach first grade and it seems that all my school cares about it numbers, test scores and AYP. We have to follow what every text books the give us and curriculm. I feel to trapped by the books and adminstrators. I try to find ways to work around the book and step by step curriculum. My children love to do centers and hands on projects. I see my children learing more and getting excited about the subject I teach. Even if this mean getting yell at by the boss. I feel that test scores are not the end all to be all. We need to look out side the box and see what really matters.

Sabrina McAuliff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really like you comments, I totally agree that studetns learn better when they are acvitly engaged in the learing. When students are incharge of their learning they tend to learing better and understand more. My students are first graders and I notice a difference when i just stand up and talk then when they are doing the talking and teaching. I am the same way since I have ADD/ADHA I have learned better from hands on then text book. also when it comes to testing I was horrable but I knew the material, but becasue I did not pass a test I knew nothing. I think that if there was more hands on projects in the classroom we would have higher test scores and more students excited about learing and coming to school.

What Do you think?

Jessica Wilkey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Investigations was used at the school I student-taught at. I really enjoyed using Investigations and thought that studetns performed well. I teach kindergarten and having a curriculum with plenty of hands-on experience is so important. The school district that I am in now just recently adopted a new curriculum, but unfortunately it is a more traditional curriculum. I still plan to use what I can from Investigations, but I do not have the texts available.
I try to incorporate other types of project based learning when possible, but it can be difficult to manage with kindergarteners, especially at the beginning of the year.

angela korabek's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also am in my second year of teaching third grade. In my classroom was a Math Investigations set. As I began looking at it, I was told that the other teachers don't use it because it would "take forever" to cover our math standards if we used it. I really like some of the hands-on activites but I am not sure if it alone would do the job. I was wondering if anyone has an opinion?

K. Berry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

That is impressive! I teach a middle school pre-engineering and career technology class. Since what I teach is dyanmic, it is better that my students don't really remember the content, but rather how to obtain knowledge . I have always been a proponent of PBL and this is a great case in point. Most of the jobs that our students will be doing in ten years do not currently exist, so content is not something we can actually prepare them for. But we can prepare them to work together in teams, meet deadlines, time management, how to find answers, and to develop life-long learning.

Thank you for sharing.

Joy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I understand your frustration. Administrators have tremendous pressure on them, also, to show results. I am not sure what the answer is,except perhaps, compromise. If you can demonstrate that your students can master the skills expected of them, through hands-on learning, perhaps your administrator will allow you a little more freedom in your methods.

Kacie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that students learn much more if they are actively involved in the process. It is amazing to see them exceed expectations when they pour everything that they have into a project that they feel a connection to, rather than rushing through an assignment just to get it done. If we expect and allow creativity from our students and ourselves we will almost never be disappointed with the results.

Jessica Wilkey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that project based curriculums are great. In this day and age teachers really need to be proficient at differentiation. Students learn in so many ways. Each one is different and can not be expected to perform the same way on all types of assessment. It is not fair to expect students to do well if they are not taught in a way that aligns with their particular strengths and learning styles. When having students do projects, it is possible to let students choose a format that will best showcase their knowledge.

I also think that making learning exciting is important. Students should want to come to school and learn. If the subject is taught in a way that is not exciting and does not pertain to their lives, then they will get bored. Hands-on learning experiences make the topic real and relevant.

Pamela Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading your article it reminded me of all of the good practices that we are taught in college. I am going on my eighth year of teaching and I still need reminders of what works best for my students. This year I have implemented small groups for reading, writing, and math. My class has been participating in more cooperative learning experiences.

I am in the process of testing out the math pilot, Math Investigations. It does take longer to go through the lessons but I have found I am covering more concepts in one lesson. The graphic organizer above made me see that as our children are applying the knowledge, they are praciticing the basic concepts that they need to know. The jury is still out for Math Investigations.

Joleen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach Kindergarten as well and we use the Invesigations curriculum as a resource (we also use a county developed curriculum and Scott Foresman). I agree that the hands on activities are wonderful for the children to really grasp the concept being taught. I just finished reading an article on brain research which states that "obviously we do learn from reading and hearing, but the strongest connections are often made through concrete experience" (Wolfe, 2003). I think a lot of teachers see the hands on approach as a primary level activity, but I have used learning centers in all grade levels up through 5th grade with great results. As a learner myself, I gain more from actually performing a task/experiment than just reading about someone else doing it.

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