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

Wayne Bennett's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I must agree, learning by doing is very productive. I've been teaching for twenty-two years and the number of staff development days that have been productive can be counted on one hand. However, a couple of weeks ago we had a staff development and the presenter had us do the brainstorming and hands on projects throughout the two day presentation and I can safely say that those were two constructive days for me.

tdecoff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was drawn to this blog as it was connected to a reading that I am doing in my master's program. It is certainly true that real life experiences are crucial for the most beneficial learning to occur. Our brain can process these experiences and recall them with greater ease in the future. This is an important lesson for all educators to realize. We often forget the importance of letting our students explore the world around them. Thanks for this interesting experience of a professional development class.

Jo P's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is exciting for students no matter what subject to do hands on projects. It solidifies the content of the information they have studied. As a visual art teacher at the middle school level, I use this in reverse. Students always think of art class as one project after another. They think it is simply going in and drawing or painting and not really thinking about "learning" information. I give them "jumpstart" work such as listings and definitions of art elements and principles of design. Then the artwork they do contains one of the art elements and at least one of the principles. This way they do not just do the project; they value art as a subject.
Besides who doesn't like getting out the watercolor paint and brushes?

Katie Hannen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree that it is much easier to learn something by being involved and actually doing it. I have participated in one assembly that the presenter had the teachers participate. It was a lot of fun and I still remember things from it. The speaker was from Applebaum and was terrific!

Laurie Strickland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved the analogy you posted about the blacksmith. I feel hand-on learning is essential in our schools. Kids don't get excited about sitting and listening to a lecture. Although it may take some extra effort to prepare a hands-on activity I think it would be well worth it in the end. I know when I teach a concept using hands-on activities the students retention is so much better. Months later they will say, "Oh yea, I remember this from that fun science experiment we did... etc."

Katherine Underhill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that students learn best by doing, in fact that is how I learn best. I was drawn to this blog because as a teacher with multiple special needs students, I am always looking for ideas on integrating a more hands on approach to learning for my students. Students take pride in work they produce themselves and enjoy the freedom of expressing themselves creativly.

D Dugie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I learn by doing, so in my own teaching I am working and learning with the children as well. As a teacher of Limited English Learners, a hands-on approach to curriculum is the way to better learning. My children need to work with and be excited about their finished product. I try to incorporate many techniques in teaching, including: experiments, projects, powerpoints, etc. to help to better their understanding.

K.L.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Rod Hite's comment that educators are often so busy that they forget to make learning exciting for students. Certain subjects and topics seem to naturally lend themselves to the "hands on" approach, like music, arts, physical education and science; all of which students love! I struggle with novel ways of teaching basic reading and writing concepts, although I suppose readers' and writers' workshop models are somewhat "doing" models of instruction. Social studies poses other issues: for example studying regions. Aside from map making and reading, it is difficult for me to find other ways to help students learn the material and concepts. Luckily, it seems to become easier to find novel teaching methods the longer I teach, and the more comfortable I have become with each area of the curriculum.

L.D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree children need to do more hands especiall with students that our Limited English Learners. In today's class room's we have more children that our ESL and they need not only hand's on but also visual and tacticle teaching. We need to make sure we we are doing a lesson we need to keep in mind to use all five senses, I think that this will teach differentiated students and making sure all students are involved and our learning.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a very visual, hands-on learner. Therefore, I feel it is necessary to use different techniques in the classroom. I have students who are able to complete tasks from reading and lecturing alone. I have others who think I am speaking a foreign language if I just lecture. It is very important to use hands-on, visual activities for all students. Those who do better with a paper and pencil get that chance to shine also. Those who are creative will be able to show their understanding as well.
I also believe that reflection of one's own work is so important. It helps them to decide what kind of learning went on instead of simply thinking that they just had to learn that concept. Now they may understand why.

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