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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teachers, Like Students, Learn by Doing: Project Learning at Envision Schools

Bob Lenz

Founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

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

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, am just beginning a Master's program that asked us to look into blogs. I can totally relate to why Hands on Learning can lead to greater student achievement. You can tell me all day long what to do with my laptop, but until I actually cut and paste or send an attachment it just doesn't "stick". This seems so obvious, but I still need to be reminded of this in planning for my fourth grade students.

Rosalyn Richardson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first attempt at blogging, too. I teach High School Physical Education. Hands on is essential in PE, of course, but students these days do not want any type of "lecture" during that period. I get so frustrated when I hear kids say, "This is PE, we're not suppose to have lecture and written tests." Our school has the Block 8 Schedule and to have physical activity for 75 minutes straight can be too much. I don't know about other schools and/or teachers, but I still "teach" the rules and strategies, along with participation, and review at the end of each class period. This still gives the kids about 50 minutes of "playing time." I even give reading and writing assignments at times. What do other HS physical educators do? Do you hear the same complaints from the students?

Diane R's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 6th grade Science and this year I have made a real effort on reacting students by many of the multiple intelligences. I have aquired a LCd projector to bring in more vibrant photos of subject matter, and worked with Power Point presentations instead of the standard overhead projector. Also, within the first 9 weeks, we have participated in 7 labs. Usually it's only one or two. I feel my students are excited about learning when they come to my class. I wish I would have paid attention sooner to what the needs of the students are instead of what make me comfortable. I also received training in Standards Aligned Classrooms, which at first I didn't care for, but now I realize the value of the training and how my students benefit.

I try to show them that they must be life-long learners and take an active roll in their education. They need to feel the empowerment of learning and how it's can only help them down the road. I hope I can maintain that environment to help them along.

Jacqueline Reyna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your comment. I think that when you have to go through a certain level of struggle to learn something you retain the information a lot better than when the same is explained to you. Of course, it is also good to have someone guiding you if you need help!

Eric's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rosalyn, I am not a P.E. teacher, but I just wanted to give my two cents. I think what you described is great. I do not believe the P.E. teachers at my school give any written tests, but I think they probably should. I think you could even justify it by saying that this is the way it is in college P.E. courses so you are preparing them for that. Also, we have these rules for a reason. Playing organized sports could be a great way to establish relationships even when they are not in school. Thus, it is important that they know the standard way to participate in them.

Some might argue against giving tests because they want to try to make physical education fun, so the students might view fitness as something that can be fun. This is also a great philosophy considering the obesity problem we have in this country. I think if you can incorporate learning of rules and such with the feeling that physical education can be fun, then you'll have a winning combination.

angela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought that the article proved a point that we should all try to keep in mind. That we are life learners. Helping students understand and learn to enjoy this aspect of life at a younger age will help them become even more inquisitive as they mature.

Rod Hite's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that using any and all technology, visual, and hands on images or sites to help build life long learners are to our advantage as educators. Imagine if every student in our classrooms came to class excited from the prior class or enthusiastic about learning from their prior year of school. These are the students we dream of as teachers, yet we miss out on opportunities to create this enthusiasm because we get too "busy" to take time to use some of the techniques mentioned. I love seeing some teachers are still building student dreams and teaching students and teachers there are more ways than one to educate.

Jason's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rosalyn, I teach elementary P.E. but have also taught 6-8. I too remember those comments about "just playing". I agree with you in your approach to physical education. We have to move our students and parents from the old thinking of traditional "gym class". Teaching rules, stratgies, and skills tests are very important in our field and for measuring mastery. We do have to make it fun but we are also professionals that provide an educational benefit through the physical. Keep up the good work!

Tabitha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teachers just like students do learn by doing. I find that when I am in a workshop and I can actually see a presentation, take notes, and make something to use in my classroom I have learned. I make every effert to do this with my third graders. When I plan I try to incoorporate hands-on project based activities to engage my students and have them see how they learn and produce a project that show themselves and myself that they have learned what was stated for them to learn. I try to incorporate projects, fill out a graphic organziers, watch video clips or power point presentations when I introduce a new concept.
I find that when I get to do the same things that I provide my students the opportunity to accomplish in my class I walk out with a new knowledge that we all know helps our students and us in the end.

Mandy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel that this is an age old idea that we as educators forget. When a young man wanted to become a blacksmith he did not take a class to have someone tell him how to wield the metal he became an apprentice to gain hands on experience and valuable skills. When teachers and students alike are gaining hands on experience we are learning actively as opposed to passively and we retain more. I have recently begun a master's program and the distance learning is a brand new concept to me but is very applicable to this topic. I consider myself computer literate, however, I am not savy, but I have gained a lot of knowledge in just these few short weeks because I am forced to try and experiment as I am learning in the class and I have retained more because I have been willingly forced to become an active participant in my own education.

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