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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S. Durham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. Children are limited to hands-on and world experiences that would make learning more meaningful. You made a good point in your posting. I never thought about the vocabulary our students have or the lack of. Without the cultural and hands-on experiences our children will always be limited.

Mark C's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have just started a Master's program, and one of the requirements was to go to a blog and see what it is like. I must say, I have never been in a place where there seems to be such a unanimity of opinion!! I read most - but not all - of the replies to the original writing, and it seems that everybody agrees with the original writer's statements about hands on learning. I guess I am surprised by this. It is not that I am against hands on learning. I am for it when it is possible to understand a subject better and if the activity fits. But to be truly educated, it takes reading, reading, and more reading. There is no replacing the knowledge attained by reading. If I want to even begin to have enough knowledge about history or literature, for example, I had better spend most of my time reading. How can I truly have an in-depth conversation with someone about any topic unless I am well read?? Once again, I am not against hands on learning, but it seems that I am continually running into adults - including college educated teachers - who don't know even the most basic facts about the history of our own country. I am deathly afraid that we are soon going to be the victims of that addage by George Santayana:"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In fact, many highly educated individuals would argue that we already are repeating the mistakes of Ancient Rome, and that our fall is already under way.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I coudn't agree more about hands-on activities. I,myself, cannot learn just by having someone tell me something. I must have an activity to do.

Serina Alfano's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Being a math teacher, I am always looking for ways to incorporate hands-on activities. I believe it to be essential, especially in a subject most students struggle with, such as math. This article has opened my eyes to a higher level thinking group work, which I plan on incorporating into my classroom.
I am interested in participating in this professional development workshop if it is being offered again. Please keep me posted.
Thank you for sharing!

Serina Alfano's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kara, I am very interested in finding out more about this math program your school has adopted. I agree that the "hands-on" activities increase students understanding and I feel it may keep the information fresh in their minds.

As for the time limit you mentioned, if this is your math curriculum I agree, the low students will never have a chance to finish. However if it is not your curriculum, I think it is wonderful to have the students work as swimmers, trying to beat their own scores.

Christine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with you, Jonathan. I think it is so important for the students to reflect upon their hands on experiences. Our math program promotes hands on learning, but sometimes I feel that the students don't really have an understanding of the basic concepts that they are supposed to be learning about!

Stephanie C.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Mark. I too have just started a Master's program that has required me to spend a little time visiting and participating in the blogging world. I appreciate your going out on a limb and being the only person to respond with less than what might be called enthusiasm to this piece on hands-on learning. I also would promote reading as one of the greatest activities to provide the basis for and enrich one's education, but that is probably because I love reading and I am quite good at it. Having had experience with children who struggle with reading, I can tell you that hands-on activities that include reading while also encouraging other types of thinking skills (as most hands-on activities do) make all the difference in the learning process of a poor reader. I have tested all of my 2nd Grade students this year and they are pretty good readers. Interestingly, when I test their comprehension, they consistently score higher when asked information about things they have experienced through hands-on projects rather than things they have read about during silent reading time. I am not advocating students shouldn't read. Instead, reading should be one important part of a series of learning approaches. This is what the adults in this project did (read primary sources documents, listened to experts speak, and wrote free verse in order to create a presentation) and this is what adults everyday do in order to learn (read, watch movies, check out blogs..etc). Reading is a part of learning, but not the only learning activity.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am beginning a Master's program that asked us to look into blogs. I am new to this use of technology. The topic of Hands on Learning captured my attention. I am interested in learning more about the various styles of learning. I do agree that Hands on Learning leads to greater student achievement and success.

RobbinDT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Amen to that! I cannot emphasize enough the importance of not only hands on activities for our students but also for us as teachers. I hate a workshop where the presenter lectures as much as I do a class where the professor does. The notes I take at either I too often choose not to apply because a)the methodology was not shown to me; b)its effectiveness lacked a visual interpretation; or c)I did not/was not given the opportunity practice what was preached.

The opposite for me is true where presenters encourage participation, engage me with materials, and or keep me interested with different sounds, lights, and methods. I have used with my students materials I have created at workshops. In my class, the students lead each other in games I have learned from attending interactive conferences.

I hope some administrators out there are reading these blogs!!! What a benefit such workshops would be to recharge your teachers.

Kristen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that children learn in a combination of Kinisthetically,visually, and oral lessons. However I belivev that you learn quicker when you do things hands on. For example, You can be driven somewhere a number of times. You remember it best when you actually drive there.

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