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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Kara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I fully agree with Jennifer's posting. The math program that my school has adopted is a FULLY hands-on curriculum. It is so very hard to get used to "adapting" to this, though. The students are allowed to work at their own pace and in whatever means they want. I believe a limit needs to be set on the availability of "hands-on". There is so much expected of teachers nowadays that there isn't any time to just do fun, hands-on activities; we have to teach "to the test" (no matter how much I can't stand that cliche). What this math program does not include is a reflection section after each lesson. So each teacher has to find the time to reflect and discuss with the students whatever the lesson was about. I do, on the other hand, believe that a hands-on approach is more exciting and engaging for the students. I just also believe their should be a limit set for it.

Craig Forth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a first grade teacher in upstate New York. I work with 20 students each day and I am constantly looking for ways to make their learning interactive and memorable. As in many classrooms, a lecture from the front of the room simply will not work. I agree with this article's take on making learning interactive and diverse.

Taking these teachers out of their comfortable environment and exposing them to new and interesting learning situations will be something they will remember and possibly cherish. I attempt to do very similar exercises with my students. We will frequently travel throughout the school to look for new words, take field trips that are associated with a classroom theme, or work in groups to solve problems by exploring the area outside of our school. As I said, this is a smaller scale, but it too has a lasting effect. I seek to build upon these experiences and make learning relative to their lives.

On a further note, this strategy also works with multiple intelligences. They are asked to work in groups to complete a multi-facet project. This allows for the deligation of roles and for the teachers to work with their personal strengths. The assignment was not limited to a simple essay or a multiple choice worksheet. The responses were real and the teachers felt motivated. I also try to establish this sort of project within my classroom. It is difficult to always play off the strengths of every student, but giving students the freedom to choose how they contribute to the group can provide a great sense for who my students really are inside.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a firm believer that children learn best by doing. There is a saying that goes something like this; Tell them - they forget, Show them - they understand, Let them do - they understand. I find this to be tru in my own classroom, but like so many other teachers, I fel there is so much to cover with so little time to do so.

Tonja Rushing's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that students retain more information when hands on learning is used. I try to use a variety of strategies but sometimes it is difficult to use hands-on-learing in grammar. I have noticed that if I have a hands-on-activity the students tend to do better and retain that information longer than if we do notes and assignments. If anyone has suggestions or knows of a website to locate suggestions I would appreciate it.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too believe people/children learn by doing. Experiencing something promotes long lasting learning. Students must experience new knowledge while making it meaningful to them. Learning comes from within. I agree that there is so little time to cover what is required of teachers. It would be nice if we could "tell them" less and have them do more!

Teacher in Oxnard, California's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Well put Craig. I agree with everything you wrote. What does a teacher do when she is not supported by the principal? He believes that leaving the school or spending too much time out of the classroom cuts into "instructional minutes." I do not think he sees or understands the value. The staff has tried to convince him with every possible example. He stands firm in his decision. We are only allowed one fieldtrip after standardized testing is completed in May. I wonder what it was like to sit in his class when he WAS an educator? We are planning on taking our students to The Los Angeles Science Center. Imagin tapping into those multiple intelligences. Thank you for sharing. It is nice to learn that there are teachers who are extending the learning outside of the classroom.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I support "learning by doing." Many of us came into the profession of teaching with little or no prior teaching experience. We learned by observing others and through practice. Every year we learn a "better" way of teaching/presenting the same material. Some of us have had opportunities to visit other teachers in order to gain more insight. I look forward in attending workshops that include a "make and take" activity. It helps me remember why I attended the workshop by solidifying the information. I think that this is how it works for our students. We expose them to information that is quickly applied. I am sure that they gain more than the intended outcome. I work in a city that has access to the Pacific Ocean. However, many of my students have never experienced the beach. So many standards can be applied to one visit to the beach. Many more when the lesson is expanded. Imagine the realia we can later bring into the classroom. We can continue to expand across the curriculum. I believe that with careful planning and thoughtful follow through "learning by doing" can be a great strategy for teaching children and adults.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am the type of person that learns by doing. I also think students will get a better understanding of a topic if they are actually "doing" (hands-on) activies. I also understand that just because I have to learn that way, not every one is the same. I have to come up with different strategies and ways to teach so each of my students are understanding. Every subject is not hands-on, but just by participating in a discussion will help a student understand. I agree with Jonathan C. when he says that hands-on learning will enhance a student's learning.

Terri Buss's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the quote by Kurt Hahn, "We are crew, not passengers." I am going to spend some time journaling myself on this quote, because that is what I am trying to do more of. I firmly believe in the idea that most people learn best by doing hands on activities and having live experiences. It is sad that funds for field trips are not as plentiful as we would like them to be. Our students get little out of the neighborhood opportunities to experience science, social studies, math and literature. So their vocabulary is limited as is their store of backgroud knowledge for class discussions. This is my first time blogging, and I can see why it is good for stimulating thought. I will definitely do it again.

Craig's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Oxnard,
I am sorry to hear of your troubles with convincing your principal to allow trips. Rest assured that you are not alone. I have several teacher friends who have gone through your circumstance. I do not know if you are the same, but I look back and I remember every field trip that I went on during school. I don't even remember all the names of my teachers. What does that say? Maybe that field trips are more memorable because we are absorbed in the environment and true learning can occur.

I wish you luck and hope you don't stop pushing for what you feel your students need.

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