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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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my district the math curriculum has also gone to a "hands on approach". While my wife teaches math, I teach Social Studies. In my classes I have adopted a curriculum that is hand on. I agree that hands on learning and making the content relevant to the students are extremely important for meaningful learning to take place. I also have an issue with structure. I always want my room to be organized and the students in specific locations at all times. I have learned to work with "organized chaos". The students may be out of their seats at a work station or rotating around the room, but they know exactly where they should be at all times. I ask my students their favorite activity or lesson on each test. Nine times out of ten they will comment on a lesson that was hands on. This shows me what is working and meaningful to the students.

Dawn Campbell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree, I have taught numerous workshops on computer applications at my school, and I have found that teachers like yourself, that have very little experience with computer use have a particularly difficult time if they don't really dive in and do it. Those teachers that take the information and practice what we do in the workshop and actually go right back and apply it to their classes, retain the information and use it regularly. Then there are those teachers that come in with the attitude that they don't need to learn this (sometimes teachers make the worst students)they've done fine up until now. Those teachers that just sit back and watch others or struggle within the workshop and refuse to ask questions and try new things, they never use it again.

I applaud your drive and courage, trying something new like this.

~Dawn Campbell

S. Durham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I honestly believe that children learn better through hands on experimantation. When children can go from the abstract to concrete, the concept seems more real and can be easily understood. I realize that everything taught in the classroom cannot be hands on. In my district, our curriculum requires hands on instruction especially in math and science. I have found that using manipulatives, especially in math, helps with math steps in addition, subtraction, multiplication, fractions, and solving word problems. Reflecting on my own experience in the classroom as a student, I remember how well I grasped mathematical concepts with the aid of manipulatives. When I was able to comprehend the operations in math, I felt better about math and myself. I did not feel like a failure. As stated in the article, the power of performance can motivate the most reluctant learner. As a teacher, I know that students learn in different ways and hands on is a way that all students can learn.

Ben Sheaffer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my content area, physical education, we teach the concepts of fitness. They are muscle strength, muscle endurance, flexibility, aerobic fitness, and body composition. Students seem to develop an understanding of these components when we participate in activities that specifically target one. For example, when introducing aerobic fitness to my students, I explain to them what the definition is and then we do an activity that will fall under the aerobic catagory. I have them check their heart and breathing rate periodically. They put one hand on their heart and the other hand opens and closes to represent the speed of their beating heart. For elementary aged students that are able to experience the concept of aerobic exercise by monitoring and listening to their bodies. Now when I ask them what aerobic fitness is they are able to recall a specific activity that they participated in and explain changes that occured that correspond to a working definition.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I fully agree that students learn by seeing, listening, reading, and DOING. While I am a strong supporter of hands-on activities, being a science teacher, I feel it is always important to ask if the activity fits in with the desired learning outcomes.

Sometimes we, as educators, get caught up in trying to make something hands-on, but never follow it up with making connections to what we expect students to learn. Reflecting on and discussion the outcome of the activity is as important, or more important, than the activity itself (in my opinion)

Hands-on activities, coupled with meaningful discussion and reflection, keeps students engaged and moving toward being critical learners.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Children as well as adults learn in different ways. You have to find what works with the child or adult. No matter the learning styles the importance is how you connect the information being taught to their real lives. Then the real learning begins. I also feel that individualizing the work first gives the student ownership and responsibilty for their own learning. Then having the students collaborate with one another helps the learning increase by gathering more information.

Billy Homan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree - not all children learn by doing, but most do. I say that because part of the "doing" process in projects includes active listening and engaging collaboration. Within projects, there is so much happening - the oral, written, and physical project itself. Because of the level of engagement opportunities, I think there is usually something for everyone. It is not the only way to go, but it is powerful, and long lasting. When I think of my own elementary experience, I remember the projects the most.

Billy Homan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that is a good point - an effective teacher cannot just "make" something hands on and believe it will be successful because now it is a project. I, too, strongly believe that some of the most important aspects of "doing" are the planning and reflection stages. With clear objectives, and opportunities for collaboration and application of knowledge in unique and perhaps real-life scenarios, learning by doing can be very valuable. This style , if done thoughtfully, can combine academic skills, social skills, and life skills - this can be a valuable experience with a lasting impact - for teachers and students.

Billy Homan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Donna, I was curious - which new math program did you adopt? It sounds very interesting. I try to have my kids focus on the process - questioning the answers and not just answering the questions.

Zach Couchman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think you have great ideas concerning having students check their heart rates and understand how to perform the exercise on themselves. To ensure students are understanding the material in terms of finding a target heart rate, we as PE teachers must show them how to find their pulse, where to find their pulse, and finally what to do once they do find and locate their pulse. It is also a great ideas of using target heart rate to incorporate mathematics into a PE lesson so that more than one subject is being covered and a cross-curricular lesson is achieved. If students can have fun by finding their target heart rate and also enjoy math out of it, chances are good that math will not scare students as it typically does, and instead it may motivate the students to enjoy math instead of fear it.

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