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

Jill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that making learning both meaningful and engaging can be powerful for students. Like other teachers who have responded to this article, my district has too recently implemented a "hands on" mathematics curriculum, which is very different from traditional math instruction. While the amount of time invested in this type of learning activity can seem overwhelming, the benefits for students are substantial. The likelihood that students will remember a lecture followed by a worksheet activity is minimal. However, when provided with experiential learning opportunities that approach content from a variety of modalities, students are far more engaged and thus likely to recall and reuse the information gained in the future.

Regina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to agree that most students do learn through doing. Marcia Tate has a book out called "Worksheets Don't Grow Dingrites." She talks about how important it is for the students to have hands on experiences. They retain information better.

Dawn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the concensus that by engaging students in activities like the one described in the article we, take learning to a whole other level. I think to design plans for an entire year that were entirely like the one in the article would take a very long time. You would have to design activities that met multiple objectives so as not to leave any of the curriculum objectives out. There also needs to be time for instruction on how to create such projects. Personally, I wouldn't know the first thing about creating an Apple iMovie, so that would make my project take that much longer. I think the idea here is great, but the execution would need to be very well planned.
I also agree with those responding to Sabrina's post, that comprimise is probably the best approach in many situations. Many teachers have used direct instruction for so long, that to just jump into a fully hands-on approach would be very difficult. Also, to be completely stifled by the confines of a text book would be hard. By integrating both forms of delivering information we appeal to different learning styles. I can remember having a group of students that were so different in their needs as learners, some would need repeated real-life connection activities in order to really comprehend a concept, and others needed to go over and over the formulas or operations to get it before they could apply it to their lives. While hands on learning is important, I don't think we need to abandon the direct instruction and worksheets completely. Having a good balance of each seems to be the best way to get started. Any thoughts?

Angie Dunning's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is amazing how far education has come! I was in elemenatary school during the mid-80's and a lot of what I remember revolves around doing worksheets. Now it seems like in every classroom there is at least a small amount of hands-on learning that takes place, and in some classrooms that is all you will see.

I am someone that likes a lot of structure and organization. You would not think that if you were in my classroom. It is organized, but you will rarely find my students sitting in one place for very long. It would be nice if my students could learn the best by sitting and completing worksheets all day, but I have seen the effect of hands-on learning. Students increase their learning and knowledge if they are a part of the lesson. For example, I, like most, have a word wall in my room. We played a game a few days ago called "Catch My Fish". Students paired up and tried to spell certain words without looking. If they got it correct, they got to eat one goldfish cracker. The words they practiced that day are already starting to carry over into their writing!

In an article called "Brain Research and Education: Fad or Foundation", author Pat Wolfe, PH.D, states that "we do learn from reading and hearing, but the strongest connections are often made through concrete experiences." I believe this is true not only for students, but for educators as well. Professional development meetings where I am truly involved has the strongest impact on me. It may be participating in discussions or actually doing some of the activities that my students may be doing in the future.

Erin D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hands-On Learning

I am a true believer in hands-on learning. In my third year of teaching, my district offered a new math curriculum for those who wanted to try it. I decided to try it out. It was called "Deep in Math" and it was a hands-on approach to learning math and understanding math problem solving. Just about everything was in the form of real world problems. It became so relevant to me as well as my students. I even started conducting my Science classes where we would be actively doing something not just reading from a text. The results, the students stayed motivated, became more confident and independent. It is time consuming for the teacher, but when you look at the benefits in regards to your students, its worth every minute.

Barbara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The subject I teach is the perfect example of learning by doing. I am an art teacher. If I had my students do worksheets and take tests in painting techniques they would never learn how to paint mix colors. I come from a generation which did not use computers in our lives. They came to surface when I was out of college. It took years to actually tackle the challenge. I would not know how to use a computer or it's assortment of possibilities if I didn't do it hands on. You could read the directions or have someone demonstrate. There is no better way than doing it yourself.

Emmi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also agree with you that student learning is affected by their involvement in the classroom. It definitely takes more time to prepare, but when I have activities taking place in the classroom, my students learn and enjoy. I get so excited watching them learn. It is even more exciting and rewarding to watch them have fun learning. It's amazing how students retain knowledge when they do more than read a lesson and answer questions.

Wanda Dyer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a new teacher I see the benefits of hands-on learning. For one, it allows for real life application in the truist of sense. Secondly, this creates the ability to use the heirachy of Bloom's taxonomy by developing on previous knowledge and allowing the transfer into internalized learning. And finally, it creates a sense of ownership for the student and his/her ability to learn new concepts and ideas and yet have the support of peers and teacher. The type of lesson is less static and rigid and allows for greater student involvement which usually makes boredom less likely.

Stacy W.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved reading your comments to the Bob Lentz article. It is so true that students learn more by doing! When I started teaching 3 years I ago, I used mostly worksheets, because that is what the other teacher used. But, as I have evolved as a teacher, I have realized that when students are able to have those "concrete experiences" (Wolfe, 2007) they are able to understand the lessons better. I find it most notable in math. Our district adopted the Math Trailblazers approach. It is a mix of reading, talking, strategizing and working with manipulatives to learn math concepts. The students love math and are continually improving on their knowledge in this subject area! With all the time we put into our students having these hands on experiences I hope that other educators will follow in offering more hands on professional development opportunities. It would be great to go to workshops and experience the lessons that we will be ultimately sharing with our students. This would be most beneficial for me, as a teacher, and for my students!

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.

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