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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

Co-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

Renee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree about students being actively engaged in learning. The project based learning in the article is just one way to do this. I try to incorporate as many hands on activities as possible into my own teaching as well. I, myself, learn best this way. When I read something from a textbook or article I have a hard time remembering what I read. I can't stay focused on reading or lectures. When I learn by doing I retain more meaning and can communicate better what I have learned. If we are trying to raise test scores then we need to increase the information our students retain and internalize. I believe that hands on learning does this far better than other methods. Students do get excited about doing hands on projects, and if we can get then interested, we can get then to want to learn more.

Stacy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I agree with Joy that compromise is the best course. My school has a new principal this year, and he is new and very overwhelmed by his job, but still very concerned about what is going on in classrooms. My first two years, the principal was very open to her teachers' ideas and had no problems with us "looking outside the box" as you put it, and so supplementing our rigid, step by step curriculum was somewhat easier. This year, those same ideas used in the past that are not part of our standard curriculum are being challenged/vetoed by our new administrator. My fellow colleagues and I find we are having to start from the beginning, justifying why a particular deviation (from curriculum) is beneficial to our students. You know the students in your room; in my mind, that gives you license as their teacher to engage them in meaningful activities that support your objectives. Yes, it is a sad commentary that numbers are all that seem to matter today. However, if your activities can improve those numbers, then everyone should be happy!

Daniel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that student learning is affected by their involvement in the classroom and their involvment in the classroom is dependent on how active they are, and how much fun they are having in the classroom. Currently I taught my students a lesson on culture where I had them develop their own class culture. They needed to develop everything from the food and language of the culture to the religion and government. Every aspect of culture they had to create working in small groups. The other 7th grade teacher did worksheets with them where they read something and attempted to answer questions. They were bored out of their minds, and when it came time to be quizzed, my students excelled and the other class ended up being just average.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to say that hands on learning is probably the most beneficial to the students. Not all students learn by doing, but when you break away from the norm and try something new, the children are able to remember it better that if they did it on a worksheet.

Billy Homan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Active and engaging learning, such as project-based learning is so powerful, and often ideal. In active learning, students have opportunities to be engaged physically/kinesthetically, verbally, and auditorily. This multi modality approach is engaging for students and can incorporate higher order thinking skills and collaboration - two essential life skills.
While students learn so differently and a challenge is always the engagement of all students,I loved the statement, "They also learn that the power of performance can motivate even the most reluctant learners." (Lenz, Bob)
There can be a good deal of planning and prep work, but that's good teaching - an effective, lasting educational experience.

Terri V-P's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


It is really scary to think that we are educating students for careers that are not yet created. It just makes our job even more difficult:) In my technology classes, I try to get the students to use critical thinking skills and to use research. They start with a rather broad subject and then narrow it down as they delve more deeply. In finance the final project is a "moving away from home" project. They must move to where they want to live, do a resume, find an appartment, a job, community activities, make a budget, figure their salary, etc. They realize how much their education can do for them and they haven't even imagined what will be available in 10 years!

Sabrina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that most students learn more by doing rather than just by reading about a science experiment or some math strategy. When students can manipulate something to get an outcome they will remember it more than if they just did a worksheet about it.

Donna Pedersen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the comments of how our students learn by doing. We can't just show students how to come out with the correct responses for math problems. That is why we are continually teaching the same skills in math year after year. I teach 7th grade special education. Every year we have lessons on fractions and decimals. Guess what? They also did that in all the years before. When they get to 8th grade it is still in the curriculum and they still can't find answers. My school district just adapted a new math progam that is inquiry based where students are required to answer how they get the answers. It is very different from the traditional approach that I learned as a student and how my students have been taught up to this point. It is a transitional point and is very challenging, however, I see the benefits already that the students are learning from. It seems to make sense of the whole process of how the problems are solved. I feel I could have been a better math student if I understood how problems are solved and didn't just memorize formulas. Students as well as teachers do learn by applying the knowledge that is learned.

Amanda Beier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you Sabina hands on learning is an excellent way to help your students remember what they are learning. It is hard to do this when data drives the school systems but I believe having the students do what I want them to learn helps their comprehension. Some teachers think this is to much work because they have to come up with creative ideas to teach instead of handing out worksheets, but I think it is worth the time. Relating what they are learning to the world outside the classroom helps them make connections that they may not have made. Hands on learning is a great way to build these connections.

Amanda Beier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with all of you. I believe hands on learning experiences give students a higher level of comprehension. When students do something hands on they make connections that may not have been met otherwise. Many teachers would rather pass out numerous worksheets instead of taking time to create hands on learning experiences for their students. I believe the time spent on creating these lessons is time well spent when a student understands and remembers the learning experience and the material being taught.

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