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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

Lori W.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How exciting to participate in such a hands-on learning experience. I agree that the best way a teacher can teach is first by doing. Teachers as a profession are "doers". Why would we think it would be best to teach educators by practices we ourselves wouldn't use in the classroom? We wouldn't expect our students to learn from just lecture and note taking. It's about time "best practices" in teaching extended to teacher professional development.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think what is amazing for me is how many presenters do not understand this concept. I have been to a few conferences where they are talking about using a hands on approach but they are using lecture to teach that to us. I am not one of those people who can just sit and listen to someone and gain much from it. I totally understand that some times we have information that needs to be provided in a lecture format but I hope that most teachers try to limit this as much as possible.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I live in Kentucky and we have what is called "Thoughtful Classroom". It allows students as well as teachers to learn in their own way. All students are capable of learning, it is just how they learn. As a first year teacher I consider myself as a student because I am learning what it takes to have my own individual classroom. I am considered as a mastery learner and I learn best by repetition, note taking, and actively participating. It took sometime for me to decide what type of learner I was and as a teacher it took some time to learn the way my students learn best.

Angela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It always amazes me how much professional development we do, but dont seem to get credit for. I have attended so many trainings that our disrict provides. Usually we have four trainings a month after school gets out, and then we have our morning meetings and staff development activities in our buildings as well. Our district and state expect us to invest our time, which we do for ourselves and our students, yet they dont truly support our goals. For example, a unexperienced teacher comes into our district with a MA degree, and recieves more pay than a teacher who has six years experience with a BA. Well, that 6 year teacher obviously has more experience and district training, and most likely has a goal to get a MA degree, but there is no funding for that goal. Why doesn't the district get more creative with their teacher investments? Maybe hire, training hands on around teacher goals and professional development, then allowing budgets or incentives to reward that teacher. Would itbe too smart and creative for a SCHOOL district to pair up with a UNIVERSITY in the state and government, and provide higher education for teachers? To me, that is a great investment and incentive for higher learning. Teachers gain a higher degree, besides just training. Teachers also gain more knowledge while recieving on the job training and application. The district and state is also saying that they are committed to supporting us, instead of telling us that we need to raise scores. When they truly invest in our educational costs and spending, they are becoming more apart of the whole picture process. As educators, we are expected to invest in everyone first, and then in ourselves. Then we are expected to pay for everything ourselves as well. When a teacher has worked in the field, he/she should be able to apply their goals and trainings towards a higher education degree, even in a building or cohort model. Now that is thinking in a new way. Do you know of any districts in and states that do this already? If so, please let me know and pass on the information so I can get it started here:)

Decynthia Arnold's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teachers are live long learners. Many teachers enjoy hands on activities. The generation of kids today are very hands on. We must make learning fun. We, the teachers, are competing with computers, video games, DVDs, IPODS, etc. Children and adults must do to make the learning real.

Lenee Bowles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is a great way for students and teachers to become better learners. In my own experiences I know that for me to learn quicker and easier is by doing so hands on. I teach kindergarten, and for them to listen constantly to a teacher talking is like talking to yourself. They don't want to sit through a long list of directions. If they can see what they are doing and provide the directions while they are interacting it is easier for them to learn. There are many hands on activities for the youngest to even the oldest of learners. It is our job as teachers though to make sure that we keep up on these new activities and ideas.

Lenee Bowles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is a great way for students and teachers to become better learners. In my own experiences I know that for me to learn quicker and easier is by doing so hands on. I teach kindergarten, and for them to listen constantly to a teacher talking is like talking to yourself. They don't want to sit through a long list of directions. If they can see what they are doing and provide the directions while they are interacting it is easier for them to learn. There are many hands on activities for the youngest to even the oldest of learners. It is our job as teachers though to make sure that we keep up on these new activities and ideas.

Dottie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree. I have been teaching for 6 years now and have taken enough Professional development in time to have gotten a doctorate. I'm still getting less money than some one with a MA in anything that comes to work as a teacher in my county. Our county hires someone with, for example, a law degree, gotten in 7 years, and can not pass the bar exam puts them in the classroom and pays them doctoral pay. To top this all off they can not teach a lick. Many of our fellow teachers have an MA or a PhD. Why not get with the state universities and organize classes to be held at local schools at a time convenient for the teachers and give them college credit. I would go, especially if I didn't have to pay for it. I would go if it were reasonable. I, however am getting tired of being required to take courses far from my school and home on my own time and only getting enough $ to pay for gas, and getting that a month or two later.
I also believe teachers hired without teaching certification by way of a real teaching degree should not get as much money as someone who has spent ten's of thousands of dollars to become a well trained knowledgeable teacher. I can't get the job of lawyer because I have a degree in teaching. Not eve if I am highly qualified in government and American history.

Karin Blankenship's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a fine arts teacher in grades preK-5. I have taught school for 23 years in Athens, Georgia. My students are the best advocates of this approach to learning. If I present the material in any other way I am met with cries of "...BUT WHEN ARE WE GOING TO DO ART!!!!" Hands on learning is the best way that I learn too. This is particularly true when it comes to technology and mathematics. However, all through my schooling and into my master's work I have found that to be the case. I would like to share with you an excerpt from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities(2000):

-Research in multiple intelligences, the brain, and how the emotions strongly effect learning, supports hands-on, experiential learning through the fine arts.

Shelley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I specifically like that the power of performance is what motivates people to learn. Whether it is student or teacher doing the learning, more active approaches in the field of education will produce a more interested and driven crowd. Taking in passive learning will only create passive methods of using what is learned. Getting students involved in the classroom setting will send them into the active modes of distributing what they have learned when it is time for real world application. We all would do very well to pay attention when research yields these results, moreover, we would do even better to apply the lesson.

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