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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Kindergartners Explore Through Project Learning

The Auburn Early Education Center immerses young children in self-directed projects.
Ken Ellis
Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia

VIDEO: Five-Year-Olds Pilot Their Own Project Learning

Running Time: 9 min.

"Don't go yet, because there's lots of airplanes and birds covering the sky!" warns a wary air-traffic controller from his cardboard perch above a mockup of a plane loaded with his classmates. But it's only a minor delay for students of the Yellow Pod, a small segment of the 460 kindergartners who attend the Auburn Early Education Center, in Auburn, Alabama. Soon, they will be virtually winging their way to Brazil on a fantasy flight aboard their handcrafted plane, culminating two and a half months of preparation for the role-playing exercise as part of a yearlong study of South America.

At this award-winning kindergarten learning center, shared with a special education preschool, the students decide what projects they want to tackle, and teachers guide them to resources, on the Internet and in books, that help them create something from what they learn. Whether they're building an airplane or a cruise ship, or conducting a funeral for the class praying mantis, AEEC students are learning more than basic facts and skills. They are acquiring a taste for the process of lifelong learning.

"These kids have a very authentic, real purpose for learning," says AEEC principal Lilli Land. "When you want to find something out, what do you do? You go to the computer, you get on the Internet, you get a book. You don't go to an adult and just have them feed you all the information. You have to learn to be a problem solver; you have to learn to be resourceful. So we teach them to be lifelong learners, and you have to keep them excited about the process of learning."

Although the project-based curriculum generates much of the enthusiasm for learning here, a recent infusion of technology -- putting interactive whiteboards in every classroom -- has raised the bar for students and teachers. Touching a giant screen, teacher Sandy Armstrong calls up a wall-size map of South America and points to Brazil. "That is a big place!" shouts a boy kneeling in front of her. And when she starts a video clip of an imposing anaconda, he says, "I'll bet he's gonna slide and slither and try to bite him."

"When they put it in our classroom and I saw everything that it could do just playing with it, and my kids were so excited, I could see what a difference it made in a matter of weeks," says Armstrong. "Even the teachers that have been teaching for twenty-five years that are afraid to jump into technology, they have jumped in with both feet. It's rejuvenated their ideas and their motivation."

As part of the school's literacy focus, a dedicated technology coach gives one-on-one instruction to students, who can manipulate giant letters on the interactive whiteboard. "They have a lot of problems when it comes to m and w," says Armstrong. "When they can flip the m over and it becomes a w, they get it. They'll say, 'Oh, it's standing on its head!' It's so much fun for them to do, and they're actually in charge of it. They have the power and, therefore, it's more pertinent to them."

As standardized-test pressure bears down on even the youngest learners and their teachers, Lilli Land challenges other principals to adopt AEEC's project-based-curriculum approach.

"We're teaching all the required content area, but we're doing it in a way that's more innovative, creative, that's off the path of what most people choose," Land says. "But there are many people who think, 'Well, we have to have the workbooks; our kids have to do drill and practice.' That's just scratching the surface, and it's also turning kids off to learning. And so you have to really be confident and trust in what you know is appropriate and good for young children, and believe that if you're actually involving the children every day in activities that are going to make progress in the academic areas, they're going to be fine on assessment."

Ken Ellis is executive producer of Edutopia video.

Comments (40)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Marvin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What is PBL? The article does not seem to define it.

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Hi Marvin:

The George Lucas Educational Foundation has a number of great articles, videos, and instructional modules on the topic of Project-Based Learning (PBL). Here are some places to start:

Start With the Pyramid (an overview article on PBL)

New Skills for a New Century (why PBL leads to acquisition of Knowledge-Age Skills)

Our Project-Based Learning Instructional Module is great for self-paced learning about PBL or for a workshop on the subject. You'll find presenter notes, slides, discussion questions, and more resources to extend your knowledge about PBL.

You'll find a complete listing of all our content on PBL here

Jeff Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a former teacher at AEEC, I just want to commend the progress they have made in the area of technology and the advances they have made in their PBL. You do not realize how effective this curriculum is for children until you are teaching in an area where it is a belief that workbooks and worksheets are what is needed for students to pass an inappropriate standardized test. I can attest that the students at AEEC are far more knowledgeable by the end of their K year than students who are not instructed through PBL curriculum and are instead encouraged to complete unrelated workbooks and worksheets on a daily basis! I congratulate AEEC on all of their accomplishments!!!!

Way to go gang!!!

Jeff Smith

Sandra Lippman, Partners in Performance, LLC, NJ's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Fabulous coverage of what we all really know if we stop to think about it - - the natural curiousity of any age learner nurtured with a mix of structure and good teaching, plus an opportunity to think for oneself, can bring creativity and effectiveness to learning through real-life events and scenarios - - and on top of that, makes learning fun for teachers and administrators as well as students.

Perhaps realizing that the increased retention of knowledge, and that learners are able to apply it later to meet performance benchmarks, and, yes, even standardized testing goals, would help PBL opportunities grow. What better way does anyone have for building "background experience" and "prior knowledge" that so many cry out students are missing, therefore cannot be activated when tested?

Kudos to all involved for this example, which should give other educators incentive to try combining their own standards-aligned lessons with real life learning.

Sandra Lippman
Partners in Performance, LLC
Manalapan, NJ

Pop Frank's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sounds like a wonderful experience/project. I'm glad that my granddaughter is part of it.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sounds great! Freedom of exploration and learning at their own pace!
What do you do with the time that "is taken away from those pencil and paper pages that are required?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In discussing AEEC with my sister who has two children, one who is developmentally delayed, in "regular" Kindergarten she only wishes that the learning in her school was as interesting for her children. She feels that her children would not only enjoy learning more but would actually look foward to school rather than dreading it. Her son might also be able to focus on the learning and be less of a dirtraction if was he was constantly engaged in the educational process as the children at AEEC are. I only wish all children were able to get a taste for learning and knowledge like the children at AEEC.

Vi Nemec's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is my hope that more school systems recognize and
promote this active learning for children thru elementary
and high school. The child's knowledge is gained by acting upon their world and utilizing feedback from their actions to construct useful hypothesis about reality. PLAY!
Vi Nemec, retired
'60 AU, HomeEc Child Dev. High/Scope Trainer,
and UCF Masters work in ECE.

Dolores Rangel ´Domínguez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm an English coordinator in a mexican schoo. Since I began reading and learning about PBL I have been really in loved of it. It is really hard in Mexico to develop PBL as it has to be, but I have begun PBL this school year in Preprimary and it has worked quite well. Now reading about the Auburn school well it is amazing to see all they have done in Preschool. I'm in Kindergarten. Congratulations!

Susan Haydock, Ph.D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

PBL is natural learning. We are solving problems from the moment we are born. Figuring out how to communicate. We continue throughout our young lives learning by problem solving, until we get to school where we are told the solution to all the problems. I prefer giving the students problems based on their lives and tying their learning to it. One kindergarten class tried to figure out how to get more families to use the parks; a high school class tried to figure out how to use less energy in their high school; first graders had to figure out what seeds the principal brought in, she had inadvertently mixed up a whole bunch of seeds. Students volunteered to solve her problem.
Awesome learning!

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