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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Mirian Acosta-Sing: Project-Based Learning

Mirian Acosta-Sing, principal of The Mott Hall School in New York City, discusses how the adoption of a laptop computer model has transformed her school.

  1. What is the vision for teaching and learning at Mott Hall?
  2. What impact has the laptop program had on curriculum at Mott Hall?
  3. How does project-based learning differ from more traditional forms of instruction?
  4. Why do teachers at Mott Hall place such emphasis on student presentations?
  5. How have you helped your teachers adopt a more technology-enriched, project-based approach to instruction?
  6. What kind of ongoing technical support is provided for classroom teachers?
  7. What advice would you offer schools interested in establishing a pilot laptop program?

1. What is the vision for teaching and learning at Mott Hall?

The vision for Mott Hall is really to prepare these students for the future. Traditionally, minority students have not been encouraged or inspired to go into the professional fields of mathematics, science, or technology. So, we feel that our mission here at Mott Hall is really to provide a very strong academic foundation for these students to go on to higher learning and major in these fields and come back to Washington Heights and to their community as professionals in these particular areas. We're very ambitious for our students here at Mott Hall.

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2. What impact has the laptop program had on curriculum at Mott Hall?

What happened as a result of having a full laptop school model was to really examine and reflect on our curriculum. And when we put the laptops and the technology directly into the hands of teachers and students, we started to move from a more traditional type of instructional model to a project-based and constructivist model. And we really embrace this as a school community because we feel that what is important for our students is for them to be directors and managers of their own learning. We really wanted to embrace this whole philosophy of student-centered learning and have children collaborate with each other, have children engage in multidisciplinary types of projects that were longer, that were more complex -- in lieu of a more traditional type of instructional model where the teachers are lecturing, where the teachers are considered the ones who will be imparting the knowledge to the students.

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3. How does project-based learning differ from more traditional forms of instruction?

Having our teachers engage their students with project-based constructivist learning, we feel this is more authentic. We feel this is more challenging work for our students. We feel that this is mimicking what real-life work is, and we have seen that it has yielded very positive results for our students. We find that students are more engaged in more interactive types of curriculum experiences. We find that a constructivist learning model allows children to make meaning of their own learning in more creative ways.

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4. Why do teachers at Mott Hall place such emphasis on student presentations?

We feel that it's important for children to feel confident and to be able to get up in front of their classrooms and talk about a social issue that they feel passionate about. We tell them that they're ambassadors of Mott Hall and that not only do we want them to do well here at Mott Hall but to really engage them in different types of activities. Where they go to the local universities and make presentations about topics that they feel strongly about, to go to a nursing home and be able to make presentations to senior citizens, to be able to go to their local schools in the neighborhoods that they work and make presentations to younger children. And let them know how important it is for them to read, how important it is for them to do well in school so that younger children will understand that they have to work very, very hard in school so that they can go on and do well in high school and in college.

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5. How have you helped your teachers adopt a more technology-enriched, project-based approach to instruction?

Teachers who are the trailblazers, those teachers who really feel comfortable, who have a wonderful attitude about technology integration -- we have used them as catalysts. We have used them to lead the others by example. And at faculty meetings or at staff development workshops or training seminars, we have actually highlighted their work and asked them to walk the rest of the teachers at Mott Hall through their particular projects that they have engaged their students with and they have given examples.

As a result of this type of professional development learning, the teachers have now gone into these trailblazers and have gone into the classrooms of these teachers to see for themselves what is possible. And that has had a positive, rippling effect.

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6. What kind of ongoing technical support is provided for classroom teachers?

We have very strong curriculum teachers. They are experts within their subject area, but they may feel uncomfortable, unsure of themselves, a bit intimidated with the technical aspect. They may not know all of the software or be familiar with the software. So the model that we have used at Mott Hall, which we feel has been quite positive, was to have one of our eLearning facilitators actually become partners and actually teach a lesson in conjunction with the classroom teacher. So what that has done is have the teacher teach the class and actually engage the students in the project but have that coach or the eLearning facilitator with them to help out with any technical aspect of the lesson.

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7. What advice would you offer schools interested in establishing a pilot laptop program?

I would say to start small. I would say to select your pilot-program teachers very carefully. Select teachers who can withstand scrutiny. Select teachers who feel comfortable and have some background in technology, who have used technology for administrative purposes. And start small with one or two classrooms and really support those pilot laptop teachers. Also, involve the parents, involve the entire school community. Let them know that this [pilot program] is happening and talk about the positive things that will come as a result of implementing technology in the classroom to inspire and motivate the other classroom teachers to want to be part of a laptop effort.

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