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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Power of Project-Based Learning

By Terry Thode
Related Tags: Project-Based Learning

Teacher Terry Thode tells her students she is only one resource of many available to them in their search for knowledge.

Credit: Terry Thode

I'm the luckiest teacher I know because my job at Hemingway Elementary School, in Ketchum, Idaho, is to learn along with students. As a technology teacher in charge of a hands-on learning laboratory, I spend my days immersed in an educational environment that lets children explore their world through exciting and relevant project-based education.

Envision a room filled with all kinds of electronic equipment, from computers to wind tunnels to robots. There's a hum of voices as busy hands and minds explore, discuss, create, and invent. Students work cooperatively or independently to solve real-world problems. They absorb science, math, language arts, geography, art, reading, social studies, and music by using technological tools that, as they constantly tell me, make "learning seem like fun, not work."

On any given day, kindergarten through sixth-grade students at my school elect to be structural engineers and use computer-aided-design software to plan and construct scale-model space structures, skyscrapers, or entire cities. Others work as genetic engineers to change variables that affect plant growth and share their research results with peers in the school and the district via modem.

Some act as safety-design engineers and master computer 3-D modeling and physics software to study impact forces, then apply what they've learned to build model cars that protect drivers and passengers (using chicken eggs as crash-test dummies) in high-speed collisions. Budding television producers use cameras connected to multimedia computers to edit video yearbooks for their classes and for the entire school.

The Hemingway hands-on learning laboratory was created more than a decade ago by educators, parents, and community members who wanted to harness the power of project-based learning. Because it's impractical to fund equipment for individual classrooms, the district allocates money for a teacher specialist and a dedicated room in the school for the program. Parents and community members provide supplies, equipment, and additional funding. Every class at Hemingway spends scheduled time in my lab, but many pupils also drop in during open hours before and after school and at lunch to do tasks such as research assignments on the Internet.

These students' work is not aimed at merely making drawings or dioramas to take home to impress Mom and Dad. In a true project-based-learning environment such as the one at Hemingway, the "minds-on" process of thinking and creating is as important as the final product.

Doing projects requires pupils to plan, evaluate, anticipate, critique, analyze, and develop other higher-order thinking skills. They know that if something doesn't come out the way they intended, they haven't failed. It just means they learned what doesn't work, and that is just as important. They understand that they can try again, changing their assumptions and approaches based on what they learned the first time.

I emphasize to my students that I am only one resource in the room -- and most often should be their last resource. In this day and age, it is an impossible task for me or any other educator to know everything. I tell the children that there are many other resources, from community members to electronic databases around the world they can turn to that have better, more accurate knowledge than I do about a particular subject.

No one waits for me to tell them what to do next, and students are constantly sharing new information that they've uncovered with me. We explore, research, discuss, analyze, test, and evaluate together. I am a true partner in discovery.

In my room, you can't tell the students who are labeled gifted and talented from those who are called learning disabled. Project-based education is the great leveler for kids of different abilities and learning styles. It allows each individual to progress in the way that best suits him or her. I constantly see students who struggle in a traditional classroom find success and self worth in this setting.

This kind of project-based learning is so effective because it's tied to real-world knowledge, not memorization and abstractions. Students are driven by their own excitement and curiosity when they can see how their learning is relevant to their lives. They are turned on by being allowed to explore different types of knowledge at the same time, rather than being limited to narrow academic subjects.

The most important lesson I've learned as a project specialist is that educators should never underestimate the abilities of students or the effectiveness of letting them follow their interests. Instead of trying to mold them to learn our curriculum, we should try to understand where they are and tap into the natural motivation within them.

One of the key parts of our program is the time parents and community members give us. Many professionals come into the lab to help students work on projects related to the adults' expertise, which most find more interesting than volunteering as a teacher aide. I hold open houses for "parents only" where they explore new technologies, and I find they get much more excited about their children's schooling when their own imaginations are ignited.

Sometimes, in pondering the success our school has had with project-based education, I recall the first day of my student-teaching assignment in a large urban school many years ago. My supervising teacher, an extremely creative and energetic person, was in the middle of a science lesson that wasn't going as planned. She stopped the class, questioned students to confirm her assessment, and then said immediately, "Forget it. This isn't working." I was amazed that she could do that and still feel confident that her credibility was intact. That was my first experience with a teacher and students being equal partners in establishing the learning environment.

There was a lesson in that for me, but I also think there's a lesson there for all educators. When things aren't working -- as they aren't in so many schools -- don't be afraid to try something new that makes children active partners in their education. That's exactly what I do every day, and I'm having a ball.

Teacher Terry Thode tells her students she is only one resource of many available to them in their search for knowledge.

Credit: Terry Thode

I'm the luckiest teacher I know because my job at Hemingway Elementary School, in Ketchum, Idaho, is to learn along with students. As a technology teacher in charge of a hands-on learning laboratory, I spend my days immersed in an educational environment that lets children explore their world through exciting and relevant project-based education.

Envision a room filled with all kinds of electronic equipment, from computers to wind tunnels to robots. There's a hum of voices as busy hands and minds explore, discuss, create, and invent. Students work cooperatively or independently to solve real-world problems. They absorb science, math, language arts, geography, art, reading, social studies, and music by using technological tools that, as they constantly tell me, make "learning seem like fun, not work."

On any given day, kindergarten through sixth-grade students at my school elect to be structural engineers and use computer-aided-design software to plan and construct scale-model space structures, skyscrapers, or entire cities. Others work as genetic engineers to change variables that affect plant growth and share their research results with peers in the school and the district via modem.

Some act as safety-design engineers and master computer 3-D modeling and physics software to study impact forces, then apply what they've learned to build model cars that protect drivers and passengers (using chicken eggs as crash-test dummies) in high-speed collisions. Budding television producers use cameras connected to multimedia computers to edit video yearbooks for their classes and for the entire school.

The Hemingway hands-on learning laboratory was created more than a decade ago by educators, parents, and community members who wanted to harness the power of project-based learning. Because it's impractical to fund equipment for individual classrooms, the district allocates money for a teacher specialist and a dedicated room in the school for the program. Parents and community members provide supplies, equipment, and additional funding. Every class at Hemingway spends scheduled time in my lab, but many pupils also drop in during open hours before and after school and at lunch to do tasks such as research assignments on the Internet.

These students' work is not aimed at merely making drawings or dioramas to take home to impress Mom and Dad. In a true project-based-learning environment such as the one at Hemingway, the "minds-on" process of thinking and creating is as important as the final product.

Doing projects requires pupils to plan, evaluate, anticipate, critique, analyze, and develop other higher-order thinking skills. They know that if something doesn't come out the way they intended, they haven't failed. It just means they learned what doesn't work, and that is just as important. They understand that they can try again, changing their assumptions and approaches based on what they learned the first time.

I emphasize to my students that I am only one resource in the room -- and most often should be their last resource. In this day and age, it is an impossible task for me or any other educator to know everything. I tell the children that there are many other resources, from community members to electronic databases around the world they can turn to that have better, more accurate knowledge than I do about a particular subject.

No one waits for me to tell them what to do next, and students are constantly sharing new information that they've uncovered with me. We explore, research, discuss, analyze, test, and evaluate together. I am a true partner in discovery.

In my room, you can't tell the students who are labeled gifted and talented from those who are called learning disabled. Project-based education is the great leveler for kids of different abilities and learning styles. It allows each individual to progress in the way that best suits him or her. I constantly see students who struggle in a traditional classroom find success and self worth in this setting.

This kind of project-based learning is so effective because it's tied to real-world knowledge, not memorization and abstractions. Students are driven by their own excitement and curiosity when they can see how their learning is relevant to their lives. They are turned on by being allowed to explore different types of knowledge at the same time, rather than being limited to narrow academic subjects.

The most important lesson I've learned as a project specialist is that educators should never underestimate the abilities of students or the effectiveness of letting them follow their interests. Instead of trying to mold them to learn our curriculum, we should try to understand where they are and tap into the natural motivation within them.

One of the key parts of our program is the time parents and community members give us. Many professionals come into the lab to help students work on projects related to the adults' expertise, which most find more interesting than volunteering as a teacher aide. I hold open houses for "parents only" where they explore new technologies, and I find they get much more excited about their children's schooling when their own imaginations are ignited.

Sometimes, in pondering the success our school has had with project-based education, I recall the first day of my student-teaching assignment in a large urban school many years ago. My supervising teacher, an extremely creative and energetic person, was in the middle of a science lesson that wasn't going as planned. She stopped the class, questioned students to confirm her assessment, and then said immediately, "Forget it. This isn't working." I was amazed that she could do that and still feel confident that her credibility was intact. That was my first experience with a teacher and students being equal partners in establishing the learning environment.

There was a lesson in that for me, but I also think there's a lesson there for all educators. When things aren't working -- as they aren't in so many schools -- don't be afraid to try something new that makes children active partners in their education. That's exactly what I do every day, and I'm having a ball.

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