A thoughtful curriculum centered on project learning is a superior way for students to learn 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, creativity and innovation, problem solving, self-direction, and teamwork, because students must develop and use these skills to complete their projects. In addition, project learning will foster deeper understanding of a subject because of the inherent complex and contextual learning it affords.
Eeva Reeder, a project-learning expert and coach, has contributed a number of excellent articles to Edutopia about the design, implementation, and assessment of worthwhile projects. Her recent piece "Project Learning in Action: The Wing Strength Design Project," as well as one of our readers' all-time favorites, "Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning," showcase the power of project learning at its finest.
Real Meaning = Life Changing
What I believe takes project learning to the next level is when it's real. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I believe project-learning activities regularly miss the opportunity to be real life-changing experiences for students. Most projects never touch on solving real problems we face in our world -- problems that make the news and that kids really care about, giving them the power to turn their knowledge into action.
To come up with these life-changing projects, we have to believe that, through their projects, kids potentially will come up with viable ideas and solutions for problems that no one has yet tackled or solved. We must consider, for more than a moment, that children can and do change the world.
Take, for example, a handful of teenagers who are the only "children" among 1,000 accomplished adult volunteers in the Climate Project. They have joined a global effort to inform citizens about the reality of global warming and the actions required to fight this crisis.
Or one of our 2006 Daring Dozen "winners," Zach Bjornson-Hooper, whose discovery of E. coli and salmonella bacteria in airplane water changed policies and practices in the airline industry.
Or the fourth-grade NatureMappers, from Waterville Elementary School, in rural Washington state, whose groundbreaking research with a University of Washington biologist has extended the documented geographic range of a lizard species. (They continue their research today, contributing new knowledge about the natural history of this animal.)
Or the Hurst Middle School students, from Louisiana, who actively engage in community service as a key part of their projects. I will always remember their teacher's comment: "One of the student's essays I read said, "If the animals and plants could talk, I think they would say we're their heroes, because that's the way I feel when we do our work in the wetlands.' And it just hits you as a teacher: "Oh, my God! Something I designed made this kid feel like a hero?'"
Project learning can and should hit the affective domain. Kids care, and we don't tap into that caring often enough. If they care, they will apply themselves to learn, and they may come up with a solution that has so far eluded adults.
I think it is incumbent on us to engage kids in the design of projects up front. Pose the "big problem." Ask for suggestions. What do they care about? What is real to them? Work collaboratively -- adults and kids together -- to solve real societal problems and make the world a better place through student projects. Consider making service learning a part of projects. Make your project have real meaning so that it is a life-changing experience for your students. Wouldn't it be great if every student thought of himself or herself as a hero?