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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Hands-On Education Drives the Lesson Home

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

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?

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia
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umesh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Gd morning. iam a teacher from india , and iam promoting the pbl methodalogy to my high school students . i want to know more about the math pbl ideas with respect to highschool mathematics. thanks, umesh
Irene Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I agree with Diane Demee Benoit that including a service learning component to the curriculum and activities we use in our classrooms can have a powerful effect on student achievement and self actualization. Our school has been involved in a National Council for the Social Studies CiviConnections Program (with funding from the federal Corporation for National and Community Service's Learn and Serve America initiative.) Our students have been engaged in considering the problems related to our Yakima River system, examining the historical context and complexities of these issues and then soliciting help from experts in the field to work on solutions to these problems. Not only did they learn a great deal about our region's history, geography and watershed issues, they also learned that they can make a difference in our community by addressing needs and tackling difficult problems. The empowerment of our young people is an essential need (at the middle school and high school levels in particular.) Kids today spend a great deal of time involved in activities that are almost exclusively "selfish". Some of these activities are valuable in promoting the development of student health and character, but they are limited in helping the child acquire a sense of efficacy in the world. Making a difference for others. Improving the community. Knowing that we can each play an important role in making the world a better place. This kind of internal confidence comes only from having the opportunity to get involved in large and small scale community problem solving. Perhaps there would be less depression and other mental illness if our youth had more opportunities to feel like they make a difference. Schools certainly can play a role by integrating service learning through project based activities.

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