Project-Based Learning

Learning by Doing: Students Write a Guide to Teen Psychology

Eighth graders at the author’s school taught themselves psychology by writing their own primer on the topic.
April 28, 2017
A group of students working on a project
Courtesy of Shanghai American School
Don’t mind us, we’re just tackling the mysteries of teen psychology.

It’s always awe-inspiring when students take hold of a project and are given the power to lead it. They set goals, delegate, lead discussions, and critique each other’s work as if that were a normal process. I’ve just seen this with the eighth-grade social studies students at Shanghai American School. The students at my school have been engaged in a project in their class around the topic of psychology.

While this might seem to be outside the normal social studies curriculum, the teachers are experimenting with the adoption of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. The framework emphasizes inquiry and content, and also citing sources and communicating ideas to make a difference. The teachers modeled a PBL project around the overall framework. They dug deep into the C3 framework and found that psychology was explicitly included only in grades 9–12, but that “efforts are underway to better integrate behavioral and social science concepts in the K–8 age bands.”

This project could serve as an introduction to that content. What makes it particularly powerful is that it connects psychology to the teenage brain. The class was tasked with creating guides for teachers, parents, and other adults to help them better understand why adolescents do what they do. Why are they sleepy? Why might they have trouble focusing? Why might they be impulsive from time to time?

These are just some of the questions they sought to learn about and then to communicate their findings to a public audience. In addition, they had to offer tips and strategies to support adults working with adolescents. 

Students broke into a variety of teams—copy editors, social media managers, writers, and more—to create the publications, publishing updates with the Instagram handle UnlockingtheTeenBrain.

The Students’ Perspective

Here’s how the student executive team—a chief editor, two art directors, two copy editors, and two social media managers—describe their project:

“We are writing an educational book on psychology, Unlocking the Teenage Mind. Four editions aimed at different audiences (parents, teachers, teens, and the community) have been written. Each contains different subtopics ranging from intelligence to social psychology, and each subtopic is geared to help the specific audience understand the teenage brain. For example, sections in the teachers’ edition contain tips and advice for teachers. The subtopics were written by different groups of students, who have done extensive research on their topics.

“We also had an executive team to guide the majority of the class, the content authors, in the process of writing the books. The executive team is divided into four departments or groups. Our art department is responsible for creating the layout and cover art; our social media managers manage the various social media accounts used to promote our book; our copy editors make sure our articles are perfect on every level; and finally we have a chief editor, the big boss.

“The content authors were given various tasks, starting with the selection of the topics they wanted to research. Topics ranged from motivation to social psychology. After selecting a topic, the authors would work in teams of four to write an article about how the topic relates to the teenage brain.

“The writers and the executive team learned many things, chief among them time management. Of course, both groups learned about many aspects of the field of psychology. In addition, both groups learned how to cooperate closely with peers, increasing their cooperation and collaboration skills. Both teams learned how to overcome problems such as poor grammar and lazy teammates, building their problem-solving capabilities. Yet despite the challenges, the entire class at crucial moments was able to come together and function as one being. The project helped build essential life skills and gave the entire class something they can refer to with pride.”

The Teachers’ Perspective

Teachers Brad Evans and Matt Zeman shared their perspective as well:

“As teachers, our learning for this project was twofold. First, we were immediately reminded that the more responsibility we transfer to our students, the greater the results. Our classroom authority was transferred to our executive team, leaving us as consultants. The benefits of creating situations for partnerships were profound and left us with a desire to place more ownership in the hands of the class any chance we get.

“Our second lesson was that content mastery improved dramatically among all students. In order to meet deadlines, students had to master the content. If they found themselves struggling with a concept, the small author teams were the first to respond, not us teachers. This responsive, collaborative environment was a far more successful vehicle for content delivery than more traditional methods.

“Our formative assessments were a resounding success: An overwhelming majority of students could easily prove their content knowledge and demonstrate application. We were once again shown the power of projects to create and foster an authentic learning environment that satisfies both content mastery and soft skill growth.”

The End Results

I’m very proud of these students. They invested a lot of time learning not only the content but the process and challenges of publishing a real-world product. You can learn more about the project here, and see the peer version, the teacher version, and the parent version of the book through iTunes.