Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Fast Forward: Redefining Learning as a Student-Centered Activity

An Indianapolis school district builds a new model for education.

May 17, 2007
Photo credit: Drew Endicott

It is one thing to create change inside a classroom -- the best teachers, masters of their one-room domains, break from tradition and foster innovative learning environments all the time. A harder task, which a growing number of schools are proving can be done, is to convert an entire school to embrace new practices that fulfill the changing educational demands of our age. Then comes the next -- and the messiest -- frontier, the entity most resistant to cohesive change: the school district.

Five years ago, administrators in the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township, in the northeast corner of Indianapolis, tackled this challenge. With a $5.9 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, a local philanthropic organization, they set out to transform the prevailing vision of what preK-12 education is for -- as one district official put it, "to meet the needs of the kids' future, and not the teachers' past."

They decided that they needed to teach a modern set of skills in a student-centered way. Critical thinking, self-direction, and cultural competency, along with fluency in technology, information resources, and visual and graphic presentations. These were the elements of digital age literacy the district believed its students would need in the twenty-first century. Educating students for the new era demanded not only new content, they believed, but also new teaching methods. Teachers needed to recast themselves as facilitators, and to demand that students take more ownership of their learning.

Into Focus

Visit classrooms in Lawrence Township -- at least those where the change has caught on -- and you'll see kids inventing their own projects, using computers in daily work, involving themselves in community initiatives, and inquiring on their own about the nature of the world around them. It still has years to go before its vision is fully realized, but digital age literacy has taken root, and teachers say the difference in their practice is huge.

Credit: Drew Endicott
Fresh Faces: Students of all ages in Indianapolis's Lawrence Township schools are learning skills tailored for the new century.

"It's completely changed," says local teachers' union president Emily Benner, a second-grade teacher at Indian Creek Elementary School. Her school's annual unit on bats, for instance, once consisted of kids reading bat books, coloring bat pictures, and talking with a bat expert.

Now, students begin by formulating their own central question, such as "How do bats help us?" They conduct research with computers and other resources, help each other find facts, and ultimately teach their classmates what they've learned via PowerPoint presentations. Instead of teachers telling their students, "Kids, this is what you're going to learn about bats," says Benner, now the children say, "I wonder what I could find out?"

Lawrence Township's is a story of vision and innovation, and also the complexity of change. The district is large -- the sixth largest in Indiana -- with 16,000 students and 1,000 teachers. About half the students are from various minority groups, and the number qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunch ranges from 9 percent at some schools to 74 percent at others.

At the outset, some administrators balked at enforcing the new approach on all teachers, fearing that a mandate would alienate some of them and impede the initiative. As a result, only interested educators adopted the change early on. In hindsight, says Leona Jamison, the district's director of professional development and maven of the initiative to introduce digital age literacy, "we would change that; we would take on that battle."

Now they are doing just that. District officials plan to enforce the new practices from here on out, starting with the early grades and aiming for full implementation in elementary schools within two years. They have developed a standards-based report card for the elementary schools to support the paradigm shift, and, as young learners move into the higher grades, administrators hope the students and parents will demand project-based, technology-integrated education from their teachers.

The initiative was born in 2001, when the Lilly Endowment advertised grants for innovative instruction. A Lawrence Township task force charged with creating a grant proposal stumbled on enGauge, the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory's framework of essential skills for the twenty-first century, which includes technological and scientific literacy and global awareness. The idea took hold.

"Our kids can't go and work in a factory anymore," says Jamison, who was hired to help implement the Lilly grant.

Beyond the economic imperative to get modern with teaching methods, Lawrence Township superintendent Michael Copper says there was an educational one: Use electronic media to expand teachers' options for personalizing learning. "That's a huge advantage to us," he says, "and if we don't figure out how to utilize that well, the kids will learn without us."

Credit: Drew Endicott

Shifting Needs

With help from consultants at the Metiri Group, in northern California, Jamison and colleagues in the district office reeducated themselves. The district selected thirty-three veteran teachers to become full-time coaches to lead the initiative and launched an intensive training program that continued through the initiative's first three years.

Finding few resources at the time on instructional coaching, administrators cobbled together books by various authors and scheduled visits from experts to train the coaches on digital age literacy and constructivist teaching (which actively involves students in constructing, not absorbing, knowledge, and building on what they already know). The coaches assumed their new roles in fall 2002.

Jamison and colleagues simultaneously developed a district Web site on which all students and teachers could have their own accounts and parents could access their children's accounts. On the site, teachers post assignments and host discussion forums, students store and retrieve files from home, and district staff take online courses in such subjects as project approach, rubrics, video editing, and cultural competency. The courses, all created and taught in house by instructional coaches and classroom teachers, are available to outsiders for $100 to $400 and qualify those who pass them for academic credit at several nearby universities.

For the most part, Lawrence Township teachers welcomed the transition, Emily Benner says. The township was -- and still is -- changing. Though it falls within the borders of Indianapolis, it spans neighborhoods that contain stately old homes, cornfields, mobile homes, and Spanish grocery stores. As the city sprawls, former farms turn into cookie-cutter housing subdivisions. The portion of students who are minorities almost doubled from 28 percent in the past decade, and the number of English-language learners increased nearly tenfold during the same period.

There are growing pains: Several schools have seen fighting between African American and Hispanic students, and young immigrants say some of their American-born classmates have told them to go back where they came from. Every change has its resisters, Benner adds, but in this state of flux, teachers struggling to meet the needs of a shifting population mostly saw the new literacy strategies and coaches as a timely resource.

Five years later, adoption rates for the digital age approach range from 80 percent of teachers in some schools to 20 percent in others, depending partly on how much each school's leader encourages it, says Jamison. Coaches and teachers have progressed further on some of the targeted literacies, such as technology, than others. Yet the model appears to be gaining momentum. Although the number of coaches was halved in 2005, Jamison says she's seen more adoption of the model since the reduction than she did before it; most researchers in this area agree that it takes seven years to effect change, she adds.

Throughout this process, the district has maintained its scores on Indiana's standardized tests; Lawrence Township's passing scores generally hover around 70 percent and fall within a few percentage points of the state average.

Credit: Drew Endicott

Early (Grades) Adoption

The digital age approach has been especially embraced in preschool and in the elementary grades. Teachers in the district's four early-learning centers and eleven elementary schools integrate technology wherever possible and cultivate critical thinking and self-direction by allowing improvised projects to spring from the children's interests.

While out walking earlier this school year, kindergartners in Leah Burkhardt's class at the Amy Beverland Early Learning Center noticed a bird feeder outside another classroom window. The students collaboratively wrote a letter to the neighboring teacher's class to ask where they got the feeder. Once they had the catalog in hand, they used tally marks to vote on which feeder to buy and planned a bake sale to raise the $27 to buy it.

"A constructivist teacher believes that kids are capable, and that they have their own knowledge, and that they construct their knowledge from the things around them," explains Jamison. In this model, she adds, the teacher's job is to recognize kids' interests and guide projects so that they address the state standards (through writing and tallying, for example).

In the middle schools and high schools, because the curriculum is necessarily more structured, traditional teaching methods have been harder to reconfigure. Still, a corps of secondary school teachers are emphasizing digital age skills and using a project-based approach, giving students increased choice and responsibility for their work even if they can't exercise the same spontaneity a kindergarten teacher can -- and their students are up for it.

At Craig Middle School, science teacher Wayne Naylor and language arts teacher Jennifer Smitley have jointly given their seventh and eighth graders the daunting assignment of creating and executing a project that addresses a community need. Student Aaron Jacobs works with a local organization to sow a prairie with native plants to provide wildlife habitat. Classmates Payton Gaw and Paige Smith are designing a board game intended to deter bullying; they plan to present it to third graders at the elementary school next door. To bring these projects to fruition, they must research, write grant proposals, and collaborate with adult professionals outside the school. Sometimes it's hard to juggle such large-scale commitments with regular class assignments, they say, but the experience is worth it.

"It's more interesting than doing little projects," says student Victoria Duffin, whose project aims to turn the site of an abandoned gas station into a park. "It's going to help us get more involved and get us ready for when we're older, and 'real life.'"

The youth say they've learned the importance of choosing a subject that's meaningful to them, because they have to stick with the same project for months.

Jacobs adds, "Don't let anyone tell you kids can't do anything."

Technology converges with lessons in self-direction and the district's other targeted skills in Kevin Kincaid and Melody Coryell's team-taught humanities class at sprawling Lawrence North High School. For nearly every unit they cover, the students, using laptops each school makes available for classes to check out, do an "I-Search" project -- a report on a topic of their choosing, presented through any medium.

Past presentations have included written papers, collages, original board games, and even a videotaped interview with an executive at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. One cold winter day, junior Natalie Duncan and several classmates created a model Trail of Tears on a nearby nature trail, along which students carried weights, lost virtual limbs, and saw their play money depreciate due to rampant inflation.

"I like this a lot better than conventional classes," Duncan says. "It's easier to learn when you actually do it. These teachers give you an opportunity to actually want to learn it; they don't force it on you."

Kincaid, a former coach in the initiative, says the training transformed his teaching and opened his eyes to what's possible when students have control over their own learning. Guiding students through creative, open-ended projects does take patience and time -- a scarce commodity for teachers -- but in the outcome, he says, "kids will surprise you. Even the ones that are 'struggling learners' will surprise you."

On Their Own

Despite the benefits reaped by people such as Kincaid and his students, the strides that Lawrence Township has made are now in danger of sliding backward. The Lilly grant has run out, and this fall all the coaches must return full time to the classroom.

"What am I going to do when all these adults leave the building, Leona?" fourth-grade teacher Stephania Smith asked Jamison last winter. Smith says the model lessons her coach at Harrison Hill Elementary School does for her are invaluable.

Credit: Drew Endicott

Jamison hopes that as many coaches as possible will return to their old school buildings as teachers and continue to be resources for their peers. But the real answer to Smith's question may be that she and other teachers who have embraced the initiative will need to rely on each other. Already, about 125 educators in grades K-6 participate in a project-based-learning collaborative, in which they meet monthly after school to share ideas. Teams at each school will sustain the action-research and cultural competency programs the coaches helped develop.

Emily Benner, for one, doesn't worry that the district will lose what it's gained, because its professional learning communities have grown so strong. "If a new teacher started in second grade next year, it might take them a year to get up and running," she says, "but all of us who have been through the trainings, we'll be able to work with that new teacher."

Meanwhile, the district office keeps pushing the envelope. Online high school courses are scheduled to debut next fall in subjects including history, economics, and physical education. An online chemistry course is also planned; some of the labs will be conducted in person and some by computer simulation. As technology advances, so will the methods in Lawrence Township.

Sometimes, Jamison says, it's hard to assure teachers accustomed to the conventional classroom that it's acceptable for students to participate in some of their education remotely, via the Internet. She argues, though, that public schools have no choice: They can champion new tools and modern skills, or they can become irrelevant. Her district's continuing quest is to remain relevant so that its students' skills also will be relevant in this digital age.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.


The Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township is guided by seven digital age literacies:

Technological literacy: Competence in the use of computers, networks, applications, and other technological devices

Basic literacy: Language proficiency (reading, writing, listening, speaking) using conventional or technology-based media

Visual literacy: The ability to decipher, interpret, and express ideas using images, graphics, icons, charts, graphs, and video

Higher-order thinking: Analysis, comparison, inference/interpretation, synthesis, and evaluation

Informational literacy: The competence to find, evaluate, and make use of information appropriately

Self-direction: The ability to set goals, plan for achievement, manage time and effort, and independently assess the quality of one's learning and any products that result

Multicultural literacy: The ability to understand and appreciate the similarities and differences in the customs, values, and beliefs of one's own culture and the cultures of others

Source: Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township 2005 report to the Lilly Endowment

Metropolitan School District Of Lawrence Township

Grades 3-5

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