Peter Bender, principal of Newsome Park Elementary School, in Newport News, Virginia, discusses project learning.
- Why did Newsome Park choose to focus on project–based learning as the main method of instruction?
- How do adults react to the work your students are doing?
- How have test scores at Newsome Park changed since you've instituted project-based learning?
- Is the test score improvement for a small group of students or for many?
- Why do the students select the projects they get to work on?
- How do you integrate technology and project-based learning?
- Do you see a digital divide at Newsome Park?
- What is project-based learning like for the teachers?
1. Why did Newsome Park choose to focus on project–based learning as the main method of instruction?
We really want to focus kids on lifelong learning. We know the state standards really focus on being able to perform on a test during a certain time in the spring, and that's fine. We don't have any problem with accountability. In fact, we want to be accountable. We want kids to be accountable. But as a faculty and staff, we want to provide the kids an opportunity so that they can learn what they want to learn in an appropriate way where they can actually apply it to new learning. And that's really where we see what our goal is -- to teach kids so that they can be independent on their own.
2. How do adults react to the work your students are doing?
When you hear students walking down the hall talking to each other about their projects, asking what they're learning, seeing the students critique each others' work in the auditorium when we have our Phase 1 or Phase 2 or even when [we have] the community day presentation, watching five-year-olds present their learning to an adult. I don't watch the children when they do it. I watch the adults. I see on their faces: "How in the world did they get this five-year-old to know this, to make these connections, and actually be able to present in a manner that is really pretty complex?"
3. How have test scores at Newsome Park changed since you've instituted project-based learning?
Our test scores have improved, mainly I think because of the focus that we have on our mission -- the fact that we've connected the learning to real-world problems. And the integration of technology has helped us to help the students actually produce quality products.
4. Is the test score improvement for a small group of students or for many?
Our scores for the last two years have shown that our black students are increasing across the board just as our non-black students are. And the gap between their achievement is actually decreasing whereas nationally it's kind of increasing. So what we hope to do is make sure that we decrease that gap as we go along. And we believe that we can do that.
5. Why do the students select the projects they get to work on?
We really feel kids need more choice -- that so often these days we're making the choices for them. We're making the choices for them at home. We're making the choices for them at school. And they don't get enough opportunity to make the right choices. So if we can give them an opportunity to make choices in a controlled environment about their learning, then hopefully that will extend over so that they'll continue to make these choices as they move on up through middle school and high school.
6. How do you integrate technology and project-based learning?
All of the students K-5 can use PowerPoint®. ... So in presenting their information to their peers, that's one model. They do databases. They do studies on animal research and they create habitats. There are examples of surveys being done, charts being made, pie graphs -- those kinds of things that would take the information and put it in visual form.
7. Do you see a digital divide at Newsome Park?
There's quite a bit of talk in the media, actually, in the public, about this digital divide where students that don't have access to technology at home are so much further behind than the students that have technology. Here at Newsome Park, we don't see it. We have about 58 percent of our students who are at the level where they receive free and reduced-price lunch. And maybe -- when we've done surveys -- we only have 50 percent, maybe a little more than that -- that do have access to technology.
But the amount of technology that these kids are exposed to in a six-hour basis is plenty. I've actually asked teachers, "Show me the kids in the class that you know don't have the technology at home." Very difficult to decide looking at their products to see if there's any difference because they have the technology.
8. What is project-based learning like for the teachers?
It is a lot of work. It's a lot of work because there may be times when they come to school in the morning, they think they know what they're going to be doing that day. And if they really allow learning to happen, they may have to go in another direction. They have to really work with spontaneous teaching moments.
If a student brings up a particular response that really fits with something, the teacher really has to listen, has to hear those things happen. And if the teacher's really working at that, then she or he has to be able to go in that direction. Make the connections. The connections still have to be made, so it is a particularly stressful kind of thing. It's so much easier to understand, "Here's what I'm going to be doing at 10:10 A.M. And here's what I'm going to be saying at 10:15." It may not be that way. There are moments that way. But they may not be that way if you're truly teaching to and allowing learning to happen.