The Shift Toward New Learning Goals
They start out in their English class with The Paperboy, a 1995 novel set in the southern United States that explores themes of betrayal, justice, and tolerance.
Their goal, given by their teacher, is to uncover a truth about racism.
While this part of the assignment–a multi-layered project–is teacher-directed, little else is. As one student explains, “With a project, you’re really able to research, and give your own unique voice into answering the assignment.”
Their teacher challenges them with a question: Can we overcome racism?
This is a significant task for anyone, but for high school students it reflects a tremendous challenge–a matter of abstraction, subjectivity, self-awareness, and often frustrating shades of grey.
And on a more subtle level, there are even differences across generations–the way their teachers see race, and the way they do. This destroys any notion of a singular “society,” and further frays the exploration. This is maddening for those that wants answers, but if you’re willing to settle for questions and discovery instead, you could be on to something.
All of this is done not within the scope of a single assignment or even novel, but dozens of minor tasks that pursue a singular goal. It may happen across content areas, have portions that are independent and portions that are collaborative. Some products may be digital, others physical. There may be rubrics for some of it, but certainly not every assignment.
And students who can barely keep up with their agendas and journals must manage it all.
Welcome to the frightening, paradigm-shifting world of project-based learning, where students preside and teachers support.
A Shift in Collaboration
While in English class they may learn about the roots of race through the lens of a novel, in U.S. History class they look back and stories, dates, facts, and cultural collisions that actually occurred. This study is done under the watchful gaze of chronology, and so is in part removed from the society they live and breath in. Understanding here requires extraordinary empathy, visualization, and inferencing.
In this look at history, the goal is the same–learn about racism–but refracted differently.
In Science they may explore bio-diversity, the genetics of race, or social sciences and socio-economics.This cross-disciplinary approach isn’t new–nor is it a must for project-based learning. It can be a monster to manage as it essentially requires teachers to collaborate not just within their own department, but across departments.
And this collaboration can’t be a blow-by in a busy hallway, or a hastily-sent email at the end of the day, but in-depth, with equity, and from the beginning.
As a student explains why collaboration is important in project-based learning, it has a perhaps unintentional double-meaning. “In project-based learning, you really have to have self-control, and to be able to manage your feelings. To step back and say, ‘there are other people I’m working with, and I have to respect their feelings and vision for this project.”
The same can be said for the teachers involved.
The Shift to Meaningful Reflection
Reflection in learning is a kind of opposite to prediction, both important cognitive bookends to the learning process. “The reflection at the end is really a time where you can look back on the entire process that you went through to get there. I think that’s where you learn the most.”
Another student, “You learn by the mistakes you make. You learn by the process of getting to that end.”
But to promote meaningful reflection requires a new audience–not an exit slip or journal entry for the teacher, but continued relationships with audiences and content. Another student talks about this as well.
“There is definitely an emotional connection especially last semester’s documentary. I became really connected with that. I met a lot of cool people. The documentary kind of became a part of my life. And it’s still with me now. I’m still talking to other people who we made the film about. It really actually changed my life and how I look at things.”
What about notions of purpose and transparency? Of a different kind of support beyond traditional academic pressure?
“It feels really, really good to stand up in front a crowd applauding, and knowing that you’re being appreciated, that your work is being appreciated, and that your thoughts–your thoughts themselves are being appreciated for what they are.”
Watch as the students in the video below explain project-based learning with a rare grasp of what it means, and how it benefits them.
Image attribution flickr user oliverkliewe