What happens when an entire high school embraces project-based learning? How is learning transformed when a project is no longer the finale for a unit, but it becomes the unit? Elizabethton High School teachers and students are on a mission to prepare students for the careers and opportunities of the 21st Century. After the success of last year’s Bartleby Program, the next step is a school-wide focus on project-based learning (PBL) supported by teacher training and improvements in facilities and technology.
With the launch of the EHS Bartleby Program in 2017, EHS was named one of 18 XQ Super Schools in the nation. This has given students greater ownership in their education, and it has allowed teachers to receive high-quality training. This week, 70 EHS teachers and administrators and 10 T. A. Dugger Jr. High teachers participated in a three-day PBL seminar with the Buck Institute for Education.
BIE trains teachers across the country on PBL and its application across content areas. BIE National Faculty Ryan Sprott and Ian Stevenson provided the training. Stevenson said the primary goal is to ground the student learning experience in something relevant and authentic that answers the question, “Why are we learning this?”
“The PBL idea is to present students with a challenging question or situation that they have to resolve and then present their learning to the public in some way,” he said. “The teacher’s role in that is helping plan and design the project, and students have to learn some specific content to answer that question and complete their project. This means students transition from questioning the relevance of content to realizing I’ve got to know this in order to accomplish that.”
He gave an example of PBL in a Health or Science class. Students studying the interaction and functions of human body parts might do a project to answer the driving question, “How can we, as doctors, diagnose a patient’s illness and create a treatment plan?” Each group would have a “patient” and would identify how the body systems align with symptoms.
They would talk to local doctors and reference textbooks, and based on what they discover, they would come up with a treatment plan. Then they present that to their fellow students, but also to adults that do that line work. “So that answers why they’re learning about this, and it allows them to see it from a real-world perspective of a doctor and why it matters,” he explained.
In the seminar, teachers worked in small groups planning projects for their classes that each began with a “driving question.” English teacher Anna Hurley said these are principles she saw in practice as a student teacher, and they’re concepts the school system has been integrating through new reading and writing workshops. She said the transition for teachers is viewing the project as the unit, rather than as a big traditional project at the end of the unit. In that way, it’s not taking away from instruction time, but making instruction time more valuable.
“You present the standards as the things the students need to know in order to do the project that they care about,” she said. “That’s the biggest piece for me – asking myself how to make it more authentic and relevant to what the students are creating, instead of just telling them they need to know it.”
PBL goes beyond rote memorization of standards and gets into the deeper learning of critical thinking, justifying choices and using evidence from research to defend a solution or idea. These skills combined with presentation and communication skills are what employers are saying are crucial for employees to be able to adapt in a rapidly changing world and economy.
Stevenson said while there are obvious benefits to PBL, it does require a shift in perspective and lesson planning for teachers. He said to ensure they cover all standards, it’s important to select the best topics that will allow students to explore content on a deeper level. It’s also a matter of thinking about which standards might all be relevant for a particular project. When PBL is implemented well, he said test scores are as good or better than traditional methods, and students’ communication and collaboration skills dramatically improve.
In addition to revising the ways we teach, school leaders and Bartleby leaders sought input on school design. Thanks to a recent award, the school will be making some infrastructure improvements including a virtual reality lab, Makerspace, amphitheatre, collaboration area, television studio, outdoor classroom, and presentation spaces. Teachers gave input based on their needs and vision, and these projects will continue into the new school year.