Project Based Learning = Life

October 19, 2010
Kevin Gant

Kevin Gant

You probably remember the drill. At your high school, you may have walked into class, and asked the teacher what you were doing that day. “Taking notes”, or “Doing a lab”, or even, “doing some group work” could have been the response.

When you asked why, the response was often “because it will help you later”. Repeat the next day, and the next, and so on, until after a couple of weeks of this process, you might have then heard the teacher say, “And now…to show that you have learned the material we’ve covered over the last two weeks, I’d like you to do the following project.”carcrash

What if life outside the classroom worked that way?

You might do things this way: go into a classroom, and the instructor says, “Today, we are going to learn about body work on an automobile.” You might ask why, and the instructor says cryptically, “Because it will help you later in life.”

The next day, the instructor says, “Today, we are going to learn about car financing.” And so it goes, until the instructor finally says, “Now class, show me that you have learned something, by participating in the following project – I want you to wreck your car…and then either get it fixed or replace it.”But that’s not how life works, is it?

In life, the problem comes first.

No one assigns to us the task of wrecking our car (I hope!)…it just happens. And when it does, we move into problem-solving mode. We think of what we know, like the name of our favorite mechanic, and the location of a nearby car dealership. We catalog what we need to know: how much will it cost to fix the car? How much will it cost to replace the car? Then we take some initiative, and we act. Either the car gets fixed, or it gets replaced, and in the process, we end up learning about body work and car financing, because the problem created a need to know those things.

So why not make school the same way?

Why not give students the opportunity to take initiative, and solve problems the way the professionals do…with of course, some guidance. That’s exactly what happens every day at New Tech schools. Students are presented with complex problems that incorporate the standards in very real ways.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, students act as financial advisors to the Hidalgo family, who have a fixed income upon retirement, and would like to know their options. In the process the students are learning the Algebra of linear relationships, proportions, and percentages.

In Dallas, Texas, students are providing, and acting out a new script to the dinner-entertainment venue, “Medeival Times” as a way to learn about mid-millenium Europe.

In Austin, Texas, students are creating compost for the plantings around their school as a way to learn about bacterial growth, microscopy, and exponential functions.

In every case, students are presented with the problem first.

As they determine what they know and need to know, they generate action steps. In each case, the problem has been carefully designed by the teacher so that they will have to address the standards…and knowledge of those standards is then anchored by hands-on experience and a relevant context. Because they need to know something to solve an interesting dilemma, or create a novel widget, students subsequently ask for help from the teacher, instead of just hearing the teacher tell them that they need to know something. This is the essence of Project Based Learning.

In a school where this kind of learning occurs, the distinction between “classroom” and “the real world” seems less and less, well, distinct. At New Tech Schools, students are learning not just because someone is telling them to. They are learning because life is offering them interesting problems.

Photo credit: Lee Haywood

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