Seaside begins project-based learning transition

June 30, 2016
Monterey Herald

When sixth- and ninth-grade teachers in the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District ended the 2015-16 school year, many also closed the books on the “old-fashioned way” of instruction.

Come fall, teachers at Seaside High and Seaside Middle schools will begin using “project-based learning,” an approach that relies more on students’ willingness to find answers to questions rather than teachers spoon-feeding them their knowledge.

“The plan for Seaside High is a four-year rollout with the New Tech network,” Principal Carlos Moran said, speaking about the Napa-based consultants who are guiding Seaside through the transition. “Next year we’ll start with the freshman and all the freshman teachers, and every year we’ll add a grade level.”

The three learning communities at the Monterey district approved sweeping changes earlier in the year to the way they deliver instruction. The Seaside learning community opted for “project-based learning,” a method that’s been used for years elsewhere in the county and the state and is becoming increasingly popular.

To make the transition, freshman teachers and administrators will attend a conference in Orlando, Florida, in July. Teachers in sophomore, junior and senior years who wanted to get a head start could attend a three-day training at Seaside High this week. The training was also open to Seaside Middle School teachers.

“It’s the middle of the summer and look how many teachers we have,” Moran said, looking at a group of about 30 teachers rapt in their projects. “It’s pretty cool.”

The method is very different from what teachers use now. Rather than relying on existing textbooks and other pre-fabricated material, project-based learning is used to have students “pursue their own knowledge.”

“You’re encouraging students to ask their own questions,” said Jim Bentley, a trainer with the Buck Institute for Education, which specializes in project-based learning. “When you encourage students to improve those questions and refine those questions, you’re asking them to find new information and answer things that are not provided in a textbook or sheets or workbook. In a way, the students are creating the knowledge that they acquire rather than being consumers of knowledge in a textbook.”

Presenting problems for students to solve, and guiding them through their inquiries, requires a lot of planning. That’s where the training comes in.

“It’s shifting teachers’ mindsets, it’s not the same way you taught when you taught a project, but more about how you give kids real-world, authentic tasks, challenging questions, allowing for students’ voice and choice, and really making sure the work is worthy enough of them that can be sustained over time,” said Della Limon, who’s taught English at Seaside High for five years. “It’s not going to be a one-day thing.”

Teachers began to draft their projects during the training this week. Finding inspiration in Bhutan, math teachers Tessa Brown and Susan Phillips plan to have students survey the school to find out satisfaction levels.

“Our students will calculate the happiness of Seaside. They’ll write a survey, explore the implications, compare freshmen to sophomores to juniors and seniors, do a sample distribution, find the mean — that’s where the math comes in,” Brown said.

Some of the teachers were already applying some of the project-based learning methods, they said, but the training and the change in school culture will be different.

“It will be more thoughtful, much more planned out and something we’re hoping will change in terms of how we’re going to invest in students’ education and their connections with the community,” Limon said.

Because the learning is supposed to be more connected to the real world, teachers will ask community members to make presentations in their classrooms about their field of expertise, and invite them back to evaluate their final projects.

“It’s a very different way of teaching, it’s really more about what is something real that I can get excited about, and then the kids will have to discover what skills and standards do I need to get in order to get there,” Limon said. “Rather than telling them, ‘You need to learn about the branches of government,’ we propose a real problem, we ask them to solve it, and as a byproduct, they’re going to be learning about that.”

While the method is probably best suited for entrepreneurial students, those who can work independently already, the idea is to inspire all types of pupils to take charge of their learning.

“The idea is that, if we make this challenge and ideas authentic, if we make them genuine, the kids will be excited about them,” Limon said. “If it’s something they really care about, we’ll see a lot of excitement and endurance for that.”