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Project Based Learning is Better

A baking soda/vinegar volcano is a great example of project based learning. It teaches kids about basic chemical reactions in an easy to understand way. Photo by Paul Peterson.

Project based learning is the theory that students learn better by tackling real world challenges and problems than by taking tests and taking notes. It tends to involve working on a single problem for a length of time, with potential real world applications. Think of a class researching why students get sick, then finding the most effective prevention methods, then presenting their findings to fellow students in order to decrease sickness-related absences in school. This learning method can be applied to most subjects, and is a more effective and engaging method of learning than the current method of standards-based learning.

Maybe the best example of project based learning here at Franklin would be the units that use the Makerspace. More specifically, the shoe unit in freshman physics. Students are given the prompt (who they are making the shoe for), then they do research (what does that shoe have to do), then they construct and prototype the shoe, until they create a design that accomplishes the goals they set for themselves. 

Brightworks, a private school in San Francisco, spends half of each day following this model of project based learning. Brightworks was founded by Gever Tulley, who also founded a program called Tinkering School, and wrote a book entitled Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). The school divides the year into three Arcs, or periods of project based learning around a single, general topic. The Arc moves in three phases, and each phase is equally important and presents different challenges. The first phase is the Exploration Phase. In this phase, students are pushed by teachers (henceforth referred to as “collaborators”) to “explore every reasonable facet of the arc” says Owen Hoyt, a former Brightworks student. This allows for “a new lens which you can use for anything else,” says Hoyt. 

The second phase is the Expression Phase. This is the phase in which the actual project happens. The students will design a project or experiment that touches on some part of the topic. This is where the bulk of the learning happens. Because of the large amount of freedom given to the students, a lot of the teaching happens between the students, especially as students begin to specialize in certain aspects of the prompt. This is good, as it allows for a more engaging learning experience, rather than simply listening to a teacher at the front of the room.

The third phase is called the Exposition Phase. This is where the students explain to their parents and peers what they did. It takes two forms, a science-fair-esque event, and a presentation attended by the whole school, in which students explain their projects in detail. The science fair is meant to be an elevator pitch, usually with a visual aid. This cements learning better than most tests, as it allows for the students to interact with the information again and change it from their data and conclusions, which might be difficult for their peers to understand, into something that their peers, and even people who may not know them can understand. This allows for a more meaningful connection to the material learned.

Some common issues presented with project based learning are as follows. Number one, a lack of preparedness for standardized testing which students will undoubtedly encounter if they intend to continue on to college. Because Brightworks is a private school, it is not subject to district testing, but students often work with tutors outside of school in order to prepare for nationwide testing like the SAT or the ACT. This would not be applicable to a project based public school environment however, as it would still be subject to standardized testing. In this case, similar extracurricular opportunities to those that exist now in the form of SAT/ACT prep courses would probably exist. Another potential issue is the lack of ability to cover topics such as English, which are not easily learned through projects. Brightworks solves this problem by spending the morning of each day covering one of the core subjects. For example, Monday might be math; Tuesday, English; Wednesday social studies; and so on. The afternoon is then spent on the Arc. 

While it does seem unlikely that in our time as students, the United States education system, or even Oregon’s education system would make a unified change to public education, there are things you can do on your own. For example, make things. Use the resources we have at Franklin and manufacture functional or pretty things. Or, you can use the internet, arguably the best resource ever, and learn about opportunities that interest you, or concepts you could teach yourself. 

The philosophy that drives Brightworks is simple: Everything is interesting. That is, in my opinion, one of the better life philosophies that exists, and we should all embrace it.

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Project Based Learning is Better