Project Based Learning and the Three Pillars

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Project Based Learning and the Three Pillars of Personalized Learning

This blog post is from from Kevin Hunt, a contributor to PLP Pathways and teacher in the Swift House, Williston Central School.

We’re officially over halfway through the school year and teachers and staff at WCS are fully immersed in the PLP process and Proficiency Based Learning. These have been two huge initiatives that been met head on in our district (as well as state wide) and I think it is fair to say that most feel much more confident at the halfway mark than they did at the onset of the school year.

I strongly believe that a specific pedagogical practice and philosophy has eased the transition for many teachers: learner- centered project based learning. Project based learning is certainly not a new buzz phrase or huge paradigm shift. Three years ago, Debbie Donnelly, a current Swift House teacher and Julie Longchamp, a retired Swift House teacher (who was also a founding member of Swift House and taught on Swift for over 25 years) co-authored an article, published in AMLE, about Swift House’s approach to project based learning and its place with the Common Core State Standards, which were relatively new at the time.

As I now read the article through the lens of the three pillars of personalized learning, I am struck by the themes and connections that were written about over three years ago and how relevant they are in today’s shift in education. Themes such as student choice, engagement, authentic learning, relationships, collaboration, and flexibility, are all at the forefront of this article.

As teachers, we are bound by time and curriculum expectations. Whenever the question comes up about what teachers need more of, it is always time. When are we going to have time to do this program? How will I have enough time to work in PLPs when I have to get through all of these books in my math program? Should I commit more time to planning for lessons or assessing student work? I’m certain that we’ve all felt and heard at least some variation of these.

This seems to be the show-stopping question of any new initiative in education, yet regardless of the lackluster answer that teachers receive to these questions, they still hunker down and do their very best work for one reason: the students. We know, as frustrating as days may be, that the work we do is making a difference. One day, we may have a lesser impact on a student, but the next, we may be opening a door for another student and providing a lasting impact that will influence the rest of that child’s life.

It’s no surprise that students engage more in their work when they feel that they are valued and feel a personal connection to what they are learning. Project based learning provides an opportunity for authentic engagement, personalization, and flexible pathways to demonstrate mastery of a skill.

In their article, Debbie and Julie explain, “We have district curriculum expectations, a stipulated math program, and district-wide common assessments, but how we structure our learning experiences to address the curriculum is left up to the teams of teachers.” We are fortunate in WCS to have such trust from our administration as professionals that allows us to structure our learning experiences to best meet the needs of the students as well as the curriculum.

This allows us to partake in many team wide project based experiences including:

  • Independent projects- students choose a topic, complete thorough research and present out to community members at an open house.

  • Swiftville-a team wide economics simulation that involves students writing business plans, learning about tax, balancing a checking account, and ultimately creating a live and functioning business in which they make and sell tangible goods to younger students using “Swiftie” money.
  • Rube Goldberg project- students work in small groups to complete a working Rube Goldberg machine with at least ten steps with the end result of popping a balloon, or dropping a mento into a cup of cola.
  • Theater unit-completely student led- students direct, act, work the light and sound board and make props/sets for two plays, one of which is a Shakespearean comedy every year.

There are countless content-based projects that occur throughout the school year as well that give students an opportunity to have a voice and authentic audience. As I stated above, project based learning isn’t a brand new concept and the majority of teachers are utilizing project based ideas in their classrooms every day. I was blown away at the most recent MGI conference in Burlington as I listened to a plethora of teachers from schools throughout the state discuss different ways that they are engaging their students with personalization and flexible pathways through the use of engaging projects. Now, in the age of Act 77, it’s important that we recognize the best teaching practices that we already do and draw connections to the three pillars of personalized learning.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the late Al Myers, who was also a founding member of Swift House. I believe that his words about his vision for our team will both resonate with and apply to educators worldwide:

“It is my hope that public schools will be places where children learn who they are as learners, to celebrate difference and uniqueness, to develop skills in challenging settings and in accordance with the best research on how the human brain learns, and where interpersonal problem solving and understanding is as central to the learning process as is personalized intellectual development.”