You’ve heard the phrase, you’ve seen the photos, and your child may have even presented what they’ve learned to you. But what exactly does “project-based learning” mean?
According to the Duke School, “projects are in-depth investigations that challenge students to apply skills, knowledge, and strategies from different content areas as they do authentic research, analyze data, think deeply about problems and draw conclusions”.
Project-based learning is rooted in educational standards. Teachers design each project after thoroughly reviewing the grade-level standards to ensure that all topics within a standard are covered. Because projects are in line with educational standards, they naturally progress, building upon the previous year’s experiences. Here at Episcopal, students begin this type of learning as early as PreK-3 and PreK-4.
“Learning of this kind provides our students with the tools necessary to make the world a better place,” says Lower School Division Head Bridget Henderson. Henderson says project-based learning units all begin with the end in mind.
Units are divided into three phases, which include:
Henderson says in phase one students make a connection to the topic by discussing and writing about what they know and wonder about regarding that topic.
The hallmarks of Phase II are investigation and research. Here, students are exposed to concepts such as data collection and analysis, problem solving, and drawing and testing conclusions as they explore the topic in greater detail to become “experts”. In this phase, students often go on field trips or learn from guest speakers. They also participate in the hands-on activities that generate excitement and enthusiasm for learning.
“This is where the projects come to life,” says Henderson. She says students, who are now the experts, share their knowledge in some way. This can take the form of a presentation for family and friends or puppet shows for classmates.
First grade teacher Heather Harpole has been using project-based learning to teach since the approach was introduced at Episcopal in 2012. Harpole and her fellow educators trained at the Duke School to learn more about the process. She says she has seen that the learning-by-doing philosophy results in actively engaged students, who process and retain the information because they take ownership of the project.
Harpole and Henderson say Lower School staff are particularly fond of the project-based learning approach because it is student-centered and student-led. Harpole says that means that while the project topics may be the same each year, they feel completely different because of the changing student interests. A great example of this is the first grade “Healthy Selves” project. Harpole says her class was very focused on exercise, while another first grade class enjoyed learning more about healthy snacks. Being able to accommodate student interests, while meeting the educational standards, ultimately makes the units more interesting for both students and teachers.
Project-based learning also allows for a collective “buy-in” for student learning. Depending on the unit, parents and other faculty may be called upon to share their expertise. For example, parents who are also doctors or dentists served as experts for the “Healthy Selves” unit. Members of the physical education department also shared their knowledge on everything from weight-lifting safety and caring for a bleeding nose to hiking techniques and kayaking tips.
Both Harpole and Henderson say they’ve seen positive results from the project-based learning experience. Harpole says not only are the learning standards met, but the students are also excited about what they’ve learned. In fact, Harpole says it’s fairly common for parents to report back to her that students are sharing their newfound knowledge with the family. For example, students may advise parents not to drink too much coffee because of the risk of staining their teeth or they may ask for each food group to be represented at every meal.
Project-based learning has proven to be a useful and meaningful method for ensuring that students learn and grow in the type of joyful and educational environment provided in Lower School. To learn more and see photos of students engaged in project-based learning click here.