As part of my ongoing professional development, I joined Daniel Goduti of the Haverford science department, and Justin Gaudreau and Nate Bridge of the math department, in embarking on a week-long intensive training session at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Our mission was to learn about the definition, strategies, and implementation of Project-Based Learning (PBL), particularly as it relates to the curriculum at Haverford. Project-Based Learning is a pedagogy that incorporates real world problems into the classroom; through research and collaboration, students find solutions and learn academic skills in an authentic way.
I have often thought that PBL was most applicable to STEM-centered teaching methods. How could I, an English teacher, incorporate projects into my discipline? After all, reading and writing are individualized tasks that are appealing, in part, because they allow for escape into a world someone else has created. I quickly discovered that English lends itself naturally to collaboration and projects.
During our five days at Penn, we were divided into randomly assigned groups for morning activities, and afternoon groups with teachers in our particular discipline. In the morning, Zachary Hermann, the Director of the Penn Project-Based Learning Certificate program, flexed his own teaching muscles on us, teachers as his students. We were thrown into authentic projects ranging from the crisis of “food deserts” in and around Philadelphia, to the national concern over the environmental damage of plastic straws. PBL is defined by its four core principles: disciplinary practice, authenticity, collaboration, and iterative learning, and to demonstrate those principles, Zachary used morning activities to stress a different one of the four elements. Our projects built on themselves over the course of the morning session, starting with a video or visual aid, evolving into group conversations, and culminating in presentations.
This year we will be working to implement PBL into our classes, keeping in mind the four pillars: disciplinary practice, authenticity, collaboration, and iterative learning. PBL addresses the needs of modern learners. PBL provides students with authentic projects in which to implement knowledge and create something useful.
The process we went through as Zachary’s students reminded me more of experiences I’ve had in the workplace than those I recall from being a high school or college student. Rather than finding a nook in the library to study alone, I read and shared articles in a group. Instead of taking my own notes during a seminar, I did group research and presented with classmates on a topic we had taught ourselves. Where I once saw my teacher as a sole distributor of facts, I began to see my classmates as knowledgeable contributors and our teacher as a coach. As a student I had been taught to focus on my own goals, to be an independent learner, and in the worst moments, to compete with my classmates. My week at Penn reminded me to value the success of the group; I can’t think of a more important quality for the workplace.
By the end of the week I was questioning everything about my own education, the excellent teachers I had had as a high school student, and how I could incorporate more project-based work into my curriculum at Haverford to prepare students not just for college, but for vast career possibilities. It says something that I learned more collaboration in my first jobs than I did at school. While I recalled hiding myself away in a library corner to unpack great works of literature as a college student, I began to wonder how and if that practice had really helped me later on in life. Certainly, my mind was at work. I was thinking and writing and reading, and those skills continue to be critical in the “real world,” but the week at Penn was so powerful, it had me questioning why students don’t see themselves as a part of the “real world” to begin with. Why can’t the artificial aspects of the traditional learning process be made relevant so that students feel their work is critical and authentic and not just about individual goals?
The week at Penn was just the beginning of our certificate program. This year we will be working to implement PBL into our classes, keeping in mind the four pillars: disciplinary practice, authenticity, collaboration, and iterative learning. PBL addresses the needs of modern learners. Unlike generations of students before, our boys have instant access to information. They don’t need a lecture hall to learn because the facts are a click away. Instead, PBL provides students with authentic projects in which to implement knowledge and create something useful.
How can I as a teacher create authenticity in my own classroom so my students see their work as meaningful in the world around them? These are questions we will work hard to answer this school year, and ones that I know will make us better teachers to the boys as we prepare them for life.
Our certificate program continues as we will record our classes and share them with our discipline-based groups from the week at Penn. We will continue conversations with the teachers we met at Penn, some of whom are from district and neighboring schools in Philadelphia, and others who are from as far as California and Virginia. Each quarter of the school year we will focus on one of the major pillars of PBL, looking for ways to provide authentic, meaningful work for our students. Next summer, we will spend a final week at Penn to unpack our work from the year and solidify our understanding of PBL.
The work I did as an English major was disciplinary focused. I learned to think, read, and write like a literary critic. What if I had also been asked to collaborate, reflect, and do authentic, “real-world” application of that discipline? What if I had been given choice in what I read and how I responded? What if someone had encouraged, or even made me write for an audience other than my teacher? What if I had been tasked with working alongside my classmates, rather than parallel to them? More importantly, how can I as a teacher create authenticity in my own classroom so my students see their work as meaningful in the world around them? These are questions we will work hard to answer this school year, and ones that I know will make us better teachers to the boys as we prepare them for life.