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What Project-Based Learning Means for Your High School Child

project learning  

2014-04-25 15:00:09

The flipped classroom. 21st-century skills. Blended learning. With so many buzzwords in education, it can be hard for any parent to keep track. 

One helpful catchphrase for high school parents to understand these days is project-based learning. 

The instructional approach, in which students learn through creating a project, is becoming a common practice in middle and high schools across the country. Organizations such as the New Tech Network, Big Picture and Expeditionary Learning are helping project-based learning to flourish from coast to coast. And education professors are teaching aspiring teachers about the method, which some say isn't entirely new. 

When done well, project-based learning can enhance a student's education, turning teenagers into more engaged learners, experts say. But like many education techniques, it's only effective when teachers use it as designed.  

[Learn about the 2014 Best High Schools rankings.] 

In a typical classroom that uses project-based learning, students are put in groups and asked to complete a project with some real-world application. The project isn't an afterthought at the end of a lesson, in other words, but rather the vehicle for learning.

Students might be asked to use their math skills to put together a food budget for a wedding, for example, or draw on their chemistry knowledge to advise a vineyard on what kind of soil balance it needs to grow a certain kind of grape.​

Students are often asked to present their final product to adults who have a vested​ interest in the results of the project – the couple, say, or vineyard owner – who then assess the students and play a role in determining their grade. 

Makayla Ferman, a junior at Texas​' Belton New Tech High @ Waskow​, says one of her favorite projects involved using her geometry skills to help plan out the number of parking spaces needed in a new school parking lot. Students were asked to present their recommendations, and then school officials chose the best plan.

"The part I liked best about the project was that we were actually making an impact," she says. "We were doing it for our school." Project-based learning is often interdisciplinary in nature, meaning that students may complete a project that draws from both their history and science classes​. Schools that practice the approach often have an emphasis on technology, which they say helps students research and design creative, professional-looking final projects. The teaching method is particularly popular in STEM schools.

Unlike in traditional classrooms, teachers practicing project-based learning put a minimal emphasis on lecturing, instead serving as a guide for students as they work through their projects. Advocates say the approach gives students a way to demonstrate they've learned their class content, while also honing their communication, collaboration and problem-solving skills – the kinds of abilities employers want to find in the workplace.

Ferman says she's impressed with the skills she's picked up.

"Before I came to this school I was really shy and I was afraid to talk to new people," she says. "But now my presentation skills are pretty awesome."

[Learn how to evaluate a STEM high school.]

While the term project-based learning only became popular in recent years, the idea has been around for at least a hundred or so, says Nancy Niemi, associate professor and head of the education program at the University of New Haven. She traces the concept back to John Dewey, an education reformer and philosopher from the 19th and 20th century who believed that school work should be hands on and tied to the community. 

In education, she says, there is a tendency to constantly examine old techniques, pluck the best from them, tweak them and call them new. The field has done that with project-based learning, she says.

"It shouldn't be sold as the newest and greatest thing that is going to save public education," Niemi says. "It's a great teaching and learning technique that can be used very well or not very well." 

[Explore what to look for when choosing a high school.]

To have an effective project-based learning environment, teachers need to have a structure in place so that students have an idea of how they should move through the process, she says. They also need to play close attention to group dynamics, knowing when to intervene if a group has stalled.

With a great teacher at the helm of the classroom, Niemi and others says project-based learning can make students more creative and engaged. 

"The difference in the kids, it's been phenomenal," says Kris Schrotenboer, who has been teaching English in Grand Rapids, Mich., for 20 years, but only started using project-based learning five or six years ago. "Kids who don’t normally have a voice in the room suddenly have a voice and feel like they have value." ​Stay up to date with the U.S. News High School Notes blog. ​ 

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