Becoming a 21st Century School: Project-Based Learning

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Arnold Greenberg, Director

Liberty School, Blue Hill, Maine USA

Though Project Based Learning is not new, how it is being implemented at Liberty School—A Democratic Learning Community in Blue Hill, Maine is unique. I will attempt to describe how and why we are moving in this direction.

As we enter our tenth year, we are reinventing ourselves as a Democratic “Project Based” Learning Community. For several years, we have found ourselves wanting to break out of the fragmented structure of periods and have more uninterrupted time for teachers and students to get more deeply involved in interdisciplinary learning. Several years ago we were one of ten schools given a $400,000 Gates grant though the Great Maine Schools Project to “reinvent the American High School.” The concern behind this project is the abundant evidence that the more traditional “industrial age” approach to educating is obsolete and is not preparing students adequately for college or for life in the 21st Century.

Our new approach is organized around advisories of 10-12-students each having his or her workspace with a desk and computer. Advisories could be larger. Students propose projects to their advisors who help them develop their projects so that they are able to meet various Maine Learning Result Standards through the project. Students work on several projects at a time under the guidance of their advisors as well as other teachers and experts from the community.

We use an internet based program called Project Foundry where students log in everyday, make project proposals, report on their progress to their advisor in daily journals, record standards being met and keeping an electronic portfolio of their work. Foundation courses are still offered in math, science, foreign languages and other areas, but there is much more uninterrupted time to work on projects either independently or in collaboration with other students working on the same project. Many courses and seminars grow out of projects that students are working on called “seminars on demand,” but the role of the teacher is changed dramatically to being an advisor/guide and a “generalist” rather than a specialist in a specific discipline. Rather than teachers we refer to ourselves as “facilitators of learning.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.” are at the heart of our democratic approach to education. The rest of Emerson’s statement, however, expresses why we believe Project Based Learning is so empowering for students and so challenging for teachers and parents.

“It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained as only he holds the key to his own secret.” Giving each student responsibility for his or her education requires trust and patience on the part of parents and teachers. We believe being a democratic “project based” learning community moves us closer to being a 21st Century school and empowers students to be self-directed rather than teacher directed.

Project Based Learning prepares students for the 21st Century workplace where people are expected to work on projects, collaborate with co-workers and be able to have the resourcefulness to self-manage and also manage a project. Schools modeled on the factory system are obsolete. Even if all schools are able to meet the NCLB standards by 2014 as expected, these students will still not be prepared for the 21st Century. The 3 R’s are being replaced with the 3 C’s—critical problem solving, collaboration and communication. Though the core tools of reading, writing and arithmetic are important, content knowledge is not as important as the ability to use knowledge to gain more knowledge and to solve problems and create projects.

Along with Project Based Learning, Problem Based Learning is similar but also much different in significant ways. A “problem” is challenging because it needs analysis, thinking about the root problem and evaluating a number of possible solutions. Problem solving involves a different way of thinking, although there may be problems to solve in finishing a project. A project is different because it has a definite seeable goal—build a mountain bike, write a paper, design an energy efficient house, make a poster of fashions in the 20th Century.

A “problem” is more exploratory, the outcome less certain, the approach to the problem takes gathering a lot of data or information in order to either solve the problem or find possible solutions.

Our students have found that project or problem based learning is liberating. They can study anything they want. They have complete freedom to learn what they want and their education is much more “student directed” than ever before. Our students are “constructors of their knowledge” rather than reproducers of knowledge given to them by a teacher. They become researchers and discoverers rather than passive recipients of information. To prepare students for the 21st Century workplace—the Googles, tech companies, research centers-- our schools must be modeled like the 21st Century workplace. And that’s where we are going at Liberty.