DeRemer teaches the majority of his geography course content through questions like these, using what’s known as “project-based learning.” In project-based learning, projects become the primary route to knowledge and skills, rather than an accessory to learning. John Larmer, the editor-in-chief at the nonprofit Buck Institute for Education, which trains teachers and conducts education research on project-based learning, says that if the traditional, puff-painted poster boards are dessert, then well-designed project-based learning is the main course.
Pulling it off in the classroom can be a complicated endeavor, Larmer says. Consider the “essential elements” of project-based learning, as presented by the Buck Institute: a challenging problem or question that’s compelling enough for students to want to solve it; sustained inquiry over more than a few class periods; authenticity; student voice and choice; reflection; critique and revision; and a public product.
Not every assignment will be as timely as DeRemer’s school proposal, or tied to an issue that affects students quite so directly. But the “authenticity” element encourages teachers to make sure students’ work focuses on a real problem, or at least resembles work that someone outside of the classroom might actually do. The end result should be a tangible answer, presentation, or product that can be discussed and shared. It’s the science experiment approach applied to the rest of a student’s class schedule.
Learning by doing isn’t a new concept: Aristotle made a case for it in Nichomachean Ethics. It has more modern roots in progressive education theories from the early 1900s, and became popular again in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The current terminology, project-based learning, came into use in the late ‘80s. But it received less attention in the No Child Left Behind era, as schools devoted more energy to standardized testing.
Now, schools are moving away from the culture of over-testing, shifting focus toward teaching practical and social skills along with academic content, and complex classroom projects are coming back in vogue. Larmer said his organization, one of several in the project-based field, is training about 15,000 teachers each year and has expanded its staff from seven to 22 in the past five years.
It doesn’t hurt that project-based learning’s focus on authentic work, critical thinking, collaboration, and other skills fits with Common Core State Standards, which are now in use in most states and which encourage teachers to introduce students to nonfiction texts and primary sources. As students research the realistic circumstances of a project scenario, primary sources are often a logical place to turn.
DeRemer’s geography students spent three weeks reviewing city and district documents and conducting interviews with the authors of the new school’s proposals. They then presented their findings and opinions about Manual’s future to a room full of school board members, district officials, teachers, parents, and neighbors.