Superintendent News

My prior articles have focused on changes to our school district’s curriculum.  This column will discuss a new element to our instructional practice that is taking place across the district.  The approach is called project-based learning or PBL.  Last year, our teachers received training from experts in project-based learning and each created a PBL unit that will be taught this year.  For some of our teachers, project-based learning had been incorporated into their instructional approach for years.  For others, it will be a new practice.  

What is PBL?  The following definition comes from the Buck Institute for Education:  Project-Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

An example shared during one of our training sessions showed students at a Michigan school studying the Flint water crisis and proposing possible solutions.

Why require PBL?  Research studies have shown that PBL is an effective instructional method for students.  PBL is centered on authentic learning.   Students are more apt to see the relevancy of what they are learning when it is tied to things going on in their daily lives.  When students are connected to their learning, they take more ownership and become more engaged.  Rigorous, relevant curriculum combined with high student interest, effort and engagement leads to great learner outcomes.  

As we identified the traits we want to instill in our students, incorporating PBL learning experiences were viewed as a strong match.  This is how it fits within the five core categories of our vision:

Core Knowledge:  PBL utilizes core knowledge as a foundation for student learning, but also emphasizes a higher degree of student-initiated learning.  While the classroom teacher provides background knowledge, clarification and guidance, the students have much more responsibility in directing their own learning.  

Communicator:  As students participate in PBL, they collaborate with other group members.  They integrate components of the ISTE standards to enhance the communication of their results.  Public speaking abilities are learned and reinforced as PBL units typically end with a presentation of what was learned to an authentic audience.

Creative Problem-Solver:  PBL requires analytical skills and is solution-focused.  Students look at data, evaluate multiple potential solutions and, ultimately, settle on a best course of action.  Ingenuity and open-mindedness in looking at issues through a fresh perspective are valued components of the process.  It is designed to create tomorrow’s leaders and problem solvers.

Character:  PBL naturally fosters passion for learning.  Because students are invested in learning about issues impacting their lives, there is a natural motivation that drives learning.  This self-directed approach builds confidence and leadership skills.

Contributing Citizen:  Ultimately, we want students to understand the impact that they can make on their school and community.  They already have the knowledge and skills.  The connection between students as actively involved problem solvers and our community creates lifelong learning and lifelong participation which makes for healthy, thriving communities.  

Project-based learning is an important component of our vision for Otter education, but it is only one component.  Preferred learning styles vary from student to student.  While some prefer to listen to a lecture and take notes, others prefer a much more hands on approach.  By using multiple instructional techniques, we better connect our students to the material.  Ultimately, this leads to more involved and engaged self-directed learners.