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September 2009 | Volume 67 | Number 1
Teaching for the 21st Century
Projects help students approach learning in real-world terms. But to launch successful projects, teachers must develop their own 21st century skills.
Two years ago, West Virginia teacher Deb Austin Brown turned her classroom at Alban Elementary School in St. Albans, into a bustling communications center. Clocks keep track of time on several continents, reminding students that they are part of a global community. News feeds bring in updates from around the world. Student teams produce and broadcast a daily news show, publish a newspaper, and tackle other projects in which they apply reading, writing, speaking, and thinking skills to real-world creations.
Brown designed the communications center project to help her students develop 21st century skills. Her curriculum redesign was part of a statewide push "to get kids to be big-picture thinkers, collaborators, and problem solvers," she explains. Before designing the center, Brown had taught language arts for more than 30 years and often incorporated projects. But shifting to the real-world, project-based approach required Brown herself to apply some new skills.
Real-world projects like the Alban School's communications center are gaining traction as a strategy to prepare students for the future. Several innovative models put projects at the center of instruction. The 40 schools in the
New Technology High Schools network, for instance, all emphasize technology-rich, inquiry-based projects. More than 200 schools in the nonprofit
EAST Initiative put service learning, digital tools, and student-driven projects at the core of all instruction. The EAST network provides professional development to help partner schools use technology to enhance service learning.
But designing and implementing effective projects is challenging. The project approach requires teachers to think creatively, solve unanticipated problems, integrate technology appropriately, and communicate well. Projects may involve collaborating with peers or content experts in other countries and time zones, which creates logistical and cultural challenges. Many teachers have never received training for these complex tasks.
Project-based learning gets messy. Well-designed projects allow for student choice. Learners may be working on a number of different activities at once—some researching, others creating digital content, others rehearsing a presentation. Some may go in directions the teacher never anticipated.
To deliver on the full promise of project-based learning, educators need to acquire a 21st century skill of their own—the skill of project management. In my research for a book on project-based learning, I saw teachers adopt five project management strategies associated with the work world: creating environments in which students can work independently toward solving a problem or fashioning something new, stepping back so students take the lead, teaching time management, nurturing students' initiative, and fostering teamwork.
As Deb Brown designed her project-based curriculum at Alban Elementary, she was inspired by something she had heard literacy expert Dorothy Strickland say 30 years ago while Brown was in graduate school: The classroom is structured so that certain things are likely to occur. "That's the key for project-based learning," Brown says. "As a teacher, you set it all up," so the learning you want to occur happens naturally.
A good plan considers everything from the "big ideas" connected to a discipline to such nitty-gritty details as time lines for discrete activities, technologies the project might require, and strategies for providing students feedback and assessing their work.
In planning the Alban school communications center, Brown knew she wanted students to use reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills for authentic purposes. Producing a print newspaper and broadcast news show gives students opportunities to put those skills to good use in a learning environment that reflects the world beyond the classroom.
Each year they attend the K-5 school, all students have the chance to work and learn in the center once a week. Students grow into increasingly responsible positions as they acquire new skills, such as operating video cameras, editing footage, writing scripts, and meeting daily deadlines. In 5th grade, students compete for coveted on-air news crew assignments.
When a project moves from idea to implementation, the teacher's role shifts. "That's when you have to take the important step back," Brown says, and give students room to use their own creativity and problem-solving skills.
At Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles, English teacher Antero Garcia watched his students become informed citizen scientists—and outspoken environmental activists—through their involvement in a learning game called Black Cloud created by a professor at University of California at Berkeley. Unlike traditional assignments, this one had no right set of answers. Instead, Garcia encouraged students to think of themselves as scientists and investigate questions that interested them.
The game sends students on a quest to research pollution in their neighborhoods. It also offered Garcia's students a rare opportunity to use social media at a school where Web 2.0 technologies are routinely blocked. Using their cell phones to exchange text messages, students helped one another crack clues to find small wireless sensors that Garcia and professor Greg Niemeyer had strategically placed throughout the community that measured surrounding pollution. Once they found the sensors, students interpreted the online graphs of air quality readings.
Once students discovered their neighborhood had higher-than-average readings of carbon dioxide—and that pollution readings in their classroom were off the charts—they became motivated in a way Garcia couldn't have anticipated. From that point on, students were full of ideas for actions they could take to improve air quality in their classroom and inform their community about its pollution problem. Garcia's role became helping them find ways to pursue their many plans.
Students improved the air quality in their classroom with simple actions like opening windows and bringing in plants. Several students spoke about environmental issues at a community forum. They hosted an event at an art gallery at which they displayed three-dimensional representations they'd made of their dream "green" community.
Garcia watched his student—many of whom are English language learners—develop stronger communication skills through this experience. These students are now better prepared to step up and solve problems. "They don't see themselves as coming to school just to receive education," Garcia claims. "They're here to effect change in their community."
It can be hard for educators who are accustomed to orderly rows of students working on the same task to give up control. During projects, student groups may be pursuing different goals and activities simultaneously and will all be at different stages of completing various tasks.
The trick to managing all these moving parts, Deb Brown notes, "is to build on incremental successes." As students or groups accomplish different tasks, "you celebrate successes along the way, and these create an upward spiral [of enthusiasm] in the classroom."
In the work world, incremental goals are called project milestones. Students also need to understand that big projects unfold in a series of smaller steps. Project calendars that track milestones help students learn to manage mini-deadlines and head off problems that might cause delays.
Google Calendar is a good tool, and so is a class Web site that lists upcoming milestones and deadlines for all students. Tools that encourage students to reflect on their progress, such as project logs, blogs, or journals, help students learn to manage time and monitor their own strengths.
An observant teacher will make the most of opportunities to point out incremental progress or to troubleshoot when students seem overwhelmed. "Be on your feet, paying attention," Brown advises. "When you see a student who has a light bulb moment, you need to walk over, put your hand on that student's shoulder, and say, 'Share it with us.' That's how you build momentum."
Some students struggle with open-ended projects, especially if they have only experienced traditional instruction. To help students manage the transition to more self-directed learning, teachers may need to reinforce behaviors that demonstrate student initiative.
Before he started teaching, Terry Smith worked in the computer industry where the project approach is routine. When he switched to the classroom at Eugene Field Elementary School in Hannibal, Missouri, Smith brought his project management strategies with him. He organized his 4th graders into teams to tackle such challenging tasks as collaboratively designing a monster or decoding geographical clues to identify world landmarks. If they hit an impasse, Smith suggested that students "have a meeting" and work out a solution.
How did students react? Often, they didn't. In his first year teaching, he'd see them sitting quietly with their hands in the air. "Before they get to me, students have been well-trained to be traditional students," Smith notes. "They expect to be quiet until called on."
Smith now begins each new school year by easing his class into "project mode." Students' first assignment is a collaborative effort that involves tracking the fall migration of monarch butterflies, using
The Journey North, a curriculum focused on observing migration and engaging in cross-cultural exchanges. This high-interest project has instructional goals in writing, science, math, and social studies, but more important, gives students practice in doing inquiry rather than memorizing information. Rather than reading a science text, for instance, students use videoconferencing to interview scientists. They communicate with a class in Mexico that's also tracking the butterflies. Classroom teams raise caterpillars and blog about their observations. This project is a good warm-up for a year of learning that is nearly all project-based. Smith shares highlights from this project on his class Web site.
Working in project mode may require a change of attitude within teachers as well. Teachers need to think like managers, making sure students know their ultimate project goals and then releasing students to negotiate how they'll carry out both the work and the thinking needed to achieve goals.
By design, most projects are too large for one student to tackle alone. Getting the work done requires teamwork—another 21st century skill. If students are accustomed to working individually, they might need help learning to collaborate, negotiate, and share the workload. Managing team dynamics is crucial.
A variety of strategies can encourage effective collaboration. Reflection activities, for example, might ask students to evaluate team dynamics and make suggestions for improvement. Online collaborative tools, such as wikis, enable teachers to monitor which students are contributing content. A team contract that describes members' responsibilities and consequences for letting down the team can ensure that students understand their responsibilities. Rubrics define what effective teamwork looks like.
Even projects that culminate in individual work benefit from collaboration. At Tupelo High School in Mississippi, composition teacher Ellen Shelton's students participated in an online project (cosponsored by Google and the National Writing Project) called Letters to the Next President. This endeavor gave students the chance to share an opinion on a substantial social issue with a global audience. By the time the new president was elected, 55 Tupelo students—along with 6,000 other teens from across the United States—had posted their well-reasoned arguments on a Web site called
Letter to the Next President: Writing Our Future. The project was intended to give students a platform to discuss national issues that matter to them.
This project required students to think critically about current issues, evaluate information sources for bias, collaborate with peers, and communicate their ideas to a real audience. Students had to meet deadlines, get comfortable using new technology tools, and even work with a professional film crew that came to Mississippi to document the project.
Shelton set up conditions for collaboration. Students used an online work space, Google Docs, to draft and revise letters. Having round-the-clock access to the work space meant Shelton could offer students almost immediate feedback on their work, embedding comments right in their documents. She saw students serve as one another's sounding boards, using collaboration tools to make comments and suggestions.
Projects that mimic the kinds of work students will likely do in the workplaces of the 21st century help students see themselves as capable decision-makers whose opinions matter. In the letter-writing project, for example, Shelton saw students become more confident writers. One girl who was hesitant about expressing herself learned to write confidently about issues important to her life. Best of all, Shelton saw students' passions ignited. They spent lunch breaks continuing the "hot topic" discussions they had started in composition class. Generating that excitement about learning is what makes real-world projects worth the effort.
Suzie Boss is the coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning (International Society for Technology in Education, 2008). She serves on the national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education.
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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