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March 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 6

Authentic Energy

When our school renewed its commitment to true project-based learning, everyone's work became more fun.

School CultureCurriculum
I was sitting around recently with a group of teachers. We chatted, laughed, and in a tangent, ended up talking about commonly recognized occult symbols. In short, we had fun.
I know this scene sounds common. Colleagues frequently unwind on Friday evenings over drinks. But as assistant head of school at Premier Charter School, I'm rarely invited to after-school social gatherings, and rather than in a bar, we were in a meeting planning a unit on the importance of national and local symbols. So why were we having so much fun? Where did the energy come from?
We were having fun because of what we were planning and how we were planning it. In Strengthening Student Engagement, Richard Strong and colleagues (1995) argue that engaging, energizing work both stimulates curiosity and allows for the expression of creativity. At Premier Charter School in St. Louis, Missouri, we designed a curriculum that does both of these things for our students. We found that the process of planning such a curriculum for our students was equally energizing for teachers.

Returning to Our Project-Based Roots

Premier is a K–8 public charter school that serves more than 900 students. Around 70 percent of our students receive free or reduced-price lunches, more than 20 percent are not native English speakers, and 20 percent receive special education services. Premier was founded 18 years ago as a school oriented around project-based learning. Unfortunately, at the time much of our staff didn't know what project-based learning really was, much less how to implement it.
We never officially stopped being a project-based school, but over time less and less of our curriculum centered on projects. One day we realized we had become primarily a teacher-centered, direct-instruction school. That's not to say Premier was a bad school: Our students were among the top performers in St. Louis year after year. But all our students were really good at was telling us what we had just told them. When we asked them to apply their learning to new situations, they struggled. We also realized that our teachers were spending a great deal of time trying to motivate students—which paradoxically led to demotivated students and frustrated teachers. We knew we could do better.
We began by examining all the courses we offered. We found that the various disciplines were very isolated from one another; students had math class, then language arts class, and so on. Rarely was there any real interdisciplinary study. Our students' knowledge was compartmentalized. We literally had situations where students could accurately apply a skill or concept in one class—typically the class in which it was initially taught—but not when it was called for in another class. For example, students could craft an outstanding argument essay for language arts class, but when asked to write an argument about the Boston Massacre from the position of either a loyalist or patriot, it was as if completely different students had shown up. These "new" students seemed like they hadn't made it to language arts yet.

A "Smoothie" Curriculum

We decided to design a curriculum that at least blurred, if not completely erased, the lines between the disciplines. In Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory (2008), Allen Repko offers a wonderful analogy to explain the kind of interdisciplinary approach we were after, comparing interdisciplinary studies to a fruit smoothie. Klein and Newell (1998) describe the approach we were looking for as using a process to answer a question, solve a problem, or address a complex challenge.
Examining how our courses were organized and scheduled, we realized our internal structures might stand in the way of the curriculum we wanted. Our solution at the elementary (K–5) level was to eliminate science and social studies and devote that time to a class we called Inquiry, designed around students using the inquiry process to investigate topics and solve problems. For example, our 5th graders now work on a unit that involves using language arts, math, science, and economics to study global challenges related to water conservation and to propose solutions. At the middle school level, we kept science and social studies as separate classes, but redesigned the curriculum for both to be based on inquiry learning.
Recalling the adage that those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it, we weren't going to again make the mistake of launching a curriculum centered on project-based learning without knowing enough about project-based learning to do it right. So before we started developing a new curriculum, we offered professional development to all our teachers, working with Linda Henke of the Santa Fe Center for Transformational Leadership. At the beginning of these sessions, all teacher teams selected one unit to develop. For more than a year, our teams met with Linda monthly to learn about each of the components of inquiry-based instruction. After each meeting, teachers incorporated what they learned into the unit they were developing. They then applied this same development process to the rest of their curriculum. The result has been units centered on projects that are highly student-centered and engaging for students and teachers alike.

Advice from Our Journey

As Premier revamped our course structure and key units, we learned a number of things along the way. Allow me to share three insights that might benefit others considering a similar course.

Aim for Depth Rather Than Breadth

I began my education career in 2000. I have never known anything but standards-based education, but even in my 18 years in schools, I've seen a shift in standards-based education. When I began teaching, Missouri's standards were relatively loosely worded and assigned to students in grade bands. Organizing standards in this way gave teachers flexibility in the units and lessons they planned for students, and it was easier to allow student interest and choice to guide things. After a few years, Missouri adopted more standards, and standards became assigned to individual grade levels. Then Missouri adopted the even more specific Common Core standards. With each change, it became more difficult to allow students a role in shaping their own learning.
Missouri recently adopted a new set of standards to replace the Common Core, just in time for Premier to include these guidelines for learning in the curriculum for our Inquiry class. This next statement will likely be considered heresy by the Missouri Department of Education, but not all the newly adopted Missouri Learning Standards are present in Premier's new curriculum. There are simply too many. We emphasize quality and student ownership of curriculum rather than broad coverage. For this reason, we've been selective and intentional in the way we use the standards in our interdisciplinary units. Teachers have tried to work many of these standards into our interdisciplinary units.
For instance, we began outlining the standards for our Inquiry course curriculum by examining Missouri's science and social studies standards, looking for unifying themes that would allow students to wrestle with theme-connected content and use it to solve problems. Once teachers identified all the curricular themes present in the standards, they combined them into broader themes to form the foundation of their units. For example, our 5th grade team examined the competition between conservation and economics in a unit on water, while one of our kindergarten units focuses on the theme of community. They then connected these themes to content in mathematics, language arts, and so on. For example, our 3rd grade team combined science and social studies themes with skills of data collection, graphing, and expository writing into a unit in which students determine where on Earth to relocate imaginary life forms teachers described as "found" on Mars, based on those life forms' physical characteristics.

Identify Your Problems Carefully

This suggestion has nothing to do with identifying barriers teachers are likely to encounter as they implement project-based learning. The problems that really need to be identified are those students will wrestle with—because the nature of these problems will determine how students work to solve them and, ultimately, what they learn as a result.
Stanford University's Center for Teaching and Learning (2001) identifies key components of problem-based learning tasks. Well-designed problem-based tasks should be open-ended, complex, authentic problems for which students don't have enough information initially and don't have a clear path to the solution. The problem should change as new information is discovered. Perhaps the most difficult part of designing a problem is ensuring that it's open-ended and has multiple ways of being solved.
Interestingly, one of the best solutions to this challenge doesn't come from the field of inquiry learning, but from mathematics. In Thinking through a Lesson: Successfully Implementing High-Level Tasks, Smith, Bill, and Hughes (2008) describe a method for planning complex mathematics tasks for students. They propose a protocol for planning tasks that asks teachers to consider all the possible ways a task can be solved before presenting it to students. This approach can also be used when considering inquiry learning tasks. The goal isn't to predict all possible student solutions, but to ensure that a task has multiple, viable solution paths.

Involve the Students

Planning for good inquiry-based learning is further complicated by the very nature of inquiry-based learning. The whole idea behind the inquiry cycle is that students are presented with a problem, they learn more about the problem to begin to develop a solution, they generate new questions as a result of that research, they continue researching to answer these new questions, and the cycle repeats until they've gathered enough information to propose a solution. Students then test and refine their solution until it adequately addresses the problem. By definition, inquiry learning is messy, and what happens tomorrow is largely dependent upon what happened today. This poses a particular challenge when it comes to planning. It's very difficult to outline a unit of study if teachers don't know where student inquiry will take the unit.
One possible solution to this challenge is to complete the unit outline together with the students. Once students have been presented with the initial challenge or problem, it can be helpful to engage them in determining what they already know about the topic and what they're going to need to learn more about. This information can be organized into a two-column table. Make each row in the first column a specific statement about what more students need to learn about the topic and each row in the second column a list of specific activities students will do to learn it. Once complete, this document serves as a unit plan for teachers and a project plan for students.

Energizing Teachers

Premier's teacher teams meet throughout the year to revise existing units, and some teams are already designing new units. One teacher recently summarized our work in developing a truly project-based curriculum by saying that teacher teams "come up with ideas to really deepen the learning and put the learning into the hands of the students." Many others commented on how energizing planning this kind of student work has been.
In many ways, Premier has finally arrived at the place we set out to reach 18 years ago. There have certainly been some false starts and missteps along the way, but we're headed in the right direction. The other day a teacher told me her favorite time of the week was her grade-level unit planning meeting. If our teachers are feeling energized by curriculum planning, we must be doing something right!
Who knows, in a few years I might actually get invited to drinks on Friday night.
References

Klein, J. T., & Newell, W. H. (1998). "Advancing interdisciplinary studies," in William H. Newell, ed., Interdisciplinarity: Essays from the literature. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Repko, A. (2008). Interdisciplinary research: Process and theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Smith, M., Bill, V., & Hughes, E. (2008). Thinking through a lesson: Successfully implementing high level tasks. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 14(3), 132–138.

Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning. (2001). Problem-based learning. Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, 11(1), 1–8.

Strong, R., Silver, H., & Robinson, A. (1995). Strengthening student engagement: What do students want (and what motivates them)? Educational Leadership, 53(1), 8–12.

Author bio coming soon.

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