Even when students aren’t sitting through lectures, they’re still accustomed to letting their teachers dictate the pace, style, and direction of learning. But some forward-thinking classrooms have turned that model completely on its head, handing students control over lessons and often shifting teachers to supporting roles.
Make no mistake: it can be a difficult adjustment for everyone. Many teachers are hesitant to give up control of the classroom—and the truth is that students are often so used to sit-and-get lessons that project-based learning (PBL) can actually be daunting. Those schools that have made the transition to a more student-centric approach, though, report that the potential for learning is unmatched.
Here, two schools describe how PBL enables teachers to take a step back, and students to take a big step forward.
From Biomes to Music Rooms
At Tampa Preparatory School in Florida, a firm commitment to PBL means that teachers give up much of the control over their classrooms, becoming instead facilitators who activate student-led learning.
Students are encouraged to explore topics in depth and take them in directions that suit themselves. “General guidelines and rubrics are given, but students tailor their learning to their interests and skills to create a final product,” explains Victoria Lewis, the school’s technology integration specialist.
During project-based learning, students are given opportunities and options to customize their learning using the tools available to them, such as iPads (the school is one-to-one with the Apple tablets), desktops, projection screens, voice amplification systems, and tech-free solutions like meeting with experts and mentors. “Students are encouraged to engage with topics for breadth and depth, and then are asked to share what they’ve learned/discovered with others, be it during a middle school science project on biomes, or a history project on the country’s memorials, or a Spanish ‘cooking show’-type project on ethnic cuisine,” Lewis explains.
During these projects, teachers serve as coaches and guides, helping students craft polished final products, while allowing them independence and flexibility.
The school also maintains a thriving music program, with dedicated space for vocal and instrument practice. Here, teachers learn to be really hands-off, as students often use one of five glass-paned practice rooms alone.
One challenge when using the rooms was giving students enough space to practice while allowing teachers to provide feedback without interrupting sessions by popping in and out.
As a solution, the school installed a series of small wireless speakers called Flexcats that let teachers listen in on each room when they need to. The speakers also act as a two-way communication link for providing timely feedback, says Chad Lewis, Tampa Prep’s director of technology.
“The great thing about the Flexcats is that the teacher doesn’t have to go into the practice room to interact with the students,” he says. “All they have to do is click the corresponding number on their remote and they can hear and speak with the student, or just listen in to make sure they are in tune and on task. Vise-versa works as well—students can buzz the teacher if they have a question.”
(Next page: The potential of classroom organized chaos)