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)
Lydia Withrow, an eighth-grade English teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in West Virginia, strives to teach in a style that balances learning with fun. She calls it “organized chaos,” and it’s not for the faint of heart: Withrow’s classes typically are chaotic, with students often left to explore their own learning during class time, collaborating with peers and figuring out problems on their own.
At the start of every school year, Withrow polls students on their favorite and least favorite aspects of English class. Students often cite projects as one of their least favorite activities, placing them below tests or paint-by-numbers essay topics. “It surprises me when students say that,” Withrow says, “because there is no failed project. A project that produces inadequate results is still successful.” The learning, Withrow says, is in the attempt. She adds that, by the end of their time in her class, most students learn to love projects as much as she does.
Projects play a big part in Withrow’s class both because they exhibit students’ understanding more deeply than other types of assessments, and also because they jolt students out of their comfort zones. Withrow’s teaching on projects takes many forms. “Giving up control requires me to play different roles,” Withrow says. “I become the ‘hired hand’ in this lesson. Whatever they need me to do or need me to be, I become.”
Though she teaches English, Withrow often draws topics from other disciplines, including science. One project-based lesson on forensics, from an online PBL source called Defined STEM, introduces students to the basics of fingerprinting and DNA analysis. Once the discussion is open, students are allowed to freely explore the topic, choosing their own focus area and developing a project nearly from scratch. “I leave the entire field of study open for exploration,” Withrow explains. “The end result is for them to educate the rest of the class. They must become the teachers.”
Students are almost always up to the challenge. They research, they ask questions, and sometimes even reach out to local law enforcement. Final projects have seen students lift fingerprints with professional supplies, perform bite mark analysis with taffy, describe the rigors of handwriting analysis, and engage the class in basic K9 training, which included identifying scents blindfolded.
Of course, Withrow’s methods are not without their challenges.
In a classroom that’s often very noisy, students can lose focus or become demanding of her time. “Patience is hard to find at times,” she admits, and project-based learning can often require a mindset shift from being the one preparing lessons to watching students prepare their own lessons. “The biggest ‘must’ that you have to have is the willingness to be approachable and the skill to speak one-on-one to each and every student on-demand, nonstop, throughout the process.”
The fact that the learning is so open-ended means the takeaways—and the role she plays in the classroom—are often radically different from year to year, which is fine with Withrow. “When I teach projects, I rarely give them the outcome,” she says. “Determining the final result is part of their process. So during the unit, I become a mentor, scavenger, test subject, and mere observer.”