Teaching So Kids Actually Learn: My First Attempt At Project Based Learning

Think back to your clearest memories of elementary school or middle school. What do you remember?

I know what I remember… my fifth grade oceanography project lead by Mr. Soderberg, teacher-extraordinaire. In teams of four, our group of fifth grade scientists were tasked with the challenge of saving the ocean floor.

The project went something like this. On day one, we watched a video of lobsters, bleached and dying due to pollution in the water. Emotionally connected to the lobsters, now, we attacked a document with clues about where those lobsters were. Together with my team, we teased out as many details as we could, trying to pinpoint where we would begin our tests. Success was crucial. If we choose the incorrect initial location, our budget would be slashed as we tried to make up for the mistake.

As the week continued, we had to decide as a team which tests to run to figure out what pollutant was causing the lobsters to die, and from there, how to save the lobsters. Some tests tested acidity, others dredged a sample of the ocean floor. My team had several heated discussions, we had competing interests to balance, one of finding the answer but the other of protecting a limited budget. Each test we ran would be expensive.

Using the information from our tests, we had to select a series of recommendations to make to the local government to combat the ocean pollution problem. Our recommendations would determine whether or not the lobsters lived or died.

In the end, my team was the most successful team in the class. We made the best recommendations and came in under budget. For the next six years, I would be convinced that I was going to be an oceanographer, exploring the ocean depths the world over.

Thinking back, I remember, not the tests, not the single day experiments, but the projects, the ones that spanned several weeks and made me truly think.

Fast forward twelve years and I am now a fifth grade science teacher. But, instead of teaching through in-depth projects, I fought for survival every day that first year, often times planning a single, slightly related but not really lesson for the next day the night before. It was stressful, it made me cranky, and frankly, I hated planning. It wasn’t that I didn’t work hard (I did), or that my students didn’t learn anything (they did), but did they walk away from my class that first year having been transformed? I think not.

Another criticism I have of the standard lesson planning process (Understanding by Design included) is that the *purpose* of learning was more contrived (to master the Standard, to grow as scientists, to get ready for high school) then it was authentic (to solve a challenge).

This is why I’m happy to announce that next year, I’ll be teaching at least 80% of my content through projects. This means that the standards my students master will be standards they *need* to master in order to be successful on their project. This also means that they will be motivated to learn, not because I tell them to or because it’ll be tested, but they’ll be motivated to learn by the work itself.

I’m also excited to stretch my students’ skills so that they will be prepared for a world that is not content driven, but skills driven. They’ll need to analyze, problem-solve, collaborate, and communicate. They will need to research, design, create, and present. And in pushing them, I’ll be pushing myself as well.

And, instead of writing more on this topic, I’d like to share the work I did with two other teachers this past week during a Project Based Learning professional development conference. It, more than anything else, will probably explain the excitement that’s going on inside my head.

Hot Wheels Explained

Hot Wheels Project Overview


Originally posted at Science Never Sucks on TeachForUs.