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Progressive-Era Concept Breaks Mold: NASDC Schools Explore 'Project Learning'

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BALTIMORE--Meg Campbell has a question she likes to ask parents: "What's the piece of work that you've done in school that you would save for your grandchildren?'' Most cannot think of a response.

For them--and for their children--information is presented in school in such a decontextualized and fragmented fashion that it has minimal staying power.

"Too often, we don't really engage [students],'' says Stan Bennett, a professor of education at the University of Maryland. "We chop everything up into little pieces. We compartmentalize everything. And then, somehow, they don't remember it very well.''

To address the problem, a number of schools around the country are reviving the idea of "project-based learning,'' first forwarded by progressive educators around the turn of the century.

The assumption is that children will learn skills and knowledge best by applying them to solve the kinds of meaningful and complex problems found in the real world and by developing "projects'' or "products'' that they can share with others.

Virtually all of the design teams working on "break the mold'' schools for the New American Schools Development Corporation have embraced some form of project-based learning. Last month, they gathered in Baltimore to compare notes on what it is and how to do it.

Shlomo Sharan, a professor at Tel Aviv University who is on leave to work with the Roots and Wings design team, says the project method was meant to "increase the possibility that students would grasp the meaning of their study and appreciate its relevance to their lives and to society.''

It does so in two ways: First, it organizes knowledge from a number of disciplines around a big idea or common principle, instead of around more traditional subjects. And, second, students plan and carry out a project that forces them to engage in meaningful learning experiences.

'Journey Aided by a Map'

Mr. Sharan compares the process to "taking a journey through an unknown land aided by a map, rather than being told what they would see on the trip by someone who has been there already.''

There is evidence that the method works. An extensive study of progressive education, published in 1942 and known as the Eight Year Study, found that college students who had graduated from progressive high schools outperformed those from more traditional institutions on both academic and social measures.

But the project method fell out of favor, in part because of "shoddy workmanship.''

"There was a backlash,'' says Catherine Morocco, the associate director for the center for family, school, and community at the Education Development Center in Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the ATLAS design team, "because kids were excited and doing things, but people questioned whether they were learning math.''

The launching of Sputnik--which led to a push for students to excel in mathematics and science--and the rise of the back-to-basics movement further served to diminish the emphasis on project-based learning, with its focus on interdisciplinary studies.

Robert Slavin, the director of the Roots and Wings team, says of the method, "Each time we learn a great deal more about it, and then it goes into hiding for a while.''

"My belief and hope,'' he adds, "is that this time we're really serious.''

'Skills Built In'

NASDC design-team members identify a number of elements they think are essential to project-based learning.

According to Joe Nathan, a member of the Community Learning Centers team, students must work on real and significant problems, gain and develop stronger basic and applied skills, develop their plan in collaboration with an adult, have opportunities for reflection, produce some kind of real product, and share it with others.

"This is not instead of learning to write; this is not instead of learning to read,'' he argues. "Academic skills are built into these kinds of projects, if they're done right.''

Such projects also "engage students in many different kinds of learning, in many different kinds of modalities,'' says Ms. Morocco. Others note that the projects should have short- and long-term goals and be subject to careful evaluation.

In a 6th-grade class at Shutesbury (Mass.) Elementary School, which has taught all of its students through the project method for more than 15 years, students map the downtown, interview the store owners, and then write guidebooks for children.

And in a three-month unit developed by the Education Development Center, "Designing Spaces for People,'' students learn about the climatic features in a particular part of the world and then design and build structures for people there to live in, using knowledge drawn from math, architecture, social studies, literature, and science.

'A Logic and a Sequence'

But it is clear from the discussion here that there is no widely accepted definition of what constitutes project-based learning.

"It's best thought about as a new field,'' says Ms. Campbell, the executive director of the Expeditionary Learning design team and the co-director of the Harvard Outward Bound Project. "We don't have a common understanding and a vocabulary yet. There were at least 20 different versions of what project-based learning was.''

Two of the biggest questions are how much time during the school day project-based learning should consume and whether it should replace or be interwoven with traditional subject-matter instruction.

According to Mr. Sharan, individual investigations can take anywhere from two hours to two years to complete and can be done exclusively within the four walls of the classroom or out in the community.

Cris Gutierrez, a member of the Los Angeles Learning Center design team, says that group envisions that when a project is going on, schools will not have traditional academic subjects, as such.

In contrast, Mr. Slavin describes Roots and Wings' approach as "moderate.'' The team still plans to reserve a third of the school day for instruction in reading, math, writing, and language arts. World Lab--the project-based component--will incorporate social studies, science, math, reading, and writing in integrated form. (See Education Week, Jan. 20, 1993.)

"We think that there are some things where the subject does have a logic and a sequence to it which must be maintained,'' argues Mr. Slavin. "We think if you put too much of a load on covering everything in the project-based format, you're really not going to do everything very well.''

Another source of tension is how to design projects with enough depth and breadth to insure that students still master the knowledge and skills they need.

The dilemma becomes particularly acute the more that projects replace, rather than supplement, the traditional school day.

'The Quality of Children's Work'

All of the NASDC design teams, for instance, have vouched that their students will meet world-class standards in English, math, history, geography, and science.

In Los Angeles, says Ms. Gutierrez, they are starting with a list of standards and outcomes that students must meet and then insuring, as they build projects, that those skills are addressed along the way.

In contrast, Susan Bodilly, a researcher with the RAND Corporation who is helping to evaluate the NASDC efforts, says that some design teams are "confident that project-based learning will get to all the essential skills'' and have not tried to map out how their projects and the teaching of those skills will overlap. The proof of which approach works best, she suggests, will be in the outcomes that their students can meet.

"The quality of the children's work--that's really where we're going to rise or fall,'' agrees Ms. Campbell.

'Tremendous Paradigm Shift'

Yet another question is how much freedom students should have in selecting, designing, and carrying out projects versus the planning done by their teachers.

Mr. Sharan advocates a balance between prepackaged routes and sufficient input from students so that they feel ownership of a problem and motivation to tackle it.

"What has often gone wrong,'' argues Mr. Slavin, "is a feeling that problem-based learning means less planning on the part of the teacher and less of a sense of how things will fit together . . . when it takes more.''

The design teams are struggling with the same issue of balance when it comes to teachers: Should they provide them with detailed projects--including all of the resources and plans they would need to carry them out--or should they encourage teachers to develop units of their own? Most are using a mix of the two approaches.

Expeditionary Learning has run ads in both Education Week and Teacher Magazine to solicit projects from teachers around the country. It will then publish the best 10, pilot them in its schools, and award the teachers $1,000 each.

Another point of debate among the group is whether projects should include a service component. Expeditionary Learning, for example, stresses both character and intellectual development, and service will play a key role in all of its expeditions.

Despite their disagreements, everyone here concedes that if project-based learning is to thrive in schools, it will require a major change in how time is scheduled, better access to computers and other technologies that can give students a window on the outside world, and an adjustment in how teachers think about their role.

"This is a tremendous paradigm shift for a lot of teachers,'' says Ms. Morocco.

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