Groups of students hunch over laptop computers, each tuned to an Excel budget spreadsheet. They are surrounded by models and blueprints of their building, Horace Mann Middle School, here in downtown Charleston.
It is Donna Landin’s math laboratory, and the students are creating formal plans to renovate the front grounds of the school for its 70th anniversary.
In completing their project, the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders will draw on their math skills to calculate areas and revise their budgets. They will gather information about the school and about landscaping from business officials, relatives, school alumni, and online research—from all available sources, it seems, except Ms. Landin herself.
And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.
As West Virginia increasingly emphasizes the teaching of content in application, the shift demands a fundamental change in teachers’ roles. Ms. Landin and teachers like her are no longer just purveyors of facts, but also the facilitators of elaborate activities that help students exercise what are often called 21st-century skills.
Business leaders and policymakers more and more say those higher-order, critical-thinking, communication, technological, and analytical skills are the ones crucial for students to master as they enter a service-oriented, entrepreneurial, and global workplace.
After integrating such skills into the state’s academic-content standards, West Virginia is now hard at work reorienting the training and professional support of its 20,000 public school teachers to ensure that they are capable of executing such projects.
This morning, Ms. Landin provides some additional food for thought on her students’ plans: All the teams have chosen at least some plants that are annuals—ones that will require a lot of maintenance.
“So they die?” she asks. “Now why in the world would a committee pay for flowers that will just sort of croak after it’s frosted?”
Project-based learning, such as that exemplified in Ms. Landin’s classroom, is one approach to developing 21st-century skills.
The point, says Rachel Hull, a 4th grade teacher at Buffalo Elementary School, in Buffalo, W.Va., is to get students to know how to seek answers when they are faced with an unfamiliar task.
“Parents want to protect their child from failure and take care of them in a nurturing way, and we’ve transferred that to our students,” said Ms. Hull, who has completed several projects with her students. “We try to make sure [students] are feeling great, and they’re not risk-takers. What this [new approach] is doing is setting them up to be lifelong learners.”
In a project-based-learning unit, teachers are no longer the focal point of the classroom or the expounders of information.
For the most part, students rely on their classmates’ expertise, on experimentation, and on outside sources of information to solve the problem at hand. And for even the most seasoned of teachers, that’s a big change.
“I am the traditional social studies instructor,” said Richard Vidulich, a teacher at Morgantown High School, in Morgantown, W.Va., who is completing a state professional-development training series on project-based learning. “I have my PowerPoint. I can talk forever. The biggest challenge is for me to not be the center of attention.”
Allowing for a degree of unpredictability in a classroom requires teachers to unlearn old habits, some of which have long been fostered by teacher-preparation programs.
“It’s a teacher’s nature to be in control,” Ms. Hull said. “We’re taught we don’t want all these extraneous things taking away from our lessons.”
Training in Alignment
West Virginia officials say helping educators make the shift demands a different type of ongoing teacher training.
During an early leadership institute on 21st-century skills, school leaders reported that their professional development was itself not aligned to those skills. Since then, the state has consciously restructured the support to reflect project-based learning.
The shift is evident when a group of 45 educators meet in Bridgeport, a town about two hours north of Charleston, the state capital, for a two-day December training program. Part of an ongoing series of meetings for these teachers, the training is the state’s most intensive professional development to date on project-based learning.
Unlike traditional professional-development sessions, which typically consist of a workshop with speakers, discussion time, and a question-and-answer period, this meeting is almost entirely unstructured. After a short review, the teachers break into content-based teams, in which they work collaboratively to refine their units.
Each teacher is finalizing a framework made up of his or her project idea, the specific state content-area objectives the unit will cover, and the work products students must create as part of the project—both individually and for a group score—to show their learning.
Regina Scotchie, the social studies coordinator for the state education department, acts as a teacher would in a project-based setting: She floats from educator to educator, helping them refine their frameworks without giving them explicit directives.
She moves over to where Mr. Vidulich, the Morgantown teacher, stands at an easel using blue Post-it notes to map out his unit. Designed to reflect a new state emphasis on financial literacy, the unit will require students to prepare personal budgets based on projected career paths that integrate knowledge of banking services, credit, investments, retirement funds, and taxes.
In response to Ms. Scotchie’s gentle prodding, Mr. Vidulich decides to devise a “twist”—a complication introduced several days into an activity to keep students engaged after they have mastered one element or concept.
After several days of budgeting, students will draw slips of paper out of a hat, Mr. Vidulich explains. All of a sudden, they’ll be married, have children, win the lottery, or face a financial crisis. And they will have to reorganize their budgets accordingly.
Educators at the training session invariably describe this process of crafting units as “frontloaded”: The bulk of their work is performed before students are given the assignment. It involves planning, securing the materials needed for the projects, and contacting individuals who will agree to grant interviews to students and serve as resources.
Experts add that the project-based-learning format requires teachers to know their content in more depth than for typical teacher-directed instruction, even after they have launched the projects.
“Basically, if the students are given control over most or at least part of the lesson, you’re following their interest,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who studies cognitive psychology in K-12 education. “You really need to know your content to evaluate whether a student idea is likely to be fruitful, or needs to be narrowed down, or they need to try something else.”
Poor preparation can end up yielding trivial projects, something that worries proponents of the approach. For instance, teachers may resort to crafts or projects that require students to regurgitate facts, rather than ones that force students to apply knowledge, said Ms. Hull, the 4th grade teacher.
“I would rather teachers come in and teach the basics than try project-based learning and botch it,” she said.
The question of how to push the instruction of 21st-century skills beyond the state’s high-flying teachers without watering down the promise of project-based learning is a “tremendous challenge,” according to Steven L. Paine, the state schools superintendent. “We’re further along than most states, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Mr. Paine said.
Although most teachers at the training session said they were seeing increasing interest from colleagues in project-based learning, they acknowledged that some teachers remain wary of the concept.
“The newer teachers are the most receptive,” said Mr. Vidulich. “Some of the older teachers say, “˜I’m retiring soon; I’m not ready to do this.’ They want to see how I do before they jump in.”
So far, the state has focused on training a cadre of educators who can help disseminate the technique to their peers. More than 1,200 educators have attended summer teacher-leadership institutes, where they are given training on how to integrate 21st-century skills, and are expected to carry those practices back to their districts.
The teachers who underwent the intensive project-based-learning training in Bridgeport will serve as informal regional resources. Their completed units will be peer-reviewed next month and then posted to Teach 21, the state’s open-access Web portal on 21st-century skills.
State officials are also beginning to revise other pieces of the teacher-quality continuum to achieve a critical mass of teachers who can effectively instruct students in 21st-century skills. Next year, West Virginia’s 20 teacher colleges will get an additional push when the state’s commission for professional teaching standards finishes drafting new standards incorporating the skills.
The college of education and human services at Marshall University, in Huntington, has already started the hard work of updating its programming. Marshall has overhauled course syllabuses and is now conceiving of a “21st century” certification endorsement and master’s-degree program, said Rosalyn Templeton, the executive dean.
“I think it’s exciting, a way to invigorate and engage faculty that may have been doing the same teaching they had been doing for years,” she said.
Still, the state’s primary focus is to provide ongoing professional development for teachers, according to Mr. Paine, the state superintendent. In February, he added, each district superintendent will submit plans for moving forward on 21st-century skills, including details on how they will arrange to give teachers common planning time to craft 21st-century skills units.
For the students in Ms. Landin’s class, the most pressing issue is already at hand. The teams will present their landscape plans and budgets this month to a panel made up of Principal Mickey Blackwell, parents, and members of the school improvement committee. Right now, all but one of the four teams are running “over budget” on the first phase of their projects. (Putting in a fountain, it turns out, is more expensive than other landscaping alternatives.)
To account for the difference, one student proposes using volunteers to raise money. But how many volunteers will they need, he queries Ms. Landin.
She doesn’t miss a beat.
“It depends on how much work you need done,” she says with a smile.
Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘21st-Century Skills’ Focus Shifts W.Va. Teachers’ Role