Page 30 - THE Journal, January/February 2018
P. 30

In Kankakee, IL, some middle school students have become aviation engineers, designing airplanes that can fly the farthest or fastest. Others have taken on the role of restaurant owners, planning a menu and writing ads or producing a website for their business.
Loudoun County Public Schools and Kankakee School District 111 are approach- ing project-based learning (PBL) in very strategic ways as part of a system-wide effort to support clearly defined instructional goals.
While the goals themselves are different in each case, both school systems have seen higher student engagement and deeper learning by using PBL with a purpose. Their keys to success include articulating a vision for instruction, giving teachers a structure for creating dynamic projects that advance this vision and providing training and other support.
Contributing to the World
In Loudoun County, PBL is used to support the school division’s “One to the World” ini- tiative. When Superintendent Eric Williams arrived in Loudoun County four years ago, stakeholders were discussing whether they wanted to implement a one-to-one computing or a “bring your own device” program. Under Williams’ direction, Loudoun County leaders reframed the question to focus not on the technology but on the kind of teaching and learning the devices would enable.
With the help of community feedback, the school division developed a new mission: to empower all students to make meaningful contributions to the world. Loudoun County leaders also created a profile of their ideal graduate: They wanted to develop knowl- edgeable critical thinkers, communicators, creators, collaborators and — importantly
— contributors.
“Project-based learning is a strategy,” said Williams. “For us, it’s a means of putting authentic, challenging problems at the heart of teaching and learning.” These authentic problems give students opportunities to contribute to the world.
For instance, middle school social studies teacher Jay Dodson challenged his students to answer the question: What person or
A Loudoun County project resulted in a historic marker placed at a segregation-era school.
place in Loudoun County deserves a histori- cal marker? Working in groups, the students researched local history using primary source documents with the aid of librarians, then chose a person or place and construct- ed an argument to support their decision.
“Each group of students presented their ideas to local experts, with many students using technology such as iMovie to make a more compelling presentation,” Williams said. “Each group had to cite primary sources, making comparisons between local and national history, and also provide the specific text for their proposed marker.”
One group suggested placing a marker
at the old Ashburn Colored School, which served African-American students in a segregated setting until 1959. During their presentation, the students made connections between Jim Crow laws and the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The panel of experts chose these eight students as the group with the most compelling proposal, earning them the chance to submit their application to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
“They tried not to get their hopes up because they understood that only about one-fourth of all proposals for historical markers are approved by the state,” Wil- liams noted. Yet, the students’ proposal was accepted — and last June they got to watch as their marker was installed outside the
old schoolhouse. Not only had they learned about local history and developed their research and presentation skills, but they learned an even more powerful lesson: that they can make a real difference in the world.
“As an African-American student, it means so much that I have the opportunity to bring this school back into the light,” said one student during the dedication ceremony.
To provide structure to teachers, Lou- doun County is using a modified version
of the Gold Standard PBL model from the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) as its conceptual framework for how to design a high-quality project. BIE’s Gold Standard includes eight design elements, but Loudoun County has distilled these into four key characteristics: Projects must cover signifi- cant content and important competencies; involve authentic, challenging problems; result in a public product; and be connected to the world.
“That’s immediately a game changer when students have an audience beyond their teacher,” Williams said.
The school division has teachers attend
a three-day training workshop, called PBL 101, in which they learn how to design high-quality products and integrate these into their instruction. Loudoun County has teamed up with BIE to deliver the training, and teachers are expected to try at least two full projects with their students per year

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