A+ Advice for Parents

Project-Based Learning Helps Students Learn New Skills

Q: Our middle-school principal says teachers will use "project-based learning" that answers "interesting questions" to teach Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I thought Common Core was a uniform curriculum. Projects sound like busywork!

A: I like your principal. He understands that the Common Core offers educators different opportunities to motivate kids and keep their attention in class.

A few facts: The Common Core is not a curriculum. It's a set of rigorous grade-by-grade expectations that students should meet in mathematics and English language arts and literacy to prepare for college and 21st-century careers. (Go to www.corestandards.org/standards-in-your-state.)

States, districts, schools and teachers create their own curricula and choose their own instructional strategies to teach the Common Core. Many teachers are beginning to use project-based learning (PBL) to help kids dive deep into a subject to develop understanding.

Successful project-based learning isn't busywork -- it's structured and purposeful. Students gain knowledge and skills by working for a period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem or challenge, says Sara Hallermann, curriculum development manager at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), a nonprofit organization that offers high-quality PBL resources to schools. (Find projects at bie.org.)

"I'm not surprised teachers are turning to project-based learning," says New York middle-school expert Nancy Hereford. "It doesn't bore kids. It's enjoyable and culminates in a big accomplishment students are very proud of. That alone helps make the learning stick.

"Research shows that students learn more about a subject and remember it longer through projects because they have the chance to apply their skills to real-world situations that interest them. Projects also teach students to use technology, work in teams, make presentations, think critically and solve problems together. These are just some of the skills that Common Core asks students to master."

To ensure success, BIE projects include these key elements, says Hallermann. They start with a "driving question" that students find intriguing. The question defines their exploration.

Projects delve into significant content knowledge from CCSS. They provide practice in critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, creativity and innovation.

They require students to ask questions, use resources and develop answers. The process emphasizes the "need to know" -- showing students why and how the new concepts and skills answer the driving question.

Depending on age level and experience with PBL, students may choose the product to be created, how they work and how they use their time -- with teacher guidance.

Projects get students to revise and reflect -- to think about what and how they are learning, and use feedback to consider changes that lead to high-quality final products.

Once a project is complete, students present their work to a "public audience" that often includes parents and community members with expertise in the driving question.

Ask your principal how teachers choose the projects, how students are graded, how teamwork is divided, how long the project lasts and whether it takes all or a portion of class time. Find out if parents are welcome as mentors, experts and presentation audience members. And encourage your middle-schooler to join the team!

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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