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January 6, 2017 — In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes a group of people chained in a cave since birth. They have no view of the outside world, but occasionally see the shadows of people and objects that pass the opening of the cave, as the images show on the wall in front of the prisoners. To the prisoners, the shadows are their reality. One day, a prisoner escapes and views the outside world for the first time. The existence of the objects themselves puzzles the prisoner. He feels disoriented and confused for a period of time as he adjusts to the outside world. Once he comes to understand the outside world, he returns to his fellow prisoners to share his knowledge with them. They scorn him as crazy.

While Plato most likely intended the allegory as a critique of his political environment, those seeking to reinvent our current educational environment will not fail to see similarities. In many classrooms, learning looks as it has for years, and students learn skills that are a shadow of the actual tasks they will perform in life. In fact, it is common to tell students that school “prepares them for the real world.” Some educators are beginning to wonder why school cannot BE the real world.

Field trips offer a short term peek into the real world, and programs like internships provide very involved, long term options, but how can a teacher, or a school, bring the real world to the classroom, instead of the other way around?

One method my school has implemented is Project Based Learning. In this method, students drive the learning, from the onset. Teachers provide an introductory activity, such as a puzzle, a video, or an interview with an expert. Then, the students discuss what they want to know about that topic, what problems they can solve, or what project they can offer to their community. Throughout the process, teachers assist students in the journey towards their goals. Many, including a college professor of mine from years gone by, describe this as “The guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.”

Just as the person who first left the cave, adjustments can be disorienting, for teachers especially. One teacher reported to me that “I wasn’t sure I could trust my students to learn the right things.” In the end, she admitted that the students pushed themselves further than even she had planned. When I asked Ted Malefyt, PBL teacher and Buck Institute for Education staff member, if Project Based Learning works for all classes, he explained that project based learning works for any topic that is worth teaching. It doesn’t work for every teacher, though. As with those still in the cave, some teachers never feel comfortable in the new role of PBL guide.

Those that take the plunge, though, find it enriches their classroom in a very meaningful way. Some examples of projects our students designed in this, our maiden voyage year of PBL include

  • A shoebox “zoo” of favorite animals (grade 1). This includes the animal, its habitat and food, using several artistic media.
  • A performance of “The Night Before Christmas” in American Sign Language, which led into the development of an elective class on translating music for the deaf. (Combined middle and high school group)
  • A cost assessment of building a wall on the border of Mexico, with a list of more fiscally responsible solutions to immigration problems (6th grade Spanish culture class).

As with any new learning framework, most teachers just feel unsure of where to start. This article provides our “why” of PBL. Many experienced teachers have already written about the “How.” We have found the resources of the ​Buck Institute​ and the blog G​etting Smart invaluable.

Finally, I have included some articles that serve to point a teacher in the direction of implementing project based learning.

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