Saturday, November 8, 2014

Project-Based Learning

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do 
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.
                          --Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry (a farmer, poet and naturalist) captured my feelings on education in his poem, The Real Work.  "The mind that is not baffled is not employed."  This captures my life as a teacher . . . a constant stream of baffling moments.  It is sort of a balance between the unknown and the heart of a child.  But, as Berry so poetically says, "The impeded steam is the one that sings."  How do we move into this new age of education and find the song?  

The new buzz word these days in education is "project-based learning."   When the term project-based learning came out, I was under the impression that it required additional knowledge, skills and equipment . . . a place to build robots and do those things that are the great new mysteries to me . . . How does this computer work?  What is the "cloud?"  Who needs Twitter?  And maybe more importantly, where do I fit in?  I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and those are just a few that come to mind.  How do I proceed?

As a teacher of 20 years or so, it is hard to know where to begin and how to make this new age of teaching my own.  How does outdoor learning fit in?  Last year, a couple of business people, interested in curriculum and alternative education, came and visited the outdoor learning center here at North Shore Elementary.  I tried to explain my vision and goals.  I talked about tying math into our garden of bulbs, writing poetry outside (for our poetry night at a local theater), various science studies (outdoor bird count, monarch tagging etc) and basic explorations that happen when you walk a trail . . . simple, easy outdoor learning.  They both responded by saying something like, "This is a great example of project-based learning!  How can we capture this in the curriculum market?"   I have no idea how to answer that question, but their first response caught me.  I had never thought of this work as project-based.  I thought a new buzz word meant a new concept.  But I think they are right:  this new project-based learning is really a very old concept.  Liberty Hyde Bailey talked about getting out into the fields and woods, exploratory education, bringing learning and knowledge out onto the farm and into the everyday.  It's about building learning around stories and life.  It's about taking life experience into the classroom.  It's taking the little "making it real" moments and building around them.  I've started looking at the project based learning concept in this simple and practical way.  

The video I posted above is an example of an easy project we did yesterday.  My kids love LEGOs and (if I'm honest) mostly dislike writing, so I thought I'd blend the two and see what happens.  I had them build settings and characters out of LEGOs.  After they finished their creations, I gave them time to talk about ideas and form problems and story lines based on their creations.  And then (the tricky and potentially unpleasant part) I had them individually sit down and write stories.  It was interesting to watch.  After a good hour of building, creating and discussing, they all seemed to have a story to write.  This project was simple and will be done by next week.  We will publish the stories on their new "KidBlogs" and call it good.  It was easy and engaging, but I'm going to call it project-based.

I think that in elementary school, project-based learning can be this simple.  And I don't think that learning or teaching has changed dramatically in this new age of technology.  It's always been baffling as we try to make it real for each unique human that is in our classrooms.  I think we are simply asked to continue to teach with mindfulness, engaging our students with learning that's connected to their lives.  And isn't that what learning has always been about?

I take heart in knowing that to be baffled in this life and to wonder what to do is simply facing the real journey that is before us.  We are called to be baffled and continue on, knowing that it really is the "impeded stream that sings."  Happy teaching and learning in this new/old age of project-based learning!