Student-Centered Project Based Learning

When I was in high school, my classes were all oriented around a theme (which changed every quarter), which we used as a focus for all of our learning. Even in subjects like math and literacy, our learning was focused on a theme (the environment, inventions, commerce, etc.). We designed projects according to these themes, and connected our learning across all subjects. Without realizing it, I had gone to a school with an integrated curriculum, which was reached through project-based learning (PBL).

I didn’t realize it at the time (in fact, I didn’t realize it until I started taking classes about PBL and integrated curriculum) mainly because no one ever told me that this was what we were doing. I didn’t know what standards were or that I was supposed to meet them, I didn’t understand the work my teachers put into integrating our curriculum, and I didn’t understand the purpose of it. I just floated through, not really knowing or caring why I was being taught the way I was. Reflecting on this, I think that one of the things that could have made my learning more powerful was if I had known what the standards were that I was trying to meet, and if I had been able to help design some of the themes and curricula myself (or collaboratively with my class).

Newsome Park Elementary School in Virginia had some success with this type of model, where students help design the work they will be involved in. They designed a curriculum that “blends authentic, real-world experiences with rigorous academic study” (Drake and Burns, 2004), but to do so the teachers guided the students to a shared learning experience through a three-phase process. Phase one is for planning, two is for fieldwork, and three is for sharing the learning. Students were involved in all three aspects of these phases, allowing for a more enriching learning experience, even in elementary school! Students and teachers alike reflected on the experience and they found that it was a positive experience for everyone, despite the extra time it took on the teachers’ parts. I think that despite the time, it could be incredibly beneficial to everyone to incorporate students into the planning process and to include them in their own learning. The PBL part of my high school stopped after only 6 years of operation, mainly because the teachers were burnt out from all the extra time it took (among other things). Hopefully, with students involved, that would lower the likelihood of something similar happening in other PBL schools.

Drake, S., Burns, S. (2004). Meeting standards through integrated curriculum. Alexandria, VA: ASCD


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