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


Project Based Learning and Integrated Curriculum

One of the main goals in education is to help students not only reach their full potential academically, but to teach them how to be good citizens in their communities, countries, and world. To accomplish this in my classroom, I believe that using an integrated curriculum where connections are made between all subjects, tested and non-tested. Ellis


Figure 1: Multidisciplinary Approach

and Stuen (1998) suggest using thematic teaching. In thematic teaching, all subjects are centered around a central theme, in a multidisciplinary (figure 1), interdisciplinary (figure 2), or transdiciplinary (figure 3) approach (Drake and Burns, 2004). In a multidisciplinary approach, there is a central theme and each of the disciplines (math, science, music, PE, history, drama, literacy, etc.) each relate to this theme. In an interdisciplinary approach, the disciplines are connected to each other but still taught separately. Teachers find the common learnings in each discipline to help students forge these connections.


Figure 2: Interdisciplinary Approach

The approach that I would like to use, the transdisciplinary approach, is organized around student questions and concerns. It focuses on the theme as an end goal, where the disciplines are used as a way to achieve that end learning. Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a good example of a transdisciplinary approach. The theme in a PBL unit might be designing a better parking lot for the school after a fender bender during pick-up hours. In this service-learning type project, students would need to use math, science, literacy, and social skills (among others) to plan and present a new design. Meanwhile they would be implementing these skills in an authentic, real-life situation that will have real results, and afterward would reflect on the process and the effect of their work. In this type of work, students are the producers of knowledge rather than consumers. They see a problem, think of a solution, and produce the work involved to make that solution happen. The teachers are guides as the students ask questions that become the center of the curriculum. During this process, teachers can incorporate many subjects into their project as they come up, allowing for implicit prac


Figure 3: Transdisciplinary Approach

tice of each of the subject areas. Something that I would have to keep in mind if I were to use PBL in my classroom, though, is that it can’t take up the entire day, as I would need to explicitly teach subjects. This might be where the multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approaches come in. I can still connect these subjects (for example, literacy or math) to our project or to each other, but will need to make sure my students have the basic tools they will need to use for their project.

I think a combination of these three types of integrated curriculum, adjusted based on the class and the learners in it, will help me teach students to use their academic skills outside the classroom and work toward becoming citizens of their communities and world. Realistically, though I like PBL learning and actually went to a PBL high school, it may not be something I can tackle in my first year without experience first. I hope to be able to integrate my curriculum in other ways using a central theme, and perhaps have smaller projects related to that theme. In this way I will bring PBL and integrated curriculum into my classroom.

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

Ellis, A., Stuen, C. (1998). The interdisciplinary curriculum. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.