Beyond the test: Why project-based learning is best

Independent schools’ shift to project-based learning is having a big impact on students. Those students are tackling real-world challenges while acquiring skills and knowledge as they actively explore ways to address them.

“I love project-based learning because it allows for learning to happen in a more authentic manner,” says Martin Moran, director of TIDES and Cross Curricular Pedagogy at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago. “The idea of learning being something that you do in the process of pursuing your interests and goals is very essential to real learning.”

Moran explains that project-based learning can happen at any grade level, noting that first-graders at Francis W. Parker built a prototype of a solution for the three little pigs. “This approach to learning can pull a lot out of the kids, even at the youngest levels. It’s great to see the skills of problem solving and analysis being done by 6- and 7-year-olds,” he says.

Many schools use project-based learning across a variety of subjects. For example, seventh-graders at Morgan Park Academy in Chicago face the question “How would you prevent World War I?”

At Catherine Cook School, seventh-graders designed flat-pack chairs, of which they created scale and life-sized versions with a laser cutter.

“Traditional instruction still has a place in education today, but I feel as though the goal should always be to have the students explore the content being taught rather than be the receptacle for the information,” explains Daniel Peters, assistant middle school principal and teacher at Morgan Park. “Students are generally given a driving question that leads them to new discoveries.”

The emphasis on real issues and the resulting discoveries motivated The Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove to begin integrating project-based learning into its curriculum.

“We are focused on preparing our students for the real world and asking the big questions, including how are they going to be productive, contribute to their communities, and what mark will they leave on the world. You can’t do that in a vacuum,” explains Kristen Teague, lower school head at Avery Coonley.

One benefit that Teague sees is that project-based learning allows students to fully integrate technology into the curriculum. “The result is grander and more meaningful, and the learning is deeper,” Teague says.

She notes that students will be using technology in similar ways in the real world, so starting early in school enhances their preparation.

Another way project-based learning helps children develop life skills in the classroom is by focusing on collaboration.

Most of the work is done in groups. The staff at Catherine Cook has found that children learn vocabulary, problem-solving strategies, negotiation, and conceptual knowledge from each other as they collaborate.

“I knew that doing a project-based learning assignment would lead to greater understanding and more accountability for the students. The pleasant surprise was seeing the enjoyment on the face of the students as they knew they were in the driver’s seat,” Peters says.

Moran has seen similar results. “Kids take learning more seriously and bring more of themselves to it.”

Moran described one high school student who was going through the motions of school but was not really applying herself. Then she completed a project-based learning experience done in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting that required her to identify a problem, research the history, and propose a solution in front of a gallery of people.

“It was the best work I had ever seen her do,” Moran says. “The world changed for her because she changed her perception of herself. She became someone who not only could command a room, but who did things that mattered.”

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