What I Learned from a Clucking Pig

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Imagine this: a class with no teacher. Does it foretell a new era of learning and teaching or does it begin the descent into The Educational Apocalypse?

I’m not aware of a school without any teachers, but recently, I visited a school that has redefined the role of one. This school program belonged to the New Tech Network, a California non-profit that supplies curriculum and professional development to enhance student engagement and improve educational outcomes. This school, located in the Gereau Center in rural Franklin county, Virginia, has all the federal and state requirements of any other conventional public school. But, the difference is this school does not require its students to sit everyday reviewing academic material in a manner that does not reflect the world where they will live and work. Instead, this school’s instruction uses a method called “Project Based Learning.”

You will probably recall various projects from your school days. For me, the paper-mache volcano and the mobile of aquatic life come to mind. Teachers have often used projects to measure some level of learning about content — the chemistry of an eruption or the species of the ocean.

But, Project Based Learning is entirely different. Instead of periodically injecting a project into a traditional class, PBL requires students to build a project based on the learning objectives of the entire unit. The teacher introduces a problem, states parameters and requirements, organizes groups, and sets a timeframe. Then, the teachers let the students loose.

On the day I visited the Gereau Center, students were preparing for their final project presentations. My first observation, no obvious teachers. No one standing at the front of the classroom. No lectures. No worksheets. No instructions to “take out your homework.” Instead, everywhere I looked, activity. Focused, meaningful activity.

Of course, teachers were present in the class, and in fact, they played a critically important part in this frenetic student energy. They guided these students by asking questions, patiently listening, and offering encouragement to persist.

The project problem introduced six weeks prior to my visit was “Energy.” Every student group had to identify an energy problem, research its causes and effects, design a solution, and build it. One group, pictured above, decided to solve a human energy problem by getting children to move more. Their solution: an interactive game of Twister where instead of colors, players had to place their hands or feet on panels of farm animals. Once they did, a circuit conveyed a signal to a laptop that emitted the sound that animal naturally makes.

As I approached the group, I heard a debate raging. Several inspected the circuits, two girls examined computer code, one boy stood aside just looking and thinking. I asked, “What’s going on?”

“Well,” spoke one of the girls, “our pigs keep clucking, and our horses keep barking, and we don’t know why.” And then she looked right at me and said, “But we are going to figure it out, though.”

Think for a second about your students, your co-workers, or your employees. Do they ever make such statements? Or do they wait for someone else to solve the problem?

To make such a statement, a person must have autonomy and responsibility all at once. The Gereau Center’s teachers give their students both. Project Based Learning does require a teacher, but it does not require that person to provide answers. The student, not the teacher, owns his or her learning, and isn’t that the way it should be?

Next week, what it takes to implement student-centered learning.

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