Project-Based Learning: Don't Dictate, Collaborate!
Are you looking for ways to enrich and enliven classroom encounters for both yourself and your students? Have you often wished there were a way to actually "do" something meaningful about issues raised by adult learners in your classroom discussions? If you answered "yes" to either of the preceding questions, you may want to explore the possibilities offered by project-based, collaborative learning and teacher action research.
During the past year, I was privileged to participate in Project IDEA, an alternative staff development program utilizing teacher action research and project-based learning. I attended my first IDEA Institute in September 1999 in which I learned about project-based learning and action research. I then returned to my learning center and began, somewhat dubiously, to join the ranks of teachers using the project-based learning approach. I teach language arts, social studies, and science at Bridges Adult Learning Center in Lubbock, Texas. Most of my students are working on their GEDs and a few are preparing for community college programs. The class I selected to use for my Project IDEA class met four days a week from eight to nine in the morning; class size ranged from three to fifteen students.
Project-based learning encourages learners and teachers to work in partnership, drawing ideas for curriculum content from learner themes. With this collaborative approach, the teacher acts as a facilitator or guide and adult learners examine and identify what they already know. Then by combining their skills and knowledge with their peers, they work together to achieve a common goal. Teacher action research allows the teacher to serve as a researcher by "conducting systematic inquiry in their own teaching environment by identifying questions, seeking answers, providing interpretations, and applying knowledge." (Baird and Davis, 2000)
- Taylor, Marais, and Kaplan (1997) assert that a central focus of this process is the action learning cycle: plan, act, reflect, and learn.
- The group plans what they're going to do by setting a goal and creating timelines, assigned responsibilities, and expected outcomes.
- They act on their plan.
- They reflect on what they have done. What was the outcome? How did they feel about it? Was it as expected? How was it different?
- By examining their reflections, they learn from the experience. Would they do it the same way next time? How would they change it? If the outcome was different than expected, was it still acceptable? Why or why not?
Summary of Project
We completed a series of mini-projects, culminating with a Christmas party for the residents of a nursing home near the learning center. Reflective writing and basic computer skills have been the focus of my Project IDEA work. For a final product, students produced an anthology of their writings about their lives and goals and their responses to and evaluations of the events our class participated in during the year.
Set-up and Getting Started
- Ice-breaker. Since team building is essential to project activities, we began by getting to know each other. Everyone present, including me, filled out information about themselves on a transparency and then, using the overhead projector, reported about themselves to the group. We told about our interests, why we returned to school, and the different roles we assume in our lives.
- Bio-poems. Students wrote short, descriptive poems about themselves, using a form in which they filled in blanks with descriptive words. Students typed up their poems; we took everyone's picture, mounted pictures with poems, and posted the finished products at the entrance to the orientation site at our center.
- What is learning? We talked about the nature of learning experiences, using the model of the learning cycle (plan, act, reflect, learn) presented in our Project IDEA meetings. This led to a discussion about past experiences that motivated us to action. In many cases, students talked about what had brought them back to school. We noticed that it is from our failures that we learn the most. So no matter what happens, we've learned something. I found this concept helpful, not only for my students, but also for myself as well. Later in the process, we would pause to reflect and discover what kind of learning was taking place when students made comments like, "Gee, this is fun, but what am I learning?"
- Teamwork poster. Our second mini-project was teamwork posters. Using a quote by Heide Spruck Wrigley from the Learners Outcomes handout from the Project IDEA Teacher Institute for inspiration, All of us together are stronger than any one of us alone, we talked about the qualities that make a good team. Students compiled a set of guidelines for teamwork, working first in small groups, then together as a class. Each group selected a saying and made a poster collage using colored markers and pictures from magazines. We displayed the completed posters in the classroom.
- Dia de los Muertos. Students held a potluck for everyone at the Center on the Friday before Halloween. They made and brought food using recipes from a Web site recommended on the IDEA Listserv http://www.azcentral.com/ent/dead/. They wrote anecdotal paragraphs about departed family members, typed them up and made collages from magazine photos of things that reminded them of the person.
- For Thanksgiving. Students held a potluck at the learning center and wrote on the theme of "Blessings that didn't seem like blessings at the time."
- Carousel Care Center Christmas party. Up to this point, our audience had been learning center students and staff. We needed to come up with a project that would reach people outside of the center so we selected a local nursing home, Carousel Care Center. Since making and selling crafts appealed to the majority of the students, this led to a discussion about renting a booth at a craft fair. Comments during the dialogue included: Where would we get the money for entry fees? Is there time before Christmas? Who knows where or when there will be such a fair? What about a flea market or a swap meet? Then someone asked what proved to be a key question, Why do we have to sell what we make? Another suggested, We could donate whatever we make to a nursing home. Two responded in unison, Or a school?
We studied the Lubbock Volunteer Bureau's booklet about community service opportunities available during the Christmas Season and from the listings they chose the nursing home activity. Students arranged the party date and time with the nursing home staff, made a Christmas card, and prepared a "goodie basket" of baked goods, fruit and candy for each resident. They wrote to the Unitarian-Universalist Church requesting funds to buy each resident a small gift, fruit and candy for the goodie basket, and supplies for gift wrapping and serving food. One student arranged to bring punch donated by McDonald's. A group of four students prepared and three of them performed choral readings of Christmas poems and songs. Students brought extra gifts that we gave away in a drawing. They wrapped the fruit and gifts and organized the packages for transport. We car pooled from the learning center to the nursing home nearby.
Though my teaching style has often led me to consult my students about our class work, Project IDEA has given me a framework within which to do this more systematically and more productively via collaborative and project-based learning.
- Student evaluation of classes.When I began asking students to evaluate my Project IDEA class, I was sometimes astonished at students' interpretation of the topic of the day. Now I regularly request evaluations from all my classes, devoting about 15 minutes to this activity and discussing the results with the group.
- Group Activities: In class evaluations, many students have indicated a preference for group work, so we do this often now.
- Unplanned class discussions. I no longer resist student tendencies to stray from a lesson plan to discuss a topic that has caught their interest. Instead, I consider these discussions opportunities to tap into student motivation and initiate projects for learning.
- Collage and drawing. I occasionally use other media of expression along with writing assignments.
- Computer skills. I include basic word processing skills as part of the writing curriculum. I encourage students to type up their writing assignments on the computer and save their work to a diskette.
- Share student writings. I learned from class evaluations that students find reading what others have written helpful and supportive, and it motivates them to write and revise their work.
- Teacher networking and accessing resources. In July 2000, I presented a workshop at the Oklahoma State Department of Education Adult Literacy and Teacher Training Summer Conference with Anson Green, a former Project IDEA participant. Having been introduced to his work through the first Project IDEA cohort, I've been field-testing Anson's La Cocina de Vida curriculum with my students. Additionally, I have engaged in one-on-one mentoring with a Project IDEA colleague, Tina Washco. My teaching site isolates me from other adult educators in Lubbock, so I'm often "out of the loop" when it comes to hearing about professional development and networking opportunities, such as TETN conferences, workshops around the state, and the e-mail discussion groups for Texas adult educators. Project IDEA has made me aware of these opportunities and resources.
- Equipped for the Future. Project-based learning addresses all four categories of Equipped for the Future's framework of skills adults need to succeed in their roles as citizens, family members, and workers (Stein 2000)
- Communication: Almost all participants say that their writing skills have improved. Working in groups and on teams requires communication, and most of our projects included reading and reporting as part of our classroom process. Students report that they either have learned how to use the word processor or that their existing computer skills have improved. A few found that working in small groups helped them feel more comfortable speaking to the whole class.
- Decision making and planning are involved in choosing and implementing a project. Those who worked on organizing student writings said they learned organizational skills, how to put essays into categories, and how to make a table of contents.
- Interpersonal skills are essential to teamwork, as are negotiation and compromise. Almost everyone said they had learned something about how to work with others on a team.
- Lifelong Learning Skills: Reflection and evaluation are essential to the project-based learning process. Through individual reflection and group discussions of student themes such as divorce, raising children, domestic abuse and health issues, students learned to develop and express a sense of self.
By far, I think that the most important outcome was the sense of accomplishment the learners felt when a project was completed. This was reflected by a student's comment about organizing the student writings: "I contributed ideas to make this project."
About the Author
Louise Sanders has been a part-time adult educator for the past four years. She currently teaches ABE/GED and College Prep classes at Bridges Adult Learning Center in Lubbock. Her undergraduate degree is in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Berkeley. Recently, she has entered the Learning Communities Interdisciplinary Residency Masters program at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Personal interests include reading, travel, writing, horses, and fabric art. A former 4-H leader and Lubbock County 4-H Board member, she suggests you call on your country extension agents as resources for topical presentations in your classrooms. A Lubbock resident since 1991, she has also lived and worked in California, Spain, Mexico, Korea, and New Mexico. She has two adult children, Dominique, a student at Texas Tech, and Peter, a systems administrator living in San Francisco. For most people, change is a move to a new neighborhood or a different job. When Louise makes a change, her whole lifestyle is transformed. Her mottoes are "Onward through the fog," and "Bloom where you are planted."
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