PBL: Practice By Living
As part of the class debrief after the end-of-year project, one of my teachers had his students imagine what it will be like when they go to college and are tasked to work with a group of peers—some of whom would never have previously done projects. Our students marveled that this might be the case for many students, possibly the majority of them. In contrast, during a typical year at Paulo Freire Freedom School, students are required to complete 5-6 large-scale projects and a score of smaller ones, the vast majority of which involve significant peer collaboration.
The advantages our students will have in that future imagined scenario are numerous and obvious—and while it’s possible to debate which students (PBL or traditionally taught) are more likely to have superior content knowledge, it’s a no-brainer that our students will be more practiced and skilled at a variety of social/emotional learning (SEL) skills. These kinds of skills are universally used and highly prized in work and life, such as working with others, breaking down work assignments into parts and effectively managing time, and working through adversity when it arises.
I think of PBL as not only standing for Project Based Learning, but also as “practice by living.” Their school work matters to students because it so clearly connects to real life and prepares them for future life and work. In PBL, there is a magic mix of giving students voice and choice and requiring them to showcase their work in front of an authentic public audience. This combination insures that students are authentically engaged and invested in their learning. The power of this mix is amplified when the frequency increases. Practice makes better, especially with reflection and coaching.
Grit: Working Through Challenges
Our students learn how to work through adversity, individually and collectively. They know that on the day of any performance there will be students who freak out, either because they are not as prepared as they would like to be, or just at the prospect of performing in front of others. With experience and practice, they develop skills that help them manage this stress.
Our 6/7th graders completed three major public exhibitions this past year during our Learning-In-Community, interdisciplinary AM course of study:
- In the Living Museum Project, students studied the role of technology in different ancient civilizations and then replicated those advances.
- In the Chautauqua Climate Change Forum, students created “Ted Talks” to discuss different aspects of climate change.
- In the Change Fair/Fair Change Exhibition students analyzed a contemporary problem, posed a solution for it, and then designed a plan for what laws would need to be changed and/or implemented to address that solution.
In spite of significant practice, emotional support, and accommodations, during the Living Museum Project one student was so nervous that he literally was sick to his stomach and had to be taken home. At the Chautauqua Forum he burst into tears and refused to participate. But at the Change Fair he stood in front of his written work and defended his proposal repeatedly to five randomly assigned community judges. His performance was practiced and competent. I have every reason to believe that by the end of this year he will receive a highly proficient mark that reflects the creative intellectualism I know is lurking within.
With repeated practice, students learn how to navigate stress and pressure. Minutes before the Change Fair presentation, one student on a team had a self-described “panic attack,” but they had the clarity of purpose to realize the forum was an opportunity uniquely situated to share their thoughts on a topic they deeply cared about: the rights of transgendered teens. After the event, the student shared with me that they "completely unraveled" when they momentarily misplaced some notes, but then they realized that throughout the night they hadn’t referred to the notes once, because they were so knowledgeable about the topic.
At another time we can debate whether students who have been immersed in Project Based Learning have a deeper, more profound grasp of the content they have been taught—I think they do. But it is undeniable that PBL allows students to practice the social and emotional skills they will need to use throughout their lives, in school, at work, and at home.
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