What was your most powerful personal experience in a learning community?

Last month I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the National Constitution Center’s Conference on Civility and Democracy. I was in the company of some of the Country’s leading historians, political scientists, and educators. I served on a panel with Ken Burns, THE documentary filmmaker, Alan Brinkley, famed Columbia University history professor, and Sam Chaltain, educational writer and change agent. It was an amazing experience. However, it was the conversation that Sam and I continued, post-Civility and Democracy panel, which intrigued me the most. At the conclusion of the two-day conference, Sam presented me with his book, Faces of Learning (2011).

This book tells “50 Powerful Stories of Defining Moments in Education.” Each story is unique. Each story truly is powerful. Each story reflected on two questions:

1. What was your most powerful personal experience in a learning community --- regardless of whether that experience took place inside or outside of school?

2. Who was your most effective teacher, and what was it about that person that made him or her so effective?

Each story was listed in one of five categories created by Sam to describe what makes a learning experience powerful. Each of these five categories aligns with Project Based Learning.

Challenging: “Meaningful learning can be… the moment when we first discover what we’re capable of.”

In PBL teachers challenge their students with authentic learning tasks. We ask students to work through the inquiry and innovation process as they create possible solutions to problems that have no one right answer. We immerse students in the challenging task rather than simply “challenging” them to get an A on the end of the unit test.

Engaging: “What we remember, and what changes us, is when a new idea comes alive….”

PBL engages students in their search for answers, meaning, and connections to the real world. A need to know is established for the project and students immediately become engaged through the project launched entry event. Throughout the entire project students are engaged in finding their own answer to the driving question presented by the project.

Supportive: “Behind every great learning memory is a great teacher.”

Many teachers attempt some elements of PBL. However, many teachers forget the important role they play in the project process as the facilitator. Students still need guidance. As teachers manage the process of PBL, they quickly discover that their role as facilitator is even more crucial to the learning process than it ever was in the more traditional classroom. Guiding students in their learning through PBL is both challenging and rewarding. It is in a supportive environment that the process of feedback and revision occur. Creating a supportive classroom environment is as imperative as creating a challenging, authentic, PBL task.

Relevant: “For real learning to remain with us, it must in some way be relevant.”

Allowing students to have voice and choice in their learning automatically creates an element of relevance. Not only does true PBL require students to have voice and choice, but it also focuses on authentic learning. Applying learning to the real world promotes 21st Century Skills as students think critically and collaborate on projects.

Experiential: “Books and classes are useful – but only to a point.”

PBL requires students to learn by doing or experiencing. No longer are students passive recipients of information. Rather, students are actively involved in creating and defining their own learning experiences. It is through experiential learning that students are able to complete some form of a publically presented product. Experiential learning leaves a lasting impact on students, as information is not merely memorized, but assimilated.

Each of you reading this blog post has your own answers to Sam’s two questions. Take time to reflect on them. Relate your own positive learning experiences to the five core elements that create a truly transformed learning experience through Project Based Learning. Isn’t this what you want for your own students?

Thanks, Sam, for the quotes and the inspiration.