Projects with a purpose

Seymour Papert was one of the great (educational) thinkers and visionaries of the modern age.  A mathematician, computer scientist and educator, he was a founding member of MIT’s renowned Media Lab. As MIT’s President said following Papert’s death last year, ‘Seymour..helped revolutionize at least three fields, from the study of how children make sense of the world, to the development of artificial intelligence, to the rich intersection of technology and learning.”

Reflecting recently on Papert’s four guiding principles for learning, MIT Professor Mitch Resnick said that Paper believed in the power of projects. Often schools focus on teaching students problem-solving skills but Papert argued that students learn to solve problems through the context of projects. Projects enable people to come together to learn with and from each other. Papert saw how technology could extend collaboration by connecting young people through the creation of online communities.

Project-based learning (PBL) ticks these two boxes. A number of our primary and secondary schools have adopted PBL with impressive results not only in terms of learning outcomes but also increased student/teacher engagement.  The core of the PBL model is about working in collaboration with others to extend and deepen learning.

Recently, we started working with Steve Zipkes, founding principal of Cedars International High School and Academy in Austin Texas. The purpose of the engagement is to grow our understanding of learning frameworks that engage both teachers and students in a research approach to learning through integrated real life experiences using a collaborative model of learning. Steve has been working in education for more than two decades and has been recognised nationally and internationally for his design practices. In his last two STEM-focused schools, students were completing an average of 50 projects a year!

As Steve says, PBL is about student engagement to deepen learning. Unlike the standard method of learning and teaching which is geared towards mastering content, PBL is geared towards transferring student knowledge to real world issues. It has a rigorous hands-on approach compared to the traditional hands-off and hand-me-down approach to knowledge creation and ideas. Like Papert, Steve believes that it’s the engagement in the project that develops critical skills like problem-solving, collaboration, communication, student agency and self-efficacy.

While the concept of project-based learning can be traced back to John Dewey, the integration of technology means that PBL is geared for today’s world. Steve notes that PBL plants the seeds for innovation by allowing students and teachers to bring their creativity and ideas into each project. While PBL has led to a renewed interest in schooling, teacher retention and higher attendance rates, Steve does caution that the standards must drive everything. As he says, teachers need to understand the processes and planning that form the basis of good projects.

PBL, STEM, deep pedagogies, Montessori and the like are blooming in the education field. As such, they can be often seen to be a silver bullet for making schooling more relevant to learners but this is to misunderstand the theory base on which they are built. Our approach is to ensure our learning frameworks in schools are ‘experiential’ using an inquiry model of learning through reflection on doing. Put simply, learning tasks should be challenging, integrated, interdisciplinary and real-life experiences that start from what the student knows and allows for deep reflection on the process. No one model can lay claim to owning this approach but we can use PBL and other approaches as a lens through which to view an experiential model.

Seymour Papert saw the need for education to be about engagement not explanation. We can only do that if we are building on as Mitch Resnick says students’ interests and passions. An experiential model is a powerful way to continue the ideas and legacy of Seymour Papert.



3 thoughts on “Projects with a purpose

  1. It was a pleasure to visit so many CEDP campuses last month. The PBL implementation at the primary level was extraordinary, especially at St. Angela’s, St. Nicolas, Our Lady of the Rosary, and Mary Immaculate at Quakers Hill (which is on it’s way to being a model PBL campus at a global level!) The administrative support for teachers in using PBL was also a great strength. Very impressed and can’t wait to see what’s next!

  2. The PBL model has tremendous potential to impress the need for a growth mindset for our teachers. Most school contexts have impressive experience among their teachers, however this experience is not always receptive to challenging what they do to engage learners in learning. It is imperative that staff challenge themselves to new ways of learning in their classrooms. In my context, an enthusiastic and experienced group of teachers dared to be involved in Big History Project PBL commenced in 2015. Their elation when they realised the intensity of their own learning in each student project increased their motivation to replicate that kind of learning environment in their own classrooms. It also culminated in cross curricular learning opportunities. Over time other less inclined staff started to ask how they could be involved. Therefore every subsequent PBL combined half experienced PBL staff and half new staff. It was amazing to see in each preliminary planning meeting, how for example a particular KLA teacher such as the Maths teacher said “don’t anyone worry about the Maths parts of this, I will take care of it”. Everyone politely acknowledges the comment, however over a short time, the teacher realises that PBL is bigger than a single KLA.
    My final point is that we started small, and have provided throughly significant staff learning which is spreading steadily among all staff. It is exciting to be a learner!

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