Project-based learning is a very powerful practice for accelerating important learning for Black, Brown, and low-income kids. It provides “voice and choice” for the students and it encourages new ways for kids to show mastery of skills. PBL can also help close the belief gap because many people are able to see what kids accomplish. Perhaps most powerfully, PBL can close the belief gap for teachers too.
This fun and challenging practice asks kids to engage in long-term inquiry to solve a big, messy problem. At the same time, PBL asks kids to take charge of their own learning, so they also learn important skills like time management and self-advocacy.
For the past few years, I’ve been working with Eagle County Schools, and now America Achieves, to implement project-based learning in schools throughout my district. I was called to work with one teacher who was struggling to relate to her students. She was White and the majority of her students were Latinx, many of them also language learners. She had an extremely strict, top-down approach to her lessons and her students were failing. Possibly without being fully aware of it, she had divided the students into two groups: kids who can and kids who can’t.
Project-Based Learning Can Transform Teacher-Student Relationships
I suggested that we try creating a project for her students, coaching her to understand that it would mean a significant change in her teaching practice. She would no longer lecture exclusively; many days she would have to give up the stage to let her kids explore, try, make mistakes and learn from them.
We came up with the idea that kids would design an environmentally friendly house that used the local weather patterns and climate to maximize energy efficiency. Students had to research local climate and weather patterns, design the house and present it to local architects for feedback.
She was nervous, but also excited. She liked the idea of her students enjoying her class, and she liked the idea of spending classroom time helping them learn new things that they were interested in. And it was her first project, too! I helped her understand she was undertaking the same journey as her students—trying things, seeing what worked and learning from mistakes.
The project was a hit. Students who had avoided her classroom were now coming in at all times to check on their work and ask questions. Engagement went through the roof, behavior problems plummeted and both the teacher and the students were having fun solving problems and working closely with each other. Every single student completed the project, and every single student passed. A few even said they thought they might want to be architects when they got older!
Perhaps most significantly, this teacher no longer put her students in two, damaging groups: “can” and “can’t.” The creative nature of the project helped her see all of her students multi-dimensionally: as kids who came to her with passion, skills, strengths and ideas unique to themselves.
America Achieves is working to spread PBL nationwide to help kids develop the skills, knowledge and passions they’ll need to succeed in college and careers. Together we can help create confident, curious, and skilled graduates ready to take on the world!
Kate Newburgh, Ph.D., is the founder of Deep Practices Consulting, L3C, a social enterprise dedicated to systemic transformation. She has over a decade of experience in research and systems change. She began her career as a New York City Teaching Fellow in the Bronx, New York, and since then has held diverse roles in the field including educational researcher, academic affairs director for a ...