For the past four years, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching an Advanced Placement government class based completely on project-based learning, a new approach that emphasizes simulations such as mock trial over memorization and lecture. It’s also a key way to get more students involved in advanced coursework and help close the achievement gap.
Here’s what’s fulfilling about teaching this way: Student engagement and enthusiasm are much higher with this approach. The kids are excited for class because they want the bill they wrote to pass or because they are hoping to get endorsed by the Sierra Club so they can lock up the party nomination. And they have fun playing a character. For example, conservative students have a great time playing bleeding heart liberals. Because it’s fun to be part of, it doesn’t feel like school work for the students.
It’s rewarding to bring in outside experts, or to look in on actual politics, and see how much our simulations mirror what happens in the real world. The students are struck that government really happens just like we see in class. In our Congress simulation, the Democrats were frustrated that they felt steam-rolled by the Republican majority on every vote in the floor session. And in our presidential debate, the short-staffed Green Party candidate was mad when he learned he was being barred from the debate. Then he held a press conference to say how he would have answered the questions, just as Green Party candidate Jill Stein did in 2012.
Here’s what makes project-based A.P. instruction difficult for teachers: Each student needs a role they can succeed in that challenges them. Some can rise to the challenge of playing a candidate in a public forum, but others will wither. Getting that wrong can be painful. Also, the more intricate projects where each student plays a different role depend on high attendance. If the Tea Party Republican candidate gets suspended and can’t be at the debate, then not only is the debate less fun and inclusive, but it’s also less effective for learning.
Even so, it feels like a real success when students who aren’t traditional A.P. powerhouse kids can still succeed. Because the students are playing the part, not just memorizing arcane facts, learning and succeeding are accessible to more students, not just the ones who are good with textbooks.
And it’s rewarding to see so much of the students’ individuality expressed this way. The bills they choose to write in our Congress project convey their hopes for the future. The ads they film and the speeches they give are creative and original. When they write to the president about how U.S. immigration policy should be reformed and what he should do to achieve their vision, they are developing and showing their ideas and opinions. Because they are actually sending the letters, their arguments are thoughtful and personal.
It’s been an honor to see students pour themselves into a project, enjoy it, learn a lot from it, and then want to know what our next assignment is. This approach has enriched my teaching, and I’d love to see our schools adopt project-based learning more widely.
Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser is a teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle.