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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

September 15, 2014 at 4:08 PM

Guest: Project-based classrooms help kids become active learners

Michael Golden

Michael Golden

With the new school year under way, a major initiative related to class size on the ballot in November, and an unrelenting race-based achievement gap across the country, how we educate our children and prepare them for the world is under the microscope. It should be a wake-up call that we continue to fall behind other countries in educational outcomes. The world is changing at a remarkable pace, yet how we educate our youth remains largely the same.

Kids today live in a world that engulfs them in stimuli, changing the way their brains process information and how they learn. What might have worked in the classroom 20 years ago does not work today, but it is still widely used.

To engage today’s students, lessons have to be truly meaningful to them. One effective approach is the use of project-based learning.

What does project-based learning look like? It could be a language arts teacher facilitating a student-initiated project to write a screenplay about a local female rapper. The students would need to learn the mechanical structure of a screenplay, research the nature of the music industry, identify a handful of venues where rappers perform and who some of her fellow musicians might be. Their teacher would guide them through the project and connect them with experts such as screenwriters and music-industry executives in Hollywood.

This approach addresses many of the challenges we find in education today such as:

  • Too many students lose interest in learning and quit school before they are adequately prepared to enter the work force.
  • In Washington state, the dropout rate is 24 percent, with more than one in three black and Latino students quitting school before graduation.
  • Seventy percent of employers say high-school graduates lack the problem-solving and critical thinking skills required to work in their companies.
Illustration by Donna Grethen / Op Art

Illustration by Donna Grethen / Op Art

Our approach must change. Kids must become active drivers of their education. Project-based learning would help students relate to their teachers as coaches and give them a more thorough grasp of why the skills and knowledge they are learning will matter to them after they graduate.

Teachers need support to bolster their confidence and experience utilizing this approach. A project-based curriculum is the first step. The second step is tapping into the millions of people in our country who say they want to help improve education but don’t know how.

Students also do better when they can see first-hand how the skills they are learning translate into a potential career. Our non-profit, Educurious, has developed compelling project-based curricula and recruited hundreds of working professionals who coach students remotely as part of the school work. These volunteers connect with students using video-conferences and discussion boards and also help teachers by giving students guidance on an assignment. Data from the School District of Philadelphia showed that students in our project-based learning classrooms had a 22-percent reduction in tardiness and absences and were more likely to be engaged in the classroom their peers.

Right now, schools tend to test drive this kind of innovative curricula. But as we focus on a new school year and turning the tide on student outcomes here, we should also adopt an approach to classrooms that reflects the world we and our young people live in today. We need to tap into resources that help keep teens engaged in high school and better prepare them for higher education and the workplace of tomorrow.

Michael Golden is a co-founder and CEO of Educurious, a nonprofit organization that links students and real-world experts through project-based learning and technology.

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