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.More