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Project-based learning a major focus at ed-tech conference

Photo: Fabiola Cineas

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Creating future-ready classrooms was a major theme of this year’s ISTE conference, the world’s most comprehensive ed-tech event. It was held in Philadelphia from June 28 to July 1.

Nearly 14,000 educators and industry leaders from around the world convened to share and discuss practices to prepare students for an innovation economy at ISTE, which stands for International Society for Technology in Education.

Many attendees at the conference maintained that project-based learning is the best way to engage students and move away from classroom activities that prioritize memorization without deep understanding.

This approach is also the focal point of Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary screened at the Franklin Institute as part of the conference. The film spends a year following two 9th-grade classes at High Tech High in San Diego, a 15-year-old charter school where traditional classroom structure is upended. There are no bells, no defined class periods, and no borders between academic subjects.

“The philosophy of High Tech High is founded largely on the idea of kids making, doing, building, shaping, and inventing stuff," said High Tech High founder and CEO Larry Rosenstock in the film. "The engineers, architects, artists, great educators, and entrepreneurs I know are all sort of perplexed and curious about how they can do it better the next time. And that type of perplexity leads to engagement. It leads to learning. It leads to innovation."

According to the film, the last significant change to our education system happened more than a century ago during the Industrial Age, with the advent and growth of factories. Since then, schools have been locked into feeding the needs of a factory culture, producing students with skills that are outmoded for today’s workforce. The challenge is creating learning environments that reevaluate the skills that students need.

The teachers at High Tech High, who are all on one-year contracts, have total freedom to pursue projects that follow no centrally mandated scope and sequence. They help students develop soft skills – such as grit, collaboration, self-confidence, time management, and empathy — that will help students effectively problem-solve in the future.

One class featured in the film was co-led by a teacher with a background in engineering and one with a background in the humanities. Students explored why civilizations rise and fall and were tasked with creating a mechanical representation of their theories.

For instance, one group concluded that civilizations rise because of ambition and fall because of greedy aristocrats who become content in their positions of power. To show this, students carved wood into gears that they then assembled onto a panel with oscillating pieces. The pieces that moved upward represented ambition and the pieces that moved downward represented conflict. Students also carved images onto the panel to illustrate each stage of a civilization’s life cycle.

Students had to acquire a deep understanding of Mayan, Roman, and Greek civilizations to develop and defend their theories, while an understanding of mathematical and engineering principles stood at the core of their physical designs. And they had to be able to explain it all from both mechanical and historical vantage points.

To show that students are learning and that teachers are facilitating this process, the 9th graders at High Tech High must showcase their final projects at a public exhibition. The exhibitions underscore the importance of accountability and authenticity in the academic process instead of the pressure of standardized tests and letter grades.

A project-based setting “makes learning interdisciplinary and allows us to treat our classrooms as lenses and less as silos,” said Chris Lehmann at the panel discussion after the film screening.

Lehmann is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, an inquiry-driven magnet high school in Philadelphia that is transforming the education landscape. He will soon move into an assistant superintendent position, leading a network of innovative schools in Philadelphia while retaining a leadership post at SLA with a co-principal.

“What do we do about the teachers who say ‘We can’t do that at our schools. We can’t let our teachers loose?’” asked Chris Walsh, the panel’s moderator and CEO of Zaption, an ed-tech startup.

“The freedom these teachers have is built upon a foundation of trust with students. When these relationships happen this way, it is very easy for the teachers and students to come together and be creative,” said panelist Chris Jackson, who is chief communications officer at Big Picture Learning, which runs a network of inquiry-based high schools. El Centro, an alternative school in Kensington, is run by Big Picture Philadelphia.

“The problem, though, becomes how to not get exhausted by this,” Lehmann said. “This process is really tiring. We need to develop a common culture around this nationally and a common language with shared expectations to make it easier to onboard students and teachers and parents into this kind of model.”

Panelist Lydia Dobyns, president and CEO of New Tech Network, a nonprofit that provides supports to schools for project-based learning, voiced another concern – that people will leave the film thinking that this kind of education is only possible under certain conditions.

“Very little of the High Tech High experience is about being a charter school in California," she said. “If I have a fear about the movie and the excitement it creates is that people will be thinking that this can only happen either in a charter school or where teachers have one-year contracts.”

Ninety percent of the 200 schools that her nonprofit supports are traditional public schools, she said. “There are ways to do this to fit your local public needs. … This film introduces us to what the educational experience can be for every stakeholder.”

The film’s producer, Ted Dintersmith, who spent 25 years in venture capitalism, emphasized that basic-skills jobs are disappearing. If we don’t make creativity and inquiry the foundation of education, he said, we are failing students.

“Very few people in mainstream conventional schools are happy. When people have to live back at home after graduating from college you start to wonder. I think we are reaching a tipping point,” he said.

Also on the panel was Teion Ensley, a recent Science Leadership Academy graduate, headed to the California University of Pennsylvania this fall.

“My next step is to use the tools that I learned at SLA and to let people know that these are the things that I can do because I learned in a different way,” he said.

“Even in college, people think that everyone only learns one way, and that’s not true. One of the core values I learned at SLA is presentation, and I can use this core value to show others what we can do.”

Schools like SLA that are built around inquiry and projects are proliferating, Lehmann said.

“The amount of people who want these kinds of learning environments and the large amount of people around this country who want school to suck less are now beginning to understand that it can,” he said. “We are seeing it grow.”

He added: “Our graduates will never accept for their own children that school has to be something other than what they experienced. That’s going to change the world. It’s the only way it can happen.”

Fabiola Cineas is an intern at the Notebook.

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