By Rory Gesch
Navasota ISD Superintendent
There have been many comments and questions thrown out under the umbrella of PBL, which is a generic term for project-based learning. It is important to define what PBL is and what PBL is not. First, PBL is an instructional method. It is not a curriculum. Curriculum is all about what we teach. Instructional methods are about how we teach. In Texas, the curriculum standards are called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). PBL is an instructional method for teaching curriculum standards.
Why use PBL as a method of instruction? The most important reason has to do with the curriculum standards and how the state of Texas assesses students. The state moved to a new accountability system with new assessments that are more about how a student applies what they know and have learned rather than just choosing the right answer. The TEKS are now assessed at a greater depth and complexity, which means student learning, has to match that depth and complexity. The classical methods that we know, they are less effective at providing students opportunities to expand low-level learning or to use knowledge in productive ways to get to deeper levels of understanding. The PBL instructional method does not abandon traditional teaching methods; it expands on them. PBL incorporates more time-tested and researched-based strategies for helping students master curriculum standards at greater depths and complexity. The accumulated evidence reveals that the instructional strategies and procedures that make up standards-focused, project-based learning are effective in building deep content understanding, raising academic achievement, and encouraging student motivation to learn.
The path to using project-based instruction in our classrooms was not an overnight process. Project-based learning was brought into practice by a teacher at Navasota High School a few years back. There is a link to a video about this process on the NISD website. After the Dyer Mill fire, the NHS Statistics class used a service-learning, project-based approach to show students a real life application of the statistics they were learning in class. The project was presented to the Navasota City Council and NISD School Board. From that point, other teachers from the secondary campuses began looking at this method. Over the next two years, teachers began to research the method on their own and introduced project-based lessons into their classrooms on their own. Most of these teachers were on the junior high campus. Both of the secondary campuses were struggling with how to reach our student base. Our student population is over 70 percent minority in this district, and almost 80 percent are economically disadvantaged.
Many decided that lessons and units based in real scenarios provide better ways to engage students in academic learning and communicate the curriculum to the students than using only a one-sided conversation. As teachers saw successes with students being more involved with their work through PBL-based techniques, the district began looking at a process to put a structure around the practice that would create consistency for the students, focus on the curriculum standards, allow teachers to work in their classrooms to design what they wanted for their students, and give teachers the opportunity to work with students of multiple levels in the one-classroom setting of today's all-inclusive public education model.
That brings us to why the district chose the Engage Model. First, there is no perfect model of instruction. We have to depend on the teacher to be responsive to the needs of their students. In all honesty that task is more difficult within our district than others. The move to the Engage Model to guide PBL is really grounded in two major points. The first is that Engage Learning is a Texas-based model, and the focus is to set the project designs on the Texas curriculum standards. The second point is that the Engage Model focuses the work on the process of mastering curriculum standards rather than on the project itself. The lessons are intended to be designed so that the project must address the guidelines, but the learning comes through the process. The teacher must closely guide and direct this process. When well implemented, the teacher's role is actually expanded in this environment. Teachers spend a tremendous amount of time designing experiences, digging deep into subject matter, and determining in advance what problems students are likely to have in the learning process; teaching is more responsive to student needs. Teaching is both direct and indirect. Teachers are continuously interacting, leading, assessing, and evaluating student learning as it relates to mastering the standards. Teacher who take advantage of the process are able to give students more individual and small group attention than ever before. Timely feedback is among the most effective strategies for improving student learning. When one considers the time required to develop a problem, oversee and assist students throughout the project, assess and evaluate student performance, and encourage students to be more independent, it is clear that the teacher's role is as critical as ever.
Among the problems we must solve in Navasota ISD are how to integrate, into classroom, the strategies known to be most influential on student achievement: How do we get more individual attention for students in the general classroom so that feedback about learning and corrective guidance can be provided before the test is given rather than looking back after and wondering why many students didn't learn? How do we integrate activities that provide scaffolding for students who begin a unit of instruction with that need and still provide enrichment for students who don't? How do we create a situation in which teachers better connect with students who often come from very different backgrounds from themselves; better understand what students struggle with, what motivates students, and how students learn? How do we give students opportunities to think about their learning, to think about process, to extend knowledge? How do we allow for more small-group, direct instruction? How do we make the work students do in school more likely to connect to something they know or have experience with or care about? How do we integrate opportunities for students to interact and communicate with one another, something research shows greatly benefits children of all knowledge and skill levels? How do we integrate more opportunities to speak and use language for an increasingly diverse student body that requires language-assisted instruction? How do we create environments in which the design of learning is about getting all students to master standards rather than present content to them as a whole and hope they all choose to learn it?
Expectations for student performance, as reflected in the state learning standards and in state assessments, have dramatically increased in recent years with the introduction of STAAR assessments and End-of-Course exams. Instructional practices that once facilitated the kind of learning that was considered exemplary by the state of Texas don't allow students to apply knowledge fully enough to meet the rising expectations of the new system. Project-based learning is a tool in the toolbox for building learning environments that allow students to move toward mastery of the curriculum standards and toward levels of learning that will help more students meet the new expectation.