Remember when school meant learning complicated mathematical equations or memorizing the periodic table? At some point, you discovered that a calculator can instantly provide the answer to equations, and that the Internet offers atomic weights with a click of the mouse.
Conversations about 21st century skills are encouraging educators and parents to reconsider how children will become successful learners, able to utilize technological advances in an ever-changing global environment. Our complex world requires less memorization and more development of critical and creative thinking, and our children must learn to recognize new challenges and find novel solutions outside the conventional paths of the past.
Unlike the emphasis on memorizing facts and concepts that historically has driven curriculum, schools now look for better ways to help students take initiative for their own learning and discover ways to integrate knowledge from several subject areas.
Our children must learn to recognize new challenges and find novel solutions outside the conventional paths of the past.
Educational research suggests that among the most effective methods for equipping students for this type of thinking is project-based learning. With this approach, students undertake an in-depth investigation of an area of the curriculum, either as individuals or as part of a group. Learners select questions to explore, engage in personal research, experiments and other hands-on experiences, and develop ways to document and share what they have discovered with others. Teachers serve as guides rather than directors.
It is easy to imagine an Upper School student designing a scientific project related to an ongoing interest in genetic testing, or a group of Middle School students joining together to examine life in medieval times. For PreKindergarten teachers, the question we ask is: How are preschoolers able to begin developing and utilizing these skills in the early childhood classroom?
Unlike work with themes or units in which teachers present preplanned lessons and activities, project-based learning encourages children to identify their own interests, design their own learning experiences and choose their own methods of sharing information. This type of learning is both child initiated and directed. Children choose how much time to look for information, the direction of the project, and their own ways of integrating and presenting ideas. Some may copy words or phrases, make simple drawings or develop models with building or art materials.
This type of learning is both child initiated and directed.
Over the past few years, my PreK students have selected an animal to study for one of their first project-based learning experiences. The girls visit the Lower School library to examine picture books and beginning reader books about animal residents at the Philadelphia Zoo. Each student selects a mammal, bird or reptile. Initially, we developed questions for the girls to research, but now we encourage our students to raise their own questions about what to include in their projects. Using books, videos, toy animals and other resources, students work with teachers to discover and write down information specific to their project.
In the classroom, toys — including plastic animals, blocks and Duplo — permit the girls to build habitats and create dramatic scenes about their animals. At the writing center, stencils and word lists encourage book and poster making. Animal puzzles with 12 to 100 pieces help illustrate the variety of animals living in specific environments such as the African plains or the Arctic Circle. Songs, stories and movement games foster interest in animal characteristics.
Different art media enable the girls to paint, draw, or mold models of their animals. A field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo enables the girls and their families to see the actual animals they’ve chosen to research. It is satisfying to hear the excitement as they discover a friend’s animal. Little voices call out, “Quick, come here. It’s your giraffe!”
Back in the classroom, the girls produce a script about their animals. With teachers’ assistance, they use an iPad to record their oral animal reports along with the pictures they painted. Making this video available to classmates and parents on our webpage encourages the girls to expand their knowledge of not only their own animals, but their classmates’ animals as well.
Encouraging Project-Based Learning at Home
Parents are able to foster this type of learning at home by using some of the following techniques:
1. When your child asks questions about a topic or develops an interest in a new subject, take a trip to the local library and examine resources among the nonfiction books.
2. Read text aloud and encourage your child to examine pictures, to help stimulate her interest in making a list of further ideas or questions to be explored.
3. Use YouTube and other Internet sites to help your child examine all kinds of information related to the topic.
4. Offer materials for making models, posters or booklets about what your child has discovered.
5. Set aside a special time for your child to share the project with family members, friends, or neighbors. It need not be more than a few minutes, but include the opportunity for the child to field some questions about her learning. This offers a wonderful opportunity to practice speaking in front of a familiar audience and learn that there may be questions that require additional research and discovery.
Kathy Seaton, Agnes Irwin PreK teacher