The Joy of Project Work

Students are natural investigators, and the immersive curriculum at Parker inherently lends itself to following where their curiosity leads. One vehicle Parker employs to facilitate this style of progressive education is project-based learning.
Project-based learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge. In so doing, children construct an understanding of the world around them, learning how to ask questions and solve problems. This gives them a sense of agency and responsibility, making their education relevant, vital, and interesting.
Last Monday, in keeping with our strategic plan, Parker educators gathered for a professional development day dedicated to examining our project-based learning practices from a lens of continuity, renewal, and expansion. Working together, faculty brainstormed all the projects that we do here at Parker, then broke into division groups and ran our projects through the 6A’s framework for quality project design:
6A’s of Quality Project DesignAuthentic Learning – Does the learning experience address students’ lives and current community concerns and allow them to emulate the work of professionals in making decisions about their learning?Adult and Peer Alliances – Does the learning experience require students to problem solve, reflect, engage, and collaborate with adults serving as guides that facilitate (but do not direct) learning?Academic Complexity – Does the learning experience encourage students to use open-ended inquiry to build thinking skills and metacognition, reinforces literacy skills, and allow students to learn concepts and practice skills in an authentic context?Applied Learning – Does the learning experience demonstrates the relevance of gained knowledge and skills by allowing students to apply them in real-world ways with tangible outcomes? Active Exploration – Does the learning experience necessitates hands-on, lab-like learning where ideas and hypotheses are tested, measured, and reflected upon; do students conduct research and engage in inquiry in response to what they need to know?Assessment Practices – Does the learning experience include opportunities for students to construct original products to demonstrate understanding and exhibit their learning?
Filtering projects through this checklist, our educators were able to determine where our current projects are succeeding and what (if anything) needs to be changed to make sure our student work is hitting all these benchmarks. Teachers were also able to look forward in planning to be thoughtful and intentional about crafting learning experiences that students at every grade level can look forward to each year.
So what does project-based learning look like at Parker? Current examples abound – from our PreK 4 snowflake study to our 8th grade musical, and Kindergarten maple sugaring to 5th grade math volume pets. All of these learning experiences perfectly illustrate why project work is so important here at Parker, and why we strive to engage even our youngest students in some form of interest-based study. Working on projects reflects how our students will eventually be asked to work in the real world. Solving complex problems requires that students have both fundamental skills (like reading, writing, and math) and more intricate skills (like teamwork, problem solving, research gathering, and information synthesizing). When students are given the opportunity to combine these skills, they begin to take ownership of their learning process. As educational researcher Sylvia Chard wrote, “One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life. It’s an in depth investigation of a real-world topic worthy of children’s attention and effort.”
Doing project work is not just a way of learning; it is a way of working together as a community. The work our students do now will form the basis for the way they will work with others in their adult lives. Project work gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities in working both cooperatively and independently. It allows the teacher to learn more about each child as a person, enabling them to communicate more meaningfully on a range of issues. Students become active and engaged hunters and gatherers of new knowledge, and they enthusiastically take control of their own learning. This is how we build lifelong learners.
Looking Ahead…
On Monday, March 20th, Parker will celebrate Personal Project Day. This day is tied to our work as a school doing project-based learning. Having just completed a professional development day devoted to this practice, we knew we would be inspired as a community to expand beyond our school and invite parents and children to experience the joy of project work together. Whether it is baking cookies, learning a new skill, or investigating with curiosity, this day is set aside to be intentional about the learning that can happen through projects. Stay tuned to more information!