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Teachers as Project Managers?

As project-based learning (PBL) becomes more and more popular, has the role of the classroom teacher changed forever?

As educational trends and policies come and go, one constant is that more content and standards are being crammed into already jammed-packed curricular frameworks. An emerging instructional strategy that seems to be meeting the demands of such initiatives as Common Core and Race to the Top is project-based learning, or PBL. Classroom projects allow teachers to incorporate several learning objectives into one single – albeit extensive – activity. Furthermore, PBL emphasizes other 21st Century learning needs such as collaboration, critical thinking, and inquiry-based learning.

There are several components at work in a successful and effective PBL environment, but one key aspect is that the bulk of the teacher’s work is in the project preparation – not the actual delivery of instruction and practice with students. During class, students use guidelines and resources provided to move through the project. The teacher is usually on the sidelines, merely assisting students with roadblocks, providing feedback, and asking probing questions to spur further research and communication. This method of instruction is far different than the “old-school” approach of lecturing, drilling, and then presenting students with a multiple choice or essay assessment.

I recently attended a webinar hosted by Education Week that highlighted a high school program heavily utilizing the PBL approach. The instructor of this program suggested that he, in fact, does not consider himself a teacher but rather a Project Manager. Most of the educational choices typically made by teachers were given to the students, and he did little more than provide goal orientation, formative feedback, and access to online and physical resources. This made me wonder – is this the future of education? Has the role of the teacher in the 21st Century classroom changed forever? And, if so, is this evolution a positive or negative change for the success of our students in a global economy?

My background is in the Career and Technical Education (C.T.E.) arena, so I can only speak to that experience – but my entire teaching style was based around projects aligned to my curriculum. My students would complete two or three projects per week, each with carefully planned learning activities, plenty of opportunities for feedback, clear expectations and scoring rubrics to accompany them. Make no mistake – it took a considerable amount of time to set these projects up – but when the students were working in the classroom, they were actively engaged for the majority of instructional time. Even better, they were consistently involved in authentic discussion with their classmates and received feedback from all angles. From my perspective as the teacher, I was able to walk around the room to give suggestions, answer questions, and survey the work taking place. The best part was that I felt I was able to make more personal connections with my students and get to know them a lot better than if I was simply lecturing, grading practice assignments, and throwing assessments at them.

This seems like a fairly easy fit for many CTE areas, but what about “core” academic teachers?

In my experience collaborating with them in my school’s Professional Learning Community, and in my conversations with them now as a staff developer, I have noticed that projects do not seem to be as common in “core” classrooms. While there are generally a few hands-on learning experiences incorporated throughout a semester, it seem that the majority of classroom time is spent in lecture or guided practice. However, nearly every core teacher I have spoken with on the subject readily admits that student engagement is higher during their PBL attempts. Although it takes a lot more effort to prepare and execute the projects, they feel their students gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Project-based learning, while not a new concept altogether, is still a relatively new trend in education. With the growing popularity of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and other work-based learning initiatives, it seems PBL is only going to gain momentum as skills in communication, collaboration, and critical thinking are increasingly stressed in the classroom. So, has the role of the teacher in today’s classroom changed completely?

I would say not yet. There will still be those traditional teachers whose curriculum may not easily lend itself to PBL and thus may be slower than others to adopt this methodology. I agree that no single approach to teaching is the ultimate answer. I would argue that variety in methodology is needed. However, I do think that – as more and more initiatives based around STEM and PBL grow in popularity – this approach to teaching will become more and more commonplace across the curricula, and even come to represent a large majority of what’s taught in teacher preparation programs.

So, is this a positive or negative change for our students? Should they be simply encouraged and guided by a Project Manager, or are they better off with a PowerPoint and notes?

This is a tough question to answer – and it really all depends on how you view the purpose of primary and secondary education. Is emphasis on collaboration, communication, deadlines, and feedback beneficial to a student entering the workplace? Definitely. Is it going to help a university student absorb more during lectures or write better thesis papers? Probably not. College ready and career ready are currently two very different things.

In my view, this is not simply a K-12 issue. Post-secondary institutions will likely have to embrace the project-based learning approach as well to pick up on what is happening in the secondary level beneath them. If middle and high school students learn how to work in teams, give and receive feedback, and meet the constraints of a project by the deadline, and will be expected to do the same when they enter the workplace, then we can’t ignore what goes on in the post-secondary environment. The shift will also have to be felt at our colleges and universities.

Project-based learning, and all of the teaching methods and learning strategies that go with it, are well suited to meet the needs of the 21st Century student. If K-12 teachers can begin to see themselves as being at least a little like Project Managers, and if post-secondary institutions can adapt what they’re doing to satisfy and enhance this approach, we would – without question – be producing students who are well prepared to enter and succeed in the workplace and global economy.

-Benjamin M. Furse, MEd

Instructional Specialist, ExplorNet’s Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning

Want to hear how ExplorNet’s Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning is working to help bridge the gap between secondary and post-secondary education, check out our latest work with Arkansas Tech University.

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About QTL

The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning expands and supports high quality teaching and effective, supportive leadership. QTL Processes bring together technology, teamwork, student data and research-based instruction to create more engaging lesson design for greater student achievement.

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