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Project-Based Learning

An idea whose time has come...again.

There was a time when project-based learning was the gold standard for education within many school districts. Encouraged by enlightened administrators, teachers developed “Units” of study which were reinforced by exciting hands-on projects that challenged students and teachers alike. Many of these projects went far beyond the problem-solving stage, to inspire a deep understanding of the focus topics, and a lifelong passion for learning.

El Centro Elementary School District was ahead of the curve with many teachers introducing amazingly creative projects. Students in Mike Laine’s classes learned archeology through his simulated dig sites, where they would unearth layers of history, discovering exciting artifacts going back to the ice age. George Ryan worked with his students to create wooden games for learning math and logic and Walter Beasley collaborated with his students on exciting wooden projects which taught practical math.

The standards were set high, as these dedicated teachers and students were more than eager to display their creative brilliance, but it was Doug Evers and his team that repeatedly “knocked it out of the park”. Students working with Mr. Evers calculated the complex math for the polished stainless steel parabolic reflector, used for gathering the sun’s rays and focusing them onto the cooking cylinder of the giant solar hotdog oven (capable of cooking lunch for over one hundred students). Students gained a passion for history by working on an exact replica model of the HMS Bounty, built entirely from scratch. It was the giant globe at the entrance of Harding Elementary School which clarified longitude, latitude and geography as students painstakingly painted the oceans, continents, rivers and mountains.

Tragically, this enlightened and exciting form of education fell into steep decline as standardized testing began taking the creative oxygen from the classroom.

Studies confirm that knowledge which is gained through rote memorization in preparation for a test is easily forgotten, where knowledge acquired in a hands-on project has greater depth, relevance and durability. Being able to get good test scores does not mean that the student is well-rounded, or even well-educated, just as memorization of facts does not equal intelligence.

Cindy Martin, Superintendent of San Diego Unified Schools, congratulates students from Normal Heights Elementary School on Channel 6 Good Morning show for their mosaic logo project. Cindy announced her intention of having a Rainforest Art Project in every school within the district.

Project-based learning is not another experiment with the futures of our children… it is a proven means of education which is all about finding solutions to the type of challenges and problems which students will face in the real world. With every success, students are more emotionally and intellectually competent and better prepared for the next big challenge.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education in George Bush senior’s administration began as a supporter of No Child Left Behind when it became law in 2002, but quickly realized how detrimental it became when put into practice. She wrote in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed:

Accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else…This was not my vision of good education. Standardized testing means more rote memorization and less time for creativity.

Most of us understand intuitively that the best way of learning is “by doing”, and now, Project Based Learning is finding dedicated believers, who are implementing programs within school districts throughout the United States. One of the best characteristics of PBL programs is that they can be easily integrated with present-day standards, like Common Core, which emphasize real-world applications and the development of success skills such as critical thinking/problem solving, communication, collaboration and presentation skills.

Of all of the benefits offered by project-based learning, the one which stands out the most for us at the Rainforest Art Project is the extraordinary engagement of the students. In many cases, the most disruptive kids become the most dedicated team workers when sharing in these undertakings. Creating a complex project requires that all students participate on a very mature level. They learn that their contributions are valuable and that their opinions are respected. Students become equal partners in creative adventures that engage their hearts and minds to discover the joy and excitement of learning through doing.

Students at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in San Diego relaxing on their tiger mascot bench. Over four hundred students participated in its creation over a period of five months.


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