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WESTFORD, Mass. – A group of about 40 sixth graders at Stony Brook School here has been trying to figure out when and where the next earthquake will hit outside of North America. The students researched continental plates and convection currents; they practiced graphing earthquake magnitudes; they looked at case studies in China, Japan and Nepal and considered how people adapt to an earthquake-prone environment; and, ultimately, they had to make their case, in writing, for why they expect the next earthquake to hit when and where they say it will, backing up their hypothesis with a well-reasoned argument and evidence.
This single assignment asks students to master science, math, history and language arts standards, which is par for the course for these sixth graders. Their school schedules don’t make distinctions among the four core subjects, which are co-taught by two teachers in an interdisciplinary, project-based environment.
After piloting it last year, the public middle school expanded the concept to seventh grade, too, though it looks a little different with the older students. Instead of staying with the same two teachers in the same room for most of the day, students have one teacher for a combined science and math class and another for a humanities class that brings language arts and social studies together.
Roman Eracleo, a seventh grader, said he likes the chance to explore topics in depth over the course of a month or more, particularly compared to a traditional pace, which he said means focusing on a topic for a week, taking a test and then moving on.
“It’s a cool way to learn something,” Roman said. “Instead of learning and taking a test. It’s more free.”
In this high-performing, wealthy district, project-based learning isn’t seen as a way to engage struggling students or close glaring achievement gaps, as it is in some places. Christopher Chew, Stony Brook’s principal, sees it as a way for kids to practice higher-order thinking skills prized in the 21st century economy. And in a community where students obsess over meeting high expectations set for them, Chew also hoped project-based learning would instead intrinsically motivate students, getting them interested in their schoolwork because they liked it.
Students on the project-based learning teams miss school less frequently, aren’t tardy as often and don’t make as many trips to the nurse’s office for vague symptoms like a headache or a stomachache, according to a program evaluation conducted by a master’s student at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. They seem to want to be in class.
Academically, last year’s sixth graders performed just as well as their peers on the state math test and placed into advanced math at just about the same rate – two big concerns for Westford parents. In English language arts, they did even better than their peers, growing more over the course of the year than students in the school’s traditional classrooms. Chew believes that’s because the project-based assignments constantly require students to support their arguments with evidence, and because the interdisciplinary, collaborative nature of the work demands critical thinking skills.
“There is direct instruction that takes place, but the work is being driven by the students’ passion and their ability to collaborate with each other,” Chew said. “Their ability to articulate and communicate has been profound, and the families and the students are quick to reflect that.”
The middle school has about 600 students and fewer than 80 are on the sixth and seventh grade project-based learning teams. All of them opted in so Chew hasn’t faced any pushback from families who don’t want to make the shift – and there are plenty who don’t. That’s fine with Chew. He believes that some students will do better in the project-based learning classroom and others will need the traditional environment. And he says he’s confident students will get a good education no matter what classroom they end up in.
Still, students and teachers have noticed the differences that project-based learning inspires.
“I like that we are expected to do more independently and take things into our own hands,” Meghan Gardner, a seventh grader, said. While some parents didn’t want their kids on the project-based learning teams because they feared the experience wouldn’t be academically rigorous enough, Meghan feels she may have learned more this year than she would have in a traditional classroom. She thinks she learns better when she’s having fun, and also when she has more control over the learning process.
“You’re learning it more deeply because you’re actually the one finding information,” she said. “It’s not looking in a textbook that just gives it to you.”
Teachers say they see this deeper learning. Jennifer Masterson, the sixth-grade math and science teacher, said students thrive when given choices about what to research for their projects and how to present their learning. Because the projects all have real-world implications, there are natural audiences beyond the school building for the final products, which makes students take their work more seriously. A driven student will turn in high-quality work for a teacher to grade, but Masterson says that same student will go above and beyond when the work is being sent to outside researchers, community members or organizations around the world.
Masterson has been teaching for more than 10 years and says she would not go back to a traditional math-only or science-only classroom. She revels in the heights her students reach now.
“They continually will blow our socks off,” she said.
An important factor in Stony Brook’s success with project-based learning is Chew’s support of flexibility. He trusts his teachers’ grasp of the standards their students have to learn and he gives them room in the school schedule to design projects that require hours of uninterrupted work time. Teachers can focus more on science on certain days or with certain projects, knowing a later project will focus more on math or language arts standards.
Teachers and administrators are keeping a close eye on student performance, Chew said, careful to make sure students don’t face any academic disadvantages of project-based learning, which is notoriously difficult to do well. But as the second year of the program starts to wind down, Amity Baldwin, the seventh-grade humanities teacher, sees a lot of positives.
Baldwin, who has taught seventh-grade language arts and social studies for 14 years, believes her current students have a stronger grasp of the material they learn. And their understanding goes beyond memorizing facts.
“They really are interconnecting the disciplines but also connecting it to the outside world,” Baldwin said. “And that’s the point.”
This story about project-based learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletters.