At a project-based, experiential school, you’ll rarely find students wondering if they’ll ever use their course material in the future. Rather, you’ll find students who are engaged, curious, and already applying their learnings to their world. Which leads to this question…
What Is Project-based and Experiential Learning?
Project-based learning isn’t a new concept. In fact, one of the most well-known historical educators and philosophers, John Dewey, believed the best way to learn was to do. Instead of simply memorizing or reading, the belief stood that children will learn better when they’re not only invested in what they’re learning as it relates to their lives, but also actively engaged in the learning process.
According to the Buck Institute for Education, project-based learning is “a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects.”
The Buck Institute for Education lists seven criteria as part of their essential project design elements:
- Sustained inquiry
- Student voice and choice
- Critique and revision
- Public product
- Challenging problem or question
Experiential learning, according to the Experiential Learning Center at the University of Colorado-Denver, is a similar curriculum or learning process where students learn and develop knowledge and skills by doing, just outside of a traditional academic setting. This can mean internships, service learning and trips abroad.
Somewhere along the way, education in the US took a turn from these philosophies and instead taught with authoritarianism, memorize-everything, teacher-led curriculums.
Diving Deep Into Long Term Projects
Luckily, some schools are rethinking their curriculum and putting it back into the hands and minds of their students. This often means working on a project for more than just a few weeks until the test comes around. Instead, projects proceed over months and semesters, giving students the ability to fully dive into their learning.
At Watershed, a progressive independent 6th- through 12th-grade school in Boulder, Colorado, students participate in expedition courses. These semester-long, interdisciplinary courses are taught in two- to four-hour blocks by multiple teachers to help students investigate essential questions.
“We’re about getting students to learn deeply and to understand things are interconnected and what they’re learning relates to and impacts the world,” Tim Breen, the Head of School for Watershed, tells Parentology.
Breen notes how Watershed uses a project-based, experiential curriculum to have students learn not just about the world, but in the world and for the world. “You can’t learn everything firsthand, but it’s important to connect with what you’re learning. We aim to have our students do work that actually makes a tangible difference beyond the walls of our school.”
Other schools, like the High Tech High schools in San Diego (K-12), also have a learner-centered curriculum filled with authentic and meaningful work. Their students “engage in work that matters to them, to their teachers, and to the world outside of school. Past projects include a 10th-grade chemistry class designing, creating, managing, and selling soap (The Wicked Soap Company) as well as a second-grade class advocating for bee-friendly plants around the city and building and donating beehives to a community organization in Mexicali (The Bee Project).
Education Outside of the Classroom
Providing students with work that’s meaningful to them — beyond their four classroom walls — is another key point of project-based and experiential curriculums.
Each year, Breen and the Watershed staff create classes that touch on real-world challenges, like energy and world power, which look both locally and worldwide at case studies. There’s also a borders course, which looks at both political borders and ecological borders. With courses like this, Watershed students are required to broaden their reach even more by getting internships, working on independent studies, or reaching out to a local organizations.
Watershed also does a May term, where students engage in a month-long study course that lends itself to overnight travel both regionally and globally, like trips to Mesa Verde National Park for sixth graders or a visit to Guatemala or China for high schoolers.
Real-world Skills, Not Just Academics
On top of these more current event classes and core subjects, Breen and his staff help students garner skills that don’t simply require rote memorization. Rather, the students spend time during the school year building skills that include presenting and build confidence in speaking, research skills, and digital literacy.
“We need to not just give them the skills they get in conventional education, but also awaken and deepen their curiosity,” Breen says. “We’re preparing the students for the challenges of today and tomorrow.”