5th Graders learn about Ancient Civilizations through Project-Based Learning

Two of Holliston's earliest adopters, Miller School 5th grade teachers Sara Peters and Ashley DeRoy have already been featured once in this blog.  In my October 5th entry, I highlighted the Longitude/Latitude unit they redesigned, experimenting with a different way for students to highlight their learning -- an "Amazing Race" inspired group "competition" for students to follow longitude and latitude clues to find their way to their final destination.  What I didn't highlight in that description was my wonder at the courage that Ms. Peters and Ms. DeRoy showed during the development of that lesson.  Unsure of the outcome and whether or not the unit was going to be successful, they bravely invited me to observe the students as part of their public exhibition.  That takes a lot of guts.

I suppose it shouldn't have surprised me then, that I received another invitation to visit their classes -- this time to view their students' presentations on their Pre-Columbian Civilization Amusement Parks.  Once again, I wondered at their courage and tenacity -- this was the second invitation in as many months and, more importantly it represented their second major adoption of an innovative instructional pedagogy this year!  My wonder turned to disbelief when I discovered that I was not the only one to whom the email invitation had been addressed.  These teachers had invited all of their students' parents to visit the classroom and view the results of their student's learning.  Another gutsy move!

While the curriculum objective (to learn about Pre-Columbian civilizations) had not changed, Ms. Peters and Ms. DeRoy used a Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach to achieve the objective.  In previous years, students would have read about the facts and features of these civilizations, done a few worksheets, talked about it in class, studied for an end-of-unit test and taken the test.  This time, using PBL, each student in class worked in a group and conducted their own research on Pre-Columbian civilizations.  They worked together to discuss the important features of those civilizations and then, to demonstrate their learning, they worked (again working collaboratively as a group) to design and build a miniature amusement park, the features of which represented as many facts about their selected civilization as possible.

When I walked into the classroom, student-groups were distributed around the classroom, each group eager to share information about their amusement park.  Parents, other Miller teachers, administrators and I all walked from project to project and listened to their well-written (and well-rehearsed) oral presentations, describing each feature of their amusement park and what fact about their civilization that feature represented.  For example, I was told that one Pre-Columbian civilization thought gold had little to no monetary value.  To represent that fact, one group of students had designed a "gold-covered" building where the park's bathrooms were located.  When I asked a student why they chose to cover that building in gold, I was told that "our civilization didn't think gold had any value, so we chose to cover an unimportant building in our park with gold."  While I was ready to remind them that that building was only "unimportant" if you didn't need to use the bathroom in a hurry, I was more impressed that, together, they had thought of a creative and accurate way to symbolically represent what they had learned.  Using symbols accurately to represent one's knowledge is an advanced skill -- a sign that students are able to think in the abstract and, in the world of education, a clear indication that students are building their Higher-Order Thinking Skills.

But, using this approach meant some sacrifices.  Last year, students were able to study three ancient civilizations (the Aztecs, Mayans and the Incas) in the time it took them this year to study one civilization, create the amusement parks and demonstrate their knowledge to teachers, parents and fellow students.  Last year, students arguably received more "content," and this year, while students received less content, they strengthened their "4C skills" (creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking).   This trade-off, in a nutshell, is the essential challenge facing the #HollistonInnovates initiative -- finding the right balance between content and skill acquisition.  

In her post-unit reflection, Ms. Peters summarized the challenge many teachers are facing. "I am still working to let go of the fact that students are not exposed to as much rich social studies content as when I lecture.  I love all the nitty gritty facts and details.  It has been my experience that students enjoy this information as well, however, given all the benefits I am seeing with project work paired with the fact that most children are unlikely to remember all those tidbits, I am staying the course with a modified version of PBL for now."  

Schools have been designed for over a century to view students in the short term -- give them information and have them "spit it" back to you in the form of tests or other assessments.  The time between "lecture" and "test" is often measured in days, weeks at most.  But looking at our students in the long-term requires us to ask different questions.  What do I want them to know about ancient civilizations, not next week, but next year?  Over the long-term, what is the essential, enduring understanding I want students to retain about this information?  Asking teachers to focus less on the "nitty gritty facts and details" in favor of the big picture is asking them, in some ways, to take an enormous leap of faith and abandon much of what they learned about teaching.  This work is challenging and takes courage, but as the examples in this blog demonstrate, it is work that our teachers are taking on as #HollistonInnovates.


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