To use project based learning to teach students how to direct their learning and work collaboratively.
Amanda Swift is the third grade gifted and talented teacher at Edison Elementary. This year, Amanda has been teaching her students 21st century skills to help them grow as learners, leaders, and communicators. Some of the 21st century skills that she is teaching include being curious, appreciating and cooperating with others, conducting research, and thinking and inquiring critically.
Amanda wants her students to master content, but she also wants them to learn the skills they need to succeed. Swift uses project based learning (PBL) to allow students to pick groups and projects to meet standards. During group time, Amanda works with her students on building relationships, developing empathy, and showing compassion.
During one unit, students are aiming to answer the question “If Earth became uninhabitable, to where should humans move and why?" They research life on Earth, human needs for survival, and the conditions of different planets. Students create groups and decide where they would want to move. Students are given the opportunity to direct their learning while they work on these projects. Using planning documents to keep themselves on track, students decide on the format of the final project and create it through a shared group process.
During group work, Amanda builds her students’ collaboration skills by helping them work through conflicts and discuss ideas respectfully. Each group hase a “talking stick”; only the student who is holding the stick can talk. The talking stick helps students take turns and listen to each other. She also holds “board meetings” with groups that are having conflicts. She guides how students talk to and about each other by redirecting negative comments and promoting positive, empathetic exchanges.
Amanda discusses the kind of work she is doing and what makes it important for third grade students. Amanda believes that students should be learning more than just the academic content; she incorporates interpersonal skills into her lessons as well so that they can learn how to collaborate and work as a team. She lets students have control over their learning and uses data to measure student outcomes.
Amanda talks about the Utopia question that students will be answering during this unit: "If Earth became uninhabitable, where should the humans move to and why?".
Students are not just becoming better learners in Swift's classroom; they are also developing social emotional skills, such as working as a cohesive group and leading kindly. Students are often asked to reflect, set goals, collaborate, and shout out positives they saw throughout the day.
Amanda shares how she supports 21st century skills in her classroom by defining what skills like communication and collaboration look like and analyzing what it means to master these skills. Amanda notes that it can be difficult to see the development of these 21st century skills from the end product, and therefore it is important to evaluate students throughout the learning process.
Amanda discusses how her teaching practice has evolved during this cycle. She emphasizes involving students in the reflection process and giving them opportunities to practice their collaboration skills. However, students sometimes struggle to work respectfully with each other. Amanda scaffolds their collaboration efforts with rubrics for social skills. She also helps students set goals for communication and working with each other.
Amanda shares her response to someone who believes her students are too young to have agency, choice, and voice in their learning.
Amy Burns, the Innovation Partner working with Amanda, noted that Amanda makes an effort to know all her students, resulting in strong relationships and an environment conducive to learning. Amy has observed that Amanda is very thoughtful about taking her lessons one step at a time, making sure that students are ready before moving forward. She uses protocols, exemplars, and feedback loops to support her students.
Thanks to Edison Elementary teacher Amanda Swift, her students, and Principal Sally Whitelock and Vice Principal Joan Wieser for their support of this study. Special thanks to Imaginarium staff Rachel Wagster, Amy Burns, and Sophie Gullett who all contributed to this report.
A huge thank you to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose Next Generation Systems Intiative (NGSI) grant has been instrumental in helping Denver Public Schools design, study and scale personalized learning.