Real World Learning

By Kyle Redford - Education Editor
Student exhibition panel at City Arts & Technology (CAT) High School in San Francisco.


“We just have to get you through school.”

“You will be fine once you are out in the real world.”

These phrases are repeated refrains for most dyslexics.  They hear these comments from their parents and they hear them from their teachers. Many dyslexics are left to hope that their current school struggles do not foreshadow struggle in the “real world”.

Meanwhile, educators are regularly reminded of how grades and test scores are not reliable predictors of success outside of academia. They are constantly challenged to design curriculum that more effectively delivers and measures the competencies that are necessary to be successful beyond the classroom. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the good intentions of educators and the reality of the current academic environment. Aware of this gap, educators everywhere are scrambling to innovate and redesign curriculum to better meet the needs of their students.  Most educators understand that abilities measured by academia do not necessarily line up with what is being asked of their students once they leave school.

Impact Academy students participate in an interactive classroom lesson.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is one of a number of educational approaches aimed at making learning more applicable to life outside the classroom. It asks students to engage with authentic, experiential questions and challenges them with thoughtfully designed projects and tasks. Students are asked to create projects to answer authentic questions. Some of the questions are practical: How can we lower student dropout rates at our school?  How can we reduce waste in the school kitchen?  In other cases the questions are profound: How can we overcome racism?  What is art? PBL is based on the idea that school assignments should involve authentic learning experiences and activities that reflect the work that people must do in the everyday world. It emphasizes a number of skills that educators have generally agreed are essential for a “Twenty-first Century Education”.  Those qualities include: collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical-thinking.  Along with content absorption, these flexible PBL skills are essential for a work world that is transforming so rapidly that it is currently beyond anyone’s imagination as to where we will ultimately land.

So what does this have to do with dyslexics?  A lot, as it turns out. Project Based Learning is distinguished by its focus on “big picture thinking” and rewarding students for expressing their understanding in a variety of ways.  This is ideal for students who tend to be big-picture thinkers and remember content better if it is attached to overarching concepts.  Project Based Learning’s interdisciplinary approach integrates, rather than compartmentalizes, knowledge.  This is advantageous for students who like to make connections between ideas.

“The Radio Project: Does History Repeat Itself?”
For this large scale project, students transformed CAT into a multimedia museum dedicated to the memory and lessons of the Holocaust. Student in upper left corner is Jasmine Palencia.

Elementary School teachers, at least the impressive ones, have long understood the power of teaching and learning through projects.  But a farm to table project that incorporates science, social studies, math and language arts is a lot easier to plan and execute in a self-contained classroom when all those subjects are taught by a single teacher.  It gets trickier in secondary school when a single subject teachers attempt a project that incorporates content across multiple disciplines involving planning and participation from many individuals.  Most secondary school teachers don’t argue with the efficacy of the PBL model, they just can’t figure out how to manage the logistics. However, despite the inherent challenges, various public, private and charter schools are specifically designing programs to enable this kind of cross-discipline project learning.

Even strict traditionalists will have a hard time arguing with the results of a 2008-2009 Belleview Washington study (see video below) involving researchers at the University of Washington and its LIFE Center (Learning in Informal and Formal Environments).  The study explored what would happen if a traditional AP U.S. Government and Politics course (a class many would argue that is so content dependent that it could never withstand the depth and adjusted pace of PBL) was replaced with a project based curriculum.  The results were quite compelling.  Not only were the students more engaged, and reported the content to be more relevant, but when compared to students from comparable schools who were taught using traditional curriculum, they significantly outperformed their peers in both the standard AP tests and when they had to apply what they had learned to a complex scenario test.

Although some projects are designed to be completed independently, Project Based Learning often involves groups of students working together to achieve a common goal.  This is ideal for a dyslexic.  The collaborative nature of this style of learning offers all students an opportunity to leverage their strengths while diminishing their challenges.  It also simulates the type of tasks that they will encounter outside of school involving group work, presentation skills, and information drawn from a variety of subject areas.  For example, students at City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco collaborated on a massive project that transformed their school into a multi-media museum with the objective of teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. Their project involved digital design, theatrical performance, sculpture, graphic art, radio commentary, scrap-booking, memorials and more. Students applied and integrated content from multiple subjects, including Social Studies, English Language Arts, Integrated Science, Academic Literacy, Art, Digital Media and Spanish. In addition to the collaborative work, every student had to write a paper addressing the question, “Am I My Brother or Sister’s Keeper?” (For more information about this project click here.) Projects like the Holocaust Museum showcase a variety of student strengths and talents, allow students to make content connections across disciplines, and offer a platform for students to express what they have learned in a variety of ways.

Student field trip to the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, while studying the Holocaust.

Finally, Project-Based Learning measures a student’s ability to learn in depth.  It doesn’t rely on timed tests or multiple-choice tests to measure understanding.  Rather, it requires students to synthesize and create meaning from content.  Kiera Chase is a member of the Intervention Team at Envision Schools, a group of public charter college preparatory schools in San Francisco, Oakland and Hayward, California that were founded on a school-wide Project Based Learning model. Ms. Chase explains that PBL rewards the ability to formulate original ideas and allows students to express their understanding in a variety of ways.  Someone who is able to make connections between ideas and various disciplines does well with PBL’s constructivist approach.  Additionally, assessment is individualized and authentic.  It measures the quality of the final project, how well the students apply and demonstrate their knowledge, and how much effort they put into the project and group as a whole.  While Ms. Chase points out that there are no studies that specifically track the outcomes of dyslexic students involved in Project Based Learning, she does note that this kind of learning is good for students who seek different paths to understanding.

Not surprisingly, the components that make Project Based Learning effective for teaching dyslexics are the same elements that make it a powerful instructional method for all students.  Teaching content and skills relevant to the “real world” benefits everyone, and all educators agree on the value of teaching depth versus breadth, even if many courses fail to do it.  Ultimately, the distinguishing characteristics of PBL illustrate, once again, how the approaches that serve dyslexics best also serve all students, regardless of their learning style.

Photos in this article are courtesy of Envision Schools, “Envision Schools: Teaching Success.”


Edutopia: Offers an overview and introduction to Project Based Learning

Envision Schools Project Exchange: offers an online resource for educators, parents and others interested in project-based learning.  Four different Envision Schools share their projects with each other and with the public.

Online Resource for Project Based Learning

Buck Institute for Project Based Learning: A source for free materials connected to Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning: Explained (a three minute video)

Examples of schools that are applying Project Based Learning as a school-wide model

Envision Schools

New Tech Network

Expeditionary Learning

EAST Initiative

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