“Project-based learning is one of the best ways to prepare students for the demands of life, citizenship, and work in today’s world.” – Sara Hallermann, USA

Project-based learning (PBL) is a frequent discussion topic here at Daily Edventures.  And Sara Hallermann is one educator who is keenly aware of the benefits PBL can bring to students. “For the past five years, I have been immersed in project-based learning as a National Faculty Member with Buck Institute for Education,” says Hallermann. “It has been an honor to be a part of a team of highly dedicated innovators who are working relentlessly to improve educational experiences for all children.” Hallermann, a former elementary and special education teacher, also co-wrote the book PBL in the Elementary Grades. “Collaborating with John Larmer to write PBL in the Elementary Grades was a highlight and it has been wonderful to work with teachers who indicate that the book helped them design innovative, inquiry-based units that engage and challenge their students,” says Hallermann. “Collaborating with EdLeader21 on 21st Century Skill Rubrics has also been an extremely rewarding experience.”

Today, Hallermann shares her thoughts on how to best integrate PBL into classrooms, and what she believes are the essential elements that need to change in U.S. education to help all students succeed. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure.

Why PBL?

Project-based learning is exploding in popularity because of the hard work put forth by the team at the Buck Institute for Education. More students have access to PBL, which translates into increased engagement for students. Research has proven that students in PBL classes:

  • Show increased confidence in learning.
  • Show improvement in critical-thinking skills.
  • Outperform students in traditional classes on conceptual problems.
  • Show an increase in the ability to define problems.
  • Improve problem-solving abilities.
  • Demonstrate growth in their ability to support their reasoning with clear arguments.
  • Learn collaboration skills including how to understand multiple perspectives and conflict resolution skills.
  • Improve work habits.
  • Show gains in factual learning that are equivalent or superior to students in traditional classes.
  • Perform equally well on standardized tests of basic skills.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

  • Identify the problems.
  • Ask difficult questions.
  • Seek answers.
  • Think critically and use your time carefully. Avoid becoming overwhelmed by all of the advice, trends, and opinions. Identify an area of focus and strive to become an expert in that area.
  • Believe that you can innovate and spark change.
  • Understand that our current system is in need of a revolution.
  • Share your knowledge and passion with others.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I use technology in all facets of my work: collaborating with people across the globe using Web 2.0 technology, delivering Webinars, creating documents for publication, videoconferencing, etc.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Teachers are asked to ensure that all students succeed, yet are rarely provided the opportunity to truly innovate to solve problems related to student achievement.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

More students are gaining access to project-based learning.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

Schools should:

  • Focus. It isn’t effective to support seventeen initiatives simultaneously or to have initiatives that are in competition with one another. Select one key initiative (like PBL) that frames all initiatives. Make sure that all stakeholders understand how the initiatives are mutually supportive. It is imperative that schools adopt curriculum design models to enable teams to use common design processes and language.
  • Think of your school as a system and use systems thinking. Look for the connections between the various parts of the system and take steps to ensure strong coordination.
  • Provide opportunities for staff to demonstrate 21st century skills through shared problem solving and decision-making.  Create conditions so that staff uses agreed-upon norms to build trust and ensure balanced participation during meetings.  Provide opportunities for staff to regularly work in collaborative teams (sometimes with external partners and the community at large) to meet challenges. Allow staff to think critically to analyze complex problems related to student learning, use reasoning to identify the best solution, and consider how the various components that make up the school system will be impacted by the proposed solution (systems thinking). Create systems that allow staff to innovate and put new ideas into practice.
  • Engage staff in a cycle of regular, ongoing, in-depth inquiry to improve student learning (posing questions, gathering and interpreting data, asking further questions, evaluating solutions to refine practices, implementing solutions, and reflecting upon results).
  • Provide significant opportunities for staff to express “voice and choice” on important matters.
  • Be reflective and show transparency. Engage in thoughtful, comprehensive reflection about actions that are yielding positive results and what needs to be refined to meet established goals.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Nearly every school district in America has adopted language about 21st century skills in their mission and vision statements, which includes a commitment to teaching and assessing creative innovation skills. This is a challenge for educators, but many are finding amazing ways to create conditions for students to truly innovate while meeting Common Core standards. As an educational community, we need to collaborate and share best practices in this area.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

It is going to take time, energy, and perseverance for you to grow into the teacher that you want to be. You have made a noble decision and chose a career that will have an important impact on many students and families. Use the challenges that you face as growth opportunities, be reflective, and celebrate the small successes that you experience in your journey.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Project-based learning is a trend that is helping students. Schools that are using PBL, especially those that have a particular emphasis on authentic literacy, are experiencing amazing results.

The trend for schools to be on “initiative overload” without having a clear unit design model is getting in the way of learning.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I’d provide every child in the world access to project based learning that meets the 8 Essential Elements. PBL is valuable because it effectively teaches content knowledge and skills, builds deeper understanding of concepts, and makes a school curriculum more engaging and meaningful for students. PBL is one of the best ways to prepare students for the demands of life, citizenship, and work in today’s world.

About Sara Hallermann

  • Birthplace: St. Louis, Missouri, USA
  • Current residence: Columbus, Ohio, USA
  • Education: B.A., Elementary and Special Education, Creighton University; Master’s Degree, Educational Leadership, Dominican University
  • Website I check every day: www.edmodo.com
  • Person who inspires me most: My dad, James Joseph Raymond, II
  • Favorite childhood memory:  I attended traditional schools in which I primarily sat and listened to my teachers talk throughout the day and did a lot of daydreaming to keep myself occupied. My favorite childhood memories are all outside the walls of the classroom: Playing school with my younger sister and neighborhood children in my schoolroom in my basement, using my allowance to buy teaching supplies for my schoolroom at the Teacher’s Store, swimming on the swim team, and exploring the park near our house.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Nashville, Tennessee to support Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools with PBL
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? I laughed throughout the evening last night at the funny comments made by my kindergarten daughter.
  • Favorite book: That Workshop Book by Samantha Bennett
  • Favorite music: Eyes Of The World by Grateful Dead
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “Schools are to extraordinarily intelligent children what zoos are to cheetahs… Every organism has an internal drive to fulfill its biological design. The same is true for unusually bright children. From time to time the bars need be removed, the enclosures broadened. Zoo Chow, easy and cheap as it is, must give way, at least some of the time, to lively, challenging mental prey.” Stephanie Tolan, Is It A Cheetah?
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