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Sparking Interest and Building Skills: How Young Students Thrive Through Project-Based Learning

Many years ago, as a science teacher, I shared a classroom with a math teacher. One day, I arrived early and watched the end of the 3rd grade math lesson, which was on geometry—specifically, the area of shapes. The students were calculating the areas of squares and rectangles drawn on the board.

Later the same day, I taught a science lesson to the same students. The topic was air resistance. I asked them to predict which piece of paper would reach the floor first: a flat piece of paper or a smaller one that was folded many times. I got excited when I remembered they had just been studying area in mathematics. I traced the two pieces of paper on the board and asked them what they noticed. They replied that one of the rectangles was smaller than the other. I then asked them to tell me how I could work out their area. To my surprise, no one in the room was able to tell me! It had not occurred to the students that they could apply their understanding of area in mathematics to shapes in science—it was as though the names of the subjects were more important than what was taught in them.

Flexible Mindset and Deeper Understanding

On that day, I had an epiphany about how critical an interdisciplinary approach is for learning and understanding. From then on, I have studied as much as I can about how to make learning meaningful to students so that their understanding goes deeper than simply knowing something. Project-based learning (PBL) builds on interdisciplinary learning–encouraging students to think across disciplines––to make connections between math and science and languages and World Course. I want students to be able to think about new information in the context of past experiences and apply what they know to other academic disciplines. David Perkins’ definition of understanding sums this up beautifully: “Understanding is the ability to think and act flexibly with what one knows.”

Reaching Goals Through Authentic Interest

In project-based learning, learning is designed to be authentic, intrinsically motivated and goal-oriented. Instead of an endless series of assignments with pre-set parameters, teachers design projects that spark students’ interests while working towards clearly defined learning goals. These learning goals typically entail the development of certain skills and content knowledge. As students progress through their projects and meet their goals, they will often encounter big, essential questions that deepen their interest and understanding even further. Building on children’s natural curiosity, project-based learning motivates them to reach goals and helps them understand connections between disciplines, ideas and the world around them.

Meaningful Transfer of Skills and Problem-Solving

Project-based learning is very different from rote learning and memorization. Projects are wonderful motivators for learning and practicing reading, writing and math skills. The skills students build in their projects become part of the way they approach problems, resulting in a meaningful transfer––a highly effective pedagogical practice. As they progress through projects, they also spend time thinking about the different ways problems can be solved. They come to understand that a flexible mindset and a willingness to take risks are important dispositions for everyday life.

Collaboration and Connection

Projects provide a great platform for collaboration. For example, when working with peers at other Avenues campuses across the globe, students have found the need to polish their written and spoken communication skills in order to more effectively collaborate.

For teachers, project design itself is a collaborative process. Teachers work together to develop, plan and implement projects, incorporating feedback from students as well as their colleagues. This highly inclusive process ensures that both teachers and students are authentically engaged throughout the process.

With collaboration, projects can become wonderfully expansive and ambitious. We welcome that, while keeping our learning goals in sight and insisting that projects meet certain requirements.. At Avenues, all projects must:

  • Have robust learning outcomes aligned to the intended curriculum as defined in the Avenues World Elements
  • Equally engage all students: we work to ensure that all the projects will be equally relevant and compelling to all students.
  • Demonstrate quality and rigor: through careful planning, projects are fine-tuned to assure appropriate rigor and include opportunities for students to develop high-quality work.

One defining, remarkable feature of project-based learning is that the problems at the heart of the projects students undertake are constantly evolving. This is because we design learning to reflect the world beyond the school. When they pursue projects that are connected to the real world and aligned with their interests, students learn more content, think more critically and transfer their learning more confidently to new contexts. When children feel autonomous and competent, when they know that they belong to a group learning and working together, they become more motivated to play, explore and learn. This is one of the ways that we fulfil our purpose as educators, to equip our students “to understand and solve global-scale problems.”

Anne Taffin d’Heursel Baldisseri is head of the Primary Division at Avenues São Paulo. Anne has an M.S. and Ph.D. in zoology from Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP) and is currently part of a research group at Universidade Federal de São Paulo (UNIFESP), where she aims to complete a post-doctorate degree related to bilingualism, reading and motivation. Anne runs national and international workshops centered on differentiated instruction and formative assessment, as well as courses to help teachers and parents to build a sustainable culture of high performance. Prior to joining Avenues, Anne served as head of pre-preparatory at St. Paul’s School in São Paulo from 2007 to 2016.

Anne Baldisseri, Head of School, Avenues São Paulo