County teachers focus on project-based learning at conference
Albemarle County teachers, school division staff and administrators are making plans this week to shift more instruction from traditional lectures to a project or problem-based model.
At the end of every school year, the division conducts the Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction Institute, a three-day professional development conference for 250 teachers and schools staff.
The focus this year is on project-based, problem-based or passion-based learning models, said Tim Shea, county schools legislative and public affairs officer.
Those teaching models ask students to apply lessons to a specific project or problem or subject area they are passionate about, rather than asking them to absorb and recite facts.
Ideas generated from the CAI Institute will be put into effect this fall at schools across the county.
“Fundamentally, what we are talking about is, let’s design some projects now that we can implement in the fall that get away from the teacher just delivering facts,” Shea said.
Yancey Elementary K-2 teacher Jessica Pascoal praised the county’s efforts. The K-2 classroom is a blended group of kindergarten through second-grade students.
“A big part of this is just feeling like we have the county’s go-ahead, that this is OK that we are taking time to focus on things that might be more interesting for the kids, and that doesn’t look like this very direct instruction that we are all really used to,” Pascoal said.
To facilitate discussions, the division brought in representatives from High Tech High in San Diego and from the Buck Institute for Education, which studies and advocates for project-based learning.
High Tech High was the subject of “Most Likely to Succeed,” a 2015 documentary on project-based learning funded and produced by Ted Dintersmith, a successful venture capitalist who lives in Earlysville.
Though the division brought in reinforcements from outside, Shea said, the focus of the week was for teachers to work together.
“The bulk of what is happening here, the focus, is really each school team is working and creating really meaningful lessons which will benefit the students come August.”
Rusty Carlock, the Albemarle division’s director for international and English as a Second or Other Language programs, said he is happy to see the county begin to challenge the “traditional” classroom teaching method.
Carlock will teach American Fusion, a history and literature class exploring American culture, at Albemarle High this coming school year.
“Albemarle County has always had a very progressive vision around education, but we are a public school system, so we are also entrenched in the system that is set up by the state,” he said. “We have these schedules that say we have to teach this discipline during this period of time, then a bell rings and we do something else. This is a process by which we can break down some of those barriers and begin to think … about concepts that kids care about.”
Western Albemarle High School rising 10th-graders Thomas Jackson, Noel Brockett and Cameron Dodson shared their experience with project-based learning with a group of high school teachers.
Their message for educators was simple: Project-based learning is not one-size-fits-all, and the curriculum still requires structure.
Jackson, who attends Western Albemarle’s Environmental Studies Academy, said the work can sometimes lose focus.
“There are projects that, sometimes, centrally focus on the fact that they are a project, and you do it for the project, you sort of do it to complete the project,” he said. “Most of the projects we do in the Environmental Studies Academy … are content-central projects. They focus on what you have learned and stressing and re-teaching to others what you have learned.”
“The guidelines [for a project] are either too relaxed or too rigid,” Brockett said. “They will either give you these specific topics to research and you just have to fill in the information … Or, they’ll say, ‘do a project about something you learned,’ but they didn’t give you guidelines.”
The CAI Institute conference ended Thursday, with more workshops for county educators. The opportunity to share ideas, Carlock said, is crucial to making project-based learning work.
“There is a lot that we can learn from each other as teachers, and seeing the work that we do,” he said. “I do not think that we have enough of an opportunity to get out and see the work that other people are doing.”