From the moment we are born, our journey of learning begins! As babies interact with their environment, they start to make human connections, process information and develop an understanding of the world. As each year passes, individuals expand upon their experiences and make sense of life from various perspectives: newborn, toddler, child, teenager and adult. Most people would agree children are naturally inquisitive. Parents play a critical role in being our first teachers, as they place their children on a path to success by observing how they learn best, consider and support their likes and interests, and provide meaningful opportunities for their children to make deep connections with new experiences.
At many progressive schools, teachers expand upon this type of supportive instructional experience through project-based learning. Project-based learning provides opportunities for students to be leaders and explorers in their own educational journey. By designing their own unique plans of inquiry, students construct questions, formulate ideas, research and analyze information, develop critical thinking skills. The unique personal desires, connections and interests in a subject are valued and built into the curriculum. By exploring their passions, students become immersed in challenging, higher-level content as learning becomes a joyful, productive process.
Project-based learning comes to life at many independent schools around the world. Voyagers’ Community School, in our own backyard, offers to their students Project Weeks, which takes place two times each year. During these times, students create a proposal for an individualized, educational project that defines the parameters and expectations for learning. With support from their teachers, students embark on high-interest explorations that culminate in dynamic, schoolwide presentations by each and every student. Through project-based learning, students may engage in artistic experiences, design solutions to local and global problems, conduct scientific research investigations, participate in historical simulations, etc. During Project Weeks, Voyagers’ students let their creativity flow freely. They design projects for learning where they:
• Create and share podcasts highlighting student projects
• Participate in the creation of artistic pieces: sculptures, paintings, music, etc.
• Invent practical solutions to environmental and social issues
• Generate unique literacy pieces based on poetry, fiction, etc.
• Explore and research careers of the future
• Conduct interviews with experts in the fields of science, art, history, etc.
The outcomes of these self-directed, project-based learning opportunities leave students with a strong sense of accomplishment. At the close of their studies, they eagerly share their newfound knowledge, skills and expertise with their peers, teachers and parents. The success and excitement of Project Weeks clearly demonstrate that in the right environment, a student’s desire to learn and grow can be ignited.
The types of executive planning and social challenges that students encounter and master during lengthy, focused projects prepare them for the manifold challenges that they will face as adults. Colleges and companies are looking for dynamic thinkers who will step into leadership roles and know how to collaborate as part of a team. These institutions are in need of out-of-the-box thinkers who will lead us into an unknown future. Children who engage in project-based learning are equipped to take the helm.
Another benefit to early immersion into projects of one’s own choosing is that students are increasingly able to identify their own interests and, over time, develop true focuses. This benefits them throughout their lives, as they are more likely to follow their strengths and delve deeply into explorations, leading to fulfilling lives and careers. Working with others offers the opportunity to practice negotiation. Students socially construct knowledge by conversing during project work; effectively expressing one’s own opinion and desires, integrating the ideas and knowledge of others, and changing one’s mind or direction are all important skills for all ages. Students come to trust themselves as leaders, thinkers and innovators who will lead the way to new developments and bring creative solutions to our planet.
The desire to learn first begins with parents and continues to grow through the support of many incredible teachers. As children explore their passions and grow in their life experiences, Ann Landers implores all to remember, “It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.”
Kadi Cook, at VCS since 2008, has a rich background in the arts and humanities. She integrates many teaching styles and draws from various teaching theories, with a focus on the Reggio Emilia philosophy and constructivism.
Alysson Keelen, a member of VCS staff with 29 years of experience in the field of education, is certified with the state of New Jersey as a K-12 teacher of the handicapped, K-8 elementary school teacher, supervisor/principal and school administrator.