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Project-based learning underway in Mancos

Parents’ reactions mixed on new learning paradigm
Ivy Dalley presents new project-based learning carts at a school board meeting in January.

Schools nationwide are confronting the question of how to make education more engaging – and adaptable to a changing career landscape.

And Mancos schools are jumping onboard – working to incorporate a project-based learning in the classroom. While still in the early phases, district administrators and staff say they believe it ultimately will make students more engaged, and foster critical thinking and communicative skills at a younger age.

“It’s providing opportunities for young people who do want to learn, but to learn in a way that seems valuable, and that is going to be valuable,” said PBL coordinator Ed Whritner at a community presentation focused on the new initiatives.

Whritner was hired over the summer to coordinate PBL efforts and support staff members with its implementation. School staff members then took part in a training before school started to plan their curriculum.

Last week’s meeting kicked off with a showing of the documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed,” which followed a few groups of students attending High Tech High, a public charter school in San Diego, California.

High Tech High leans heavily on project-based learning, and has a unique employment model: teachers are hired on a one-year contract but are allowed to teach however they want within that time, on the philosophy that this allows teachers to be more creative instructors.

Students at High Tech High “learned through doing,” whether that be creating a robot as a way to learn trigonometry, or adapting Socrates to modern-day Palestine as a way to learn about current events, classic literature and democracy.

Threaded throughout the lessons and projects, students practice and are assessed on their “soft skills” or “21st century skills,” such as communication, collaboration and critical thinking. And at the end of their course, students present their work and final project at an exhibition.

The film traced shifts in educational models over the past few centuries – while the current, traditional style was effective immediately following the Industrial Revolution, perhaps it’s time for another change, it argued.

A project-based, collaborative model is more similar to the modern-day work world, and is ultimately more beneficial to helping students retain knowledge, allowing them to learn by doing rather than cram for a one-time test.

The film also pointed out that as the world becomes increasingly automated, at some point in the future all jobs that don’t require a high degree of creativity and critical thinking may be replaced by technology.

On the flip side, though, the traditional educational system isn’t currently set up in this model – written tests and grades are still an integral part of state evaluations and college applications. Even if parents and students agree that project-based learning is better in the long run, many still worry that shifting the curriculum will hurt their students’ college acceptance or hiring prospects.

School, the film asserted, is often seen as a game, and young people are expected to jump through hoops before they can start learning the meaningful parts. While so far the High Tech High results have been positive, the school hasn’t existed long enough for extensive data.

Mancos is still in the early phases of implementation, and some of the work is just an expansion of what teachers have already been doing.

“Some of them can be like day projects, where you’re really questioning kids and getting them to think deeper on things,” said sixth grade teacher Ivy Dalley. “And some projects can be these massive things.”

She has been collaborating with fellow sixth grade teacher Brady Archer on their project: having students design their own museum displays, incorporating both science and social studies curriculum along the way.

“We have this project going, but we are still doing normal teaching as well,” Dalley said. “We just are constantly inserting what we’re doing into the (project) goal.”

It’s being incorporated across the board, at all ages, although right now, some classes are further along, Whritner said. A crucial element is to have teachers incorporate a project into lessons from the very beginning of the semester.

“The most important idea is that the project is driving the content,” Whritner said. “It’s there from the beginning.”

The parents in attendance at the Thursday night event had mixed responses. Some were concerned that it would hurt their students’ chances of getting into college, and others felt that it wasn’t yet effective.

On the other hand, other parents were happy to see the new style, and said that their children were excited about the change, that it fosters a more holistic development of their students.

Ultimately, the district is still in the learning process as well, administrators and staff said.

“We’re learning,” said secondary Principal John Marchino. “You’ve got to give it a little time to sink in and to work.”


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