This is project-based learning, where educational instruction moves away from a traditional academic setting to an active classroom that encourages collaboration and communication among students.
As the Montgomery County Public Schools system plans to replace the Wheaton High School building in Silver Spring, officials aren’t just aiming for physical classroom overhauls. They’re also planning to redesign the curriculum, expanding a project-based learning environment that will resemble adult work settings and real-life situations.
It is part of a larger quest to “redefine the school” and prepare students for “21st century education,” Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said.
“Critical competencies for workers now include skills and knowledge acquired beyond a high school education as well as the ability to apply learning, think critically about information, solve novel problems, collaborate, create new products and processes, and adapt to change,” Starr said.
While project-based learning has been successful in other parts of the country, Wheaton’s transformation would be a major programmatic change for Montgomery County. If it’s successful, Starr believes it could eventually ripple to several other county high schools in some form.
The new Wheaton building is slated to open in August 2015.
Classrooms would look different, with fewer rows of desks or lecture-style settings and more group meeting spaces where students can converse and coordinate projects. There could be fewer quizzes. And the role of the teacher would be redefined.
Marcus Lee teaches civil engineering through project-based learning at Wheaton. Lee said he thinks less like a traditional teacher and more like a project leader or facilitator. He supplies materials and supervises students on projects, such as building model homes to teach architectural styles.
And if students have questions, Lee isn’t the first one to the rescue. He asks students to teach each other or learn through “trial and error.”
Students sometimes call him out for being too hands-off.
Lee’s response: “You have to do this for your own good. This is real life. If you want to be more adult, this is it.”
School projects aren’t new. Students have long dissected frogs or built castles out of sugar cubes. But the style of project-based learning toward which Montgomery County is heading emphasizes cooperation.
Beazwit Yalewayker, an 18-year-old senior, said group-based lessons have helped her overcome some of her shyness.
“It’s much different, more interactive,” Yalewayker said during her biomedical innovation class. “It forces you to communicate because you have to work in groups.”