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Project-Based Learning and Two Pandemics

By August 6, 2020 No Comments

We’ve all heard the stories: teachers thrown into the unknown territory of online learning, spending countless hours trying to convert lessons with little support or preparation. Students sometimes disengaged or, in too many cases, “missing” from class entirely. Parents and caregivers trying to work from home while also keeping kids occupied and learning. Administrators typically available for support now struggling to feed hungry kids and families while worrying about likely budget cuts and the structural and logistical challenges of social distancing in the next school year. And, as educators prepare for the fall, the predictions are that this will not be the end of online learning. That in itself may be the only certainty in today’s news cycle.

While the global scientific community races to find a vaccine, the COVID-19 pandemic has gone beyond sickening millions: it has also exposed many of America’s inequalities related to race and socioeconomics. Growing data from the COVID Tracking Project & Boston University Center for Antiracist Research (2020) indicates that “COVID-19 is affecting Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color the most.” The murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed increased public awareness of systemic racism in America—most acutely with respect to how it has impacted Black lives in America and the criminal justice system. This is what we mean by two pandemics: COVID-19 and American systemic racism.

The impetus for this concept paper came from leaders across the country lamenting on the challenges faced by teachers everywhere. First, the sudden need for distance-learning solutions based on health and safety; and second, the need to answer the urgent call from students, teachers, and school districts across the nation for a more honest and accurate portrayal of American history—one that reflects the critical contributions and fills in the gaps in the history of Black Americans and other marginalized populations in this country. Research shows that our schools are failing to teach the truth about Black history in America, its impact on this moment, and its long-term impacts on Black Americans (Shuster, 2018). Only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Two-thirds (68 percent) don’t know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery—and even that left a loophole. Fewer than one in four students (22 percent) can correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders (Shuster, 2018).

Project-Based Learning: A Partial Solution at Hand

The fundamental design principles of Educurious’ approach to project-based learning demand that the curriculum be grounded in relevance and authenticity to the learner. This approach demands that the student learner (and their unique experiences, interests, perspectives, and cultural “banks of knowledge”) is not only considered, but is the driver of their learning experience. It inherently lends itself to positively supporting Black, Latinx, and other marginalized populations in education. PBL curriculum urges educators to make adaptive connections to the students sitting in their classrooms, rather than demanding the students self-connect to a singular curriculum. PBL units include driving questions relevant to today’s issues and problems, with activities that directly elicit and build upon students’ lived experiences and prior knowledge. Students are positioned as subject-matter experts and take on authentic disciplinary roles to address contemporary problems, similar to how public officials, activists, educators, citizens, and scientists are struggling to address the two pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism.

Educurious curricula are co-designed, maintained, and updated by teachers, learning scientists, and disciplinary experts adhering to rigorous principles. Lessons that revolve around current world problems are structured into project-based learning units aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS); the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards (C3); and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and they include rigorous attention to literacy. Educurious curriculum, paired with our support for professional learning, has been transformative for teachers in terms of their ability to engage students around interesting and real-life challenges, integrate complex content, and deliver learning that embodies high cognitive demand. Our units are designed to be facilitated in person, but are also available digitally. All content materials, associated learning resources, student-facing documents, educator guides, and assessments can be downloaded or accessed online using a Learning Management System or Google Classroom, making these units ideal for adaptation.

We are mindful that, while the constraints of the two pandemics can lend themselves to long-overdue opportunities to innovate in education and leverage technology, it is especially critical at this time to consider the digital divide—the reality that the shift to remote and blended learning disproportionally impacts Black, Latinx, and low-income students and exacerbates the opportunity gap (Dorn et al., 2020). The need for distance learning threatens to increase the risk that the students who were already furthest from educational justice in the traditional classroom will be left further behind. We have certainly seen this in the districts in which we work. We designed these units to function in an online and/or hard drive environment (downloadable and printable) as one strategy to help mitigate that gap, but we also recognize that the ever-growing digital access divide will only worsen over time, if not addressed in a holistic manner across the nation. We see the most critical steps as reforming policies that lead to equitable education funding and to consider internet-access as a public utility.

Proposal

We believe that educators require and deserve professional support to learn how to take full advantage of the engagement that project-based learning affords in service of student learning. We propose that educators from around the country work together as a cohort through the 2020–21 school year to strengthen skills and strategies for remote learning through the implementation of projects, and that these projects focus on providing a more honest portrayal of Black history in America. A story that holds liberation and oppression equally. Educurious will provide unit onboarding support to educators and/or care providers via video tutorials and remote professional learning opportunities, all modeling best practices for remote and blended project-based learning.

Educurious will adapt three social studies units: Voices of the Middle Passage, The Constitution, and The Civil War and Reconstruction. It’s possible we will add a fourth unit, African American Frontier Towns given the time and interests of the educators in the Consortium. We envision the availability of these three Educurious units, fully revised, newly designed to be completed in a blended learning and/or fully remote home environment. They will highlight untold stories, inspire students toward civic engagement and social action, and help students understand the long-term structural impacts of enslavement and why the Black Lives Matter movement is the continuation of this history. These units center on collaboration, literacy, diverse voices, and perspective-taking, while focusing on the impacts of historic policies and the critical contributions from Black Americans and other marginalized groups. Students grapple with the question, “What does it mean to me to be an American?” They analyze and formulate evidence-based positions and present their projects to authentic audiences. Students learn about history and each other, and develop relationships using restorative justice and democratic classroom practices.

We recognize that the availability and use of these initial units does not eliminate the challenges facing America’s educators. Our hope is that it can be a way to support teachers and ease the transition into whatever new environments they face in the fall with meaningful and relevant content already customized for remote teaching. This could also free up more time for teachers, schools, and districts to focus on other ways they can restructure as needed. Admittedly, there is an abundance of remote-learning products and professional-learning opportunities, but many are costly, lack cognitive demand and disciplinary integrity, and fail to engage students or be culturally responsive. We believe this is a time for testing new strategies via small pilots, before major investments are made—especially in the face of looming budgetary constraints.

  • Provide short-term (6–9 month) relief for teachers as they continue to adjust to remote learning by offering fully adapted curriculum designed for a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning.
  • Inspire conversations about how the events of American history have contributed to the root causes of the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Respond to the call for a redesigned U.S. history course and provide opportunities for teachers to learn new strategies, tools, and techniques for future adaptation that can to be applied to new, original lessons and to project-based learning.
  • Increase engagement and learning for students and teachers, framing them as powerful change-makers.

Solving the current challenge of remote learning, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, is only a small part of the larger issues with which the U.S. public school system has struggled for decades and where persistent opportunity gaps for students of color have existed for far too long. Calls to eliminate this gap, narrow and deepen curriculum, increase academic rigor, provide American Ethnic Studies, enhance student engagement through more relevant content, and shift the role of teacher to guide and facilitator are but a few examples of the ways in which Educurious has tried to reform this system over the past five decades. The attraction of project-based learning is not new; the challenges of its implementation without support structures are immense. The possibility that a response to the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism in education could prove to be a pathway to better learning, even in the best of times, is real and an opportunity we believe is worth pursuing.

The Future

As educators and leaders, we believe we are stronger together. We come together through a mutual concern over the immense toll the COVID-19 pandemic will have on U.S. public school students—especially those already furthest from educational justice—and over a system freshly exposed, but that always has been and continues to be inequitable. We are committed to working toward anti-racist curriculum, but recognize we need to do more homework to truly understand what that means and how we will get there. We invite you to join us, support us, and commit to taking action with us.

Cost and Contact:

We have varying options for schools, districts and even individual teachers that may want to join. Please contact Blake Konrady (BKonrady@educurious.org) with questions or to learn more.

We would like to thank Harriette Thurber Rasmussen for her contributions to this post.

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