Educators get keen on project-based learning initiatives

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On Monday, January 29, educators from across the state of Rhode Island had the opportunity to connect at the Highlander Institute’s Project Based Learning (PBL) RI January meet-up, at Providence’s TechCollective.

According to event organizer Mike Miele, the theme for this month’s meet-up was ‘Fostering Service Learning Through Project Based Learning.’ According to Edutopia.com, “Project-based learning is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.”

Miele shared the eight essential elements to PBL as defined by the Buck Institute: key knowledge, a problem or question, substantial inquiry, authenticity, student voice, reflection, critique and revision, and a public product. He also clarified that PBL is not the same as just doing a project and is designed to connect education to real life problems.

The monthly meet-ups are designed to help educators delve deeper into the elements of PBL, with each meet-up focusing on different elements. This month’s meet up would focus on four of the eight elements, including problem or question, authenticity, student voice, and public product.

“Each time that we get together we have about 30 minutes at the beginning where our educators get to mix and mingle, and have some dinner and then we have our presentations and those are usually followed by a round-table discussion,” he said. “Tonight we have presentations from two teachers, Rebecca Payette from Foster-Glocester Public Schools and Heidi Vazquez from The Compass School presenting projects that they have done with their students that foster service learning.”

Vazquez provided an overview of a civics-based project-based learning unit, while Payette’s overview was an outdoor classroom project-based learning unit. Each unit spanned all curriculum areas, and involved students in the hands-on learning experiences.

According to Executive Director Dana Borrelli-Murray, the Highlander Institute is a non-profit organization based in Providence, but are supporting schools and school systems all over the state as they move towards more personalized, innovative instruction models.

“We are helping schools to support an equitable, just education system to meet the needs of all learners in this rapidly changing, complex world,” Borrelli-Murray said. “We are committed to staying local, and we are working towards creating Rhode Island as a demo site of educational best practices. We have big projects ahead, including a $200,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation that we will be using with the Cranston Public Schools to walk them through the process of redesign, creating design teams and following a design-thinking model. We have a book coming out in the fall and CPS is the first district to use our redesign framework in full.”

Borrelli spoke of the FuseRI group of educators who began meeting together four years ago from around the state, working together to begin sharing their best practices and helping each other to work out any issues they might be encountering as they implemented innovative personalized, blended learning teaching practices in their classrooms.

“We wanted to make sure that even if you weren’t part of Fuse, any educator could connect to our work,” Borrelli-Murray said.   Each month, meet-ups take place through the Highlander Institute, with a different focus each time. Miele’s PBL meet-ups are just one type of meet-up that the Highlander Institute has supported through its work.

“Mike Miele has identified a gap of knowledge around Project Based Learning and has set up meet-ups with this focus,” she said. “A state of our size should be better with the transfer of knowledge and network building. These meet-ups allow us to share problems of practice and to share solutions and best practices.”

Borrelli-Murray noted that much of the networking and solution sharing will be culminating at the Highlander Institute’s national conference being held April 5-7 at the Providence Convention Center.

“We are expecting 1200 educators,” she said. “There will be educators, administrators and educational leaders from around the country. At the Saturday event it is truly for educators, by educators. It’s all real practitioners giving real best practices, and the educators will be walking away with real skills.”

For more information on the Highlander Institute, visit the website at highlanderinstitute.org.

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