I knew I wanted to be a teacher when, as part of a college class, I was supposed to volunteer at an elementary school in Seattle. But it wasn’t just any elementary school. The school was an alternative public school, practicing the Expeditionary Learning approach to education.
Stepping into that school changed my whole life. My time there taught me how magical learning could be. I saw first graders studying glass through all subject areas, visiting local glass blowers and learning geometry by examining patterns in stained glass. I was awed when fifth graders, learning about the American Revolution, had taxes imposed on them by their teacher. Having to suddenly pay taxes for pencils and papers, the students were not happy. They made protest signs and protested during recess for weeks.
I found myself thinking about this project-based school earlier this week, when I read an article about how Finland is making moves to teach topics rather than subjects. They call this approach “phenomena-based” education and say “Teaching holistic, real-world phenomena provide the starting point for learning. The phenomena are studied as complete entities, in their real contexts, and the information and skills related to them are studied by crossing the boundaries between subjects.”
In America, a similar approach is called project-based learning. Too often, school learning is disconnected from the real world. Students fill out worksheets and learn algorithms that they have no context for understanding. They are taught phonics without the opportunity to practice what they know when reading engaging books. But when students take part in interdisciplinary projects, they’re provided a chance to learn in a real-world context.
What exactly does it mean to make learning “real?” Admittedly, it doesn’t feel good saying that school is not real life, or that there is something inherently better about the learning that takes place outside of school. But the fact of the matter is that traditionally, school learning is often oversimplified — there’s English for an hour, math for an hour, and art every once in awhile, if you’re lucky. In a regular day of school, there’s little time to truly practice what’s being taught.
In their “real world” professions, mathematicians read books about the topics they are studying and write papers on their research. Artists are inspired by science and use technology to enhance their work. We don’t experience life in single subject areas. When kids are supported to see how subjects enhance and support each other, they are empowered to learn about anything they can imagine.
When I was teaching, I was lucky enough to teach kindergarten and first grade at a school that practiced project-based learning. Along with my inspiring colleagues, we created interdisciplinary units where students could learn in hands-on, real-world ways. One of my favorite units was all about the rainforest. Students learned about interdependence in the rainforest, explored the value of rainforests, studied how rainforests are being threatened and how people are fighting to protect them.
The rainforest unit encompassed reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, science and art. Students read books about the rainforest and wrote informational books about rainforest animals. For math, they measured animals and compared their relative lengths. Students learned about geography by locating rainforests around the world and art when they made 3D representations of rainforest animals. Our culminating performance of understanding was when students made a gigantic rainforest in the hallway of our school. They painted the layers of the rainforest, added real bamboo, a humidifier, and their 3D animal constructions to all the layers. The students practiced acting as docents in the rainforest, giving tours and explaining what they learned about the rainforest to an authentic audience: their families and friends.
By learning across subject areas, kids get to go in-depth as they study amazing and complex topics in the world. But they’re not just studying content; they’re learning skills that will last their whole life. As it says on the Expeditionary Learning website, “When students have completed their academic career and entered adult life, they’ll be judged not by performance on basic skills tests — but rather, by the quality of their work and the quality of their character.” If kids are curious, persistent, and have a growth mindset (the idea that intelligence isn’t fixed), I believe they can learn anything.