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So there has to be a mind shift in terms of how to design these projects so that they really are addressing content and skills that kids need to learn. How did you evolve this method of project-based learning? It started small. It started with an instinct toward doing cool stuff and then writing about it and thinking about it. I think my instinct was always to teach through 14 | Conversations with Great Teachers projects. At first, I don’t think they were very rigorous or tied to the skills as they later became.
The tests can measure skills, but the shaping of attitudes is harder to measure. I think I had a significant impact in that regard. It is a real question about how you get any kind of evidence about that. One of the ways is through keeping journals, and it was always tremendously rewarding to read the kids’ journals where they reflected on some service they had done or something they had taken for granted but now appreciated. It’s a challenge for teachers who have goals in terms of character development to find ways to measure whether we’ve made an impact or not.
The other class was smaller and had some very strong students, but everybody in the class was quiet. I told them why I wanted them to be vocal, but even by the end it was still quiet. Some days I felt like a comedian who was bombing. But this class did better on every test. Now this is a small sample, and it’s hard to generalize, and there were lots of variables. But if I had a theory, it’s that kids learn math best by discussing it. So what am I left with? I teach one course where discussion is especially important.