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English Learners and Project-Based Learning

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This post is by Amy Reising, Director of Credentialing and Teacher Development, High Tech High, and Katherine Carter, Doctoral Student in Educational Leadership, Harvard University

Third grade students in Anne Perrone's class in Oakland, California, visit local historical sites, conduct online research, and read complex texts to learn about the people, flora, and fauna of Oakland 250 years ago as part of their learning expedition on the Ohlone Indians. They engage in collaborative academic discussions, conduct online research, and consult with local experts. Throughout these learning experiences, they use evidence from texts to add realistic details and examples to poems, stories, and essays, and provide feedback to each other as they revise their writing. At their culminating exhibition of student work, the students share learning and written work with their families.

These third graders attend Manzanita SEED, an Expeditionary Learning School in Oakland, where half of the students are English Learners and 80 percent are low-income. SEED is a dual-language-immersion school where students learn both content and skills through rich, interdisciplinary units taught in English and Spanish. In 2010, Manzanita SEED received a National Title I Achievement Award for making more progress on closing the achievement gap than any other Title I school in California. SEED earned this distinction because English Learners performed as well as their peers on the California Standards Test.

Teachers and students at High Tech High (HTH), a public charter school organization located in San Diego, also learn by collaborating, doing, and presenting their work to others. HTH has a diverse student population, admitted by lottery. Ninety-seven percent of graduates are admitted to college, with 67 percent planning to attend a four-year university. Since 2003, 1,928 (77 percent) have graduated from college or are still enrolled.

Uniquely, in addition to its twelve K-12 schools, HTH offers an accredited District Intern Teaching Program, allowing HTH to attract a broad range of teachers to the profession, including career changers. In the two-year teacher preparation program, key tenets of teaching are introduced and applied. HTH teachers follow six design principals when they create PBL experiences for students. These design principles, introduced by Adria Steinberg in Real Learning, Real Work (1998) provide a structural foundation for project design:

  • AuthenticityDoes the project emanate from a problem or question that has meaning to a student? Is it a problem or question that might actually be tackled by an adult at work or in the community? Will the project produce something that has social value, an audience? Do students have choice in the direction or outcome of the project?
  • Academic Rigor: Does the project lead students to acquire and apply knowledge related to one or more discipline or content areas? Does it lead to inquiry, to the development of critical thinking?
  • Applied Learning: Are students solving a problem grounded in the life and work in the world beyond the school? Does the project provide the opportunity for students to develop organizational and self-management skills? Does the project lead students to acquire and use competencies including teamwork, problem-solving, technology, and communication?
  • Active Exploration: Is there field-based work? Does the project require students to engage in real investigation using a variety of methods, media, and sources? Are students expected to communicate what they are learning through presentations?
  • Adult Relationships: Do students meet, observe, work with, and talk to adults with relevant expertise and experience? Do adults collaborate with one another and students on the design and assessment of project work?
  • Assessment: Are there opportunities for regular assessment of student work through a range of methods and media (portfolios, exhibitions, presentations, published work)? Do students reflect on their learning based on clear criteria for quality and completion? Are adults beyond the teacher involved in the assessment of the work?

In the summer of 2014, we met while exploring how to create a project-based, online course for new teachers enrolled in the HTH District Intern program. Katherine, the founding principal of Manzanita SEED, was then a Harvard doctoral student in education. She spent part of the summer with Amy, who was director of Credentialing and Teacher Development at HTH, and her team. The teacher-preparation online course was designed for Interns (new teachers) to learn about and develop strategies to support English Learners in accordance with a new California credentialing requirement. The task at hand was to blend the content of how to teach English Learners with PBL in an online learning environment.

As we worked together to understand how to support Interns in meeting the needs of English learners, connections emerged between what teachers at Manzanita SEED had accomplished in their bilingual immersion program in Oakland and what HTH was designing to teach new teachers about PBL. The six design components in the HTH Intern program emphasize collaboration, communication, and learning by doing. These were the same principles that supported English Learners in Anne Perrone's third grade class.

As the month of July flew by, our conversations drifted to exploring how project-based learning and English Learner instruction aligned. Certainly, we agreed, the two pedagogies reinforced each other. Interest piqued, we turned to the literature on project-based learning for English Learners. We were surprised to find little research, or even anecdotal articles, exploring how English Learners experienced PBL.

Out of our growing curiosity of how English Learners perform in PBL environments, we sought out HTH graduation data for identified English Learners. HTH graduation data from 2009-12 for English learners was promising. In 2009-10, 48 of 52 English learners graduated. 2010-11 data showed that 85 of 87 graduated. And, in 2011-12, 68 of 72 graduated. Of the English learners who graduated from HTH, the majority applied to and were accepted at college or university (2009-10: 47 out of 48; 2010-11: 70 of 85; 2011-12: 64 of 68). (HTH is currently tracking college-persistence data, and anticipates that the collaboration, communication, and critical thinking skills acquired through projects will support English learners throughout their college careers.)

As described in the six design principles for PBL, for a quality project to be academically rigorous it must lead to inquiry, foster critical thinking, and develop skills and knowledge that can be transferred across content areas. PBL is most effective when the learning is authentic and relevant, when students have the opportunity to learn from experts and from each other, and when they are required to develop strong teamwork and communication skills. Students benefit the most from project-based learning when they present their work to an external audience, and when they have multiple ways to both develop and demonstrate their understanding.

Well-executed PBL is ideal for English Learners because it develops and requires the use of strong communication skills, supports collaboration across language proficiency levels, and cultivates deep content area knowledge. When poorly executed, PBL lacks academic rigor, does not provide support and scaffolds for English Learners and exacerbates learning differences and patterns of achievement. Continued research and documentation of successful teacher classroom practice is still needed in this area to ensure that well-executed, quality PBL is implemented for more English Learners.

The experience of English Learners at Manzanita SEED and at HTH demonstrates that English learners can be successful, and even excel, in a PBL environment. We would like this experience to be available to more students, and we hope to explore further how project-based learning and language-immersion programs might bring their pedagogies together. 

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