My impressions following a visit to High Tech High, which applies PBL.
Today, the advantages of PBL are getting clearer: the traditional learning method simply doesn’t seem to work. The world is changing, the amount of information we can access is practically endless; thus, the required skills have changed, the teacher is no longer the ultimate source of information, and attention deficit disorders are a way of life.
I have recently visited the High Tech High schools in Los Angeles and San Diego. These schools have been applying PBL for many years, and can teach us a great deal about the merits of this learning technique. Following this inspiring visit, I would like to share with you some insights.
Learning as part of the culture.
PBL goes far beyond learning; PBL is an overall cultural change. It is integrated into the culture of discussion and into codes of behavior, and its success is based on mutual respect, listening, and knowing one’s limits. We had the opportunity to witness how children collaborate on a project. Although physically and mentally each child enjoyed considerable leeway for action – it was quite clear who does what, what role the student plays and what role the teacher plays as a tutor, what is right and what is wrong, and what is the nature of collective responsibility, including that of a young child, to fulfill all personal and group capabilities. Without cultural readiness, PBL is unlikely to succeed.
Interdisciplinary experiential learning.
PBL is the future of education. Why? Because this is our way to foster a curious and productive generation, that learns through interdisciplinary activities. We saw the way young children learn physics through their hands, building an entire model by themselves, from research to implementation. A Shakespearean performance the children put on was yet another example of a way to teach history, literature and language skills, design, and science. The children learned the play, were assigned their roles, made their own costumes, designed the set by themselves, and the result was a performance that completely reflects their characters and their state of mind. Another example is their research on animals, conducted in the aquatic museum. The children study the issue, ask questions regarding the different ways to rescue endangered species, launch a campaign, design and promote it. Another example is the preparation of a diet based meal, which follows the study of nutrition through different aspects of chemistry and biology, including health repercussions. The meal, in the presence of the students’ families, is regarded as the highlight of the semester: this way, learning is a meaningful, experiential, and community-oriented process.
Unique schools with equal opportunity.
Children from underprivileged families were not a rare sight at the schools we visited. The fact that these children take part in this kind of curriculum gives them an excellent starting point despite of their background. This is made possible through charter schools, which are independent and allow for uniqueness: they hire highly professional teachers, and – albeit under cautious supervision – they don’t strictly follow the curriculum set by the Ministry of Education, so teaching methods are varied.
Highly motivated teachers.
Teachers working at the schools we visited are proficient in fields outside their profession. They participate in enrichment courses and workshops that make them competent in other domains. At the same time, a network of support and professional cooperation ensures that teachers give their best for the success of the students. The entire learning environment encourages cooperation and openness. There is no staff room; there are no bells ringing for recess; there are activities and break times when necessary. The teacher provides continuous mentoring during the entire learning process. For instance, we saw how children learn engineering through disassembling and assembling mundane devices, such as cameras. Each disassembled part is measured, registered, photographed, and uploaded to designated software, where it is documented. Later on, the parts are reassembled on a computer screen, and remanufactured through 3D printing. The students find information online about damaged or missing parts. And the teachers? The students’ enthusiasm rubs off on them, and this is where a true joy of creation begins. It may sound almost surreal, but I believe this will become the new reality in more and more locations, including Israel.