Lake Norman & Mooresville

Thinking is critical to new school program

Born after the advent of the Internet, today's children expect instant gratification when seeking a solution to a problem, said Barnette Elementary School Principal Dianna Newman.

Studies show, however, that it is the students who learn persistence who will enjoy the most success later in life, said Newman.

This fall, the school is introducing a project-based learning block for all grade levels.

The program, the first of its kind for any Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary school, according to Newman, will take an open-ended approach to learning and challenge students to address real-world problems, said the program's instructor, Amanda Womack.

Womack described as an example a proposed project in which fourth-graders pretend they're museum curators. They will have to research and design an exhibit on Native American tribes, then give a tour of their museum to demonstrate what they've learned, said Womack.

"It will encourage them to move away from simply memorizing and repeating facts," she said. "They'll actually be discovering this new knowledge and taking responsibility for their learning."

Every grade will participate in the program for 90 minutes a week.

Newman said while the concept of project-based learning isn't necessarily new, dedicating regular instruction time to it is.

"This is an approach to teaching, but the reality is that it's not incorporated into a lot of classrooms," said Newman. "Project based learning gives students the opportunity to work collaboratively to find solutions to a problem"

In the short term, failure to learn such critical thinking skills might make it more difficult to transition to college, where open-ended problem solving is the norm, she said.

Long term, those who do not develop critical thinking skills might find it difficult to collaborate with others and to find viable solutions to problems, she said.

Numerous studies support the notion that project-based learning is effective at increasing retention and enthusiasm and decreasing absenteeism and failure rates. For instance, a 1999 study by the University of Memphis and University of Tennessee at Knoxville found students who participated in a project-based learning program called Co-nect improved their test scores on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System over a two-year period.

The students also out-performed control schools with more traditional methods of teaching by 26 percent.

Womack, who has taught several different grade levels at Barnette, said she is thrilled to lead the new program.

"As teachers, we can't possible teach them everything they're ever going to know in their lives. They're going to have to solve problems as they arise," said Womack. "Project-based learning will teach them higher-order thinking and active inquiry."

Newman said she hopes her school becomes a model for how to successfully implement project-based learning school wide.

"Kids will definitely build critical knowledge skills and increase their ability to solve problems - be it real life problems or problems on the job," said Newman. "It promotes them becoming self-directed learners and thinkers."