- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - At a middle school in Alabama, a student was assigned a project about ingredients used in soap making. She was given a budget, a team composed of classmates and access to a computer.

With that, she was told by her teacher to start a company.

The project required students to collaborate and use critical thinking and communication skills, state Superintendent Tommy Bice said by video at Leon Sheffield Elementary on Wednesday.

“The days of memorizing and passing a test is no longer good enough for our students,” he said to explain concepts coming to local classrooms.

Decatur City Schools has been selected to pilot a program called “Project-Based Learning” that could change how education is delivered in Alabama classrooms.

State officials said the new learning standards are part of the state Board of Education’s Plan 2020, which is designed to make sure every student graduates ready for college or a career.

Project-based learning focuses more on solving problems than answering questions.

The curriculum supervisor for Decatur schools, Jeanne Payne, said students, in collaboration with their classmates, will be assigned projects to work through, much like they will in the workforce.

She said the days of sitting in rows facing a teacher are over.

“We’re having to educate children in real-life situations so they can take what they learn with them,” she said.

A team from the Alabama Learning Exchange is at Leon Sheffield this week to prepare the system for implementation of the project-based learning program next school year.

In another example explaining the program, Bice talked about students who asked a teacher why so many students were absent with influenza.

It turned into a program about how to stop the spread of viruses.

Through online research, students did a report about the importance of washing hands and shared what they learned with other students, Bice said.

Payne said she expects students’ socialization skills to improve because they will work as a team on projects instead of learning facts in isolation.

Shannon Parks, training director for Alabama Learning Exchange, said the state selected Decatur to pilot the program because the district already has many of its components in place.

“We had a lot of requests, but Decatur already has a lot of advanced technology and was already doing a lot of interactive learning in its classrooms,” she said.

But there are still areas where significant change will come, Parks said.

“It’s a huge, huge shift in the classroom,” she said. “This is not just a lesson plan teachers will teach for an hour. It’s systematic and integrated learning that will change the learning culture in every school.”

Parks said the only other school with project-based learning is Winterboro High in rural Talladega County. The school introduced its learning model in 2009, and the impact was immediate, former Principal Craig Bates said.

He said test scores improved, discipline referrals and the dropout rate went down, and students were more engaged from beginning to end.

Bates said students have “so many technological tools” at their fingertips and that project-based learning allows them to use those devices in the learning environments.

“You can’t power students down when they walk in the door,” he said.

In Winterboro, the district replaced traditional desks with tables supporting desktop computers.

Every student has a computer, and teachers use technology such as SMART Board, which provides touch control of computer applications on a white board in the front of the room.

West Decatur Elementary Principal Datie Priest visited Winterboro, just south of Talladega, in February and is one of the administrators in training this week.

She said she was stunned by how one program transformed a school and made it the center of a rural community.

“We all know that the culture of learning is changing, and we have to sell this to the community in Decatur,” Priest said.

She said Decatur already is doing some things like Winterboro, such as making sure academic programs are aligned toward grade levels.

“We still have challenges, but I believe in this,” Priest said.

Teamwork, which is a major component of project-based learning, is what Decatur school employees learned in the first hour of training. Ridgeway and Parks asked them to participate in discussions about several issues at their school.

Administrators and teachers from Chestnut Grove Elementary talked about how best to implement the program. They concluded it’s a significant change and was important to explain the change to students.

“They were discussing real-life issues before reaching an answer,” Payne said. “This is what we want our students to do.”


Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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