Feb. 3, 2020
Six years ago, the educators at Renaissance Public School Academy up in Mt. Pleasant, MI, embarked on a bold journey, rewriting the rules of teaching and pursuing a new education model - Project Based Learning (PBL). Fast forward to the present, and you'll find a school infused with students' and educators' passion projects, a library smack dab in the middle of the main hall, and a team of educators who are seasoned in the PBL craft - and LOVING it.
At its core, the PBL model is about translating the learning concepts expected at each grade level into tangible challenges that students are excited to solve, in a way that helps them see that the skills they build today are applicable and valuable in the real world. For example, while you and I might have learned about human body systems through complex diagrams and flashcards, Renaissance students learned the same concepts through a project about a viral outbreak. As the doctors, they had to understand the virus, how it spread, and how to contain it. And because the educators at Renaissance work together on different elements of these projects, the learning outcomes are interdisciplinary - one project supports language arts, social studies, science, math, etc.
As for who comes up with a project? It all depends. Some projects are content-based, where the educators work together to develop a project around learning outcomes for an entire class, while others are student-led, where an entire class or small group of students wants to explore a project, which the teachers then help to weave in the learning outcomes. Students can also pursue additional projects at the individual or partner level. And because each student has the opportunity to co-create their education roadmap for the year, the passion and excitement flows freely through the Renaissance halls. For the teaching team, the effect is almost 'magical.'
"I was one of those people who was lucky enough to enjoy school, and along the way discover what it is I love to do. And today, I get to go to work every day and do it. Not all kids get that - and if they never discover what they love doing, they might just move into a job that's just that, a job," said Megan Nix, PBL coach at Renaissance, "By giving students more ownership over their learning process, and allowing them to infuse their passions into it, my hope is that more kids will discover what they love doing."
But while the PBL model is thriving at Renaissance today, it's NOT easy - especially for teachers, who are hardwired through their education to plan ahead and be the primary driver of the learning strategies.
"When we embarked on the PBL journey, it totally redefined how we taught students," said Middle School Math & Science Teacher, Dave McCausey. He's been with the school for 13 years - long enough to have taught under both the traditional model and the PBL model. "In PBL, you have to take in lots of ideas from students - and then implement those ideas almost on the fly. So your entire planning process, implementation process, and the progression of lessons end up looking quite different than when you plan your weeks out in the traditional model. We've had to retool our brains as educators to make room for what the individual student needs, and how they learn - and it works."
Instructional Coach Megan Nix explained the journey Renaissance has undergone from when they first switched to this model, to today.
"We had this idea of what we thought PBL meant - you know we invested in the literature and the training when we made the switch. But it's taken us years to really understand it - because its about truly embracing adaptability and flexibility as educators. At Renaissance, we have a really dedicated staff who's committed to this, and PBL has become the culture of what we do. There's so much collaboration between us as educators, and that allows projects to emerge and grow from all kind of angles for every learner."
So beyond the fun and passion, are students leaving Renaissance prepared? The answer is simple: absolutely. But it's more than testing scores and learning outcomes - it's about building a skillset. When students graduate 8th grade at Renaissance and move on, the hope is that they've learned how to identify challenges, develop an action plan to tackle it, uncover resources necessary along the way, and collaborate to solve it.
“The thing about PBL that prepares students most is the way it fosters in them a natural curiosity to want to learn, and also demonstrates that they have the skills they need to go and learn ANYTHING. It’s not just about giving them content - it’s about giving them a reason to learn by tapping into their passions, so that they are excited to build the skills needed to solve a challenge," said Nix.
And the proof is in the pudding - students and families love the ownership that kids have over their learning, and the diverse opportunities offered for each individual to grow their skills and pursue their passions. Rob Brown is a parent of two daughters at the school - one who has started her own podcast during her time there, and another who's directed a student-run dance class.
“As a father of young daughters, it’s super important to me that they learn to be confident in themselves. It’s important that they have opportunities to express their passions and have roles of leadership. Renaissance has provided them with countless opportunities - and I know will continue to do so. That's just not something I think they'd get at another school," said Brown.