Tyler Graff is the incoming principal at the Claire Lilienthal alternative school in San Francisco Unified.
Previously, he was principal of Stevenson Elementary, a public school in Mountain View, where he kicked off a project-based learning initiative in 2012.
In project-based learning, students work on a complex problem or topic that often incorporates working as a team and involves a student presentation of work. At Graff’s school, the program started as a pilot and expanded each year.
Graff earned his bachelor’s degree and multiple subjects teaching credential from California State University, Chico. He earned his master’s degree in school leadership at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
In late June, EdSource asked Graff about what he learned working with teachers and students using this approach.
Why do you use project-based learning at your public elementary school?
Not only do student attitudes about learning improve as they engage in project-based learning, students retain the information they’re taught on a deeper level. When done well, it helps students with the soft skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking that many colleges and employers are looking for. Students are able to comprehend, apply, and retain the content knowledge taught while developing the 21st Century Skills that the Common Core Standards ask of teachers and students.
Give an example of a project that worked well at your school. What made it succeed? How did you know?
Our second- and third-grade combination class took a deep look into local school board elections. During the project, students interviewed the candidates, researched the topics the board would be voting on, wrote letters, created pamphlets, and registered voters. It was clear that the project was successful from talking with the students. They were able to articulate their views on the issues and which candidates they would vote for and why. Students learned a lot about interviewing and writing in addition to social studies components linked to our local community. The writing and knowledge that was produced through the course of this project certainly met the curriculum standards, and our students became meaningfully engaged in their community.
How does project-based learning fit in with the priorities of Common Core?
Project-based learning and the Common Core are a natural fit. At our school, this was one of the core ways we started to address the new standards. What comes to mind first for me are close reading, application of knowledge, and critical thinking. In project-based learning, students need to research, read, take notes, and synthesize information, exactly what the Common Core asks students to do. In both cases, students need to think critically about and apply knowledge from their learning. This happens in both language arts and mathematics.
What do schools and districts need to know before they start a project-based learning initiative and what’s a good entry point for projects and training?
Done well, project-based learning requires an extensive amount of professional development, time, and reflection. This is not an initiative that you can purchase to turn a school around; it’s really a shift in the way content is presented. That takes time. In my experience, teachers tend to thrive with professional learning experiences that give the big picture first, then drill down in the details of how each element of the project works. For instance, a group of teachers interested in implementing project-based learning might do a multi-day training looking at the entire scope and sequence of a project by experiencing one themselves. From there, they’d spend time learning about how to create a culture of critique in the classroom, how to successfully facilitate group work, student presentations, and more. Using a cycle of learning, implementing, and refining with each of these elements will lead to high-quality project-based learning.
What advice do you have for schools just starting out?
As we all know, the number one indicator of student success at the school site is the quality of the teacher. With that said, it’s important that you find the funding and time to allow teachers to learn, experiment, struggle, and refine their practice.
I would caution any administrator not to move too quickly through this process. Deeper learning takes time! This is true for students in the classroom and adult learners. At our elementary school, we decided to do a school-wide roll out (14 classrooms) of one project per year for the first three years. It wasn’t until our third year that we started doing Exhibition Nights. Depending on the staff culture, it might be smart to have a grade level or group of teachers pilot project-based learning for a year or two before moving to a whole scale approach. Ultimately, each school and district is different. Taking the needs of your staff into account before creating a strategic plan will ensure project-based learning initiatives will take root and thrive.
If you have any questions about how to implement project-based learning in your school or district, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.