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Beyond Textbooks: An Adventure in Project-Based Learning

Hands-on, project-based, or kinesthetic: there are many different ways that children learn in the classroom beyond simply paper and pencil.

These unique educating styles have increased the popularity of creating maker spaces, enhanced collaboration between students, and allowed for a deeper understanding of problem-solving. I was first inspired by teachers using these techniques while I taught in Florida, and I’m happy to share that I continue to be impressed with project-based learning at my children’s German school.

I recently had the opportunity to volunteer in my son's classroom during project week. During this week, students self-select activities that allow hands-on learning. Though I was already familiar with project-based learning, I was surprised by the challenging skills that were attempted in the German school.

Teachers hosted a variety of projects for collaborative student groups including 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders. These projects included fabricating artworks out of wood, nails, and yarn (yes, the students did the hammering!), painting murals, creating planters, constructing mosaics, creating a musical, and cutting wood into decorative displays. The school invited parents to volunteer, both to help and to demonstrate professional expertise in any of the project areas. While I feel comfortable teaching art, I was a little unsure about woodworking in elementary school.

I was floored when the teacher handed out small saws to children ranging in age from 6-10, and further, I was amazed at the children’s ability to use these tools responsibly!

I couldn’t imagine doing the majority of these projects in my American classroom, or if we did, we would have had an adult pre-cut the wood and the children simply paint them (and I probably would have over-supervised each paint stroke).

Over the course of the week, I watched as children created objects using muscle coordination and skillful techniques I wouldn’t have thought possible at the elementary age. Each day, I watched as the students in our group grew as crafters, honing their woodworking skills and eager to put effort into their creations.

On Wednesday, when the teacher announced that we needed more wood, I offered to drive to get it. She thanked me, but said that we would all walk to the hardware store to get more. So we took 12 children on a half mile trek to Globus Baumarkt (it's like the American Home Depot, but with a café where you can enjoy schnitzel after picking up your hardware). On the lumber aisle, the teacher conducted an impromptu math lesson while students’ mentally calculated our purchase (the mental math done by German children is astonishing, but I'll save that for another blog post).

The week culminated with a showcase that Saturday. All parents were invited to view the handiwork produced by a week of limited adult guidance and an abundance of children’s efforts. The children were proud of their finished products and the community applauded their work. In addition to being impressed by the level of difficulty in each project group, I was delighted by the amount of adults who showed up to support hands-on learning.*

After spending a week on projects in the Grundschule (elementary school), I know I will approach project-based learning differently when I return to the classroom.

I will give more open-ended opportunities, push the boundaries of what skills I think are possible for my students, create challenges tied to motor skills that are connected to careers, and continue to ensure this style of learning allows my students to demonstrate creative outcomes based on learning standards.

Continuing Thoughts

After my trip to the hardware store with the group of excited children, I thought about all of the out-of-school learning my children have participated in at their German school: hikes though the hills, visits to a painter's workshop, walks down the river in their water shoes, forest explorations to learn about the natural plant life surrounding our village. Then, I thought about the logistics, paperwork and stress that accompanied taking my students off-campus when I was the teacher in American schools. I was glad to not be in charge of the project week children (though I still watched them like a hawk and my blood pressure elevated each time we crossed a street), but I couldn’t help but notice the convenience and ease that accompanied our trip.

It made me sad that I will probably never be able do the same with American students.

My husband, somewhat jokingly, says lawyers have ruined those types of learning opportunities (he’s an attorney). I wonder if it is litigation that prohibits us. Probably, but during that week, I helped facilitate activities I would have been afraid to let my personal children do at home. I think it's easy to blame systems or lawsuits, but part of the issue lies with us as parents, overprotecting our kids until we are stifling the growth of large and small motor skills.

Also, I’ve noticed that the support for trade instruction, skilled labor education, and vocational education has swelled in America in the last few years. I have always been a proponent of teaching skills that will transfer to a career, and I appreciate the increase in community and legislative interest. I’ve also noticed the number of industries desperate for skilled workers, and the cries of the public to give students the opportunity to train for jobs that are waiting on the other side of a certification. But I wonder how we expect to have students who choose a vocational education path if we don’t give them opportunities to use their brains for problem-solving, their vocabulary for collaboration, and their hands for creation early on in elementary school.

Are we going to overprotect our children out of employment and worry ourselves out of a skilled labor force?

*A note about parent attendance on Saturday from 10:00-4:00; this was impressive because parents weren’t required to attend, but almost all, plus their extended family, did. I would estimate 90% or more of the children walk to school and home alone each day, so they could have easily came to school alone that Saturday as well. The support was truly astounding.

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Apr 27, 2019

How wonderful for your kids to be participating in these activities. You’ll need to start your own school when you get home.

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