Pioneering place- and project-based learning

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The lights from the Mackinac bridge winked through the haze. The drizzle coursed down the students’ plastic ponchos as they walked Lake Michigan’s shore with one of their teachers, Charlotte Hagerman. Hagerman showed a group how to skip stones, since many had never done so before.

Photo by Alexa Seeger

Photo by Alexa Seeger

One of Charlotte Hagerman’s students holds up the first shell he has ever found on a beach. Hagerman and her co-teacher Kristeen Bobo, both now retired, took their students on an annual trip to reinforce the history and ecology lessons they had learned in the classroom. Photo by Alexa Seeger.

“Then this little guy, now he was a tough kid,” Hagerman said. “He comes up to me, ‘Ms. Hagerman, Ms. Hagerman,’ and he holds a shell up. And he says, ‘my first shell.’”

This young man had never had the opportunity to pick up a shell.

Hagerman said: “‘stay right there, I need a picture.’ So I got a picture of him holding his first shell. He’s what, 28 now? They’d never been out of the city, never done any of these things.”

Implementing place- and project-based learning
Hagerman and her co-teacher Kristeen Bobo are both retired now. During their careers, together, they taught a multi-age inclusion class at Post Oak Elementary in Lansing, Mich. Bobo had a caseload of special education students, but they never differentiated between Bobo’s and Hagerman’s students.

“We would challenge anyone to come into our room and pick out the children who had labels,” Hagerman said.

To build community and reach students at multiple grade and ability levels, Hagerman and Bobo looked to supplement lecture style teaching. After attending conferences and a chance meeting with another teacher pioneering place-based learning in Frankfort, Mich., the two teachers implemented project-based and place-based learning in their classroom.

The most intensive learning opportunity of the year was the largest trip, like the trip to Mackinaw. Planning for the trip started the summer before the school year. Then, less than a month into the school year, they would hold a meeting for parents. Here they would outline their philosophy and how the trip fits with that year’s curriculum. Then came fundraising.

“We went to the kids, because a big part of our philosophy is student empowerment,” Hagerman said. “Each child earned their way one way or another. The kids would come up with the darndest ways to earn money. We would only allow one catalog sale a year.”

The students sold their artistic creations at the annual craft show and solicited donations from the community for a silent auction.

“That was one of the places the kids were really involved,” Bobo said. “I think they learned so much we could have never taught them in a classroom on how to speak to adults, on how to convince and persuade. In school, they have to write all these persuasive essays. Our kids knew what that meant because they knew how to talk to those parents.”

The funds raised went into a community pot, so every student’s trip cost was covered. Then they would set out, for Mackinaw Island, Chicago or the Upper Peninsula. While there they would interact with the history and the ecology they had learned about, putting their math, reading and writing skills to use.

“When a teacher takes them, you’ve got specialists coming down and talking, you’ve got lessons that are going on,” Bobo said. “They learn so much that stays with them, that you can’t learn out of a book. Read a book on Lake Michigan or go to Lake Michigan?”

“They’re just little sponges anyways,” Hagerman said. “You just throw everything you can their way in a fun environment and they’ll soak it up, and they’ll use it later somewhere.”

Researching the effect of project-based learning
Like Bobo and Hagerman, MSU Department of Teacher Education Associate Professor Anne-Lise Halvorsen and her colleague Nell Duke, a professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Education, turned to project-based learning to address a unique teaching challenge.

Halvorsen’s area of focus is social studies. Duke’s is informational literacy.

“We were looking for an approach where we could authentically integrate those two (subjects),” Halvorsen said. “By integrate, I mean teach two or more domains, in ways that mutually reinforce each other, not just for the sake of teaching one or the other. That actually literacy is needed to learn social studies, social studies will help in the insistence of learning to read and write. So we were looking for an approach that would allow us to integrate those areas in a way that would engage children in meaningful work.”

Feeling that both subjects were neglected in lower elementary teaching, Halvorsen and Duke created Project PLACE: A Project Approach to Literacy and Civic Engagement. The curriculum consisted of four units, with 20 lessons each, aligned to the state’s second grade social studies and Common Core standards.

To demonstrate project-based learning’s effect on low-income student achievement, they conducted a study, sponsored by the Spencer Foundation and Lucas Education Research. In mid-Michigan, low socioeconomic status schools, 24 teachers were given the experimental curriculum and 24 teachers taught their classes as usual.

“The teachers teaching the project-based curriculum enjoyed teaching it,” Halvorsen said. “They found that the kids were excited about the projects. The kids were talking about it outside of school, going home and talking to their families about it.”

The students didn’t just enjoy their lessons more. They scored better in social studies and reading too. The difference between the experimental project-based learning groups and the control groups was statistically significant.

“The gains were stronger in the project-based learning group than they were in traditional classrooms in the areas of reading and social studies,” Halvorsen said. “So, we do find it does work in raising achievement.”

Within the higher growth, project-based learning groups, there was a range of results.

“What we’re looking at now is what are qualities of those teachers that seemed to lead to those higher gains,” Halvorsen said. “What we’ve found, for example, is teachers in the high growth groups, they were able to help students draw connections between the four projects. Then, between those projects and the other parts of the school day.”

Teachers whose students exhibited smaller gains had challenges with classroom management and organization.

“It really shows how project-based learning is very complicated and messy to teach,” Halvorsen said. “It requires a lot of open ended questions and student centered approaches. For teachers who really like to know exactly how everything is going to go, it’s a little more challenging, because you have to be more flexible.”

Halvorsen said the main reason more teachers don’t use project-based curriculum is they have not been taught to use it, and pioneering it in a school with textbooks not aligned with project-based learning and no support system, is daunting. However, Halvorsen and Duke are publishing their curriculum for free use. Additional resources are available at

Halvorsen says project-based learning is worth the effort: “This is such an exciting, engaging way of learning that is so relevant to kids lives beyond school. And we’ve been able to show that the strength of it is that it does lead to student growth. To be able to do both those things is, well, phenomenal.”

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