ABINGDON, Va. — When Washington County students return to school tomorrow, the buildings may look the same on the outside, but on the inside, a whole new culture of learning will change the way students have been taught.

Like many schools throughout the country, the local school system is adopting Project-Based Learning, known as PBL, a teaching method that allows students to gain knowledge and skills by engaging them in solving real-world, modern-day problems or finding answers to complex questions.

The new approach, which gradually will be put in place in all of the county schools, is an effort to produce well-rounded students who take control of their own learning.

It’s all about application. Students learn by working as team members on projects over extended periods of time, applying their knowledge to solve problems or issues in the community — and even in their own schools.

The adoption of the educational framework matches the Virginia Department of Education’s new approach to instruction, which focuses on key skills for student success.

The new profile of a Virginia graduate must include an education that includes the five C’s — critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, collaboration and citizenship skills.

According to Brian Ratliff, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools, parents may not see big changes this school year, as county educators continue to learn how to best implement the PBL model into their own classrooms.

This summer, the school system has teamed up with the Buck Institute for Education and its program “PBL Works” to train one administrator and one teacher from each school in the district.

The ongoing training sessions instruct teachers on how to build projects within their classrooms while also incorporating the requirements for graduation.

“These are extremely positive changes,” said Ratliff. “It’s what we as superintendents and educators have been waiting on for a long time — for our student learning environment to be more authentic. Students will have real field and hands-on solving experiences.

“The projects actually become the vehicles for teaching the knowledge and skills the students need to learn,” he said.

“Students will solve real-life problems and issues within the confines of grades K through 12. That’s good education.”

A philosophy — not a program

“Project-Based Learning is not a program we’re implementing. It’s a philosophy of learning that will help us meet the needs of all of our students,” said Ratliff.

“Teachers are not just disseminators of knowledge. They are facilitators of learning, teaching students to be lifelong learners and leaders in the community.”

Ten years from now, the superintendent hopes PBL will be commonplace in every classroom in Washington County from preschool to grade 12.

“Problem-solving will be part of how our students think. We will see very few worksheets, very few rote memorization activities and [fewer] classroom lectures,” he said.

According to Ratliff, the new learning approach will answer needs in the job force.

“The corporate world is demanding this. Industries in the 21st century are asking for jobholders who are self-starters and who have a creative spirit and teamwork skills.”

Washington County teacher Eric Hoffman has already integrated PBL into his science classrooms at Patrick Henry High School. Last school year, his oceanography students studied the quality of different sources of local water.

“Their job was to learn what pollutants may be affecting the water sources in our local area, such as for home owners who depend on well water. So there’s that real-world application that solves real-world problems,” said Hoffman.

Julia Street, who graduated from Patrick Henry High School in the spring, saw firsthand how some students in Hoffman’s PBL classroom changed from exhibiting apathetic attitudes to becoming eager learners. “It was neat to watch them gain interest from the projects,” she said.

“Students who lack enthusiasm for learning are put in classes with students who want to learn. They bounce off ideas from each other, and it’s a good opportunity for all students. PBL is something I really enjoyed. It allowed me to learn in a better way. It’s hands-on, and I learn better that way.”

Steve Ahn, a biology teacher at Holston High School, also practices the PBL model in his biology classroom.

Ahn takes his biology students on a coastal adventure each year to Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, where they live on campus for a five-day learning experience.

Grassroots effort

Hoffman, Joy Munsey, assistant principal for the Washington County Career and Technical Education Center, and a few other county teachers became involved in the county’s grassroots efforts about four years ago, before the new learning approach was issued by the Department of Education.

“A small group of teachers started conversations about what we can do to help our students engage, collaborate, to think critically and problem-solve — and even learn how to get along better with their classmates,” said Munsey.

The teachers began their research by visiting schools as far away as South Dakota and Greenville, South Carolina, as well as three schools in Virginia.

“We’ve researched different models and consulting firms on how to implement this type of innovative learning into our school system,” said Hoffman.

“If students take control of their own learning, we’re not faced with trying to get students to learn, we’re challenged with how to facilitate the learning of the students,” he said.

Munsey said there are vast differences between classroom projects and PBL, which focuses more on the actual process of learning.

“Projects do not consist of a pamphlet and a PowerPoint presentation,” she said. “These projects could be so in-depth that they could last for weeks.

“Classroom projects start with a driving question. It could be a problem that needs to be solved, such as a community issue or school issue. It could be about an economic or environmental issue.

“It’s a whole new culture, but this is going to be a slow process,” Munsey said. “It’s a new way of thinking about education.”

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Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at news@washconews.com.

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