ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

The Best Education Ideas in the World: Adventures on the Frontiers of Learning

ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

Post written by Jessica DuBois-Maahs, a Medill School of Journalism candidate at Northwestern University concentrating in finance reporting and interactive publishing and business reporter for MediaTec Publishing in Chicago, Ill.

Gary Stager has taught in classrooms all around the world, and he said the common thread that binds exceptional learning experiences together is hands-on project-based learning.

In his 2013 ASCD Annual Conference session, "The Best Education Ideas in the World: Adventures on the Frontiers of Learning," Stager showed attendees videos of elementary school students building robots and solving complex engineering problems while appearing to enjoy the process.

The audience members smiled and clapped as they watched a young Australian student use nothing but pipe cleaners, LEGO blocks, and her brain to build a toy ballerina that spun. In his presentation, Stager theorized that this type of project-based learning can propel modern curricula because students use critical thinking in multiple disciplines to create the end result.

How to Assess Project-Based Learning

"Less us, more them," Stager said. He repeated that phrase several times before outlining the four facets of what he considers a good prompt for a project-based assessment:

  1. Teachers should use brevity when writing a prompt. A good gauge is to make sure it can fit on a sticky note.
  2. The prompt should allow for ambiguity, which gives students a chance to exceed a teacher's expectations.
  3. The project should be immune to a formal assessment. Instead, a teacher should use careful observation and sound judgment to quantify a student's grade.
  4. The assessment should be minimally invasive, and teachers should not interrupt students' learning process to give them a grade.

Living in the Digital Age

"We are now in the golden age of technology," Stager told the audience as he pulled out a box of robotic toys and displayed them on a table. For the second half of his speech, Stager focused on the power of students making things, and he showed attendees how they can start implementing low-cost technology in their classrooms.

For example, instead of merely instructing kids to solve fractions, why not have the students create a computer program that will draw a representation of any fraction in the shape of a circle? According to Stager, using technology in this way integrates technology, engineering, and math, which helps students better understand the concept.

He challenged teachers to take a critical look at how curricula actually engage students and to throw away the "rule book." If a calculator can solve a simple math problem, he said, why not allow students to use it?

"If you make simple things easy to do, you make complexity possible," Stager said.

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