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Guide to Contextual Learning Projects

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Does this project idea offer enough depth and challenge?

Memorial Day Breakfast

At Tantasqua Regional Middle School, a Memorial Day Breakfast marked the end of a multidisciplinary project that included reading the novel “Sunrise Over Fallujah” about the current conflict in Iraq, interviewing local veterans, writing poetry, and creating art.

Does this project idea offer enough depth and challenge to let students exercise essential skills in areas such as critical thinking, creative thinking, writing, research, data analysis, scientific observation or leadership? A contextual learning project should offer skill-building opportunities, depth and challenge in proportion to the time invested in the project and the learning expectations and goals of the project.

One common criticism of project-based learning in recent years has been that projects have lacked depth; that academic connections were too elementary; or that the amount of time spent in hands-on activities was not balanced by complementary learning activities. The best response to this criticism is to provide an honest focus on the goals of each project and the skills exercised.

Good schools offer students a rich blend of classroom experiences, field trips, after-school activities, social activities and personal and academic enrichment. The overall mix of experiences supports students in developing academic knowledge and skills, developing personal and social skills, and gaining skills, knowledge and experience that can be applied to future careers, civic involvement and personal life.

In support of this rich blend of experiences, some contextual learning projects will provide in-depth study, while others will provide just a quick glimpse of a particular area of study. Some projects will focus on academic subject areas while others will focus on health awareness, personal and social skills, civic awareness, career awareness and other life-related skills.

For example, a one-day field study of a river, wetland or ocean environment may simply expose students to field study and observation skills. Or, for example, a gardening project may solely be designed to teach students about gardening and healthy food. These are legitimate approaches to learning, part of the overall mix of experiences that support student learning.

Other projects may have a more classroom-oriented and academic focus, and will engage students in learning vocabulary and studying relevant concepts from science, history or other subjects, as well as collecting observations, analyzing data, studying issues, and working on articles, journals, presentations, maps, charts and graphs or other products related to their work.

Projects may seek to provide interdisciplinary connections, bringing together science, math, history, geography, writing, literature, the arts and other subjects, helping students to understand key concepts in the context of several subjects and approaches.

Appendix 1 provides examples from the Contextual Learning Portal of projects that build and exercise critical and creative thinking, leadership skills, data analysis skills, health literacy, environmental literacy and other skills.