STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some educators want kids in school to do more project-based learning - you know, where kids are given something concrete to do, like a history diorama or a project in one of my kid's classes where everybody in the class had to do a poster on a different disease. Advocates of project-based learning want to do a lot more of that, which is a trend that NPR's Anya Kamenetz is covering. Hey there, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK, so how is project-based learning different from what many people did in fifth grade, say?
KAMENETZ: Right. So this made me think of when I sewed a Woodrow Wilson doll in the seventh grade (laughter), which was great, with the little glasses. But basically, today's project-based learning is what John Larmer of the Buck Institute for Education calls the main course and not the dessert. So they happen during class time. They're conveying the central concepts and skills in the curriculum.
And, you know, a lot of people say this is more like what the workplace asks of us. You know, people work in teams these days. And our output is more likely to be something like a PowerPoint presentation than perhaps like a five-paragraph essay.
INSKEEP: OK, so it's more practical. It's focused on some kind of project. But what makes it a better way to learn?
KAMENETZ: That's a great question. I talked to Heather Wolpert-Gawron, who teaches English language arts at a middle school in San Gabriel, Calif. And she's also part of the national faculty at the Buck Institute. And she said something great. Project-based learning is her antidote for what she calls...
HEATHER WOLPERT-GAWRON: The monstrous meh.
KAMENETZ: So the monstrous meh - you can tell she'd be a fun teacher, right?
KAMENETZ: It's when learning is boring. And, you know, it's boring for teachers too, as well as students.
WOLPERT-GAWRON: And if it's not engaging, it's not going to stick.
KAMENETZ: So she has kids in her classes do projects whenever they can. For example, pretend to be superheroes. Form a league of superheroes. Pick a global problem to fight. And present it to a mock United Nations.
WOLPERT-GAWRON: Project-based learning combats the meh because it really creates an engaging and authentic experience for those students that stick with them long after their years in school.
KAMENETZ: Yeah, yeah, I pulled out that too. I think that's a really key concept. So the idea here, in two ways - one, projects are authentic to students' own interests and voice. And projects are authentic in the sense they're connected to real-world problems. And ideally, there's a public audience for the output that the students are making. So John Larmer, again, from the Buck Institute, says...
JOHN LARMER: The public audience aspect really ups the quality of students' work. If they know that they're going to be standing in front of their city council to propose a solution for the polluted lake in their community, they better know their stuff. So it really ups their game. And it also just makes it - learning feel real.
INSKEEP: Anya, this is all very interesting reporting that you're doing here for us. But I'm thinking that it might be more memorable for people if you could put it in the form of a project.
KAMENETZ: Ah, that's a great suggestion. So there's an authentic reason for us to talk about this because today, Steve, we're launching the first-ever NPR Student Podcast Challenge.
KAMENETZ: Yeah, so that's an opportunity for students between fifth and 12th grade to do project-based learning in their classes or afterschool clubs and, in this case, to put together a podcast.
INSKEEP: That's a project, all right.
KAMENETZ: Yes, it sure is. And submissions are going to open in January. Of course, you can start working on it now. Our judges are going to pick one winning podcast from middle school - that's fifth through eighth grades - and one from high school. And NPR journalists are going to visit your school if you win. And the winning podcasts are going to be featured on segments right here on the radio.
INSKEEP: Well, where can people get more information about this?
KAMENETZ: Teachers and students can go to www.npr.org/studentpodcastchallenge for more information, to read all the rules. And we are excited to hear what students have to say.
INSKEEP: Anya, get back to work on your diorama, if you don't mind.
KAMENETZ: (Laughter). OK.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz.
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