Montgomery County, Maryland Looks to Project-Based Learning

With the opening of Wheaton High School’s new building in 2015, Montgomery County Public Schools system could be signaling that it is getting ready to fully commit to its project-based learning experiment. According to the Washington Post, project-based learning isn’t new to other schools around the country, but for this Maryland district, it’s a real game changer.

Wheaton isn’t waiting for the new building to fully commit to the new paradigm, however. Even now, every day at the school is marked by signs that the students are running the show — there are signs everywhere, like a car race down the hallway or models dotting the desks in the civil engineering classroom. Behind every door, kids take the lead while the teachers stand aside and offer guidance and support.

This is project-based learning, where educational instruction moves away from a traditional academic setting to an active classroom that encourages collaboration and communication among students.

Project-based learning doesn’t just redefine the students’ role. Marcus Lee, who teaches civil engineering at Wheaton, says that he views himself as a project leader rather than as an instructor. He also sees it as is goal to teach students how to teach themselves. When questions arise, Lee advises kids to seek answers on the internet or from each other before turning to him. In response to complaints, Lee points out that this is exactly what learning will look like once students leave the confines of a school.

As Montgomery redesigns its programming for Wheaton and the rest of the system, officials will look to programs at schools such as High Tech High, which operates 11 schools in the San Diego area and has garnered national attention for its innovation. Since its inception in 2000, all of its graduates have been admitted to college. More than 30 percent of the school’s alumni choose math- or science-related jobs, according to High Tech High officials, greater than the national average of about 17 percent.

High Tech High was a response to complaints that schools were just not producing enough graduates interested in pursuing technology and science as a career. Companies who were thinking of the number of high tech jobs they have to fill in the future wanted to pitch in to create a school environment that got kids excited about the industry early.

For project-based schools, however, it isn’t just about tech. Students who learn foreign languages, for example, write bilingual cookbooks or write policy papers for the countries where the language is primarily spoken.

As students produce such final projects, they’re observing, investigating, reflecting and documenting what they’ve learned, said Larry Rosenstock, High Tech High’s chief executive.

“You have to have great standardized test scores, but you want kids who aren’t afraid to get outside the bubble and invent things,” Rosenstock said.