Project-based learning should fit the projects: Bridging cultural relevance and pedagogy

Robert S. Harvey is superintendent and senior managing director of East Harlem Scholars Academies, a network of five charter schools in New York City.

I wake up early on a Monday morning to visit a school in Manhattan that’s touted for its engaging, student-centered approach to project-based learning. It was a typical winter morning in New York City — the chill was biting, the subways were crowded, the clouds were grayish-white and the steam pipes were in full gust.

I enter the building and proceed to the fourth floor of a co-located school with high anticipation for what has been promised to be mind-blowing, breathtaking project-based learning. At exactly 8:37 a.m., an experienced teacher stands with an abundance of self-confidence, and begins:

“Morning! Today, we are going to begin a unit on solar energy by watching a piece from PBS on whether or not solar power is the future of energy.” the teacher says. “Then, we’re going to begin thinking about how we can construct our own solar panel farms in our neighborhoods … any questions?”

I said to myself, “Is he serious? A solar panel farm in New York City?” He wasn’t joking; he was serious. Mercifully, a black student, whose facial confusion mirrored my own, responded, “Yeah, I have a question. You gon’ take us to a solar farm or whatever?” The teacher responded, pitiably but candidly. “No, we aren’t going to a solar farm. There’s no room in the budget — but I’ll make sure you see plenty of examples using Google Images and YouTube.”

Then, it hit me! If we are going to ride the reimagined and reinvigorated wave of project-based learning, then the projects should fit “the projects.” Yes, by “the projects” I’m referring to public housing, which is housing owned and managed by government authority with the intention of providing subsidized and affordable residences for families and individuals.

Schools, especially public charter schools serving countless students from “the projects,” are reimagining project-based learning these days, particularly with advances in technology, design-thinking and artificial intelligence. But, there are far too many examples of well-meaning educators who are failing to ensure that their lesson designs, unit approaches, introductory hooks and learning moments are culturally-relevant for all the identities within the classroom.

And whether we realize it or not, most students in urban, under-resourced communities where poverty is concentrated are leaving classrooms with subconscious and conscious conundrums: How do I connect with this content when the content is not relevant to, framed by, or contextualized within my lived experience?

Personal before academic

When schools adopt so-called new approaches to teaching and learning, but fail to adapt those approaches to the racial and socioeconomic identities within their classrooms, they neglect the single most important root word in culturally-relevant teaching — culture. At its most essential level, “culture is a shared schema of language, beliefs, experiences and tastes within a community,” according to Christopher Emdin, professor of urban science education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Then, culturally relevant teaching must initiate with a shared schema where students collectively understand the content.

For example, we could open a lesson about solar power in the following way:

“Who’s ever had that moment when your iPhone had less than 10% battery power and the battery symbol turned red, but you were on the subway so you couldn’t charge it? Then, imagine the peace when you finally plug your phone in. Now, I want you to imagine how much energy we rely on to get through the day with millions of people charging their phones. What if there was a way that you could charge your phone without a charger, and all you had to do was access sun?” 

In both instances, we introduce solar energy, but in the latter, it is introduced with a hook and access point that invites “the projects” into project-based learning. If culturally-relevant, project-based learning is intended to be a student-centered pedagogical approach to deepen knowledge through real-world problems within student’s contexts, we must ensure that all students have access.

But in countless observations, project-based learning is often perpetuating adult-centered, economically exclusive, and racially segregated teaching. And students, whose real-world problems are more local than they are global, take on the position of being more alienated from solutions than being affiliated with solutions.

According to TeachThought, two needs for project-based learning in the 21st century are, “meaning” and “analytical diversity.” As educators, we must resolve, despite how uncomfortable it is for us as adults, that all meaning is always personal before it becomes academic.

That means that in order to bridge cultural relevance and the pedagogical trend of project-based learning, we have a responsibility as educators to ensure that the starting point for students is engagement with content that’s grounded in a personal place.

Additionally, project-based learning that is going to be effective in this century demands analytical diversity, which can only be achieved when we create teaching and learning spaces that center and privilege the diversities of knowledge that students bring with them. In effect, culturally relevant educators make room for students to approach projects in ways that exist beyond conventional analysis, but exist within the lived, intuitional and experiential realities of their lives.

As we do the work of carefully ensuring that our approach centers all students, this seemingly simple, but meaningful adjustment in the name of cultural relevance will trigger a transformation of teaching practice that inspires engagement and enjoyment for those who are closest to the problems and the solutions — our students.

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