The Collaborative for Teaching and Learning had its inception in 1994 as a public-private partnership aimed at equipping Kentucky elementary teachers to implement the primary program, a key provision of the Kentucky Education Reform Act. The primary program grouped students together in grades K-3, emphasizing ungraded, differentiated instruction and continuous progress. To equip teachers to teach in this structure, CTL provided training and coaching in an inquiry-based, interdisciplinary model, in over 300 elementary schools. While our work has shifted in the past decade to middle and high schools, the focus on authentic learning has remained constant. With the increasing momentum away from a culture of testing towards one focusing on teaching and learning, we’re enjoying increased opportunities to work with schools on authentic approaches like project based learning (PBL).
A common criticism of PBL, and often rightly so, is that it is not centered on important course content. At CTL effective project based learning starts by identifying the content standards teachers intend students to learn and developing a project idea that features a significant student creation requiring they demonstrate that learning. This kind of intentional planning process moves teachers away from working through a project and identifying “accidental learning” at the end. CTL has always taken a constructivist approach rooted firmly in the ideas of John Dewey who saw knowledge as socially constructed in interaction with others. So project based learning which embodies constructivism is right in line with our philosophy.
What makes our approach different is that it also incorporates three important and unique strands: literacy in service of content learning; artful thinking; and digital thinking. CTL believes project based learning provides an excellent opportunity to use literacy strategies like those in our Adolescent Literacy Model to comprehend and master content across subject areas, improving what we call “academic literacy” as students think like experts in their discipline. By engaging in what we call Artful Thinking and Digital Thinking students learn 21st Century or Next Generation skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration on the way to becoming self-evolving learners.
While arts infusion has always been a hallmark of our work, Artful Thinking is an approach we define as a focused and effortful commitment to craftsmanlike work for authentic audiences. Not limited to traditional pieces of art this includes use of design thinking principles for refinement with a goal in mind of creative and inspiring products. In a complementary way we see Digital Thinking as the flip side of a valuable coin that pulls in the best of a faster thinking, constantly searching approach. Not necessarily manifesting in technology products but processing learning in a way that exploits the vast resources networks can offer, Digital Thinkers use, extend and creatively combine tools available to them.
None of this amounts to much without significant attention to the quality of instruction and learning culture of the school and classroom. Characteristics of our ideal PBL setting include deep, inquiry-based learning that engages students by connecting their work to the world outside classroom walls. Intrinsic motivation as an engagement piece is not insignificant as a driving force behind creating self-motivated learners striving for sometimes forgotten 21st Century Skills like Compassion and Community.