Project-Based Learning?

“I’m looking for curriculum to help my child get into [a particular university program].”

The woman got upset when I suggested that she might let him spend a lot of time working on projects related to his specialized interest. She seemed to think that was only for younger kids, not for high school students interested in a rigorous academic program.

For 7.5 years, I interviewed potential students for the University of Chicago. I learned about their academics. Many had similar academic histories: They took the same sorts of classes and looked very similar on paper. Those students rarely stood out. And when a university rejects a lot of students, standing out can be a very good thing. Obviously the students have to learn the core material. If they want to be in a program focused on math and science, they’ll need to study a lot of math and science and understand the fundamentals. But working on some projects related to their interests in math and science and exploring those in detail, working on projects they are passionate about and pulling in as much math and science into them as they can, reading scholarly (non-textbook) books or articles related to their field of interest–especially ones that they chose themselves rather than had assigned to them can help a great deal in preparing them for such a rigorous program and in getting them into it in the first place.

The parent may have to think outside-the-box in regard to how these projects end up in “courses” in a transcript, but there are ways to do that–whether the projects are divided with certain portions counted towards certain subjects based on the amount of time spent–so the project time is divvied up between English (for reading and writing a research paper), science (for the time spent planning and conducting experiments), math (for the collection of data and its analysis), etc. or whether the transcript includes electives with names like Research 1 or Scientific Inquiry or some other multi-disciplinary title.

Or there’s another way to look at it: Yes, most public schools offer very traditional sorts of courses that all look alike. But a few don’t. The highest- rated schools–whether public or private–tend to be more adventurous in regard to education. They are often the schools with unusual class or school-wide projects or that allow students to delve into projects as part of their learning. And the beauty of homeschooling is that we can be more like those adventurous schools that seek to make learning exciting, that are willing to try new theories, let kids explore their interests, delve into passions of their students, etc. We don’t have to feel compelled to make classes exactly like those of the high school we remember; kids can get into college–and do!–without copying a boring plan for high school.

Cheryl Trzasko


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