DECATUR – Most of the classrooms Amanda Popovich and Brittany Childress saw in China had more than 40 students and only one teacher.
Teachers there expressed concern that using project-based learning in their schools, with such large groups of students, might be difficult.
“They got the idea they could do it in the English classes,” Childress said. “They might as well teach in a way that America teaches their students, maybe not in their core classes but within that English class.”
Popovich and Childress teach at Dennis School, which has a partnership with Millikin University for a lab school. Millikin professors and students work closely with Dennis teachers and students in various projects, and in turn, Millikin has a relationship with schools in Chang Chun, China. Two Chinese teachers visited Dennis about a year ago to observe project-based learning in action, and asked if Dennis teachers could visit them to help them learn to use the method there.
Project-based learning contains eight essential elements. Those are: significant content; 21st-century competencies; in-depth inquiry; a driving question; a need to know; voice and choice for the students; critique and revision; and a public audience. Dennis students and teachers have used project-based learning long enough to be very comfortable with it, but it's a new concept for the Chinese, whose classrooms tend to follow a more traditional lecture format.
However, Popovich said, students are required to study English until the age of 16, and the Chinese teachers thought that learning it in this American way would be particularly effective.
“I think they're very fascinated with the American education system and they look to us as leaders in doing something a certain way,” Popovich said.
The Chinese teachers, Nina Xuan and Jessica Zhang, who visited Dennis in November got an up-close and personal look at how project-based learning works when they helped students make “Chinamentaries,” documentaries about China. The students ran with the idea, creating production companies with names like “Can of Worms” and a couple of enterprising students even inserted a commercial break in their short film, selling “nothing” for $19.95 in the style of the ShamWow infomercials. The Chinese teachers provided information on Chinese culture for that project, but true to the project-based learning model, put their own stamp on the resulting films, and invited Millikin staff to a film festival to see the finished product.
“Nina and Jessica had gone back and talked about what they had done with us, and that really sparked everyone else's interest,” Childress said. “It's a big honor for a teacher to be chosen to come to America. Not all the teachers get to do it, they wanted us to come over there so they could get the experience without necessarily being the one that's chosen to come to America in the fall. The (Chinese) teachers will be coming back this fall, but with better preparation and a better idea of what we can do for a China project-based learning this fall.”