Green Street’s big bet on project-based learning

Green Street’s big bet on project-based learning

  |   Editorial Features

Project-based learning, though promising, struggles to disrupt traditional, teacher-led instruction. Our hypothesis? For urban kids, it’s not just effective – it’s superior.


Think back to when you were in grade school. What are the memorable educational moments that come to mind?


A memorable moment for Warnock Foundation executive director Olga Maltseva is serving as president pro tempore during a multi-day mock session of the U.S. Senate. Among other things, it included a phonebook-reading filibuster by the opposition to learn how laws are (not) made. When she went to work for the Senate nearly a decade later, in some ways inspired by that 9th grade experience, she was adequately prepared. What if all learning was like that?


In 2010, Green Street Academy decided that it would be.


Rather than employing the “stand and deliver” model in each classroom, GSA opted for school-wide project-based learning. It’s radical: throwing away unit plans and textbooks, an entire grade might learn a year’s worth of academic requirements through the lens of food insecurity – on day one, starting with only the question, “How do we solve the problem of hunger in Baltimore?”


Think about the opportunities: to learn math, you calculate metabolic rates, production schedules, food delivery routes. For language arts, you read and write about hunger. For science, you survey the nutrient content of vacant, farmable land. For social studies, you go to city hall and advocate for change.


We can all agree that it’s a more fun way to learn. And there are multiple studies that prove it can be just as or more effective for knowledge retention. But is it really better, especially for students at Green Street Academy?


The hypothesis? Yes. There are two main reasons.


First, project-based learning is naturally differentiated. In a traditional language arts classroom, a teacher might have to create six different versions of a reading assignment to allow all students to participate. Project-based learning does this task naturally because each student’s experience is slightly different. This is especially relevant at Green Street Academy because of the skill disparity among students entering the 6th grade, a not uncommon issue in Baltimore City.


Second, at Green Street Academy, the fact that project-based learning is fun actually matters. Engaging, relevant lessons are so important for learning for students who have a lot of other things on their minds. More than 95% of students at GSA are eligible for FARMs, and more than 30% have individual education plans. A much smaller, but significant, percentage are either emotionally disturbed, in foster care, or homeless. Lessons have to be compelling to get and keep the attention of students, and project-based learning offers an easy way to do that.