On this particular day at the end of the school year, first-grade students at The University of Texas Elementary School are very busy, most working in pairs or small groups all intently reading, writing, discussing or creating a visual product. They are working on projects of their choice on topics as diverse as Michelle Obama, bullfrogs and honeybees.
These classes, taught by Natacha Jones and Molly Kelly, were part of a study led by Jennifer Adair, assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at The University of Texas at Austin.
Through a three-year research project funded by the Foundation for Child Development, a private national organization, Adair is trying to understand how children in early grades respond academically and socially to increased "agency" in their classroom. Agency refers to more opportunities to problem solve, make decisions, experiment, think critically and help one another. Project-based learning offers opportunities to do all of those things.
"It is by nature student driven, not teacher driven," said Kelly, a veteran teacher and former curriculum supervisor with the Austin Independent School District. "They have more control over what and how they learn."
The University of Texas Elementary School is a public charter school that is part of the university's Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. The classroom teachers who are part of the project still teach a curriculum according to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state standards for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level.
"We still have lessons on rocks and minerals in science, but those lessons spark student questions that allow them to go further than what is inside the curriculum," said Jones. "As teachers, we must find balance between the whole group and the project-based learning freedom."
"On their own, the students in these two classrooms have become more curious they go beyond what they are asked to do in almost every case," said Adair.
The teachers who used the project-based model made fewer behavioral referrals than in years past. They also watched as students formed relationships that they typically would not have in a traditional classroom.
"Conventional thinking says don't put a high-performing student with a low-performing child because the high performer would get frustrated," said Kelly. "But with project-based learning, the high and low performers gravitated together, and boys and girls gravitated together. Relationships formed around subject matter two students who wouldn't normally be friends might both love volcanoes."
"They are independent thinkers now," said Jones. "We have many resources in the classrooms; the kids don't have to ask us about topics, but see themselves as little researchers, little scientists. They get excited about things and make connections with the real world. It is good to see 6- or 7-year-olds take control of their own learning."