Struggling with teacher shortages? Students can be part of the solution.
This method helps students and teachers alike
By Emily McGinnis
American public schools are running out of teachers.
According to a recent survey, more than 50% of educators are considering leaving the profession sooner than they intended. That's three times the share of teachers who were thinking about an early departure before the pandemic -- and double the figure from the end of last school year.
Our children can't afford to lose half their teachers. School systems can help stop the brain drain by shifting to a highly effective, underused teaching approach that gives educators more flexibility -- project-based learning.
Project-based learning is just what it sounds like. Students solve challenges through hands-on undertakings. Teachers still deliver lessons -- but within the framework of projects that can last weeks or even months.
The approach has been around for decades. But it's gaining traction as new evidence mounts of its positive impact on student outcomes.
Take, for example, a recent study of 3,600 high schoolers conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California. They found that students who learned environmental science and U.S. government within a project-based structure outperformed their peers on AP exams in those subjects by 8 percentage points.
Researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan followed 2,300 third graders and found that those in project-based learning classrooms scored 8 percentage points higher on state science exams than their peers in traditional classrooms. Notably, the effects were consistent regardless of students' socioeconomic backgrounds.
But project-based learning isn't just good for kids. Research shows it can make teaching more rewarding and manageable. And that's crucial for teacher retention.
Over the last two years, we've demanded a lot of educators: that they become adept at online and hybrid teaching, field distraught parents, police new public health regulations, and act as frontline workers when many of us were able to stay home.
No wonder they're exhausted. Even now, as the pandemic recedes, teachers are stretched thin. There were 575,000 fewer employees in state and local education in October 2021 than in February 2020.
Low pay continues to discourage people from entering the profession. The wage gap between teachers and their peers with similar levels of education grew more than threefold from 1996 to 2018, to 21%.
Well-crafted project-based learning curricula can make teachers' lives easier -- and in turn help build and maintain the educational workforce we need.
For example, in an old-fashioned lesson on solar energy, a teacher might convey information via a lecture, then test students on how much they remember.
In a project-based course, students might be asked to engineer a solar-powered oven for a food truck. While they would learn some material directly from their teacher, they would also learn from independent research, their peers, and trial and error as they designed and built their machines.
Under this method, students take on more responsibility for directing their own lessons while operating within a set structure. This can save teachers time.
When instruction relies primarily on the teacher as the center of attention, a 15-minute interruption during a 50-minute class can derail learning. But if students are progressing with some independence, teachers can more easily adapt to interruptions, offer one-on-one guidance or spend time on planning and grading -- all within the same hour.
Project-based learning also tends to reduce disruptions caused by off-task behavior and strengthen collaboration. And it leads to more exciting "AHA!" moments of discovery, bringing more joy into the classroom for students and teachers alike.
Schools can't implement this model overnight. It's critical that school districts get buy-in from administrators and teachers. Top-down project-based learning decrees could alienate teachers who are reaching students in other ways or are already employing forms of project-based learning. In fact, these educators may know exactly what adaptations to the curriculum would work best.
The benefits of project-based learning are worth the time and effort it takes to employ it successfully. The evidence that this model improves student performance is clear. No less important is the fact that it can alleviate pressures on teachers, and help them see a future in education.
Emily McGinnis is a K-12 education specialist at KI, a global furniture manufacturer in Green Bay, Wis. She previously spent 21 years as a teacher and principal in the Charlotte, N.C. area.