Hathaway Brown’s Innovative Project-Based Learning Approach to Early Childhood Education


Above: Watch Project Based Learning in action at Hathaway Brown School

Project Based Learning in Hathaway Brown’s Early Childhood program is based within a set of strategies that enables educators to guide and encourage students to partake in an in-depth investigation of a pragmatic topic that piques their interest. This interest-based learning is critical in order for children to flourish, helping to keep them on track in constructing their own knowledge – faciliated by the teachers – while building the social and emotional skills that help them grow as individuals. In recognition of Reading Awareness Month, we are highlighting this Early Childhood program at HB.

Lavi the Lion needed a loving home. Inside of a cardboard crate, he dreamt of his imminent adventure while awaiting his departure from Africa. Three days later, he was startled by the sound of something unfamiliar at his new destination: the clapping and chatter of young children, anxious to meet their new friend.

A hard jolt shook him to his feet, and a strange light began to creep inside. Those unfamiliar sounds grew louder, transforming into squeals of delight. The box was opened, and so were the children’s arms. Lavi the Lion had arrived at Hathaway Brown School.

This is just the beginning of the first phase of the Project-Based Learning Approach in the Early Childhood program at HB. Taking cues from their students, teachers developed a back story about how this new stuffed lion had come to take up residence in their classroom. The construct helped 3- and 4-year-old boys and girls use their imaginations as they learned important facts about nature and geography and travel in a fun, engaging, and interactive way. To some, this may seem like play—and to an extent, it is. But according to Barb Cicerchi, assistant professor in Early Childhood education at Cuyahoga Community College, playing is a key part in the learning process for preschoolers.

“Children at this age learn differently than elementary school children,” she explains. “We know as Early Childhood educators that play is a child’s mind figuring out how something is working. That playtime is really important.”

An expert in the field with 15 years of experience, Cicerchi has been mentoring EC teachers at HB since the school incorporated the approach into its curriculum three years ago. Project-Based Learning is not the exclusive form of learning, but rather framed within the school’s overall Discovery Learning model, which incorporates “hands-on, multisensory environments, play-based literacy and exploratory learning,” describes HB Early Childhood Director Jane Brown.

The Project Approach is based within a set of strategies that enable teachers “to guide students through in-depth studies of real-world topics,” according to the program’s official website. As does the Discovery Learning cycle at Hathaway Brown, Project-Based Learning encourages students to partake in an in-depth investigation of a pragmatic topic that piques their interest. Having that interest is critical in order for children to flourish, helping to keep them on track in constructing their own knowledge—facilitated by their teachers—while building the social and emotional skills that help them grow as individuals.

“The underlying goal is to generate an excitement for learning, leading in turn to extended inquiries and fresh discoveries,” says Brown.

Before beginning this learning cycle and embarking on project in the classroom, teachers work with students to select a topic for the project. Taking the children’s individual curiosities as a starting point, narrowing down a singular topic can be a process in and of itself.

In Amanda Bruner and Megan Nitzsche’s preschool classroom, where they co-teach at HB, a desire for their students to take care of some “living” thing led to the topic of their most recent project: lions.

Before the great cat ultimately was selected as the focal point for the project, Bruner and Nitzsche had to prompt their students to discover their interests. First, they provided small animal models to the children, who each cared for an individual animal. This exercise ultimately led them to determine that all of the members of the class should care for a larger animal together. Then they introduced the idea of bringing a lion into the community. They settled on that particular animal mainly for the qualities it represents.

“We wanted to show that you can be powerful and also gentle,” says Nitzsche.

Their students immediately latched onto the concept of caring for a lion, and they were hungry to learn more. And so the story of Lavi the Lion began.

Chapter 1: The Beginning of a Project

After a Project-Based Learning topic has been nailed down, the teachers launch into a discovery phase with the children. Through discussions, storytelling, and inquiries, they elicit prior knowledge so they may establish a plan to meet them where they are and set benchmarks for where to take them. Through these interactions, the teachers are fostering 21st century learning skills including collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.

“One of the biggest benefits is that I’m learning along with the children,” says Bruner. “They can see that, and they can see how I go about finding the answers. It makes teaching very exciting.”

In Bruner and Nitzsche’s class, many of the students’ questions after Laavee’s arrival revolved around caring for the lion itself. Where did the Lavi come from? What do lions eat? What type of habitat does she need in order to thrive?

But rather than simply raising questions so that teachers can provide the answers, the Project-Based Learning approach encourages students to seek out the answers through their own research and investigation. 

Chapter Two: Developing the Project

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 2.52.36 PMWith each inquiry that arises during the discovery process, data begins to be collected. Utilizing resources such as books, films, field trips, and insight from experts, students are encouraged to be inquisitive and seek out information through investigation. As answers begin to take shape, students can react and make connections through their project-based work in the classroom together with their teachers.

“One of the biggest benefits is that I’m learning along with the children,” says Bruner. “They can see that, and they can see how I go about finding the answers. It makes teaching very exciting.”

One of the first concerns the students had upon Lavi the Lion’s arrival was providing her a home. They gathered and carefully analyzed their research about the habitats of lions in Africa, and then the students created their own living environment for their new friend. Using materials such as dry grass, the children constructed a grassland dwelling in a corner of the preschool classroom, and stocked it with plenty of food options so that Lavi would stay nourished and sheltered. And because they discovered that lions are the only cats that live in groups, they provided Lavi with some animal friends, too.

No one child can take care of Lavi all alone. As they worked together, the children began to learn about each other and themselves—particularly their strengths and weaknesses—fueling their self-esteem and sense of purpose.

“We have observed that children learn from each other, pooling their data about what works and what doesn’t, and make adjustments as necessary,” Brown says.

While students develop teamwork, problem-solving, and conflict resolution skills, educators also make sure that core curricular subjects such as literacy, mathematics, science, and geography, are incorporated into the project. Questions invoked by teachers become lessons for the students:

“How many toes does Lavi have?”

“How do you spell ‘Lavi?’”

“What other names have the letter ‘L’ in them?”

“Where is Africa on this map?”

Through these direct teacher-student interactions, children are urged to share what they’ve learned, and the teachers are able to evaluate group and individual learning progress.

It is important to note that Project-Based Learning method is not the exclusive learning model employed in HB’s preschool classrooms. Rather, projects are complementary teaching tools used to foster engagement and keep young minds interested and eager to learn in an integrated and genuine manner.

“It’s a very holistic way of learning,” says Nitzsche of HB’s comprehensive approach.

Chapter Three: Concluding the Project

During the span of a project, teachers communicate on an ongoing basis with parents using a special documentation approach. Via emails, conversations, photos, classroom displays and more, students visually and verbally express what they are learning and that information is shared with their families.

“When kids are part of the project, it helps get parents involved and encourages the students to talk about what they are doing,” says Cicerchi. “When a child can’t stop talking about a project, that’s when you know learning is taking place.”

HB Pre-Kindergarten Teacher Kristen Wise is the parent of Lilah, a student in Bruner and Nitzsche’s preschool class. In addition to receiving updates each day through the documentation from her daughter’s teachers, Lilah keeps her mom enthusiastically apprised of her progress as well.

“As a parent, I hope for my child to be able to apply what she has learned to other areas of her life,” says Wise. “With Project-Based Learning, she is practicing that skill every day.”

“Watching Lilah become so excited about what has been happening in her classroom has been wonderful to see as a parent,” Wise says. “Every night at dinner she shares with great enthusiasm about what she has learned in school.”

A project can last for a week or for a couple of months, depending on the students’ level of interest. To determine if the time is right to conclude the project, teachers will put forth what they call a provocation. In the lion class, the provocation included watching a video about African safaris. If the students are newly inspired by what they see and hear, the project will continue. If they’re unaffected by the provocation, teachers may judge that it’s time to wrap the project with a culminating event, such as a play, presentation, book, or display.

Concluding each project in an imaginative and interactive way helps children apply what they have learned in the classroom in a meaningful way. At the conclusion of the project, students are left with new knowledge and an understanding that asking questions is just as significant as finding answers; a memorable lesson for the future.

Ciercci has witnessed many Early Childhood students benefit from the Project-Based Learning Approach. “By the time by they get to kindergarten, they are full of creativity and questions,” she says.

Just like Lavi the Lion, the children are encouraged to always be exploring.

“As a parent, I hope for my child to be able to apply what she has learned to other areas of her life,” says Wise. “With Project-Based Learning, she is practicing that skill every day.”

> Learn more about Early Childhood Education at Hathaway Brown School.

This article originally appeared in Hathaway Brown School’s Learn for Life Admissions Magazine Winter/Spring 2016 issue. 


 

CONTRIBUTOR

Goodwin, Reena
Reena S. Goodwin is the Assistant Director of Marketing and Communication at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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