SEATTLE – In a new type of advanced government class at Seattle’s Garfield High School, the students rarely sit quietly taking notes while their teacher stands and lectures.
Instead, they debate each other. They write legislation. They run for president in mock elections and pretend they’re lawyers arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
They sometimes even stand up and holler, as Sanai Anang did recently, playing a member of a Virginia-based group that lobbies for strict immigration controls.
In a simulated public hearing, Anang, who loves to ham it up, jumped to his feet without being recognized and declared, in a mangled Southern accent, “Ee-lee-gals come over and take our jobs. They don’t bee-long here.”
His classmates and teacher Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser cracked up.
They are all part of a teaching experiment that began six years ago in the Bellevue School District when a handful of frustrated government teachers teamed up with University of Washington researchers and turned the usual Advanced Placement curriculum inside out.
Instead of lectures sprinkled with discussions and occasional projects, they put role plays and simulations at the center of the curriculum: the entree, rather than a side dish or dessert.
Their goal was to solve two problems with the AP program, the largest set of college-level courses offered in high schools across the nation.
First, they wanted to address the criticism that AP classes cover so many topics so quickly that students spend too much time memorizing facts and too little time analyzing their meaning and significance.
The team also wanted to test whether a steady diet of hands-on exercises would help address the rising failure rate on AP tests among some minority groups.
The team members started with AP U.S. government and politics – one of the most popular AP offerings – dumping most of the lectures that usually are the core of the course and replacing them with five in-depth projects.
They then tackled AP environmental science and are now working on AP physics.
The transition hasn’t been easy for students used to being told, at the start of each assignment, exactly what they’re supposed to learn.
Students and teachers alike complain the projects can be time-consuming to complete and to plan. Done poorly, they can be a waste of time.
But the results so far are promising, showing that the project-based classes can provide depth and enough breadth for students to pass the spring AP exams.
Students in the experiment, now underway in about five dozen classrooms in Washington, Northern California and Iowa, have done as well and often better on the AP exams compared with classmates in the experiment’s control schools that use a lecture-heavy approach.
They’ve often scored higher on a separate test that researchers designed to probe how well students truly understand what they’ve learned, although those results have been mixed.
The AP experiment that started in Bellevue grew out of conversations between the UW researchers and a former Bellevue superintendent, Mike Riley, who’d led a big expansion in AP participation in his district.
They thought they could improve the classes by using an idea that dates back to the 1890s, when education reformer John Dewey promoted “learning by doing.”
At its best, project-based learning can help students grasp the importance of their lessons and retain more of what they learn. At its worst, it can be entertaining but little else.
The research into its effectiveness is mixed, in part because the project approach can mean so many different things.
The UW-Bellevue team members dubbed their approach rigorous project-based learning to distinguish it from unfocused efforts that have given the term a bad reputation.
They didn’t throw out traditional instruction altogether. Students still take tests and do homework. They still take the regular AP test at the end of the class.
The first year turned out to be tougher than many anticipated.
Some students complained they didn’t know what they were supposed to be learning, and they struggled to work productively in teams.
Many worried they wouldn’t be ready when it came time to take the AP test in the spring, and so did some of their teachers.
“To be quite frank, I didn’t think I was giving them what it took,” Newport High teacher Tim Shultz said.
Some teachers still lament that the course now takes more time, which means students can no longer take a common companion course – AP comparative government – in the same school year.
Still, Shultz and other teachers embrace the new approach.
They love seeing students stop counting how many points an assignment is worth and instead lose themselves in planning a political campaign or lobbying for a bill.
“What I was doing in the past was teaching to the test,” Shultz said. “I’d say, ‘Know these 50 cases and you’ll be fine on the test.’ ”