Work that Matters

Charles Wright has partnered with PBLWorks, the international leader in designing rigorous, Gold-Standard project-based learning experiences

By Joe Romano,
Director of Innovation

A single light focuses the audience’s attention on a table set at the center of the Donn Laughlin Theater. A senior lays out their notes, shifts in their seat, and prepares to defend a yearlong quest for knowledge in front of faculty, families, and peers. Over the next 30 minutes, they field questions about the decisions, challenges, and results they discovered through their research in our Humanities Capstone and Science Research courses. The audience leaves inspired by how confidently and cogently these scholars speak about their learning journey, and the nuance and complexity they encountered throughout their year’s work.

Coached by expert faculty such as Dr. Cramer and Mr. Kangas, students develop studies ranging from “Examining the Impact of CaCl2 & MgCl2 Concentrations on Double Transformation Efficiency in E. coli” to “Contacting the Spiritual Past: How 17th and 18th Century Spiritualism Influenced Feminism Throughout America.” These topics are highly meaningful, both to the students who selected them and to the wider community of scholarship in which our students engage. The results are also stunning, both in the nuance and complexity our students navigate, as well as how nimbly and confidently students respond to questions about their year’s work. As students stand in front of a community and present all that they have immersed themselves in over many months, they reveal how much our learners thrive under the rigor of the Charles Wright experience.

Ultimately, this is work that matters. To the learners we cultivate and celebrate, as well as to the communities that are continually provoked and delighted by what our students set their learning at the service of accomplishing. Each year, we bear witness to the degree our seniors have flourished in Charles Wright’s Portrait of a Tarrier (the qualities we nurture and challenge students to develop during each step of the learning journey, from Beginning School to Upper School). Our community’s quality of our Thinkers, Innovators, Communicators, Collaborators, Explorers, and Stewards is phenomenal. They thrive in the capstone experiences described above, and they thrive in our Senior Spark projects, where students develop an array of impact projects, whether composing original film scores or performing complete energy-efficiency audits of our campus. They’re intensely evident in the incredible art exhibitions, ensemble concert performances, and theatrical productions we offer throughout each school year.

While the senior year at Charles Wright represents the apex of work that matters to our community, every grade level offers experiences that epitomize Charles Wright’s mission to inspire active, joyful learning. First graders study nutrition, food justice, and plant cultivation as a means to design a yearly farmer’s market. Sixth graders showcase emerging skills as professional photographers and essayists as they study community and identity through literature and social studies. Eighth graders learn to create logarithms and tables to calculate the potential return on investment–and the impact on carbon emissions–of transitioning from a gas-powered vehicle to an electrified car. Each grade prepares learners for the academic demands they will face in the future. And at every step of the Charles Wright learner journey, we challenge our students to find ways they can apply their learning in meaningful ways.

Hands-on, experiential learning has been a part of the fabric of a CWA education for decades. To deepen our ability to design active, joyful learning experiences, Charles Wright has partnered with PBLWorks, the international leader in designing rigorous, Gold-Standard project-based learning experiences that develop critical academic knowledge and skill alongside the 21st century learning skills represented in our Portrait of a Tarrier.

Project-Based Learning is a teaching method in which students engage in rigorous college-prep academics by actively applying their emerging knowledge to real-world and personally-meaningful projects.

This may look like world language students creating informational brochures for migrant workers to help them navigate local services available to them. Or, this may look like mathematics students applying geometric modeling to redesign a product’s packaging to reduce the amount of waste produced in shipping.

Each of these elements combines to develop abilities in critically important areas of academics while they engage in personally meaningful learning experiences that also develop 21st century skills and impact their wider communities. Charles Wright’s partnership with PBLWorks will nurture and challenge our curriculum to build on our best-in-class experiential education programming, providing all students the opportunity to take on work that matters to themselves, their communities, and the futures they might encounter. Project based learning is transformational: students have repeated opportunities to apply their learning to the real-world. By taking on projects and challenges that ask them to embody the artist, designer, scholar, engineer, policy analyst, activist, financial planner, or any number of pursuits they might encounter in their time beyond Charles Wright, our students have hands-on experiences that develop their sense of purpose and personal possibility alongside their deep and rigorous academic abilities.

Academic Achievement in Project Based Learning

A dominant body of research also proves the efficacy of a project based learning approach to developing the academic skills they need in the near future. In 2021, researchers at the University of Southern California found an 8% increase in the pass rate in project based versions of Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Advanced Placement Environmental Science for the 3,600 students involved in the study. Likewise, a Michigan State study on project based learning in the elementary science classroom found an 8% increase in science assessments for third graders, regardless of socioeconomic status or reading level. PBLWorks
continues to partner with organizations like the College Board and Advanced Placement to develop a curriculum that serves both rigorous academic outcomes and the broad capacities needed for learners to thrive in the 21st century.

Edith Ackerman, an education researcher who spent the bulk of her career with the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, once offered that… “Learning is less about acquiring or transmitting knowledge than it is about collectively designing a world that is worth living in.”

When we create experiences for our kindergarten artists to design their own variety of apples based on research into pomology, when we ask Middle School artists to develop amazing pieces of wearable art inspired by extensive interviews with clients, when we challenge Upper School scientists to develop arsenic sensors to better monitor water quality in the South Sound, or when we ask language learners to navigate through communities that rely on their target language, we invite learners into rigorous experiences that prepare them their academic futures while also helping them develop the confidence to use that learning to shape a world worth living in.

The experiences above are a part of a rich legacy of learning Tarriers encounter. Our work with project-based learning will further enrich the learning we offer our Thinkers, Communicators, Collaborators, Explorers, Innovators, and Stewards at every stage in the learner journey we offer at Charles Wright.

Learn More About Charles Wright Academy
Gold Standard PBL

Gold Standard Project-Based Learning is characterized by integrating rigorous academic learning standards into the following design elements:

• A CHALLENGING PROBLEM OR QUESTION that ignites a learner’s engagement in the learning, and how they might use this learning to impact their community.
• SUSTAINED INQUIRY encourages students to encounter the nuance and depth of the problem, as well as deepen the academic skill and knowledge they are developing throughout the project.
• AUTHENTICITY, where learners complete work that matters and also encounter the tools and techniques of the professionals who take on similar questions and problems.
• STUDENT VOICE & CHOICE, where students can develop a personally meaningful direction for the learning.
REFLECTION is when students and educators repeatedly assess their academic growth as well as their personal development, throughout the learning experience.
• CRITIQUE & REVISION, to cultivate an ethic of excellence and craftsmanship among students.
• A PUBLIC PRODUCT, shares the impact of the learning well beyond the walls of a classroom or school building, impacting broader communities with the answers to the questions or problems that guide the project experience.

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