How PBL Transforms the Classroom into the ‘Real World’

By Anthony Johnson

Like most teachers, I don’t think of myself as your picture-perfect thought leader. Although I’ve got a long list of accolades behind my name, it’s the students who have taught me everything I know and have guided me to where I am today.

While some kids dream of becoming teachers and go through school knowing they want to end up back in the classroom, I was a teacher’s nightmare who was constantly in trouble and failed 4th, 7th, 8th and 9th grades before dropping out of high school at the age of 16 and receiving my G.E.D. After losing both of my parents six months apart, I spent time reflecting on my life and decided to make a change. A year later, I enrolled in college to major in music.

To fulfill my college requirements for community service, I began visiting a local elementary school and noticed that not much had changed since my time. The lessons were not engaging and didn’t encourage collaboration or critical thinking. Instead, students were given worksheets, the teacher sat at her desk, and students with behavior issues were allowed to sleep in class or were removed from the environment completely.

I was disturbed by what I observed, and took a role in the classroom as a volunteer and mentor. The next semester I changed my major to elementary education and sought other classrooms in which to volunteer my time. During my sophomore year, I received a full academic scholarship and graduated in 2003 with a B.A. in Elementary Education.

My number one goal is to give my students a very different learning experience from my own—which is exactly what I am doing today.

Welcome to Johnsonville

Employees in today’s economy aren’t evaluated using formal assessments to prove they know the ins and outs of their job. They’re assessed based on overall performance, which is how I evaluate my students. Just like in the real world, in my classroom students show what they’ve learned through project-based learning (PBL) and application of knowledge using real-world examples.

I adopted a project-based model in my first year of teaching. On the first day of school I issue my students a PASSPORT (which stands for Preparing All Students for Success by Participating in an Ongoing Real-world simulation using Technology) and explain that their year-long adventure to “Johnsonville” starts today.

The school year is a simulation of adulthood where studentswork, create, and learn about personal finance and entrepreneurial skills. They experience real-world situations and gain insights into global affairs. Students don’t view my classroom as a “classroom,” but more of an interactive city where all projects intertwine to create an ecosystem of businesses and homes.

Each student has the opportunity to become an entrepreneur, politician, banker and more. They are given $1,000 in Johnsonville cash to begin their lives. Students must buy a house or rent an apartment, earn wages and manage their finances. As the children buy and sell items I donate, they learn career-oriented math skills along with life lessons.

As they would in a real business, they manage a database of their clients or suppliers, create advertising plans and track their income to ensure they are making a profit. Students even learn different levels of government and hold elections for positions of power including president and city council. Students can also earn extra money through academic achievements and good behavior.

Creating Your Own “Johnsonville”

Teachers often ask me, “How do I create an environment like Johnsonville in my classroom?” The first thing I tell them is to stop thinking of themselves as teachers and start being classroom facilitators. PBL is all about educators giving up control of their classrooms and allowing students to take charge of their learning and explore answers for themselves.

Step two is to build lessons that are relevant to students. For example, my students are tasked with real-world issues like buying a home, paying rent, starting a business and managing finances. Students see adults face these same issues, and can relate what happens in Johnsonville to the real world. Relevancy makes each lesson memorable, meaning students are more likely to remember the overall concept of a lesson as opposed to memorizing facts for a test.

When it comes to lesson building, I’ve discovered Defined STEM to help me create relevant, career-connected lessons I can incorporate into Johnsonville. The supplementary curriculum provides teachers with research resources, videos, and project prompts that encourage students to think outside the box and put them in real-world situations. It also allows for maximum flexibility as I’m able to change parts of the lesson to fit the needs of my classroom.

The final step in making Johnsonville successful is my classroom design. Desks are made for individual students—which is why I don’t have any. In my classroom, you will only find tables, collaboration bars and sofas, which promote collaboration and creativity.

Is all of this change actually paying off? Well, according to state science exams, my students consistently score higher than other science classes in my district.

Johnsonville Works! Test Scores Prove it!

North Carolina State testing proves that my PBL model improves student scores. At the end of the 2016 school year, my 5th-grade students scored an average of 85% on the state science exam, while my school as a whole scored 58%. I believe my focus on PBL and hands-on learning was the catalyst for this major boost in test scores.

It’s important to remember that every child is different and learns differently. Relating classroom lessons to real life helps students at any level connect with the content and interpret it in a way they are able to understand. When students become part of their own learning, they take pride in their education and become more engaged. PBL not only keeps students busy, but it allows each one to show what they’ve learned in a creative, supportive and collaborative environment.

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Anthony Johnson is a 5th-grade teacher at Isenberg Elementary School in Salisbury, North Carolina, an Apple Distinguished Educator and a TED-Ed Innovative Educator. Follow him on Twitter @a_p_johnson.

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