The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning: Project Based Learning

Dan BeerensDeeper Learning, The CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

In this series we spotlight six particular approaches, or design models, used to implement Christian Deeper Learning. For each, we will ask four questions to school leaders implementing the featured model:

  1. What was the reason you adopted this design model?
  2. How does this model promote Deeper Learning?
  3. How has this model helped you meet your mission as a Christian school?
  4. What impacts have you seen on students, teachers, and community?

Project Based Learning

“Discontent with the status quo is a great catalyst for vision.” This truth, stated by leadership guru John Maxwell, certainly applies to the growth of PBL (Project Based Learning) in Christian schools in Ontario and British Columbia, Canada. I recently had the opportunity to talk with two leaders who led these efforts to implement PBL into their schools, Harry Blyleven from Hamilton District Christian High in Hamilton, Ontario and Julius Siebenga from Abbotsford Christian in Abbotsford, British Columbia. As they thought back to the beginning of their interest in PBL both were discontented with the status quo and consequently began to seek improved methods of engaging students in their learning, and at the same time better meet their missions. In this post I will share a bit of their story and their progress over the past ten years.

As always, there is more to the story – I was introduced in the early ’90s to PBL via a workshop led by Ren Siebenga, Julius’s father, who had implemented PBL many years earlier at schools he led, the most recent being Toronto District Christian High. Also, Julius’s brother, Nathan, was the principal who brought PBL to Hamilton District Christian High, working closely with Harry, Justin Cook and others. It should not go unnoticed that just one family has had a tremendous impact in helping to change the course of Christian education in Ontario and BC!

What was the reason you adopted this design model?

Like many Christian schools who have a great mission statement, the question for Julius became – “Are we really doing what we are aspiring to?’ While the words on paper were great, were the students really being given the opportunity to understand deeply through their learning what the words meant? Were the students connecting to the real world in their learning? Harry recalls teachers needing clarity and questioning at first when the term “authentic learning” was used by those seeking change – those not seeking change felt that they were already doing “authentic learning.” The question at Hamilton District Christian High (HDCH) became “Why are we learning this and why do we need to know this?” There was a disconnect between what students were being asked to learn and the real world. Julius recalls that with the PBL framework the teachers were able to take the Essential Questions they had been working on, that were connected to the school’s mission and worldview, and make them come alive in the classroom. Both schools were seeking to restore the self-esteem of students who didn’t do well in traditional schools because they didn’t see the purpose of learning. They also sought to allow kids to see outside of the school walls, help them find real/authentic work, and to create for a real audience. Parents saw the enthusiasm of their students increase and they joyfully participated in exhibitions of student learning that showed the rigorous work of the students.

How does this model promote Deeper Learning?

It was somewhere around 2008 that the first video from High Tech High in San Diego came out on Youtube. It was a mindblowing video – it told the story of the founding of the school and how it was producing students learning and making a real difference with projects that impacted their community and world. The kind of learning they were doing honored the gifts and passions of the students by giving them some measure of choice in their learning experience and at the same time developing skills of communication, collaboration, and creativity. It was a video I often used in PD sessions with schools to jolt them toward change – my question was “Is this public charter school actually more of a Christian school than yours?” as I tried to get my audiences to consider how this model of schooling honored students as image bearers and allowed them to do real work that impacted their world for the good of humanity.

It was learning about High Tech High that prompted Harry and other leaders from Ontario and Julius and other leaders from BC to make several trips to High Tech High to see firsthand how PBL was being implemented and making a difference with students. Over the next five years, Julius sent a high percentage of his staff to High Tech High, and Harry got involved with coaching training at PBL World. With strong support from leadership at both schools that led to intensive teacher training and accountability for implementing a project, PBL was launched. To meet the ongoing training needs at both schools, Hamilton established The Christian Teachers Academy for PBL training in 2012 and Abbotsford established the PBL Residency. These programs not only impacted their teachers at their own schools, but they were generously opened up to other schools in their provinces – PBL was growing and finding traction!

How has this model helped you meet your mission as a Christian school?

Both Julius and Harry believe that PBL is the tool that made their missions turn into reality. Julius reflected how their school mission “Engaging minds, nurturing hearts, shaping God’s world” promotes deep engagement of students in authentic work that goes beyond the classroom to shape the community and world students live in. Harry describes authentic learning/real work as vital to fulfilling the school mission (Cultivating character through learning for a life of service to God) and as helping in three ways: 1) allowing kids to see outside of the school walls, 2) involving rigor as students defend their work and receive critique and feedback, and 3) restoring the self-esteem of students who have “not been good at school.” Simply put, students become invested in their learning in ways not seen before in a traditional setting.

What impacts have you seen on students, teachers, and community?

Students at both schools enjoy the opportunities to impact their community. One such example at HDCH is the work students did with the Royal Botanical Garden where students made benches for visitors. They picked the area for the benches and then went to work designing them, making 3-D models and then got feedback from a Garden supervisor. On a recent visit to the school I was impressed by the documentation and explanation of projects to visitors that were posted on walls and doorways of the school (see photos in this post.)

Teachers are required to do a project per course that they teach at HDCH and are encouraged to use the elements of PBL such as protocols for learning and feedback throughout all instruction. Julius expressed appreciation for the ways that teachers made the change to PBL happen through their teamwork and collaboration. For a searchable database of student projects, check out this great resource (screenshot below) that Abbotsford has put together. Both acknowledged that PBL at their schools is a work in progress, but were optimistic about the significant shifts that they continue to see.

One of the challenges of implementing Deeper Learning is fear of loss of what is known – parent concerns typically focus around whether their child will do well enough to get into a desired college or be fully prepared. Julius mentioned that parent attitudes have shifted significantly because kids have continued to do well. One indicator of this shift is that the demand for AP courses has dropped significantly and numbers of students attending college have increased from 30% to 50% over a ten-year period. Abbotsford has moved to Presentations of Learning by students twice a year because parents so look forward to them. Parent and student satisfaction levels post high school remain at high levels.

Through the work of the Christian Teacher’s Academy in Ontario and the PBL Residency in British Columbia, PBL in the Christian school context has had a significant impact on Christian education in Canada and beyond into places such as South Korea, Slovenia, and Central America. PBL is a re-orientation of how learning can happen. It empowers students and teachers to engage deeply in learning. It helps to restore the innate joy of learning and incorporates the joy of loving and serving others through work. It helps celebrate the good gifts of God given to each person and the good gifts of God manifested in work and community together.

Afterword: While this is the last blog post in this series, we would not claim that we have comprehensively dealt with all the models that exist for helping students engage in deeper learning. We hope this series has helped you gain a clearer understanding of the names and designs of several Deeper Learning models that you may hear of and most of all help excite you about the many ways that we have the opportunity to engage God’s image bearers as People of God’s story engaged in real work that forms self and shapes the world! We invite you to consider attending our 2021 virtual Christian Deeper Learning conference – for more information please visit our website or contact Steven Levy or me.

Note: This article is part of a series on different paths to Christian Deeper Learning. You can read the introduction to the series here: The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning: An Introduction


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