Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

IDEAS: A Qualitative Inquiry into Project-Based Learning

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

IDEAS: A Qualitative Inquiry into Project-Based Learning

Article excerpt

As waves of the Global Educational Reform Movement, what Sahlberg (2015) identifies as GERM, still ripple around the world pushing for competition, standardization, the focus on the core subjects, and test-based accountability some schools like IDEAS choose what Hargreaves and Shirley (2012) call The Forth Way towards inspiration and innovation with their project-based learning pedagogy. IDEAS is a small public high school in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and a member of Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). Our qualitative inquiry explores the implications of project-based learning on IDEAS' students, teachers, academic program and school community. Data came from direct observation, interviews, curriculum documents, and teaching and learning artifacts. Our research informs IDEAS about the impact of their project-based learning pedagogy and validates its significance as part of their curricular program. It demonstrates that democratic principles are at work in some US schools, despite so many instances to the contrary. In the age of GERM this single-case study provides research-based evidence that alternative pedagogical methods and curriculum programs are potentially viable alternatives to many of the curriculum practices commonly found in today's schools.

Keywords Coalition of Essential Schools, Project-Based Learning, Qualitative Research, Pedagogical Reform

From its inception, the United States required a system of public education that would form its citizens into democratic sovereigns. Though not all were imagined to be destined to contribute to the ruling body (women, enslaved Africans, native Americans), the idea was that the new country would not rely on a generational aristocracy for law making and governing. And still today, political scientists and scholars observe that democracy, as an ideal and a practice, has to be purposefully reproduced, though always under critical revision. Alluding to John Dewey's microcosm (1916) thesis, Ted Sizer wrote that schools, and particularly high schools, are "one of this nation's most important social mechanisms, which, at their best, are models of democracy as well as providers of the intellectual and moral equipment for young people to survive and prosper in our culture" (Sizer, 2013, p. xix).

Jim is a former high school and middle school teacher and has been teaching in the Department of Educational Studies at Western Illinois University's Macomb/main campus of since 2003. His research, scholarship and practice include critical pedagogy in teaching and learning environments, experiential education, educational ethics, multicultural education, transformative educational leadership and P-12 educational reform. In 2008, Jim encouraged Andrea to apply to a position in his department, at the regional campus in Moline, IL. They have been co-researchers, co-author's and friends, ever since. Andrea is also primarily rooted in the social foundations of education field. One of her earliest interests was democratic classrooms and she maintains a democratic-dialogic classroom pedagogy. Jim's CES affiliation and interests guided his sabbatical research in 2012 that included an introduction to IDEAS Academy, a CES affiliate. Andrea's particular interest is in school-based yoga and mindfulness. The movement component of the students' projects attracted her to the IDEAS Academy. Both of us teach social and philosophical foundations of education courses to undergraduate teacher education students. Andrea teaches social foundations courses and qualitative research to their department's MSEd students, while Jim teaches the EdD students.

Sizer's words resonate with us as we reflect on America's current P-12 educational landscape, with its malaise of test-based policy mandates that often run counter to what many educators know are good educational practices (Blankstein & Noguera, 2015; Gorski & Zenkov, 2014; Ravitch, 2013). Sahlberg (2015) identifies these damaging policies as the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM, pushing education towards competition, standardization, the focus on the core subjects, and test-based accountability (pp. …

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