No more training wheels: project-based learning with Dan Ohl


Dan Ohl (right) with Maureen Nagle sporting Depression era garb.

Some of the most exciting and personal academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the latest research back to the classroom to improve the learning experience.

“Oh, it drives the kids crazy,” says Dan Ohl with a wicked grin. Is he torturing seventh and eighth graders, or teaching them math?

Dan embraces project-based learning (PBL) in his classroom. As part of his faculty cohort project, Dan is a resource for math teachers in all three divisions, helping to develop age-appropriate PBL opportunities. “PBL asks students to use classroom skills to solve real-world questions,” he explains. Students don’t receive an assignment; they design it. Which driving questions best address the topic? How should they form small work groups? Where are the resources? What kinds of presentations will teach and engage? “At first, they want me to tell them what to do,” he laughs, “but before they know it, they find they like building the process, and they’re even prouder of the result. “

In high school and college, students design their independent work. “How can we scaffold these skills throughout the curriculum? Middle schoolers are ready!” Dan says. ”When we studied Pythagoras, I gave them an assignment: find a common carpenters’ trick for making right angles, and demonstrate it. Ask anyone, except me. They couldn’t believe it — anyone? One student asked her uncle, the handyman of the family, and learned the 3-4-5 rule. That led us to prime Pythagorean triples, and on and on.”

The eighth grade RealCare Baby project’s math curriculum is reborn, too. The science unit teaches the physical and emotional demands of parenting. In math, students learn what keeps a family afloat financially. They’re given an identity – job and paycheck, single- or dual-earner status – and, previously, a cost/budgeting guide. “This year, there’s no instruction book,” Dan says. With the PBL approach, students wrote that book, researching costs of food, rent/mortgage, utilities, transportation, insurance, healthcare, taxes. “100% accuracy may go out the window,” Dan admitted, “but they’re learning the real costs of owning a car! They’re building their own tools.”

Seventh graders collaborated in math and English to study the socio-economic climate of the 1920s and 1930s, providing context for To Kill a Mockingbird. Students were randomly paired and assigned a topic to research (“two teacher-selected sources and two found on their own”) and present: the stock market boom and crash, technological innovations, Jim Crow laws, jazz, the dust bowl and more. They shared their findings in a “speakeasy” setting, where soda flowed freely and the middle school Head took a payoff to look the other way. “With PBL, students stretch outside their comfort zone and wrestle with difficult questions with no clear answers,” Dan says. “I’m inspired by the skills and confidence they gain.”

While driving his middle schoolers crazy with PBL, Dan is looking ahead. Reaching out to the professional community, he’ll create a council of mentors and the challenges they face. “I’m looking for engineers, scientists, planners and others willing to share their time and expertise: visiting our classes, presenting real-world questions. I can’t wait to find connections within the Moses Brown community and our ‘extended family,’ and to identify challenges that will open students’ eyes to new possibilities.”


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