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Project-Based Learning: Three Things to Remember When You "Count Like An Egyptian"


Close your eyes and think back to your ten or eleven year old self. What do you see? What do you remember being on your mind at that age? What books were you into? What were your passions? At age 11, if you had asked me what I wanted to be, I would've said, "Archeologist." Ancient history was my passion. I couldn't get enough of it, and it spilled over into a love of mythology and legend.

Project-based learning is beneficial for so many reasons, but the reason that I love it so much is that it allows students to discover new passions that the curriculum doesn't necessarily introduce. Ancient Egypt isn't part of my fifth grade curriculum. But, place value and fractions are!

I noticed that my fifth graders were pretty geeked about Egypt and mummies. I paid attention to the books they were seeking out in our media center. A couple of students showed me a fun website about Egyptology that they had discovered.  I decided that I needed to bring their passion into our math classroom. By doing so, I helped some otherwise disengaged math students engage. It was an opportunity for them to be "experts" in a subject that ordinarily challenged them.
Project-based learning, however, is only as successful as the teacher's pedagogy. Keep reading to hear me out!
Project-based learning is fun! It's fun for the students. It's fun for the teachers. But embedded in all of that fun, there needs to be rigor. It's easy to get caught up in the projects, but if you're not connecting them to new concepts or challenges, your students aren't learning. 
For example, in the Egyptian place value and fraction project I developed for my students, we learned about whole number hieroglyphs. This was fun. We used to them to review place value concepts my fifth graders had learned in fourth grade. My kids created birthday cartouches using the whole number hieroglyphs.
 





But what did they learn? Was there dynamic change occurring? For these students, this part of the project was a review of previously learned material. There's nothing wrong with that, is there? Of course not. But had I ended the project there, I wouldn't have described it as rigorous.

Instead, I asked students to think like mathematicians. If no hieroglyphic fraction system exists, then how would they create one? In order to answer this question, my students had to recognize patterns within our number system and the hieroglyphic number system (both base 10). They had to think about how the symbols might be related. They had to problem solve. That one question created rigor.

For maximum impact, project-based learning should hook onto concepts students are learning. I know that sounds pretty obvious, but it's important.  Our brains learn best when they can make multiple connections to new concepts.

In our Egyptian project, we learned about the actual fraction system the ancient Egyptians used. We compared and contrasted the systems we created to the ancient glyphs. We were studying how to decompose fractions and mixed numbers in math class. That's where our study of hieroglyphic fractions took us. We hooked our regular math class learning onto our project-based activities.  The project supported and enriched my direct math instruction. 

Sometimes, it's tempting to just do a STEAM or STEM project just because it looks like fun. Make sure there's a learning hook for your students. Their learning will be more powerful if you do.
Let go of the reigns. Let your students drive the learning chariot.
When they began to brainstorm their hieroglyphic fractions systems, my students struggled a bit. I'm not going to lie, I wanted to help more than I should. But I stopped myself. I asked questions instead. Questions like, "What do you notice about how we write fractions in our number system?" or "How might you use the whole number hieroglyphs to help you?" or "How might your system be different from the one we use today?" You get the picture. When you feel like you want to drive the learning chariot, back away. Ask a question instead. An easy one to ask is "What are you thinking?"

A cool thing about project-based learning is that creates productive struggle for your students. That's how students develop stamina, perseverance, and creativity. DROP THE REIGNS.


If project-based learning is "your thing," or if you're just getting your feet wet, you need to check out these goodies.  They all integrate reading, writing, math and art, and will give your more bang for your teaching buck. 


Psssst! This Egyptian one is being offered 50% off today (Sunday, Oct. 8) only!!!







  



Be sure to stop by these other fabulous blogs for a great round up of teaching ideas!




4 comments

  1. I always get excited reading your posts! Thank you for emphasizing the point about rigor and PBL as not just another "fun" activity. This Count Like an Egyptian unit looks fabulous!

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  2. I love the way you encourage constructivist thinking and are not afraid to "drop the reigns" and let kids fly with their own learning journey! And the Birthday Cartouche! I want to make one!

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  3. I totally agree with what you've said here. PBL is the way to go to help enhance learning. I love the way you used the Egyptian Heiroglyphic Numeration system for your math classes. I've made cartouches with initials, the kids had a great time doing it as I'm sure your kids did too with their Birthday Cartouche. Wish we taught in the same school we could have combined our classes for this one.

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  4. This is an outstanding way of mixing history, ancient cultures and math. I really like how this works.

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