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Hotchalk Global

How Project-Based Learning Helped a Teacher Break Out of His Boundaries

An experiment in project-based learning — where students demonstrate their achievements mostly via self-directed projects rather than quizzes and essays — pushed Philip Cummings in all the right ways.

Students achieve in new ways with project-based learning

“I used to be a very old-school teacher,” says Cummings, a sixth-grade teacher at Presbyterian Day School in Memphis. “A quiet, still classroom was a good classroom.” Project-based learning was something altogether different, challenging Cummings as an educator and a learner.

“I like this new way of teaching. It’s a really stretch for me,” said Cummings, who has 14 years of teaching and leading under his belt. “It’s not been without some growing pains, but it’s worth it.”

Today, getting outside of one’s boundaries, learning and growing are more than ideals for Cummings’ students. They’re part of their everyday classroom lives.

Blog Series on Project-Based Learning

Cummings wrote a blog series about his experience with project-based learning. For a section of last year’s classes, Cummings had his classes pick a topic — unemployment, racism and more. Then his students researched the topic and worked in groups to develop projects on their class topic.

The classroom buzzed, which made it hard for a former traditionalist like Cummings to know if anybody was really learning anything.

“It was chaos. There were days when I’d go home and not know if it was a good day or a bad day,” Cummings said. “It was a real challenge for me.”

In his blog, Cummings is honest about the difficulties of trying something new. He wishes he’d given more time for research. With his high school background, he wonders if perhaps he gave students more leeway to define projects than they could handle. He thinks he should have emphasized the quality of the final outcome.

But, he’s also honest about his success.

“There’s no doubt it helped instill empathy,” Cummings said. The reflection periods, where students talked about what they learned, were moving. These sixth-graders really learned about deep social problems and wanted to make things better.

Learning From Chaos

All that chaos produced a lot of good learning, Cummings realized on reflection. Some of the best days were those when students pitched their ideas for their projects. The class chimed in to ask tough questions and steered their peers toward refining their projects.

Cummings also knows that his students grew from the project. They took responsibility for their learning. They were accountable for their research. He knows that next year and the next, these students will be even more ready to take control of their education and projects because of the learning from his classroom.

“I feel like they grew a lot and they did really well, but I think we can do even better,” Cummings said.

And, he’s looking forward to applying last year’s learning to this year’s lessons.

For teachers looking to try project-based learning, Cummings offers this advice:

Dive In

Cummings said he knew a lot about project-based learning before starting because he had read about it for years. But, “being in the middle of it was really different.”

“Go. Just do it. Tackle it. Make a change. Find something that you think is worthwhile and take the risk,” Cummings said.

‘Find a Yoda’

Deep in the middle of something new, Cummings couldn’t always see his successes right away. That’s where the teacher next door was a big help. She had more experience with project-based learning and could point out things Cummings hadn’t seen.

This year, Cummings plans to build on the mentor/support model by teaming up with another teacher for the project.

“Find someone who has done it before, and is a little further a long with it. And ask them to partner with you and be a sounding board,” Cummings said.

Want to see what Cummings is up to? Check out his blog at or follow his Twitter handle, @Philip_Cummings.


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