Phased Implementation of Real World Learning


Ongoing development, supervision, and assessment of the educational program are critical tasks for any school. This is particularly true when the school’s mission involves a sophisticated integrated, real world curriculum built around high-interest community-based projects and problems in career clusters, with content mapped from state standards. Real world learning is new to many teachers, however, and requires a phased implementation. A four-pronged approach leads teachers gradually toward greater independence and creativity in planning high-quality real world learning for their students:
  • “Add-Water-and-Stir” Units – i.e., providing teachers with exemplary, research-tested real world learning projects for use in their classrooms, described in explicit, step-by-step fashion;
  • Real World Learning Unit Customization – i.e., engaging teachers in “personalizing” the Add-Water-and-Stir units;
  • Curriculum Integration – i.e., mapping the real world methodologies and shaping it all into a sequenced instructional program that is explicitly aligned with the District’s curriculum and state standards in all subjects; and
  • Teacher-Created Real World Learning Units– i.e., supporting teachers as they create their own learning projects for students that are truly responsive to students’ needs and interests, grounded in current research in the field, and embedded into a high quality, college-preparatory standards-based preK-12 educational continuum.

“Add-Water-and-Stir” Units

Teaching content through real world learning is new territory for many teachers. It is important that they have effective models to guide their initial endeavors. Teachers can be supplied with a collection of pre-designed projects and problems, such as a unit to introduce crime scene investigation or a project to design a theme park ride. Such “Add-Water-and-Stir” real world learning unit plans provide teachers with step-by-step instructions and guidance on everything from the “hook” that introduces the project, to strategies for structuring instructional, planning, design, and production time for students, to the assessment and recognition of learning outcomes. Suggested curriculum maps are included to demonstrate connections between the activities and standard curriculum areas.

In addition, exemplars will be included that will help teachers see what should and can be expected of their students. These exemplars will take the form of written text and graphics, multi-media presentations of student work, web-page exhibitions of projects and problems, and narratives from teachers explaining their current best practices – and how they began to use real world project-based or problem-based learning effectively in the past, as a multi-step process toward pedagogical revitalization and effectiveness.

Thus, the teacher materials will provide the overall framework, a variety of matrices that crosswalk standards, content and clusters, instructional strategies, and week-by-week lesson plans detailing the deployment of appropriately sequenced projects and problems.

Real World Learning Unit Customization

For effective classroom implementation, teachers will not only need to be well trained and comfortable with this approach and content, but the curriculum must be designed in a way that teachers can adapt it to their particular styles. “Add-Water-and-Stir” units are necessarily customizable. While they provide teachers with ideas and models of teaching content through real world project-based or problem-based learning, they also offer an opportunity for teachers to develop secondary real world project development skills, such as adapting the curriculum to the abilities, interests and experiences of a cluster’s particular group of students; contextualizing the project to the community served by the school; finding and developing collaborations with businesses, organizations, and institutions of higher education to make the projects and problems/units more real. To make this possible, parts of the real world learning units will be designed so that some of the content detail is contributed by the teachers themselves. The teachers will be provided with a clear outline of the decisions and actions they will need to undertake, as well as with common planning time embedded within the school day during which to make these decisions. Such an approach is necessary not only to afford the project a strong sense of community, but also to provide teachers an aspect of ownership and investment in the curriculum.

Making real world projects and problems highly personal, academically appropriate, and contextualized within the students’ world will require not only exceptional educational leadership, but also the involvement of parents, students, and community members, particularly representatives from local businesses, organizations, and institutions of higher education. Teachers will involve these stakeholders through a series of formal and informal avenues, including focus groups, in-class brainstorming sessions, parent and community meetings, surveys, etc. Further, the Add-Water-and-Stir projects and problems provide the intellectual framework for teachers to develop strategic planning skills in advance of having to begin designing their own projects and problems.

Curriculum Mapping

Curriculum Mapping is designed to determine what needs to be taught when and to what purpose. The curriculum map documents the connections between real world learning activities, appropriate standards (District, state, and national), and the demands of core academic areas. A real world project-based instructional program benefits greatly from curriculum mapping both in terms of planning content and documenting its scope.

Curriculum Mapping allows the teachers to ensure that students are learning the essential curricula, since project content is driven by real world goals rather than a preordained sequence as in traditional education. Once projects and problems are planned, subject-based content is easily mapped onto the framework of the district curriculum. Potential gaps in the curriculum are easily identified and can be addressed through extending project-based or problem-based activities, the online learning systems, or more conventional lessons.

Evidence of learning can include specific artifacts – a paper in a particular genre meeting certain criteria for the writing, calculations from a particular design or investigation, or even test and quiz data from in-class or online assessments. As students complete certain projects and problems, they can assign their artifacts and evidence to particular curricular modules. They will be awarded credit for a module as they complete its requirements, and receive credit for courses as they complete all of the associated modules. An advantage of this system is that both students and teachers can monitor their progress, check it against the curriculum map, and can easily revise project requirements to either address gaps or to augment curricular objectives with valuable extensions.

Teacher Created Real World Learning Units

After initial immersion in the guided “Add-Water-and-Stir” units, unit customization, curriculum mapping, educators will generate major high-interest, community-based projects and problems to be implemented by each career cluster. Teachers becoming richly involved in developing their own projects and problems is vital if the activities designed are to be responsive to the needs of the students, teachers, and community, as well as to the ever-changing world of business, industry, and higher education. Teachers (with training and support) will work closely with students, parents, and community members to create the real curricula of the schools. Real world project-based or problem-based units, rich in content from the district curriculum, will be strongly linked to the community and to the lives of students.

Projects and problems that provide the focus for real world learning will be contextualized by being customized to the local community. School leadership can proceed by collecting and analyzing a series of documents that address the following issues for the geographical area surroundingthe school:
  • Social / demographic statistics and trends
  • Educational attainment measures by year and recent trends
  • District documents focused on District objectives and strategies
  • Economic development needs and assets (per organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Board, the Workforce Investment Board, etc.)
  • Industry-specific documents in career clusters aligned with local job and career prospects

In addition, focus groups can be held with various District, community, and business stakeholders to ascertain willingness and to detail specific opportunities for youth either beyond the day-to-day scope of the curriculum or integrated within it through project-based or problem-based real world learning activities. Follow-up conversations will be held in person and by phone with surrounding businesses and organizations with which immediate and substantial involvement is likely.

As this research is completed, school leadership will be able to detail some of the available and appropriate connections with local organizations, federal agencies, and businesses. Further, curriculum frameworks and content can be produced in alignment with local project opportunities and workforce and economic interests particular to the career clusters (themes) selected for implementation. In addition, the research will provide teachers a database of willing and interested local organizations and the resources they can tap as they plan and execute their projects and problems. Importantly, this will provide teachers an inspirational sense of reality and possibility as they embark on a major reform endeavor.

A further aim is to better ensure that the curriculum content and standards are in alignment with the real world that surrounds the schools themselves so that students – during the summers and after graduation – will find their learning pertinent to local job and career prospects, as well as to postsecondary educational opportunities. The Real World Learning Unit Development phase culminates in the creation of a general framework of various projects and problems for each career cluster, grade-level, or class, outlining a time frame for the completion of major projects and problems and general activities.



The Schools We Need Project

Because some students need more than direct instruction.

The Schools We Need Project is a joint project of the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning at the University of Maine at Farmington