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Students Take the Wheel in Project-Based Learning

Learning outcomes improve with student-driven approach in classrooms
On a foggy mid-morning day, high school students in “Intro to Catholic Christianity” met in small groups to converse with a Sister in the cozy gathering room of the RSCJ’s on-campus residence. Their mission: to uncover some of the Sisters’ traditions and later figure out a vehicle for passing those traditions on to a new generation of SHS students.
One group of students found symbolism in the acronym “RSCJ” itself, and by composing artwork in the Creative Inquiry (CI) labs to depict the traditions therein, were able to capture an audience of thousands by sharing their findings on social media platforms.
Meanwhile, across campus in the new SHP amphitheater, students in another class were donning brightly colored crimson robes like those of Buddhist monks. They had spent hours studying the character traits and personal histories, both good and bad, of a chosen monk.
With other students portraying lawyers and witnesses, the class put the religion “on trial” to answer a main research question: “Is Buddhism as it is practiced today in keeping with what the Buddha himself intended 2,500 years ago?”
Students milling about in the quad were slowly drawn in to view the dramatic mock trial, and ultimately acted as jury to deliver a verdict within the 40-minute lunch period.
It’s all part of eight new project-based learning (PBL) units for multi-disciplinary SHP courses developed by a group of SHP teachers who attended the Buck Institute’s PBL World Conference in Napa over the summer.
“A key understanding for me coming out of this conference was that project-based learning is something different than having a culminating project at the end of the course,” said SHP CI and Religious Studies teacher Dr. Katie Hennessey, whose students interviewed the RSCJ about traditions.
“[These projects] require sustained, teacher-guided, but student-driven inquiry. Making this shift has required me to think about how I can reach my learning objectives in really different ways than I have traditionally,” said Hennessey.
SHP Religious Studies teacher Scott McDade says PBL such as a mock trial where students “have a hand on the wheel of their own education” aligns with one of his long-held teaching philosophies that students “feel they have a stake in their learning.”
The student-driven nature of a PBL unit results in learning outcomes that students won’t soon forget, say participants.
“With PBL, it’s a lot harder to forget the points we made, because we made them ourselves—we weren’t regurgitating information,” said Luci Lambert (SHP ’21).
Classmate Teddy Pasquesi (SHP ’21) agreed. “It’s certainly like nothing we’ve done before. You have to think on your feet, and that’s a life skill. That’s why it was such a great project.”
Where Scholarship and Values Matter
Founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart, SHS is a Catholic, independent, co-ed day school for students in preschool through grade 12