Project-Based Learning and Curriculum Design

At DCCS, each classroom will work on a project – lasting weeks, months, or even an entire semester – and each student will have tasks that incorporate both academic and non-academic goals. Project-based learning (PBL) will empower our students with the skills they need to go on to live, work, and thrive in higher education or the workplace. Project-based-learning methods “engage students in creating, questioning, and revising knowledge, while developing their skills in critical thinking, collaboration, communication, reasoning, synthesis, and resilience (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008)” (http://www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-learning-outcomes). These goals are especially important for students with developmental and intellectual disabilities; only by intentionally focusing on the development of these skills can we ensure our students will have the skills necessary to live fulfilling and meaningful lives as adults.Our teachers will incorporate students’ individual academic goals, pulled from the Common Core State Standards and the North Carolina Essential Standards, into their project tasks. By addressing these goals through projects, our students will more effectively absorb the knowledge and be better able to use that knowledge.

Project-based learning is especially beneficial to students with disabilities. Research shows that “students with average to low verbal ability… learned more in PBL classes than in traditional classes.” (Summary of Project-based Learning, Center for Excellence in Leadership of Learning, June 2009) Furthermore, a study from the Buck Institute of Education showed that “low-ability students” who used PBL “increased their use of critical-thinking skills including synthesizing, evaluating, predicting and reflecting by 446%….”

PBL uses many of the same principles used in Relationship Development Intervention, a developmental therapy most often used with children with autism but which can further the development of students with other intellectual and developmental disabilities as well. For example, PBL uses scaffolding, which are learning aids and training strategies designed to ensure activities stay within a student’s “zone of proximal development”—that place where a student is challenged and engaged but not overwhelmed. PBL also uses the master-apprentice relationship (also known as guided participation): “…like masters, teachers should scaffold instruction by breaking down tasks; use modeling, prompting, and coaching to teach strategies for thinking and problem solving; and gradually release responsibility to the learner.” (Motivating Project-based Learning: Sustaining the Doing, Supporting the Learning, Educational Psychologist, 1991) Both of these are core techniques of Relationship Development Intervention and essential for promoting the mental and emotional development of children with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Curriculum Design

Our teachers will incorporate students’ individual academic goals, pulled from the Common Core State Standards and the North Carolina Essential Standards, into their project tasks. By addressing these goals through projects, our students will more effectively absorb the knowledge and be better able to use that knowledge.

As is recommended by the Common Core State Standards for the education of children with disabilities (http://www.corestandards.org/assets/application-to-students-with-disabilities.pdf), DCCS will implement the Universal Design of Learning (UDL) guidelines in its development of projects and curricula. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) developed the UDL, and its premise is that curricula must be adaptable to individual learners in order to give each student the chance to access the lessons and demonstrate what they know. As stated in the UDL Guidelines, version 2.0: “UDL helps address learner variability by suggesting flexible goals, methods, materials, and assessments that empower educators to meet these varied needs. …The UDL framework encourages creating flexible designs from the start that have customizable options, which allow all learners to progress from where they are and not where we would have imagined them to be.”

Most importantly, UDL is designed to turn students in “expert learners” — students who (1) can use their prior knowledge and experience when learning something new and can turn new information into meaningful and useable knowledge; (2) can formulate plans for learning by devising effective strategies for tackling a problem; and (3) are motivated by the mastery of learning itself. This correlates perfectly with the mission and goals of DCCS. Rather than teaching our students how to do a specific job, which is often the goal of traditional middle and high schools for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, we seek to ensure our students have the skills they need to learn throughout their lives and to be successful at whatever work, educational or recreational goals they choose to pursue.