This school year, my charter organization has made a huge curricular shift: the primary role of class time has become the teaching and learning of cognitive skills. In math classrooms such as my 9th grade one, this was a deliberate move towards prioritizing Common Core’s standards for mathematical practice. Among the skills that became ongoing threads in my course were inquiry, modeling, data analysis and writing. Projects are the vehicle through which these cognitive skills are learned and assessed. So far this year, my students have budgeted an event using spreadsheets, modeled key information about a projectile with Desmos graphs, analyzed the historical trends of a developing country to predict its population in 2050, and asked and answered their own mathematical questions, to name a few projects.

As a teacher who has long been uncomfortable with my answers to the question “Why should I learn this?” I have been overjoyed at this shift. More than ever, the skills required to complete assignments in my class are ones that will help students in many college majors (including math) and many jobs. These are examples of the skills I look for when scoring student work: Have the appropriate variables been identified? Does the analysis accurately reflect the trends in the raw data? Is the model sufficiently precise and accurate? Are the mathematical representations intertwined with written explanations in a way that effectively communicates the work that’s been done? And so on.

It is definitely nice to teach and assess skills that are valuable; as in, actually done by professionals. When I brought in a McKinsey consultant as a guest speaker last month, he presented a recent project he worked on involving a cost-benefit analysis of changing HR software (electrifying stuff). Coincidentally, he opened with what the students had been working on the day before for their population project: listing the assumptions built into the analysis and model.

Certainly there is a cost-benefit to be done about this type of learning, which will take me some time to sort through. For now, I have plenty of short-term wins to celebrate: some mind-blowing final products, the engagement and buzz in my classroom, and – my personal favorite –unprompted e-mails from students sharing links to their favorite math models (Exhibit A and Exhibit B). My students and I are speaking the same language.

PBL, Part 2: No Tracking Needed