Is it dessert, or is it the main course?

Dear Gateway Families,

Consider this scenario: a teacher introduces a topic in class and talks about it in depth, has students read some texts and watch a video to learn more, gives a few worksheets to reinforce content memorization, leads class discussions to drive critical thinking about the ideas, and then asks students to show what they’ve learned by creating a poster.

Now consider another scenario: a teacher introduces a powerful question to the class, helps children learn about the topic through a variety of resources, asks them to think about it in the context of the real world, includes student voices in selecting the form of a project, helps students reflect on their understanding of the issues, guides them through a process of feedback and revision, and then has students present their project to a public audience.

In the first scenario, the project is dessert; it comes at the end of the learning process, and it’s how students show what they learned. In the second scenario, the project is the main course; it’s how students experience the learning process, and the end result represents their learning-in-action.

You’ve probably heard the phrase Project Based Learning (often shortened to PBL, because everyone loves three letter acronyms), whether at Gateway, in your broader community, or in the media. And, you can probably intuit that the second scenario is what we mean when we talk about PBL.

While our classrooms use projects in both ways throughout the grades, we are investing more time and resources in training our faculty on implementing Gold Standard PBL (it’s capitalized because it has a very specific meaning), because it leads to deeper and longer-lasting learning. It also takes much more time, both in developing the expertise to implement effectively, and to execute in the classroom. Last summer five faculty spent a week at a PBL training at The Buck Institute in Napa, one of the national leaders in PBL research and training, and this year they’ve applied their learning to our curriculum. That’s why you see Kindergarteners creating Know-Want to Know-Have Learned (“KWL”) charts about the lives of owls, first graders working through the design thinking process to create grey water catchers, third graders embarking on their annual crayfish investigation, 4th graders creating a Visitor Center to ground their studies of California, and 8th graders creating websites about the authors of the memoirs they are reading.

Today our Middle School held the competitive judging of its annual Science Fair projects, which embody the application of PBL at an extremely high level. Last year four of our students’ projects were selected at the county-wide, inter-school competition to represent Santa Cruz County at the state level. We hope you can come visit from 5:30-7:00pm tonight to see these amazing projects, and be inspired by the authentic and creative scholarship of Gateway’s oldest students.


Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School