Madison implements project based learning

Adam Dembicki, Staff Writer

The days of students sitting at their desks completing packets of worksheets, writing essays about Shakespeare and taking standard science tests may be numbered. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS)–including Madison High School–is implementing project-based learning (PBL), which aims to help students learn through hands-on experiences. PBL challenges students to consider how their knowledge can address real-world problems, says Jeff Lonnett, a PBL specialist for the school district.

“PBLs are engaging and fun because each student has a unique input,” he says. “For example, the art students can add graphics, and a journalist can provide the writing.”

This approach to learning is effective since students can “apply their learning” outside of textbooks, lectures and standardized tests, Lonnett says. Although PBL seems like the total package for a modern classroom, there are obstacles. To avoid problems and get the most out of PBL, Lonnett advises teachers and students to “start small, get used to the process, and build up.”

Using Lonnett’s blueprint, Madison created the WINGS Program, a PBL-based learning experience that provides graduating seniors two distinct opportunities. First, students showcase their personal growth around a special interest that they share with their teachers and peers. Second, it serves as a launching point for students to explore career interests and learn skills in a local community setting outside the classroom prior to graduation.

At Madison, students using PBL are encouraged to identify problems and find solutions to improve the local community. In fact, more than 40 Madison students have presented their findings to the mayor of the town of Vienna. Madison continues to develop the program by combining the principles of PBL with the Portrait of the Graduate (POG), which are a set of skills designed to help students grow into productive citizens. The Madison’s WINGS Program is now a schoolwide initiative that encourages every student to determine a way that he/she can positively contribute to the “school, community and world.” Students are challenged to investigate and ruminate throughout the year by researching, creating and collecting artifacts about their experiences that they will ultimately share in the year-ending “Presentation of Learning” (POL). Their journey, however, is on a shared path that features a learning community of teachers and peers with everyone sharing, discussing and learning together in order to learn more about themselves.

With the expansion of the WINGS Program, Madison Principal Liz Calvert says the school is on track to meet FCPS’s initiative that encourages every student to participate in POL by 2025-26. This means more than 2,000 students are creating individual websites that feature their POG portfolios, containing documentation of growth such as writings, drawings, photos, videos and more.

“I’m excited that last spring we decided to extend the MAD Wings program to all Madison students,” Calvert says. “We are well on our way to an exciting experience later this year – an experience that will be shared with students, teachers and parents alike.”

Madison students seem to appreciate the new take on the Wings Program, with some students saying they find the approach and focus on a passion of their interest refreshing. They note that students often incorrectly measure their learning through grade marks and “competing” with other classmates. A PBL offers a different aspect for classroom and world understanding.

“The WINGS program really gives meaning to work when some assignments seem pointless,” says Adriana Maya, (’24). “It is a great way to check progress and see how you are growing.”