Leadership Insights

Principal, Tyler Thigpen, Builds Project-Based Learning into Charter School

By The Room 241 Team February 4, 2014

Tyler Thigpen is a big believer in breaking educational silos — bringing command of math, English and civics together, for example, into a project grounded in the real world.

Tyler Thigpen is building a charter school around the concept of project-based learning.

“Engagement levels are disturbingly low” at most schools, Thigpen said. “Making real-world issues the center of learning is the future of education.”

He fought against political winds to open a charter school in Chattahoochee Hills, just outside of Atlanta, that focuses students on questions of art, agriculture and the environment. The school will open next year. At the same time, he worked at the private North Atlanta high school where he is principal to bring project-based learning on contemporary questions to fruition.

Thigpen gave the example of cleaning up wetlands. By having a class focus on the problem, students can learn the science to fix the problems, writing persuasively to bring others onboard with the plan and math to track the success of their project.

“The multidisciplinary approach is transformative,” Thigpen said. “In order to solve a problem, students have to learn the content.”

Thigpen calls it a “tremendous” change from traditional educational thinking, which creates educational silos for individual subjects.

“Silos compartmentalize thinking and they reinforce that compartmentalization,” he said.

A Charter Challenge

At Upper School at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, where Thigpen is principal, freshmen and sophomores focus on genetically modified organisms while seniors and juniors tackle questions around land use and water. At Chattahoochee Hills Charter School, the approach will face extra pressure: If the charter school doesn’t deliver better results than neighboring schools, it closes.

Thigpen knows his students are learning the content and skills key to succeeding in the future — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

“We are raising the bar,” he said. He urges educators to check out successful programs like High Tech High School, Stanford University’s Online High School or Meridian Academy.

It’s not easy though. Here are Thigpen’s tips for leaders working to bring new programs online.

Get Students to Buy In

For younger students it is easier to get buy-in. The elementary crew entering the charter, for example, will consider project learning what school is. But the high school students at Thigpen’s day job have attended schools focused on content for years.

To get student buy-in, teachers and administrators listened to the learners. What were students interested in?

“We’ve embraced this idea of negotiated curriculum,” Thigpen explained. “We ask students what the issues are they are interested in. Then we put in our teachers in a room and ask how we can use these as themes for learning.”

Reassure Parents About Content

Understanding that this is a new way of teaching is key to approaching parents.

“Everyone has been to school and for that reason think they know what successful schools look like,” Thigpen said. Helping parents see that 21st century education is different is key, he added.

Parents are mourning the loss of content: Students must learn algebra, spelling and history. But educational leaders can show parents that those skills are still being taught, as is critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

Embrace Professional Development for Teachers

Having spent years honing their professional skills, teachers may be reluctant to change from what they know works. But, Thigpen pointed out that professional development could help.

But more than that, leaders can tap into teachers’ mission: to prepare students for the future.

By bringing professionals from other industries into the classroom, not as observers but as people who can provide feedback, teachers can see that problem-solving skills and project-based learning build skills leaders need.

“It’s tremendously beneficial for teachers,” Thigpen said. “Those who were unsure about the new program begin to see that maybe they weren’t positioning students for the real world as well as they thought.”

Want to follow Thigpen’s progress with leading this new way of learning? You’ll find him on Twitter at @TylerThigpen.

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