Dan Jones, a 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher at The Richland School of Academic Arts (RSAA), has been integrating his love for Project-Based Learning (PBL) and AI into his classroom.
Having taught for 19 years, 13 of them at RSAA, Jones is a dedicated educator and author. However, earlier on in his teaching career, Jones was beginning to experience burnout, and knew a change had to be made.
“After a few years of teaching at the school, I began to reach a burnout stage,” said Jones. “I was definitely ready to exit and had gone to the superintendent at the time to let them know that would be my last year; she just looked at me and smiled. She said, ‘you’re a teacher; you just need to find a different way to teach’, so that’s what I did.”
After doing some research on finding innovative ways to teach, Jones eventually landed on Flip-Learning and Project-Based Learning.
“I had this realization of ‘oh my gosh, I’ve been doing this wrong the whole time,” said Jones. “Learning about these new ways reignited my passion for what I was doing.”
Jones is the author of two books: Flipped 3.0: Project-Based Learning, an Insanely Simple Guide. and Modern PBL: Project-Based Learning in the Digital Age, which is scheduled to come out in May.
“Flip-learning is a meta strategy. If you want to do PBL and do it well, flip your class,” said Jones.
While writing his first book, Jones decided he wanted to redefine PBL upon discovering that most online definitions didn’t offer the full scope of the teaching method. Jones’ defines PBL as:“The act of using a project to develop hands-on engagement where students who are fueled by their curiosity and passion work collaboratively to explore, absorb, and internalize classroom content beyond route memorization.”
With PBL, the school project becomes an engagement tool developed by the student, based on their personal interests and passions. Students have the opportunity to wrap content around things that they’re already interested in.
A student in Jones’ class was passionate about Harry Potter. The class was studying the three colonial regions in America. As her project, she made wands that represented the three regions, created “potions” that were different colonies within those regions, and a spell book to go along with them. Everything was wrapped around her passion.
“Since the project was centered around things this student was passionate about, she looked forward to coming to class every single day,” said Jones.
Another student in Jones’ class loved all things Marvel. When the class was studying European exploration of the Americas, this student decided to combine the explorers with Marvel characters. Since she knew the characters so well, she took their personality traits and aligned them with the explorers. She then drew portraits of the explorers in the likeness of marvel characters and wrote biographies comparing their similarities to one other.
“When you think back on your own education, you think of the projects you did or the presentations you gave, because those were things crafted by you,” said Jones. “So, if I can provide that experience every single time a student walks into the classroom, it will be a class they will never forget.”
In Jones’ second book, he looks at how educators are entering a new landscape of education with the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI).
“When you look at the types of assignments students are doing in classes, a lot of it is ‘write an essay and that will be your grade’. Now, AI can do that for us,” said Jones. “What AI can’t do is build a diorama or build a gameboard. You could use AI to help you do those things, but it would still require the student’s knowledge to effectively guide it.”
As we move forward in education, Jones sees how PBL will become the instructional approach that pairs well with AI, rather than going against it. In hopes of growing with AI and teaching students how to engage appropriately with it, Jones uses a few different tools in his classroom such as SchoolAi and Magic School.
SchoolAi is a free tool for both teachers and students and is FERPA and COPA compliant. Jones was able to program the chatbot on the site, so that when students engage with it, it will encourage learning.
“If a student copies and pastes a question to the chatbot, it won’t respond with the answer,” said Jones. “It will provide a few details and then ask a question in return, prompting critical thinking. If a student types something off-task, the chatbot will redirect them back to the subject.”
Integrating AI into the classroom was initially a slow process, as students were hesitant at first about talking to a computer. Now, they find it to be fun and look forward to using the tools.
“The chatbot provides a lot of positive feedback to students,” said Jones. “It will affirm a student in their thinking or redirect them in a kind way, which is wonderful, especially for students who are introverted and don’t want to draw attention to themselves. They may not be comfortable raising their hand in class, but they are comfortable asking AI.”
To other educators interested in incorporating PBL, Jones says go for it.
“Project-Based Learning is essential because it deeply engages students by linking learning to their passions,” said Jones. “It cultivates critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving skills, essential for real-world challenges. PBL also supports personalized learning and encourages a lifelong love of learning. Essentially, it prepares students not just academically, but as well-rounded, reflective individuals ready for the complexities of modern life.”
The use of PBL and AI has not only made a difference for the better in Jones’ career, but his classroom as well.
“I see kids becoming excited about what they’re learning,” said Jones. “They become more invested. The focus is on the learning, not the grade.”
Cleveland’s NBC 3 and ABC 5 will be visiting Jones’ classroom to interview him as well as a few students about their use of AI in the classroom.
“Much of my journey is a result of the support of Shellie Gorman, Sandra Sutherland, and Scott Will,” said Jones. “They have encouraged and challenged me in ways that have moved me to think more deeply and creatively about how I approach my classroom. We are able to bounce ideas off of each other and give feedback to one another in ways that grow perspectives and encourage creativity. So much growth occurs from professional reading, research, and writing. And I am just so incredibly thankful for all of the opportunities I have had to try new approaches and new ideas.”