At This High School, Teens With ADHD Excel Through Project-Based Learning

Warren New Tech is a public high school in rural North Carolina that uses project-based learning. Instead of taking typical classes, students learn by doing projects. In a traditional school, kids studying the Civil War might hear a lecture then take a test. But at Warren New Tech, they put together a presentation connecting the war to their town’s local history.

There are 155 students at Warren New Tech. Seventeen of them have ADHD.

Warren New Tech is one of the dozens of schools I’ve researched over the last year for Understood founding partner the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). We’ve been looking at personalized learning, a new teaching model that focuses on kids’ individual strengths, skills and needs.

Personalized learning can take many forms. One possible approach is project-based work.

If you read about how education is changing these days, you’ll often hear buzzwords like personalized learning. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook made news recently by saying the approach “makes sense.”

What you won’t always hear, however, is how kids with learning and thinking differences like ADHD can be part of these changes. Sadly, kids with (IEPs) and are often an afterthought.

When it comes to these kids, the traditional approach has been to drill basic skills. While basic skills are very important, they can crowd out other types of work. People also often assume that kids with learning and thinking differences can’t learn through project work or through a personalized learning approach.

Warren New Tech is one of the schools proving that assumption is wrong.

Among the students at the school is James, a teen with ADHD. Traditional classrooms have never worked for James. He fidgets and is often on the move. He has trouble sitting still and focusing on a lecture.

Even though James has an IEP with services, the structure of a traditional classroom makes it very hard for him to learn.

James has found his place at Warren New Tech. The school’s project-based approach has been very engaging for him. He finds it easier to focus when working actively on tasks, rather than listening passively to information.

Remember the Civil War example I started with? Working with a group of students, James interviewed community members about the Civil War. The teacher also assigned James the role of teacher liaison, responsible for compiling the group’s questions and findings. This enabled him to connect more frequently with the teacher.

When the research was done, James and his teammates presented their findings to other students, teachers and the community. The Civil War never seemed so relevant as when it was connected to people buried in the local cemetery.

After James graduates, he’s planning to attend a two-year program at the local community college. He then wants to transfer to a four-year school to study journalism.

James isn’t unusual. All the students graduating from Warren New Tech this year are heading to college (including all the kids with ADHD).

But although project-based learning is an exciting approach to personalized learning, it’s not a cure-all. These kinds of models only work if schools take the time to plan for how to include kids with learning and thinking differences. Extra support is a must.

Warren New Tech has an eight-stage process for making sure projects are meaningful to students like James. To choose the right project, they ask questions like: Will this project teach skills the kids need to graduate? Does the project match up with academic standards?

Once a project is selected, the teacher and students do a lot of planning. They talk about accommodations that are needed. They make sure kids have a chance to ask clarifying questions and shape the project.

When the project is underway, students get frequent check-ins on progress. Presenting work is a big part of project-based learning, so a lot of time is spent on how the final project will be showcased. After the project, the kids reflect on what worked and what didn’t. They talk about how it could be better next time.

All of these steps are critical to making sure all students can participate. Personalized learning is for everyone. And schools like Warren New Tech are showing how.

If you want to read more about personalized learning around the country, go to NCLD to see case studies on Warren New Tech and other schools.

Read how a charter school in Brooklyn is using a different model of personalized learning for kids with learning and thinking differences. Learn about personalized learning in the Latino community. And see how an Arizona private school is using flexible time blocks to serve different students, including those with dyslexia.

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