Imagine you’re in school learning about geometry. You listen to your teacher, complete some problems in class, do some more problems for homework out of your textbook, complete a few worksheets, play a review game, and take a test.
Now imagine another scenario. Two of your teachers get into a car accident in the parking lot. You work with your classmates to examine the parking lot and come up with a new design that will both minimize accidents and maximize parking spots. In the process, you learn about geometry, civics, law, engineering, and public speaking.
Which lesson or experience do you think would be more memorable? Hands down, the second experience, which actually happened, would be more memorable, educational, and practical than the first. This second experience is a wonderful example of Project Based Learning.
What is Project Based Learning?
You can’t just slap a rubric and the term “project” on a class activity and call it Project Based Learning (PBL). According to Edutopia, PBL is “a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.”
With true PBL, students work over an extended period of time to answer a question or solve a problem. The cornerstone of PBL is that students are learning through authentic, real world scenarios. When students have come to a conclusion or solved the problem, they present their findings publicly, which creates authenticity.
The true definition of PBL is somewhat vague by nature because it encompasses so many different educational processes and tactics. Continue reading to learn more about why this technique is so effective, and how you can implement it in your classroom.
Benefits of Project Based Learning
The greatest benefit to PBL is that it’s real. Students gain practice addressing and solving the problems they will face in the real world when they graduate and begin their careers. PBL also instills an intrinsic love of lifelong learning as students enjoy seeking answers to questions they are interested in. In an educational climate where it’s hard to avoid teaching to the test, PBL offers meaningful learning and growth opportunities.
The implementation of PBL was studied by researchers for Procedia, a journal of Social and Behavioral Sciences. They found many benefits, including exposing students to skills essential to success in the workplace: teamwork, conflict resolution, decision-making, and communication. They also found that PBL helps students improve their critical thinking and productivity.
A lot of these skills are termed 21st century skills, and they are essential to success in higher education and the workforce. PBL offers an avenue for these skills to be developed and strengthened. Students don’t learn critical thinking by listening to a teacher lecture on critical thinking; they learn by thinking critically.
In addition to all of these benefits, learning the actual subject matter is one of the biggest benefits, yet it almost seems secondary due to the nature of PBL. Students don’t need the traditional direct instruction and regimented practice when they are learning through firsthand experience.
How to Implement Project Based Learning
Teachers can’t just choose any random project, slap a rubric on it, and call it PBL. According to the Buck Institute for Education, an organization that seeks to make PBL accessible, there are eight key elements to successful PBL. For each element listed below, you’ll see a brief explanation, along with an example of what this element might look like in action.
Knowledge and Skills Derived from Standards
If this first component is missing, the project is pointless because there is no end lesson in mind for students. The project may be fun, but it lacks educational purpose. All projects should be focused on preparing students for success in school and in life.
How To: Look at your curriculum and decide what standards of learning you want to cover with your project. Also decide which 21st century skills you want to strengthen through this project.
Challenging Problem or Question
This challenge should be appropriate for students’ level of understanding and prior knowledge. It should not be too challenging, but should meet students where they are at developmentally. This is what is going to drive the entire project.
How To: Depending on their level and experience with PBL, you can help guide students through the process, but the problem or question should be something students are motivated to learn more about. This might be the most difficult part of PBL for teachers; here is a great resource to help you develop your problem or question.
PBL doesn’t happen overnight. Students should spend extended time doing an in-depth study through their project. It should not be something students can quickly research and formulate an answer. Sustained inquiry is what helps students think deeply and critically.
How To: Do not just assign a project with a due date and leave it at that; that is not PBL. Work with your students to address the problem through multiple iterations. If students think they have come to a conclusion quickly, help them re-examine their problem or question to dive deeper into the issue.
Students see right through lessons and projects that are inauthentic, often calling them busy work. All PBL should be based on authentic real-world applications. In addition, projects should pique students’ interest.
How To: The best way to make sure PBL is authentic is to make sure the project has a point. For students, this could mean actually solving a problem in the real world, answering a question that is meaningful to them, doing a mock up of a real problem (court case, business plan, etc.), or meeting a real world need.
Teachers should provide guidelines, but students should largely have choice in how the project unfolds. This ties in with authenticity, and it is often the student choice that helps to make the project authentic.
How To: Don’t “assign” a project with a completed project description and rubric. Depending on their maturity, allow students to help create as much of the project as possible- from the question itself to the assessment of learning at the end of the project. The more choice students have, the more intrinsically motivated they will be.
The learning should not abruptly end when the project ends. Reflection offers students time and space to internalize what they have learned. Continual reflection throughout the project also allows students to make changes as they work.
How To: Reflection can be done through multiple channels, both formally and informally. Students can keep journals as they work through the project, teachers can check in with students at regular intervals, students can discuss their projects with each other, and students can also reflect via public feedback.
Critique and Revise
After students have a chance to reflect on their project and what they learned, they should also have a chance to make changes. Changes should be based on their own reflection as well as constructive criticism from their peers.
How To: Formative rubrics can be a great way for students to receive feedback and make changes; rubrics can be filled out by students themselves, their peers, their teacher, and/or a public audience. This can also be done more informally via conversations with the same individuals.
Part of making a project authentic is giving it a public audience, and students should have the opportunity to do this in some fashion at the end of their project. Making the project public also motivates students to do their best work.
How To: There are many ways to get creative with this, and the public sharing will vary widely depending on the type of project. Some ideas include presenting findings at a school board meeting, displaying and discussing projects at a science fair or showcase, or presenting a plan to a town committee.
Note that there is some variation to the order and nomenclature of these PBL elements, but any true project based learning will include these general ideas in one form or another.
Are There Any Drawbacks to Project Based Learning?
PBL can be difficult for teachers to administer and facilitate, especially for teachers who are more of a sage on the stage rather than a guide on the side. For many teachers, it’s hard to relinquish control and trust that students will still learn without a rigid lesson plan. There is a fine line between relinquishing control and completely handing over the reins, and it can take some time for teachers to find that balance.
Thorough training in implementing PBL can be very helpful. It’s a unique teaching and learning model that takes time to get used to. Just as students should be critiquing and revising as they work through their projects, so should teachers as they learn how to implement this instructional practice.
Another potential drawback is that while PBL is great for learning 21st century skills, it doesn’t always hit every fact students may need to know on standardized tests. Most people agree that real, engaging, and authentic learning should be the goal, but unfortunately, we live in a world where teachers, schools, and students are judged based on their performance on tests.
While it may take some time to master, PBL can be an extremely beneficial learning strategy for students. If you are interested in starting to use PBL in your classroom, seek out formal professional development to give you the tools and resources you need to successfully implement PBL for your students.
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