As teachers we are always embracing dynamic approaches to learning. We want ways to get students to think critically, apply what they are learning, and meet the required standards. Project-based learning (PBL) has been a well-known and utilized approach that uses active learning and extensive inquiry-based investigations. Check out this video to get an overview of what project-based learning entails:
Research on project-based learning indicates that it has long-lasting influence on student retention of skills and concepts. For example, science students who engaged in project-based learning “outscored the national sample on 44% of National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test items.” Similar gains are seen in social studies where students are outperforming those receiving traditional rote education. In addition, minority students showed substantial academic achievement as a result of project-based instruction supporting that PBL is an effective approach for all students. However, careful design is necessary in order to ensure project-based learning is not just an add-on that does not achieve deep engagement and acquisition of knowledge. Let’s take a look at some possible presumptions that may keep teachers from achieving maximum results with PBL.
Project-Based Learning addresses trends in the real-world that have meaning to students. Thomas Markham, CEO of PBL Global, says PBL is the perfect vehicle to meeting the needs of a future generation ready for social entrepreneurship and societal empathy. He says “The challenge must be captured in an assessable driving question that clearly states a problem to be solved or a question to be answered.” For example, in this middle school unit students use their knowledge of thermal energy and chemical processes to design a snake egg incubator. In this unit, students investigate how to resolve the issue of gum littering their school. Sometimes teachers can fall into the trap of making the driving question more related to a content standard vs. a real-world issue. Teachers can ask themselves, does the driving question sound like a test question? Does it sound like an issue that a real-world professional may want to consider? If it is the latter, then the PBL unit is on the right track.
PBL should be designed and expected to meet standards. It can be easy to get carried away in creating units where the focus is on the creative end product rather than the learning. The fact is that PBL is extremely effective in hitting standards across the board, from Common Core to local benchmarks. Teachers can use backwards design to plan for guidelines around learning tasks for investigation. A great example is this PBL Geometry unit. Common Core Geometry standards as well as Standards for Mathematical Practice are addressed. Most likely, you may be able to address cross-curricular standards as well in a PBL unit.
The significant learning takes place in the process, not the final product. Project design is critical to making PBL experiences meaningful. Thomas Markham offers the following guidelines to implementing a purposeful process for students. Standards and content learning occurs as students are investigating along the way even prior to developing a product. For example, in What’s Your Angle Pythagoras? the final product for the unit is to create a lesson presentation teaching geometry knowledge. However, students complete learning tasks in proving geometric theorems, making geometric constructions, defining trigonometric ratios, solving problems involving right triangles, and using trigonometry in models before they make their final presentation.
Students should be allowed to fail. In PBL, students are conducting open-ended investigations in their ideas and researching possible solutions. Their student voice is the driving force in the learning. Oftentimes they will find that they need to tweak and revise their initial thoughts after reflecting on findings. Teachers should embrace this as essential moments for learning. There also is most likely hard line right or wrong way to complete tasks for PBL. The goal should be in having students generate ideas, investigate, and explain their learning.
PBL can be used in ALL grades. Students in the early elementary school grades are more than capable of investigating inquiry-based questions. The key is in designing questions and guiding tasks that are developmentally appropriate. In Kindergarten Weather students explore how people can create a shield from the sun. Kindergarten students can also assume the role of a zoologist and brainstorm on how to create appropriate habitats for specific animals. In first grade, students can create informative presentations on tall tale characters and their importance. In second grade, students can investigate and come up with solutions to reducing milk waste and making better decisions about purchasing milk.
Looking for PBL Ideas?
If you feel stuck on ideas on creating a high-quality question or problem to drive a project-based learning unit, there are a multitude of clearinghouses available with ready-made units. The University of Delaware’s Institute for Transforming University Education has a peer-reviewed database of PBL units and articles submitted by educators. The
Buck institute offers free membership to access their PBL database of instructional materials. They also provide resources on research and best practices for teaching project-based learning.