In an increasingly connected world, there are many ways to help your students connect with the community or other classes. By integrating project-based learning (PBL) into your lesson plans, you can help students dive into real-world issues that interest them while building on the knowledge they’ve developed through their study of the grade’s curriculum. Through research for and presentation of their chosen projects, students engage actively with learning, gain a greater understanding of current issues, and build stronger communication and cooperative skills – vital strengths for their success as 21st-century citizens.
So. What is project-based learning? The Glossary of Educational Reform defines it as:
any programmatic or instructional approach that uses multifaceted projects as a central organizing strategy for educating students. When engaged in project-based learning, students will typically be assigned a project or series of projects that require them to use diverse skills—such as researching, writing, interviewing, collaborating, or public speaking—to produce various work products. …For example, students may be assigned to complete a project on a local natural ecosystem and produce work that investigates its history, species diversity, and social, economic, and environmental implications for the community.
The projects employed by schools using PBL can and should integrate knowledge from multiple school subjects. Using the definition above, while the project may be based out of a Science class, students will use writing, research, and calculation skills that they have honed in English, Social Studies or Civics, and Math classes. By using diverse skill sets to complete their project, students understand the importance of each subject, and that no area of study exists in isolation.
Although lacking an agreed-upon generational name – respondents to a 2018 New York Times survey chimed in with answers that ranged in hopefulness from “The Fix-It Generation” to “Doomed” – today’s students and those who study them agree that this youngest generation is aware of the constant change impacting them, and want to play an active role in their community and their own futures. As educators, demonstrating links between what students are learning and how it ties into current social issues can drive engagement and through it, student achievement.
Strategies for Success
To help ensure the success of PBL at your school or in your classroom, consider using shorter projects to build student, parent, and faculty understanding and confidence in this method as it is introduced. Immersive projects, like the Lanier High School Center for Technology’s The Walking CDAT sound exhilarating: integrating writing with engineering skills, students create a short story about a zombie outbreak, and as part of a team design plans for something – like fortifications or protective gear – to help people survive, all the while playing a program-wide, multiple-day game of Humans vs. Zombies. (All classrooms are safe from zombies, of course.)
However, projects this large require considerable amounts of planning by educators and administrators, and higher levels of enthusiasm from students to be completed safely and effectively. To prevent yourself or your class from feeling overwhelmed, consider a project of this size something to work towards.
Start with projects that have a clear time limit of two weeks or less, and one or two key deliverables for students to complete. Help students feel like their voices and choices are valued by encouraging them to pick their teams, specific topic from a range of ideas, and their final project format from a short list of options (as students progress, add more options).
While working on their projects, students are expected to dive into the complexities of their chosen issue, look at the impact of various stakeholders and environmental pressures, and assess possible solutions. As they do, they may find there isn’t a clear right or wrong answer to the question they’re trying to answer. Your students may struggle with this, but understanding this ambiguity is key to their development, both as students and members of a larger community.
As your students move forward, communicating that ambiguity in their findings while also completing their project effectively builds critical thinking skills that will serve students well as they continue their education and enter the working world.
“Relationship building is at the core of successful PBL”
As your students’ confidence in their project management skills grows, consider widening the project’s target or audience. PBL is a fantastic way to connect your students with students in other classes, community groups, or professionals in a variety of trades. An external audience is one of the key checkpoints in the Essential Project Design Elements Checklist, created by the Buck Institute for Education, an American non-profit organization that creates and shares PBL best practices: “the project requires students to demonstrate what they learn by creating a product that is presented or offered to people beyond the classroom.”
Relationship building is at the core of successful PBL. Whether it’s in the form of a network of educators who can support you in designing projects or having your grade three class share their picture books about pollinators with the school’s kindergarten class, this learning style thrives on connections. Building connections through project work helps students to feel engaged in their school and community, fostering feelings of belonging and well-being beyond what they might have experienced in a traditional classroom setting.
You’re not alone!
It can feel daunting to get started, but there are lots of project ideas offered online: the Buck Institute and the National Action Civics Collaborative websites are good initial resources, with project ideas and lists and comprehensive PBL strategies. Once you begin, we hope that you find PBL is a teaching method that successfully engages students with diverse learning styles, while developing their academic and interpersonal skills.
Do you have experience with project-based learning? Share tips or project ideas with us in the comments, or send us a Tweet at @chalkdotcom!
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Resources & Further Reading
Bromwich, Jonah Engel. “We Asked Generation Z to Pick A Name. It Wasn’t Generation Z.” The New York Times, 31 January 2018, nyti.ms/2FxLE2W. Web. Accessed 17 March 2018.
“Essential Project Design Elements Checklist.” The Buck Institute for Education, www.bie.org/object/document/pbl_essential_elements_checklist. Web. Accessed 19 March 2018.
“Project-Based Learning.” The Glossary of Education Reform. Great Schools Partnership, www.edglossary.org/project-based-learning/. Web. Accessed 16 March 2018.