Updated: Jul 19
Project-based learning, or PBL, is a method of teaching that empowers students to direct their own learning experience by designing and completing meaningful projects. It encourages creativity, collaboration, and freedom, while at the same time fostering time management, organizational, and social skills. There are numerous and significant benefits to this model of learning, but it is not without limitations and potential drawbacks. This post will help you determine whether a project-based learning model will work for you and how you can best implement it in your classroom.
A few years ago I decided to go all-in on project-based learning, throwing out all my old assessments and implementing PBL across five grade levels of science at my school. This was an ambitious change and required a complete curriculum overhaul, but I was convinced that it was the right choice for my students. I've been adjusting and improving the program for a number of years now, and I think I can safely say that I made the right call, but switching to a PBL model hasn't been without problems. Below I have outlined some of the questions you'll need to ask yourself if you're serious about giving project-based learning a try.
"...start small, and by small, I mean just one project. Try converting one of your current units into a PBL experience, and give your students more time than you would normally allocate to it."
Will your administration allow it?
Before you can even think about making changes to your curriculum, find out whether you have permission to do so. As department head at a small, supportive school, I had the freedom to implement our science curriculum any way I wanted, but not everyone does. You'll need to check with your department head, principal, and at a larger school with multiple teachers in the same grade level and subject, your colleagues as well.
If you have required assessments and a long list of specific learning objectives that can't be modified, you may find it difficult incorporating PBL. You may also get pushback from parents, who will want to know why you aren't drilling their kid with regular homework assignments and tests. Be ready to justify your teaching decisions to anyone who asks, with research if necessary. Your PBL classes will look chaotic to the uninitiated, and that's bound to raise some eyebrows here and there.
Do you really understand project-based learning?
When most people are introduced to PBL, they think students are just doing a lot of projects (they are), but the way you introduce, organize, and present those projects is very different when conducting true project-based learning.
As you can see, with PBL, the process is very-much student-centered and inquiry-based. Students might be presented with a theme, a real-world problem, or an issue, but after that, it's up to them to decide what they will do, what they need to learn to do it, and how they will present it. As a result, the teacher can't really plan lessons and content in advance. Instead, you're there to keep them on track, drop hints, facilitate discussions, help access resources, provide feedback, and so on. If you're new to this style of teaching, it can be awkward at first because it doesn't really feel like any teaching you've experienced before.
"Be ready to justify your teaching decisions to anyone who asks, with research if necessary. Your PBL classes will look chaotic to the uninitiated, and that's bound to raise some eyebrows here and there."
Still not sure what counts as PBL? Here are some more examples from a hypothetical genetics unit.
Is it PBL?
Students are assigned to write an essay on the human genome project
Students raise awareness on genetic discrimination with posters, videos, and presentations
Students create a 3D model of DNA at the end of a genetics unit
Students create family trees, meet with genetics experts, and research genetic inheritance in order to combat racism
Students follow instructions to conduct PCR tests and then write a graded lab report
Notice that projects don't just automatically become project-based learning when students take charge of their own learning. In order to be considered high-quality PBL, it is necessary to ensure that ALL of the requirements are met. Here is a handy graphic that illustrates what gold standard PBL looks like.
In particular, I want to highlight the 'public product' component among the 7 essential elements above. Even the best student-led learning projects can have limited effectiveness based on their audience. Imagine an incredible science-fair project that never gets exposure beyond your classroom, or a fantastic student video that only you, the teacher, watch and assign a grade to. What a shame for the learning to stop there! Ideally, all of your PBL products should be presented to the school community and anyone else who they might be relevant to, including parents, subject experts, government officials, public organizations, and of course, other students. The audience will vary by project, but keep it in mind at all times, and make sure your students consider their intended audiences as well. The potential for projects to make meaningful change can be a powerful motivator for your students and will undoubtedly raise the quality of their work.
How much PBL are you planning on doing?
If you're a little bit crazy like I am, you'll suddenly change all your classes over to project-based learning and create 30 new units that you have to plan. I don't recommend this! Instead, start small, and by small, I mean just one project. Try converting one of your current units into a PBL experience, and give your students more time than you would normally allocate to it.
If your students are not used to student-directed learning, they will struggle to figure out where to even start. For this reason, I find implementing PBL is the most successful when you start young. Older students may be capable of completing projects on their own, but they will sometimes lack motivation or enthusiasm, and they are too focused on grades to fully appreciate the learning. Your students may also set their sights too low and fail to set ambitious goals as they are not used to having this much control over their lives and influence within their communities.
How are you going to assess it?
To me, this is the hardest question to answer, and one I still struggle with philosophically, if not practically. As a science teacher, I'm used to grading facts and figures. The more quantitative the information is, the more comfortable I am grading it. English and art teachers are used to dealing with subjective grading schemes, as are elementary school teachers who often grade students on progress and skills development. In high school science classes, however, I'm mainly assessing the product, whatever that might be, rather than the process, which is far from ideal. In a perfect PBL environment, I would provide students with verbal or written feedback only, but I have reports to submit each term, so I'm forced to make use of rubrics. I teach MYP, so I have to adapt the prescribed rubrics for each project in order to make them relevant and useful.
I don't like the idea of slapping a single assessment grade on a project that has lasted for several weeks or even months, so to soften the blow and provide a bit of balance I also incorporate peer and self-reflection grades determined by the students themselves. They use simplified rubrics to assess themselves and their teammates, justifying their grades with short reflection paragraphs. I find that this system works pretty well and that most students are fairly honest about their contributions (or lack thereof).
How are you going to provide structure?
If you just tell kids to do a project and then let them go at it, all but the keenest students will end up doing practically nothing. In order to keep them on task, you'll need some strategies to use throughout the project. First, and possibly most important is the 'hook', which you might already be using for your units anyway. This is some activity, idea, video, or discussion you employ at the start of a unit in order to get your students interested and excited about the topic. For some topics, such as environmental science, this is easy (a shocking documentary scene, controversial debate, unusual image, or even a trivia game all work well here). For others, such as human reproduction, it can be a bit more tricky (I have a great simulation of STI transmission that never fails to create a buzz).
"A word of warning, though. If you give kids a month to do a project, they will take a month. If you give them three months, they'll take three months."
Next, your students will need to get organized (and stay that way!). It helps if each group elects a leader or someone to keep track of documents. I like to have my students create Google docs and share them with me so I can track their progress. These function as brainstorming platforms, and later as links to other documents like slideshows, references, and journal reflections.
Speaking of reflections, I find it helpful to have students keep regular journals of their group and personal progress during a project. This can be digital or in a notebook. I like notebooks because I can collect and check them all quickly, but you may have a better system that works for you. I used to conduct interviews with each student at the mid-point of each project, but this took ages with a large class, so instead I go with reflections. You can have students complete them daily (as an exit ticket), weekly, or at key stages during the project. Just make sure you check them (and respond) or your students will feel like they are writing to themselves.
After some initial brainstorming and research, each group presents a project proposal for feedback, either to you or to the whole class. This is the first structured submission for the project, which can be as detailed as you'd like. You can have students casually explain their idea in words, or complete survey forms and worksheets. The goal is not to give them a bunch of busy work to complete early on in the process - only to get them thinking very hard about what they want to do and why, as well as how they will accomplish it. It's important to be a bit strict here and don't accept any hasty ideas or vague reasoning. This will benefit the students in the long run.
After the proposals have been accepted, it's time for the students to get to work. They will spend anywhere from a few days to a few weeks completing tasks in order to accomplish their goals, and for the most part, I don't tell them how to organize themselves during this phase of the project. You'll find that after a few PBL units, your students know how to get things done, and who is good at each job within the class. Encourage your students to use their strengths to accomplish the tasks they excel at, but also to take risks and try new things as well. It's ok if the same kid always ends up keeping notes or doing a lot of the talking during a presentation. That's their skill and they should take advantage of it!
As for how much time students need to complete a project, I'm afraid there is no clear answer I can provide on that. I like to try to imagine how long it would take me to complete a similar project and then double it. A word of warning, though. If you give kids a month to do a project, they will take a month. If you give them three months, they'll take three months. Give them clear, reasonable deadlines, and then stick to them.
If you've been considering project-based learning in your classroom and are ready to jump in, good for you! It's a rewarding experience and a fundamental shift in the way students have been traditionally educated. There is a place for PBL in almost every subject and at every grade level. You may find that it's you, and not your students, who has the hardest time making the transition.
If you'd like to learn more about project-based learning or would like to take a course on the subject, I would recommend the 3-day PBL 101 online workshop from PBL Works Buck Institute for Education. I did this a few years ago and it was one of the most practical professional development workshops I've ever attended. There are some good downloadable resources available from the Project Management Institute as well. I hope you find what you need to get started!
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