3 Reasons Why Project Based Learning Works

Before you continue reading this post, take some time to reflect on your own school experience.

Whether it was a few years ago, or a few decades ago, what are those learning experiences that you remember most? What were those experiences that kept you most engaged? Which experiences had the best deeper learning outcomes? What experiences worked to build the skills you’d use after graduation? Which learning experiences put you at the center? Why? How?

In some classrooms, learning experiences remain focused on control, compliance, and conformity; while in others, problem-solving, creation, and deeper learning are part of the everyday experience.

Twenty-first century tools are layered on top of twentieth century pedagogy in some settings; while in others, future ready skills are developed, and students are prepared for whatever it is they choose to do after high school.

In some places, the mandated experience schools the love of learning right out of a child by the time he graduates.

In others, a passion to change the world is ignited and the obtained skills make it possible.

As questions and mysteries around PBL and inquiry continue to swirl, experienced classroom teachers and school administrators Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy have written a book that will empower those intimidated by PBL to cry, “I can do this!” while at the same time providing added value for those who are already familiar with the process.

Hacking Project Based Learning demystifies what PBL is all about so educators and students can easily follow to achieve success.

Whenever we involve ourselves in project based learning, we think back to why we first decided to embrace this approach. These reasons serve as motivation and help us humanize the work. After all, our curriculum work won’t matter if what we do doesn’t resonate with people on a personal level.

We do realize that not everyone is as passionate about project based learning as we are. Your passion might equal or exceed ours, or maybe you strongly dislike project based learning, but are doing it because you’ve been told you have to.

Either way, if you’re tackling project based learning in one way or another, let’s take a look at how this approach can benefit both you and your students and why you may want to prioritize project based learning to shift the instruction in your classroom, school, or district. 

 1. PBL PROMOTES RELEVANCE (NOT JUST ENGAGEMENT)

Based on what we’ve experienced, countless schools prioritize what’s comfortable for adults, not what’s best for students. And then we take issue with students when they don’t buy into what we’re doing.

While these misplaced priorities can present themselves in many ways, shapes, and forms, one manifestation involves student voice and choice, or a lack thereof.

According to the Quaglia Institute School Voice Report (2016), 56 percent of students feel like they don't have a voice in decision-making at school, and partially as a result, 43 percent of students think school is boring.

While many of us may believe we’re giving our students voice and choice, it’s easy to fall into the trap of convincing ourselves of that when it’s just not true.

Ross: As a fourth grade teacher and foodie, I often gave my students a Top Chef project, which required them to write restaurant reviews. Each student went to a restaurant of their choice, took notes throughout the dining process, and then converted the notes to a professional-looking review that was posted on a blog and sent to the restaurant.

Students who couldn’t make it to a restaurant reviewed home cooking, which was always fun … but also controversial.

When we tell educators about this project, they’re typically hooked. But when we pick apart the project, we find that I never asked my students if they were foodies or if they were interested in writing about restaurants.

Looking back, I could have presented Top Chef to students as one of several ways to demonstrate their learning, while also letting them come up with options of their own. Or, as a starting point, I could have asked students whether they wanted to write restaurant reviews.

While selling students on our interests tends to generate engagement that is oftentimes short-lived, the latter approach starts with the students and prioritizes what makes them unique. As a result, they are the designers or co-designers of relevant learning experiences that tap into their intrinsic motivation. 

When we consider students owning the learning, teacher and student comfort levels will vary based on context.

Regardless, we should always move toward student ownership in one way or another. But this transition is easier said than done, and many of us may be left wondering how to make it happen.

In this regard, project based learning is instrumental because it gives us a solid but flexible framework that lends itself to student voice, choice, and relevance.

Students who aren’t accustomed to project based learning will, at times, seek permission and/or support to take advantage of all of this flexibility and autonomy. Students who are comfortable with project based learning, though, throw themselves into their work as if it’s their right to do so—and it is.

Relevancy isn’t something we do to students. Rather, we create the conditions for students to take ownership of their work. Project based learning can help to make these conditions a reality.

2. PBL HELPS US WORK SMARTER, NOT HARDER

Most of us probably remember the traditional lesson plans we had to hand in as pre-service teachers. Many of them followed the Madeline Hunter lesson plan model: lesson objectives, standards addressed, anticipatory set, teaching/instructional process, guided practice and monitoring, closure, independent practice.

All of our unit plans may also have consisted of several lesson plans in unnecessarily large three-ring binders, connected by nothing more than an overarching topic.

We believe these types of units are still prevalent in many of our schools. Here’s an idea of what it typically looks like in action:

  1. Teacher introduces a topic, such as the three branches of government.
  2. Students are exposed to said topic through a series of lessons, which may or may not be distributed as a packet. As students learn, formative assessments help guide instruction.
  3. Students are tested on the information they learned from the lessons.
  4. Everyone moves on to the next unit.

While there are several problems with this approach, here are three to consider.

1) The entire unit, or the majority of it, is laid out without thinking about the students on its receiving end (an eerily similar unit may even be taught again next year).

2) Unless students are in love with the three branches of government, there’s no incentive for them to learn the material other than to do well on a test.

3) It is never clarified for students what they should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of studying the three branches of government.

This lesson-by-lesson approach is nonsensical when it comes to planning day-to-day lessons because it doesn’t maximize student learning. In other words, we’re working way too hard to execute something that doesn’t actually work.

Project based learning can help us work smarter, not harder.

As a holistic approach to instructional planning, project based learning is, at its core, an inquiry-based instructional unit—a unit in which students learn primarily through investigation and exploration.

During project based learning, we provide valuable context when students continuously apply what they learn to at least one project while ideally meeting its learning goals.

Students develop a deeper understanding of content as they engage in productive struggle when applying their learning to a project. In the absence of a project, teaching and learning has nothing to latch onto, so it possesses far less substance.

While the shift to project based learning may sound intimidating, it can be a win-win. Students get to learn through project based learning and inquiry, while teachers aren’t forced to embrace the daily grind of figuring out what they want to teach and how to teach it.

Additionally, we’re able to tackle several academic standards at the same time in an authentic context, as opposed to lesson plans that typically address one or two standards at a time in isolation. 

As teachers, we facilitated project based learning experiences that were as short as two weeks and as long as about ten weeks. Some of these did take quite some time to plan. However, with each unit, our planning became more efficient.

And while a considerable amount of planning should be done prior to the launch of a project based learning experience, that planning means there’s less for you to take care of day to day.

Instead of asking ourselves what we’re going to teach and how, we can spend more time responding to students’ needs throughout the learning process.

Yes, this work can still be tiring, but it helps us meet students where they are. Meanwhile, we get to avoid the burnout that can come from daily planning.

Taking a holistic approach to teaching also helps promote ongoing collaboration among educators. Special education teachers regularly work with classroom teachers to support students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

 

Just as importantly, we developed shared ownership of our classrooms, as we were all operating with a long-term vision.

3. PBL PROVIDES CONTEXT FOR PROFESSIONAL LEARNING

Here’s an ironic scenario: Like many administrators and teacher leaders, early in our careers, we may have been overwhelmed by the number of initiatives we had to endure, and we may have even gone around badmouthing our administrators.

We promised ourselves we would never do to others what had been done to us. Then, when we finally had a say in professional learning, those on the receiving end also claimed they were overwhelmed.

As administrators, we have opportunities to take the lead in facilitating instructional shifts and professional learning. And, both of us have had teachers voice their concerns to us about being overwhelmed, even though we had promised ourselves this would never be the case.

What we have learned is that friction is a part of any change process, and no matter how intentional we are, there will still be those who criticize in one way or another. Nonetheless, as we interact with these educators, we can still

1) seek to understand where they’re coming from while asking ourselves what we can do differently, and

2) ascertain whether their voices represent the majority.

Even so, the fact remains that initiative fatigue is a reality in countless schools and districts, maybe even our own. It is easy for administrators to lose track of everything teachers have to do on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.

Project based learning can help to give us this focus.

Additionally, by viewing project based learning as a series of best practices, as opposed to a framework that must be tackled all at once (either you’re doing it or you’re not), our transition to project based learning can exist along a continuum with multiple entry points.

For example, too often a group of teachers is told something like, “Everyone must engage their students in at least one project based learning experience.” Depending on our current teaching style, this shift may be overwhelming.

But, based on our students’ strengths and needs, our comfort level, and available resources, we may be able to successfully implement certain components of projects based learning, such as flexible learning spaces and student publishing.

If this is the case, we should be applauded for our willingness to take risks and move forward, and we should continue to grow until what we’re doing can be considered project based learning (and even then, there is room for improvement).

New from Cooper and Murphy

The challenge then, is to focus on project based learning and not much else, as it takes a great deal of time for any new approach to stick on a systemic level. As Jim Collins (2001) wrote in Good to Great, we must “create a ‘stop doing list’ and systematically unplug anything extraneous.”

When planning professional learning, it’s best to choose a distinct direction and stick with it while providing room for some teacher choice. We need to resist the urge to continuously schedule “learning detours” by jumping at the latest and greatest or whatever may appear to be urgent.

At the same time, teachers (and administrators) can be encouraged to take charge of their own learning instead of always waiting for “district direction” or a professional development day.

In schools and districts with a healthy culture, just about anyone can initiate and lead change. In much the same way teachers empower students, administrators should be empowering teachers (and everyone else).

Bottom line: Our words and actions must communicate that the thoughts and ideas of others can make a difference.

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