After a tumultuous year, students can use project-based learning resources to keep their brains sharp and avoid learning loss

Using project-based learning to reverse the summer slide

After a tumultuous year, students can use project-based learning resources to keep their brains sharp and avoid learning loss

The shift to distance and hybrid learning this past year has caused many families and teachers to worry that their students are falling behind. eSchool News sat down with project-based learning experts Bob Lenz, CEO of the nonprofit PBLWorks, and Laureen Adams, the former curriculum and program manager for PBLWorks, to talk about what parents, caregivers, and teachers can do this summer to help students re-engage with their learning  and prepare for the next  school year. 

PBLWorks created a free eBook for families and teachers called “This Teachable Moment,” which provides an introduction to project-based learning and 21 projects that students can do independently at home this summer, or in the classroom. Here, Lenz and Adams discuss why project-based learning is such a powerful way to keep students engaged.

What are some of the benefits of high-quality project-based learning, and why is it so effective in keeping students engaged in their learning?

Bob: The top five skills employers say they are looking for are creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management. These are all skills students practice during project-based learning. At the same time, project-based learning engages students more deeply in the content – and that learning sticks with them. Students are more likely to remember how to convert units of measurement when they’re doing it for a cooking project than if they’re just given a chart to memorize. They are also going to be more deeply engaged in the content when they see the connections to real life, such as making a cookbook of family recipes.

Laureen: It’s also effective during summer learning for many of these same reasons. If students are engaged and excited about their projects, they’re more likely to participate in class discussions. They’re also more likely to take the initiative to work on the project during asynchronous learning time because they’re invested and want to see the project through to fruition. Teachers say that students who have been doing project-based learning for a while are more self-directed. They’re able to adapt better to an online environment and stay engaged in learning whether there are teachers in the room or not.

How can teachers get started with project-based learning?

Bob: This is a great question, and something I spoke about in a video interview for Edthena’s “Lounge Talks” professional development series. PBLWorks offers several resources for teachers. In fact, we have a whole web page dedicated to free resources to help teachers do project-based learning remotely, as well as a list of recorded webinars where they can hear from other teachers about their experiences.  In terms of professional development, we offer eight-week online courses as well as one-day and three-day online workshops. We also created an online Project Designer that gives teachers access to a library of 72 Gold Standard Projects and takes them step-by-step through the process of adapting them to meet the needs of their students, or for a distance learning environment. The great thing about project-based learning is that once teachers start doing it, they get hooked and just like the students participating in the projects, they get better and more creative with each project. It’s an inspiring way to teach and has just as much impact on them as it does on the students.

For any teachers who will have students learning remotely next school year, what are some ways teachers can adapt projects that are typically done in the classroom for distance learning?

Laureen: One of the first things is to find a way for activities that were previously done in person to be done online. For instance, typically a teacher would plan an in-person event to launch a project – maybe a visitor to the classroom or a field trip to a community landmark.  In distance learning instead they might introduce the project via a virtual field trip, or by having a video interview with a community partner who’s involved in the project. There are a lot of great platforms, apps and websites that help teachers and students collaborate live or asynchronously during the course of the project. Doing project-based learning during remote learning provides the added bonus of teaching kids how to use these online tools – many of which are the same ones that their parents are using in their own online meetings and projects in the workplace. So students are learning yet another skill that will prepare them for future jobs.

The past year has been a tumultuous one. How can project-based learning help students process their feelings and learn more about the important issues happening right now?

Bob: The great thing about project-based learning is that we can create projects that connect students with current events. For example, one school in California created a distance learning project in which the teachers created a giant map of Latin America in a classroom and then students, working remotely in online groups, programmed robots to go on COVID-related missions in different cities. They learned about the current events happening in Latin America, while also learning geography, coding and more. In another project at that same school, students used Flipgrid to record video messages about COVID and how it was impacting them which helped them voice their thoughts in a way they perhaps hadn’t before which helped them to process their emotions.

Laureen: Another great project was the Breaking Bias project, a joint venture between three schools in different states that was recently featured on our project-based learning podcast, The Project. Students watched videos and read about racism then used Flipgrid and Padlet to share their ideas with each other. The goal was to create a safe space to listen and learn from each other and discuss bias and ways to address it. It was a powerful project that took on even more significance when George Floyd was killed a few weeks later sparking protests and a national dialogue around race.

You wrote “This Teachable Moment” to help parents engage students in project-based learning over the summer.  How can teachers use the book once school is back in session to help students catch up?

Bob: The 21 projects in the eBook can be easily adapted by teachers for classroom use next year or for summer learning. In fact there are several that address current issues such as taking care of others and our communities, taking action on issues facing our nation and documenting our lives in a historic time. One project even asks the question “How can we create new schools for our new reality?” which is incredibly timely. The main point is that these projects are truly engaging – whether students are doing them at home or in a classroom. They help students connect with their communities and think about current issues, promoting that deeper learning that we talked about earlier.

What is one of your favorite projects from the book?

Laureen: I did some of these projects with my own kids and one of our favorites is the “How does Food Connect Us” project.  For this one, students research their family recipes and ask family members their stories or memories connected to the recipes. Then they create a recipe cookbook or a YouTube cooking show to showcase both the dish, and also the history behind it. This is a great way to learn skills like cooking-related math, public speaking, art, and video editing. It’s a great project that can be done with or without technology and the students also end up with a product that has a lot of meaning and that they and their families will treasure.

Bob Lenz is CEO of PBLWorks, and Laureen Adams is an educational designer and a former PBL teacher and administrator. They are co-authors of This Teachable Moment, a free eBook published by PBLWorks.

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