project-based learning

How to start a project-based-learning movement in your district


A former teacher and PBL expert shares what teachers and students need to make project-based learning work in the classroom

Throughout my entire career as a computer teacher, I have used project-based learning (PBL). I’ve had students as young as first grade working on projects using LCSI’s Microworlds, an authoring tool that enabled them to create animated stories, simulations, and games. My students have used HyperCard, Macromedia Director, FileMaker Pro, and Google Apps to work on some really amazing projects. The level of excitement, engagement, and interest that working on these projects engendered made it clear that PBL is probably the best way that students can learn.

My experience shows that students are highly engaged when they are working on a project that is interesting to them. However, I have discovered that students are also looking to be challenged. One of my students from a robotics class once said to me: “Your class is the only challenging class that I have in this school.” Additional experiences testing this notion proved it to be true: Students feel much better about themselves when teachers ask them to solve thought-provoking problems.

What is PBL?

PBL is not just another way of teaching; it is the method by which students learn to solve the problems they will tackle throughout their lives. In a research article about implementing PBL, Tara N. Tally shared the skills that students need to do PBL. These include communication, inquiry, collaboration, research, and activation of prior knowledge.

I agree with Tally and believe that PBL success depends on helping students develop those skills, so that when they need to tackle any problem, they know how to.

Some teachers believe that PBL is just about building something physical, such as a robot or an artifact. Many times, at the end of this process, students don’t understand how the artifact that they created works or what knowledge it is based on. That is why some research indicates that our key challenge in teaching PBL is focusing on identified learning outcomes rather than promoting “doing for the sake of doing.” Building something is a crucial part of PBL, but it should always be done with a focus on understanding the underlying concepts.

Finally, students need to learn collaborative skills. Guiding students to collaborate is essential, because many students have no experience talking to each other about ideas and working independently in small groups. Teachers need to create a safe environment in which students can feel comfortable sharing ideas and providing feedback in a civilized, respectful manner. Collaborative skills entail a great deal of decision-making and planning regarding project goals, division of labor, timelines, schedules, and identifying needed project resources.

The skills and tools teachers need

In my interactions with teachers around the country, I’ve noticed that many teachers try to do PBL before they have the chance to grasp what such a transformation entails. This is unfortunate, because just as students need scaffolding to succeed in PBL, teachers need it, too. Learning how to train students to practice that basic skill set of communication, inquiry, collaboration, research, and activation of prior knowledge is essential for a successful PBL practice. Teachers need to feel comfortable practicing those skills themselves and feel comfortable training their students to use them.

The messiness of PBL goes against the traditional learning methods that teachers are accustomed to, which is why many of them are seeking ways to systematize, order, and regulate the messiness. However, PBL’s messiness is what makes it so powerful, because it allows students to stray off the planned path and discover unknown treasures, develop unforeseen abilities, and grow in unpredictable ways.

A web-based collaborative platform like Project Pals can support both linear and organic learning processes by allowing students to structure information and at the same time look at information from multiple perspectives. Students can create, access, and view project resources in one place.

Assessing PBL

Assessment seems to be one of the big obstacles to PBL implementation. I’ve heard students and teachers complain about the difficulty of knowing how much each individual student really contributed to a project. Project Pals addresses this pain point by providing analytics that track every student action in the project. The analytics measure student activity, its duration, types of actions performed, and accomplishment of tasks, providing teachers with an accurate, quantitative evaluation. Teachers can also use rubrics to provide a qualitative evaluation of the student. Analytics measure students, projects, classes, institutions, and districts.

Maintaining a PBL movement

A successful PBL experience requires access to a variety of resources. To make sure that students can perform intellectual tasks on their own, teachers need to build a solid foundation for these skills through the use of scaffolds. Here are some best practices for scaffolding PBL:

  • Students must have an appropriate level of subject knowledge and methodological competence to carry out their projects.
  • Student motivation can be maintained by assigning projects that are authentic or applicable to the real world.
  • A learning atmosphere in which students are comfortable discussing issues relevant to their own lives and beliefs empowers them to make mistakes without fear of criticism or judgement.
  • The allocation of roles to group members, including management roles, has a positive impact on teamwork.
  • Student training in teamwork is absolutely essential, both during and after the project.
  • A range of assessments is recommended, including ones that evaluate how the project progresses, such as student journals.
  • Online technology is central to PBL. There are three important requirements for online learning in PBL: a space for negotiating meaning between students, for coordinating the project work, and for organizing the resources.

Andreas Schleicher, the division head and coordinator of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, once said, “In the 20th century when you did not know the answer to a question, you could look it up in the encyclopedia and you could trust the answer to be true. When faced with the same problem in the 21st century, you look it up on Google and you find 30,000 answers to your question. You need to learn to navigate that kind of information, triangulate different information sources, and build your own representation of knowledge. Literacy today is about constructing and validating knowledge.” And that is exactly what successful PBL trains students to do.

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