Project-based learning (PBL) has been around a lot longer than its recent history might lead us to believe. If you have been reading headlines, tweets, or Facebook posts, you would think PBL just emerged on the scene. In truth, the idea of “learning by doing” has been around since the time of Confucius. Critical thinking has been a focus in education for centuries. In fact, entire education systems have been built on getting students to not just memorize, but experience the learning.
John Dewey took experience-based learning even one step farther when he suggested that student interests should be considered. Dewey’s work on pragmatism (the use of hands-on, real-world experiences) in education is the foundation of today’s PBL.
Using the same tools Dewey used in the early 20th century does not help students much today. However, PBL offers a scaffold to guide students to make the most of their learning, and makes the perfect spot for the use of more modern technology tools.
The Buck Institute for Education: PBLWorks is one of the premiere resources for leaders and teachers looking for information on PBL. Everything you could need to get up and running is here, including ample useful examples of lesson plans and tips. For example, “Essential Project Design Elements” outlines the seven elements that, combined, make up a truly transformative PBL experience.
Today’s technology has the power to facilitate a more in-depth exploration of these elements than ever before. Each element has its own goal and may require various technology tools. Ultimately, a resource such as PBLWorks can help students complete a meaningful project and work on advanced real-world skills at the same time.
Challenging Problem or Question
The focus of the project for the student will be a challenging problem or question. Teachers can decide to use current events, past events, or something fictional. The problem can be something student-discovered or teacher-directed. It can be local or worldwide. The real goal of is to provide a good starting point. It needs to be open-ended enough to provide room for exploration, but specific enough to guide students in their search for a solution.
Since this is the basis for the project and all the learning involved, the importance of a solid question can’t be overstated. Since the subject and student age are more than likely pre-determined, you will want to start with the topic to be covered. From there, you can use an online conversation board like Padlet or Google’s Jamboard to ask for student input. You could create a board with areas for what students already know about the chosen topic, and one for what students would like to know. If teachers are struggling to come up with driving questions, the PBLWorks Projects page can be a good place to start.
In PBL, inquiry can involve many different sources. The process of sustained inquiry is not one that will be completed quickly, and it will involve more than one or two research sessions. Inquiry is the idea that students should keep digging and searching until they have reached a satisfactory solution.
Book or online research may not be the only thing students do, but it may take up a large chunk of time in the inquiry process. Students need to know how to find reputable, verified sources of information. Common Sense Media has two programs that touch on Digital Literacy: Digital Passport for grades 3 to 5, and Digital Compass for grades 6 to 8. Both these programs will help students be better digital citizens while moving through the inquiry phase of their project.
Part of the reason PBL is such a meaningful practice in education is its connection to authentic, real-world issues. Students can be guided to a project involving problems in the school, their neighborhood, or the world. Establishing such a connection makes the learning worthwhile for them.
It is sometimes hard to imagine helping people in places you have never seen. This is where a tool like Google Earth might be helpful. Students can see the landscape of the area their project is based on, which may radically change the solutions they are able to develop. For example, the platform could be used in a project such as designing a city park so that children have more space to run and play, which would require students to find an area to place the park, determine its measurements, and then design the park accordingly.
Student Voice and Choice
Teachers know that when students have a say in their learning, they feel more engaged and become my invested. Giving students as many choices as possible in their project will keep them from seeing it as just one more thing to do. Allow students to let their creative side shine with tools such as Canva or Buncee, two multimedia creation tools. If there is a chance to let the students decide, take it.
The process of reflection is a large component of the PBL approach. Teachers should schedule time to allow students to check-in, debrief, and give feedback. Having prompts structured around the learning targets will help students better connect the project to the classroom content.
Flipgrid is a perfect fit for teachers looking to “clone” themselves. It allows teachers to record a video prompt, which students can respond to in video form as well. Then teachers can watch the reflections when they’re able to and can be prepared to respond to the students’ needs.
Book Creator is another tool worth considering. It can be a wonderful place to keep track of research, solutions that have been successful or unsuccessful, and reactions. Having all the pieces and parts of the project in one place (that can be shared with a teacher) would be helpful for student and teacher organization.
Critique and Revision
Giving and receiving feedback is an art that students must learn to be successful. PBLWorks asks students and teachers to focus on high-quality critique with helpful revision suggestions. It is suggested that students review their own learning as well. Rubrics and other structures can and should be used to guide students in their critiques.
Feedback can also come from adults from outside of the school, perhaps in areas of expertise pertinent to the project. For example, teachers could connect with local architects to give feedback on student home designs, or with a large-animal veterinarian to give feedback on a new saddle for students with disabilities. For this type of connection, teachers may not always be able to find a local professional, which is where a video conference tool can be very helpful. Zoom, Skype, and other video connection apps can allow for collaboration with professionals from anywhere in the world. Why not have your project on the repercussions of the Cold War critiqued by an actual Smithsonian representative? Imagine how much learning would happen then!
The idea of having a product to display at the end of the project gives students something concrete to work toward, although there is no “right way” to showcase solutions--the sky's the limit!
Tinkercad allows students to design a 3D object, such as a bridge over a particular span of water, then print it with a 3D printer to display and test it. Presentation software like Google Slides or Microsoft PowerPoint are also popular choices, with many students appreciating the automatic cycling feature. Many schools host some kind of display night, allowing students to interact with an authentic audience of adults from their school community.
Project-based learning is such a wide umbrella, and there are many ways to have a positive impact on student learning through hands-on experiences. What the Buck Institute for Education: PBLWorks has done is given teachers a starting point, a guide to getting started with PBL. From there, who knows what shape PBL will take in each individual classroom? That is one of the joys for teachers: seeing how the process encourages curiosity and morphs as students take ownership of their own learning.