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In Depth: Project-Based Learning

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 -- Scott Sterling

This month, we’re going to focus on some pedagogical ideas currently taking hold in classrooms. The goal is to give you some ideas worth trying out once the doors open in August. This week, it’s project-based learning.

What is it?

Project-based learning is the concept of an entire lesson, unit, or even curriculum being designed with the goal of the students accomplishing a real-world task. Background learning occurs as the students work toward the project. Think of being hired for a new job and given a project that’s due at a certain date, even though you don’t have all of the background skills needed to accomplish the task. Luckily, you have a patient trainer who is willing to show you the ropes (the teacher).

Proponents see PBL as a better reflection of how the world actually works when students enter the workforce. They will be expected to accomplish goals and tasks and will be evaluated based on those accomplishments. School should work in the same way.

How it works

For example, let’s say you are teaching genetics. It’s obviously a very large unit. This is how a PBL unit about the topic might go:

  1. The students start by receiving some traditional instruction about genetics (What is it? How does it work? Etc.) The teacher also introduces the final project: the students are going to analyze food samples to find out if the food’s ingredients are what the restaurant said they were.
  2. Systematically throughout the unit, students are working together (or separately, depending on your style) in learning both about the details of genetics and how they apply to the final project. This is where the bulk of your standards are covered.
  3. Occasionally, students participate in labs that let them practice their skills as if they were in a genetics lab.
  4. Finally, students analyze the food samples using the knowledge and skills they acquired throughout the unit.

The challenges

Some people find that pacing and differentiation under PBL is more challenging. Depending on the project, the entire class probably needs to be in the same place in order to create the final product. Because the steps toward the project are often revealed to the students at the beginning of the unit, high performing students will want to work ahead. Brainstorm enrichment opportunities that can happen throughout the unit.

The second challenge is resources. The genetics lab example above isn’t cheap (although cheaper than it was 10 years ago). That will probably be the case for every science project. Math and the humanities have some leeway in just how “professional” their project can be.

Perhaps the central goal of the Common Core and the associated state standards is for students to work in more real-world situations, preparing them for the world of college and career. Students need to think critically and work collaboratively. Project-based learning certainly accomplishes those goals.