Project-Based Learning and Next Generation Standards

Thursday, July 16, 2015 -- Sarah Cornelius

Project-based learning (PBL) is one of the big buzzwords in education right now, and it can be a great instructional strategy to teach next-generation standards. The overarching concept really is nothing new—it simply calls for taking a hands-on, learn-by-doing approach to curriculum. However, when done correctly, PBL can provide students with a richer experience and deeper understanding of concepts than traditional tests or summative projects. Unlike traditional lessons that rely on memorization, PBL takes an innovative 21st century approach, emphasizing creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills, cooperation, and collaborative learning. We have broken down the components of PBL to help educators apply it in their classroom or school.

What is PBL?

Project-based learning is the concept of an entire lesson, unit, or even curriculum being designed with the goal of the students solving a real-world challenge or accomplishing a real-world task. Background learning, related to both the topic and applied skills, and aligned with relevant standards, occurs as students work toward the goal. 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 knowledge needed to accomplish the task. Luckily, you have a patient trainer (the teacher) who is willing to show you the ropes.

Advocates 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. In the process, they will have to teach themselves new skills and to work collaboratively with diverse teams. School should work in the same way.

How it works

For example, let’s say you are teaching chemistry. It’s obviously a very large unit. A PBL approach can be used to break down the unit into smaller chunks to ensure that students are understanding the material on a deeper level. This is how a PBL lesson/project might go:

  1. The students start by receiving some traditional instruction about chemistry, covering high-level questions like “What is it?,” “How does it work?,” and “What is its application?” The teacher also introduces the final project: the students are going to analyze food samples from a restaurant to determine if the foods’ ingredients are what the restaurant said they were.
  2. Systematically throughout the unit, students work independently and in groups to learn about the details of chemistry and its application to the final project. This is where the bulk of the relevant standards will be covered.
  3. Students participate in occasional lab sessions where they can practice skills that would be used in a working chemical laboratory.
  4. Finally, students analyze the food samples using the knowledge and skills that they acquired throughout the unit to draw conclusions and present their findings in a formalized manner.

The challenges

Some people find that effectively pacing and differentiating instruction is more challenging when using a PBL model. Depending on the project, the entire class will likely need to work at a similar level and on a comparable timeframe in order to collaboratively create the final product. Because all of the steps and components of the project are often explained to students at the beginning of the unit, high-performing students will tend to want to work ahead. Brainstorm enrichment opportunities that can be incorporated as necessary throughout the unit to keep these students engaged, and spend one-on-one time with students who seem to be struggling.

The second challenge faced by educators using PBL is access to resources. The chemistry lab mentioned in the example isn’t cheap (although it is much cheaper than it was 10 years ago). That will be the case for many great project ideas, especially in the science realm. So, if you are just venturing into PBL, start small. Design a simple project that is scaled manageably—in terms of instruction time, content covered, and resources required. Also, keep in mind that PBL can offer a great opportunity to partner with businesses or other organizations in your community. Community partners with a vested interest in your students’ project may be able to help provide resources, as well as serve as a great audience for students when they eventually present their work.

One of the central goals of next-generation standards, including the Common Core and new state-specific standards, is to focus on developing students’ critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills, while working through real-world situations to better prepare them for college and career success. Project-based learning is a great fit for these goals, in that it requires students need to think critically and work collaboratively. If you are looking for additional resources to help implement PBL in your classroom, including a library of great projects used by other educators, check out the Buck Institute for Education’s resources page!

 Want to learn more about how Edmentum’s solutions can support project-based learning in your classroom? Our Study Island program features an expansive Teacher Toolkit with a variety of subject- and grade-specific PBL lesson plans built by fellow educators! Click here to download our Study Island project-based learning bundle, which features math, science, and ELA projects for elementary, middle, and high school students!