Understanding Project-Based Learning
If you’ve spent time in education, you’ve almost certainly heard of project-based learning, or else one of its subsets is often used as cognate, problem-based learning. From blogs to books, dissertations to magazines, project-based learning (PBL) seems to be everywhere you turn. The sheer ubiquity of PBL in educational discourse can be an impediment to its implementation, however, as it is one of those approaches that everyone seems to assume everyone else knows. A review of scholarly literature on PBL, for example, reveals many specific case studies and examples but few explanations of the general approach or what makes it such a valuable tool in your pedagogical toolbelt.
What Is Project Based Learning?
So what is project-based learning? PBL is, in a nutshell, a student-directed, hands-on process toward solving a problem within a specific content field. By putting students in the driver’s seat and allowing them the freedom to be creative and collaborative, project-based learning engages higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation by allowing students the space to find their own answers to questions in a more open-ended, collaborative environment. Utah Valley University’s Office of Teaching and Learning distinguishes Project-Based Learning from Problem-Based Learning by connecting project-based learning with the creation of a final product or artifact and problem-based learning with the acquisition of knowledge; the first is solution-oriented, the second more research-oriented. Both use similar approaches, with the primary difference being where the emphasis is placed on the outcome. For our purposes, we will be covering the means, the how and why of PBL, rather than the ends, as that will be determined by instructional goals and specific to each instructor and/or professional learning community; as such, we will use PBL here as a broad term to cover both approaches.
The fact that project-based learning stands in opposition to common, “old school” pedagogy such as lectures, rote memorization, and standardized testing might suggest it is a newer, more experimental approach, but PBL was actually developed over a century ago by John Dewey and his student, W. H. Kilpatrick. Adding to its bona fides, PBL was further explored and expanded upon by educational notaries Maria Montessori and J. H. Pestalozzi. This makes it sound rather impressive, but you may be wondering what it really means—what project-based learning looks like in practice in a real classroom. First, we’ll review the basic steps, and then cover some examples as we explore these steps in more detail.
The Steps to Implement Effective Project-Based Learning
Boston University’s Center for Teaching and Learning lists the four steps to project-based learning thus:
- Identifying a problem
- Agreeing on or devising a solution and potential solution path to the problem
- Designing and developing a prototype of the solution
- Refining the solution based on feedback from experts, instructors, and/or peers
As you may imagine, these steps can be scaled up or down fairly easily depending on classroom variables (age and ability of learners, the scope of the problem or proposed solutions, depth of instructional objectives, etc.). Let’s cover the steps in further detail.
Identifying a problem is the query stage; contrary to common assumption, this step begins, not ends, when students select a problem. Identifying a problem involves gathering the context around the problem: what kind of problem is it? who or what does it affect? what do we know about the problem, and what more do we need to know? who or what may be affected by a solution, and how? One advantage of this step is that the broader the question, the more interdisciplinary and collaborative students will have to become as they define it. For example, asking students, “How does social media affect our perception of what is considered beautiful?” is a question about psychology and perception, technology and culture, fashion and history, and so on. Once students have selected a problem, defined the nature of the problem, and considered its potential ramifications they are ready to move on to step two.
Devising solutions is the idea generation phase. This is where brainstorming comes into play, and as such collaboration can be very valuable here as multiple perspectives are more likely to brainstorm a wider variety of potential solutions. Because this is the generative phase, analysis and evaluation are less important here; getting all the possibilities out there (within boundaries) is more important than feasibility per se. Some learners may be tempted to argue in favour of a particular idea or to be critical of other possible solutions, so it is vital that clear expectations be set to ensure the most productive outcome for step two. For example, if we were asking, “Why do so many Americans die from prescription drug-related deaths?”, potential solutions may range from the moral (“People need to have stronger willpower”) to the regulatory (“Government should do more to restrict access”) to the technological (“A national prescription database could prevent doctor shopping and drug interactions”) and so on. Students who place a greater emphasis upon individual responsibility may have a difficult time entertaining solutions from students who place a greater emphasis upon the responsibility of society writ large, and vice versa, so it is important that all participants feel respected and able to share their perspectives—and this begins with clear expectations upfront.
Once students have completed step two, it’s time to move on to developing and prototyping their proposed solutions. This is the production phase, where the wide range of possibilities is quickly narrowed down through analysis; it also requires creative skills to produce mock-ups, prototypes, storyboards, role-playing, etc. Students winnow down the broad range of possibilities from step two into those that are more feasible and plausible. If, for example, the problem we’re investigating is, “How can we move this baseball from table A to table B without touching it?”, potential solutions such as blowing it with a fan or hitting it with a bat can quickly be dropped due to problems of control of force and direction as well as the need to halt momentum at the destination. Other possible solutions involving elevation, air pressure, and so on will require further development and testing. This stage is especially important, as it is where the focus shifts from lower-order skills of identifying, defining, interpreting, and producing to higher-order skills of comparing, analyzing, designing, and constructing. Instructor scaffolding is important here, but just as important is allowing students space to work through their solutions collaboratively. This is where productive struggling leads to those Eureka! moments that educators live for.
Step four involves seeking feedback and using it to refine the solution/s arrived at in step three. As such, we can think of this as the test phase, where the focus shifts from the internal (the student or student group) to external (other students, groups, or knowledgeable parties). Writing instructors will be familiar with this stage, as it is what many do in writing workshops already. But there is a danger in relying on this familiarity, as one must navigate the narrow path between being formulaic and overly structured on the one hand or being too unstructured and open-ended on the other. Instructor modelling is critical at this stage, and the more open and vulnerable instructors can be at this step the more students will feel free to do the same. In the writing classroom, the familiar “I do—we do—you do” approach may involve the instructor walking students through a review of student work (or, even better, their own less than perfect work), then soliciting feedback from the group on a new piece of work together before finally moving on to a more traditional peer review. Familiar enough, but how does this apply outside language arts? What if an economics instructor asks their students, “How does a country best recover from massive unemployment amid an economic depression?” Many possibilities present themselves from history and the imagination, and students will narrow these down in step three. Step four will require students to seek feedback, which may come from other groups working on the same or similar problems, from the instructor, from community leaders such as business owners or politicians, or from academic or professional experts such as economists and historians. Step four is, in other words, the evaluation phase, where students discover what works and what doesn’t, and, just as importantly, why. It is also the synthesis phase, where students take their ideas and the feedback they’ve received and synthesize them into a revised and refined solution. That final product (or, in problem-based learning, the final knowledge produced) is the ultimate expression of a student's ability to think critically, reflect, and to self-evaluate.
Benefits of Project-Based Learning
A natural benefit of the PBL process is the multiple opportunities for authentic assessment. And to authentically assess one must first have authentic assignments. Educator, author, and former president of the education training firm Authentic Education Grant Wiggins notes (1998) that an authentic assignment:
- is realistic.
- requires judgment and innovation.
- asks the student to ‘do’ the subject.
- replicates or simulates the contexts in which adults are “tested” in the workplace or in civic or personal life.
- assesses the student’s ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skills to negotiate a complex task.
- allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products.
And this is where PBL shines as one of the more effective approaches toward authentic assessment, as project-based learning not only deeply involves students in all six of these criteria, but actively engages them at the same time by placing students in control of their own process, guided or assisted by instructors rather than led by them. This empowerment, and the real-world implications of project-based learning, provide the possibility for sustained engagement with the material as well as multiple opportunities for the development and refinement of skills. When students are challenged and engaged, when teachers are able to accurately and authentically assess standards and meet objectives, everyone in the classroom succeeds.
What Are The Challenges of Project-Based Learning
So what do we do when project-based learning encounters challenges? Implementing PBL can seem overwhelming initially—and if you are feeling that way, your students are likely to as well. One approach is to admit this to your students: tell them you’re all going to try something new, that you’re not sure how it will work out, that it’s okay if it doesn’t, that you wanted to try it with them because you trust them to do their best with it, and so on. Start off your PBL journey by modelling openness, vulnerability, and collaboration: show the classroom that everyone, students and instructor, will take this journey together.
Even as students set off on their own individual or group paths, the role of the instructor is absolutely vital to keeping their trains on the rails. Lori Hough, editor in chief of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education magazine, writes of the importance of instructors as facilitators, guiding students with questions that require them to continually use higher-order thinking. Equally important is bringing students back to the central concerns of the subject area; more than just keeping students on topic, this ensures that student work relates to “key concepts and big ideas” within the content area (ibid.). This helps them feel invested in the content and important as knowledge creators; by acting as professionals, they develop professional skills and knowledge—modelling in action.
We all know that flexibility is key to classroom success, and it will be especially important for instructors new to project-based learning. So what if you’ve tried all of the above, all the tips and tricks from this article and from your peer educators, and—the nightmare of nightmares—it is an epic failure? This is the beauty of project-based learning: even a failure is an opportunity, as this presents a new problem to solve. Ask your students, “Why didn’t this work?” Have them define the problem and context, then propose solutions, and so on, and voila! you’ve just begun a new session of project-based learning which leads both to authentic assessment and to lessons for you the instructor to implement next time. At the end of the day, we’re all learners here, and project-based learning is an excellent opportunity to involve both students and instructors in that learning process together.
Did you learn a lot from "What is Project-Based Learning?"
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