That's exactly what I asked myself when I was asked to start my student teaching at a project-based learning school. Project-based learning (or PBL for short) is a method of teaching that allows for multiple access points for diverse student learners. It's pretty much that simple. Depending on the school or method of instructional practice, PBL comes in all shapes and sizes. I'm going to share my version of project-based learning with you.
Through the project launch, students become initially engaged in the overall problem or question being addressed by the project and then work in collaborative teams to design and iterate solutions through feedback and refinement. The focus for project-based learning is on skill mastery through deep dives instead of broad content coverage. In true project-based learning environments, students are thirsty for more information and will even ask the teacher to provide more information in order to complete a task. This can be an authentic inquiry moment or pre-planned by Jedi mind tricking kids into asking you to teach them content.
For example, students recognize the health of fish in a tank is poor. They test the water and find that the ammonia is high. The teacher asks why this might be happening and how to fix this. Students ask, "What is ammonia?" The teacher launches into a lesson about the nitrogen cycle. Students are bought-in to learning about this because they have a genuine interest and need to understand it in order to solve the problem. In my experience, this is the only time I've ever had a fully engaged group of kids learning about the nitrogen cycle; the lesson was completely the same, the storyline was the only difference.
Project-based learning looks messy, chaotic, and sometimes unstructured. But true project-based learning is actually organized chaos, meaning a teacher still has complete (often better) control of classroom management but allows students the freedom to explore information in unique ways, sometimes moving around, usually discussing, and never sitting in rows facing the front of a room - how can you collaborate like this?! This often feels messy for teachers who like an orderly classroom and can be more work by moving from group to group to monitor discourse and support inquiry-based learning, but allowing students the opportunity to engage in learning at their own pace and through their own modalities is just good teaching.
Project-based learning sounds hectic. Teachers who are new at PBL often argue that their classroom is too noisy during project work time. I encourage them to listen to their students. Because the number of "aha" moments and respectful debates about the topic that happen in groups far outnumber the off-topic conversations. Studies have shown that students rely on peer support for content far more often than they do their classroom teacher. So why not provide students with the opportunity to support each other during collaborative work time?
This requires a good amount of scaffolding for students and classroom structures to be put into place. But if teachers take the time to set this up for their learners, any population of students - regardless of their background - can be successful in a project-based environment, unlike many traditional education models.
What is your definition of project-based learning?
With over a decade of experience as an educator, I want to share some of the best practices that I've discovered for bringing the real world into the classroom.