Project-Based Learning: Taking the Classroom a Step Forward

October 8, 2018

Learning isn’t what it used to be.

Each day more schools, teachers, and institutes, are pushing the boundaries of typical pedagogies and embracing new methods of active and authentic student engagement.

There’s a reason behind all this change.

The world is becoming far more project-based, with non-routine work organized around objective-driven projects, variable budgets, timelines, and outcomes. People who can apply what they know to solve complex problems in creative ways, while achieving high-quality results, are greatly valued and in high demand.

One of the innovative teaching methods is Project-Based Learning.

PBL is a student-centered pedagogy based on the findings of John Dewey, academic and educational reformer circa 1897. He introduced the approach to teaching and learning that elevates the students’ interest and drive aka ‘learn by doing’. More contemporary educational researchers have advanced this idea in the early to mid-2000s into what we call PBL today.

PBL is accomplished by engaging students in rich and authentic learning experiences. Over an extended period of time, students work to solve real-world problems and complex questions. Thereby practicing the principle of learning by doing.

Why Project-Based Learning?

Using a multidisciplinary approach to learning through PBL, is a closer approximation to learning in the real world. Given the rapid pace of technological, economic, and societal change, high school students face a very different workplace today than in past generations. Schools embracing project-based learning offer all students an opportunity to really dive in and solve practical challenges while building vital skills such as:

  • Teamwork
  • Subject matter expertise
  • Reflection and feedback
  • Public speaking

In their book, Preparing Students for a Project-Based World, Lathram, Lenz, and Vander Ark state that, “Solving real-world issues that matter is important to us as adults—and it’s important to our students”. They explain that we need to reorganize our teaching in a way that prepares and supports students for the real world.

PBL is when school work becomes more meaningful.

When it is not just done for the sake of the teacher or the grade, but when it’s literally preparing for a future, students become invested in their work. Indeed, a recent collaborative study conducted by the University of Michigan and Michigan State University showed that proper implementation of project-based learning has a direct and positive correlation with student achievement.

The study addresses the discrepancy between literacy and informational reading and writing. Although literacy receives ample attention during elementary schooling, informational reading and writing often do not. Yet, this is the type of knowledge that students need the most post-graduation. The results of this study show that PBL offers a way to engage, challenge, and relate to students in a way that traditional instruction may not.

What are the elements of an effective PBL design?

  1. A challenging question or real-world problem. A good driving question is at the heart of the project and should be provocative, clearly articulated, open-ended and linked to clear learning goals.
  2. Sustained and continuous inquiry.  Engaging in a cyclical process of raising questions, collecting data, testing ideas, sharing results/new insights and raising new questions along the way using multiple resources.
  3. Less instructing and more coaching. The teacher should facilitate the development of 21st-century skills such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creative use of technology.
  4. Student choice and voice. Students have a voice in the goals of the project and the nature of the product. Finding their own solutions is the primary focus of PBL.
  5. Critique and revision. It’s important for students to receive frequent and relevant feedback from teachers and outside experts. They should also be engaged in self and peer assessment using set criteria and rubrics that enable them to revise and improve their ideas.
  6. Reflection and the final product. The real learning comes from reflection on the experience more than the experience itself. When students present their work to a real audience, they tend to care more deeply about its quality.

Essential Elements

Though all important, Element #5 and #6 may be deemed the most essential elements of PBL as they are crucial to real-world application and a meaningful outcome. These elements, critique, revision, and reflection, enable students to practice empathy with each other, future co-workers, and employers. This practice mirrors the interpersonal skills that will help them succeed in the workplace.

Risk and Reward

When students research, prepare, and present their work to an audience outside of their teacher or school, the stakes are higher. Even from a young age, students are capable of recognizing the risk and reward of their work. PBL encourages authentic learning rather than compliant learning. In order to validate this effort, it is beneficial for the students to present their work to industry professionals. In turn, the professionals may give feedback, critique, and coach the students.

  • Need some examples on PBL? Check out The Learning Network for some great sample projects for different subjects from grade 8 all the way to grade 12.

Project-Based Learning presents a few challenges.

As it is a stark contrast to traditional education, it requires an adjustment by both the teacher and student. The simple prerequisite of less instructing and giving students the lead requires a paradigm shift in thinking from traditional teaching pedagogy. Implementing PBL may create a seemingly unstructured classroom for some educators, and may appear to be a nearly identical method to others. In whatever form it takes, PBL aims to accomplish the same learning outcomes that teacher-centered learning achieves, but through more student-centered experiences and projects. Educators who embrace project-based learning need to get comfortable with uncertainty and discovery during the learning process. Educators once again become the learners as they adapt to new pedagogy, thereby enabling them to relate to their students on a whole new level.

  • Need tips on how to navigate this transition? Robert Schuetz of Schoology recommends that:

“..Instead of lectures and book learning, teachers can think through the steps required to solve a problem and use those steps as project-learning activities. Instead of planning a massive project, the learning process can be made more manageable by chunking the project into smaller parts, with frequent checkpoints built into the timeline…”

All students, regardless of their background, where they live, or what their post-secondary goals are, deserve access to good quality project-based learning instruction. 

PBL prepares students for both academic and career success.

Because traditional “chalk and talk” instructional methods often fall short, PBL is a great strategy to ensure student success.  A small shift away from traditional pedagogy, allows student learning to grow exponentially. Educators can overcome any PBL challenge when they consider what type of learning experiences they want their students to have. PBL increases educational equity and empowers teachers to make a real difference in the lives of their students, while adding to their own enjoyment of teaching.


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