Perfecting Project-Based Learning
March 7, 2022
Professional storyteller Donald Davis once recounted how his 4th grade teacher took their classroom on a trip around the world. Of course, it wasn’t a literal trip, but it was still quite an adventure for the students. They drove imaginary cars to the East Coast where they jumped a ship to Europe and later Asia. Along the way, students learned to spell the names of the cars they drove, their various parts and equipment, as well as the destinations they were headed for. They also had to calculate the number of miles they traveled, how far they needed to go, and what the sum total of their journey would be. It was project-based learning at its finest.
Through the project, students discovered valuable life lessons. They learned about other cultures and saw how their understanding of math and science could help bridge cultural divides. They also garnered social-emotional skills. Davis recounts how one student had to have his hair shaved due to lice. With the teacher’s help, they were able to build his self-esteem and make him feel welcome in the classroom. These are the types of lessons that make learning memorable, meaningful, and fun!
A few Thoughts
More and more educators are discovering that project-based learning is the ideal tool for growing curious, creative, and critical thinkers. By exploring real-world problems with hands-on, inquiry-based investigations, students take ownership of their learning. They are also given the opportunity to make a difference in the world. Whether it’s protecting waterways or teaching others to be fiscally responsible, PBL has the potential to make a real impact both within the classroom and outside. But what do we do when that perfectly-tailored project starts to fall apart?
The truth is project-based learning isn’t perfect. Even with the ideal lesson you’re still going to encounter some bumps along the road. Here are a few of the most common problems associated with PBL and the solutions that teachers can implement:
- Challenging Group Dynamics: It’s easy for a group project to devolve into one student doing all the work. You can avoid this outcome by keeping your student teams small to ensure that teammates are better connected with clear expectations. It also helps to keep them teacher-initiated and more diverse.
- Low Student Engagement: Even an exciting PBL unit can seem like just another lesson if presented as such. Over at Edutopia, John McCarthy suggests putting a face to the task. Let the students know that the work they’re doing is making a real difference in the life of someone else. This will not only get them motivated but also teach them how to be a powerful force for good!
- Student Inexperience: Not all students are familiar with project-based learning, and they may be unaccustomed to taking an active role in their learning. When possible, give them opportunities to find their voice. Giving them choices is a good starting point. Let them make their own decisions and then explain or defend their thought process. This will build their confidence as well as their comfort with hands-on experience.
Just getting Started
Learning can be hard. It frequently takes time, patience, and perseverance before a student sees noticeable growth. Nevertheless, there are tools we can use to help them on their journey, and few have proven as valuable as project-based learning. Don’t allow yourself to be daunted by the potential pitfalls of authentic learning experiences. Instead, pack an imaginary bag and take your students on an engaging adventure they’ll never forget.