7 Steps to Successful Project Based Learning

We have read about the first European colonists in the Americas and constructed paper models of Jamestown.  We explored the ecosystems of North America and created posters to illustrate food webs.  We have created travel brochures to teach others about Alaska. We have even created multi-media news reports to share our experiences at Chinese New Year.  And the lapbooks. When we first started homeschooling, we created many, many lapbooks.

Sound familiar? When you were in school, did you make posters, dioramas, and models of buildings or volcanoes? As a homeschool mom and teacher, you have also likely asked your kids to do many of these similar projects.  If you have older kids, you have likely asked them to research a topic and present information with PowerPoint slides? While these projects have worth, they are also examples of the kind of meaning-lite assignments that we tend to us as projects. A classroom filled with student work may suggest that students have engaged in meaningful learning. However, it is the process of students’ learning and the depth of their cognitive engagement— rather than the resulting product—that distinguishes projects from busywork.
#pbl

Project based learning is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges. With this type of active and engaged learning, students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they’re studying. When designing or planning projects, the work or task is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose.

As my kids got older and their skills have advanced, they are more critical of assignments and are quick to call out busywork.  “What is the point?” they ask. “We’ll probably just throw it away in 6 months.”  I have thereby stepped back.  I now allow their interests to lead and their own motivations to set our course.  This doesn’t mean I don’t provide motivation from time to time.  I am becoming adept at creating challenges.

Like most young boys, my son is fascinated by planes, trains, and automobiles container ships. He and his sister spent a weekend at Grandma’s recently and came home with a box full of books she had given them.  Amongst the titles (most of which were novels) were a few fiction titles that grabbed their attention.  The Pocket Guide to Military Aircraft was one my son had selected.  It kept him engaged for the entire six hour car ride home.  As he began to rattle off all the facts he was learning, I presented a challenge.  Can you create models of these aircraft in Lego?  How could you improve your designs?

7 Steps to Project Based Learning Success

Project based learning incorporates real-world problems that capture student interest and provoke serious thinking as the students acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context.  The teacher plays the role of facilitator, working with students to frame worthwhile questions, structuring meaningful tasks, coaching both knowledge development and social skills (if working in small groups), and carefully assessing what students have learned from the experience.

1. A Need to Know

Many students find schoolwork meaningless because they don’t perceive a need to know what they’re being taught. They are unmotivated when told they will need it later in life or simply because “it’s going to be on the test.” With a compelling student project, the reason for learning relevant material becomes clear: I need to know this to meet the challenge I’ve accepted. Whether you are a homeschool parent or a classroom teacher, you can powerfully activate your students’ need to know content by launching a unit in a way that engages interest and initiates questioning.  This can take the form of a video, a lively discussion, a guest speaker, or even a field trip.

2. Driving Questions

Good driving questions capture the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, giving students a sense of purpose and challenge. The question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn. It could be abstract (When is war justified?); concrete (Is our water safe to drink?); or focused on solving a problem (How can we improve this website so that more young people will use it?).

3. Student Voice, Student Choice

In terms of making a project feel meaningful to students, the more voice and choice, the better. However, teachers should design projects with the extent of student choice that fits their own style and students. On one end of the scale, learners can select what topic to study within a general driving question or choose how to design, create, and present products. In the middle, teachers might provide a limited menu of options for creative products to prevent students from becoming overwhelmed by choices. On the other end of the scale, students can decide what products they will create, what resources they will use, and how they will structure their time. Students could even choose a project’s topic and driving question.

4. 21st Century Skills

A project should give students opportunities to build such 21st century skills as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and the use of technology, which will serve them well in the workplace and life. This exposure to authentic skills meets the second criterion for meaningful work—an important purpose. A teacher in a project-based learning environment explicitly teaches and assesses these skills and provides frequent opportunities for students to assess themselves.

5. Inquiry and Innovation

Students find project work more meaningful if they conduct real inquiry, which does not mean finding information in books or websites and pasting it onto a poster. In real inquiry, students follow a trail that begins with their own questions, leads to a search for resources and the discovery of answers, and often ultimately leads to generating new questions, testing ideas, and drawing their own conclusions. With real inquiry comes innovation – a new answer to a driving question, a new product, or an individually generated solution to a problem.

6. Feedback and Revision

Formalizing a process for feedback and revision during a project makes learning meaningful because it emphasizes that creating high-quality products and performances is an important purpose of the endeavor. Students need to learn that most people’s first attempts don’t result in high quality and that revision is a frequent feature of real-world work.

In addition to direct feedback, scoring guides or other sets of criteria to critique one another’s work are useful tools that educators can coach their students to use successfully. Teachers can arrange for experts or adult mentors to provide feedback, which is especially meaningful to students because of the source.

7. Engage the Public

Schoolwork is more meaningful when it’s not done only for the teacher or the test. When students present their work to a real audience, they care more about its quality. Once again, it’s the more, the better when it comes to authenticity. Students might replicate the kinds of tasks done by professionals – but even better, they might create real products that people outside school use.

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Project based learning emphasizes learning activities that are long-term, interdisciplinary and student-centered. Unlike traditional, teacher-led classroom activities, students often must organize their own work and manage their own time in a project based class. Project based instruction differs from traditional inquiry by its emphasis on students’ collaborative or individual tasks to represent what is being learned.

My son’s military aircraft models are only the beginning.  As he continues to pursue his interests, the 7 steps outlined above can help educators like myself to facilitate the development of students’ skills. Not all pursuits or interests need to be carried through all steps, however.  As a homeschooler, we have the prerogative to change course as our children develop other passions.  Keeping these steps in mind though will assure they have the skills for success in the future.

About Eva Varga

Eva is passionate about education. She has extensive experience in both formal and informal settings. She presently homeschools her two young children, teaches professional development courses through the Heritage Institute, and writes a middle level secular science curriculum called Science Logic. In addition to her work in education, she is an athlete, competing in Masters swimming events and marathons. In her spare time she enjoys reading, traveling, learning new languages, and above all spending time with her family. ♥

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