Project-Based Learning Made Easy

You know the quote. It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Engage me in project based learning and I retain it longer than I would with traditional instruction.” Or was it Jean Piaget? Either way, it gets to the point of PBL being an effective and enjoyable way to learn. Now, with summer in full bloom, there’s no better time to learn how you can begin incorporating project based learning into your classroom, or to refine your PBL practice for your students.
To be clear, project based learning is not a culminating activity to demonstrate acquired knowledge at the end of a curricular unit. Rather, PBL is a vehicle for discovering facts and relationships between otherwise seemingly disparate concepts and ideas. The Buck Institute for Education defines project based learning as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.” Additionally, PBL engenders eight Essential Elements which can be viewed here.
With project based learning, students begin by posing an open-ended driving question after experiencing some kind of entry event. This inspires in-depth inquiry and a need to “gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to answer [their] driving question and create project products” themselves. Through making guided choices about product design and how to complete them in a timely manner, students engage with standards based concepts, continually critiquing and revising their work until it is ready to be presented to a real world public audience. One of the greatest difficulties to getting started with project based learning, however, is simply figuring out how to begin.
In How Did I Start My Very First Project?, Alfred Solis (@alfredbie) shares the steps he took as a first-year PBL teacher at High Tech High. Among them are replicating an existing project and sticking with what you know. By minding these two principles, Solis and his students designed and manufactured prototypes of sculptures from the Urban Tree program in their San Diego community which they then presented to judges visiting from The Port of San Diego who choose their favorite models. Those selected by the judges were then presented at a board meeting of 150 people.
In Getting Started with Project-Based Learning (Hint: Don’t Go Crazy), Andrew Miller (@betamiller) offers further insights and wisdom for creating your first PBL unit. “Start small,” he says. “Instead of targeting a million standards, focus on a few power standards . . . Make sure the project won’t take more than two or three weeks.” Miller also emphasizes the need for planning upfront. He says, “By using the backwards design process, you can effectively map out a project that’s ready to go in the classroom. Once you plan it, you’re free to differentiate instruction and meet the immediate needs of your students rather than being in permanent crisis-mode trying to figure out what will happen tomorrow.”
When it comes to planning for PBL, there is really no more valuable resource than the Buck Institute for Education’s collection of planning forms. These not only include templates, checklists, and rubrics for project design, planning, and assessment. They also offer completed samples of each planning form for you to better visualize and familiarize yourself with the PBL planning process. Recreate existing PBL projects. Stick with what you know. Start small by focusing on a few power standards. And plan accordingly. “I couldn’t have asked for a better start for my PBL career,” said Solis. “However, there was definitely a lot of room for improvement. My friend once told me, ‘ You never do a project until the second time. [Nevertheless], there are no bad projects, only good lessons.”
According to the research, the lessons learned through project based learning are lasting and profound. Not only do students in PBL environments engage with and retain the learning taking place in their inquiry-based endeavors. Project based learning helps students master the skills and competencies necessary for college and career readiness. Now, there is something you can quote.
For more, see these Getting Smart Papers:

Dave Guymon

Dave Guymon is a public online middle school teacher, edtech blogger, and the author of If You Can’t Fail, It Doesn’t Count.

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