With Project-Based Learning, an innovative pedagogy gaining steam right now, the conventional definition and goal of the school project is changing.

techer with students project based learning classroom

Many of us remember creating school projects like posters, dioramas, and models of buildings or volcanoes. The typical school project meant receiving an assignment hand-out sheet containing a grading rubric, and guidelines for completing the project. Upon completion, students presented their projects to the class using PowerPoint slides, note cards or a poster. Some progressive educators, like John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller, believe that traditional school projects like these don’t offer meaningful inquiry, don’t sufficiently engage student minds and border on busywork.

Instead, these forward-thinking educators advocate for a different approach: Project Based Learning.

Until recently, projects have typically been accessories to learning, with an overarching educational purpose focused on one thing: the result. However, for proponents of Project Based Learning, there’s a lot more to school projects than the product or presentations produced at the end.

Larmer and Mergendoller believe that, while a classroom filled with student posters may suggest that students engaged in meaningful learning at a basic level, there’s no way to know exactly how in-depth the learning process was, nor is there a way to document what students learn throughout the process or gauge the depth of their cognitive engagement. Moreover, in a conventional school project scenario, it’s not guaranteed that students will be required to learn or use skills that could be applied to solve real-world challenges.

Project Based Learning: A Progressive Pedagogy

As previously mentioned, the primary focus of the Project Based Learning process is as much about the journey as it is the destination. At the core, project-based learning is “the act of learning through identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution,” where kids “show what they learn as they journey through the unit, not just at the end.” In a project-based learning model, “projects become the primary route to knowledge and skills, rather than an accessory to learning.”

Unlike conventional projects, where students take a test or produce a product at the end, Project Based Learning “creates a learning story” and integrates knowing with doing. Students “show what they learn as they journey through the unit, interact with its lessons, collaborate with each other, and assess themselves and each other.”

In a Project Based Learning environment, students learn critical thinking by making thoughtful decisions without being explicitly instructed to do so. Additionally, embedded within the Project-Based Learning process is the opportunity for students to learn 21st-century learning skills such as critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, and communication, as well as 21st-century life skills like productivity, leadership, and initiative.

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What Constitutes Project-Based Learning?

student writing project based learning

It’s important to differentiate between traditional school projects, which are as old as the classroom itself, and Project Based Learning, a relatively fresh concept. There are five main criteria that a project must have to be truly considered an instance of Project Based Learning, according to A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning by John W. Thomas.

Students are in the Driver’s Seat

Project Based Learning projects are student-led, rather than teacher-led, scripted or pre-packaged. It gives students the opportunity to be leaders of their lessons, which is why Project Based Learning projects purposefully do not have predetermined outcomes or take predetermined paths. “Project Based Learning projects incorporate a good deal more student autonomy, choice, unsupervised work time, and responsibility than traditional instruction and traditional projects,” Thomas wrote.

Project Based Learning Means Solving Real-World Challenges

Another essential characteristic of Project Based Learning is that projects are to be realistic, not school-like, and should teach skills that have the potential to be applied to real-world situations. In an ideal Project Based learning environment, projects have an air of realness to them, which motivates and inspires students to think, often, more deeply and creatively than they would in a traditional project scenario.

Furthermore, Project Based Learning projects activate student’s need to know because they are centered on real-world challenges. Students are motivated to learn from the project because it is inherently implied that they will likely use the skills later in life. Often, this approach project work is more effective than a traditional approach, which attempts to motivate students to learn something simply because “it might be on the test.” Project Based Learning is designed to generate genuine curiosity in students so that they want to learn.

Projects ARE the Curriculum

As previously mentioned, Project Based Learning is all about getting students to learn by doing, which is why projects are central to the pedagogy, not supplemental to the curriculum. The project is “the central teaching strategy; students encounter and learn the central concepts of the discipline via the project.” This is in contrast to a traditional classroom instruction scenario, where students learn from a series of preconceived worksheets, quizzes, lectures, and tests. In Project Based Learning, students forge their educational experience as they progress from project initiation all the way to completion.

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 Project Based Learning Starts With a Question

Project Based Learning projects are inquiry based, meaning they are “focused on questions that ‘drive’ students to encounter (and struggle with) the central concepts and principles of a discipline.” Project Based Learning questions are provocative, open-ended, and should embody the core concept that an instructor wants students to learn. The style of the initial driving question varies from project to project.

Some projects begin with an abstract or philosophical question (Can drilling for oil in an environmentally sensitive area ever be justified?), some start with a question focused on solving a problem (How can we improve the quality of water in the city?), and others start with a concrete question (Is the air in our city safe to breathe?).

Launching projects with questions like these helps students understand why they are undertaking a project, which can be more educationally valuable than having them assume the most important part of a project is the creation of the poster at the end. Leading with a question initiates learning at the very beginning of the project process.

Investigation and Innovation

With traditional projects, a student often finds information in books or on websites and then paste it onto a poster to eventually present to the class. Unlike in Project Based Learning, students follow the teacher’s directions and project guidelines to move from project initiation to completion. In Project Based Learning, students follow their own directions and establish their own guidelines, giving students more control over the learning process.

Project Based Learning students conduct what is known as “real inquiry,” but what does that really mean?

Larmer and Mergendoller offer this definition of “real inquiry in their article:

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 conclusion. With real inquiry comes innovation–a new answer to a driving question, a new product, or a individually generated solution to a problem. The teacher does not ask students to simply reproduce teacher or textbook provided information in a pretty format.

Project Based Learning, Collaboration, and the Next Gen Classroom

Built into the Project Based Learning pedagogy is the opportunity to teach 21st-century skills. Working through a Project-Based Learning project requires students to collaborate, communicate and think critically to solve problems along the way. The right learning environment is necessary to facilitate the learning of these skills.

Building the right environment starts with classroom arrangement and furnishings. The ideal classroom arrangement would feature a wide variety of multi-purpose desks, chairs, and tables. Ideally, tables and chairs would be mobile, modular, and lightweight so that students may easily arrange and rearrange furnishings to support any learning scenario. While it is certainly possible to implement Project Based Learning in a classroom with traditional non-mobile rectangular desks, it would be more challenging because the rigidity of the classroom arrangement could be restrictive for students needing to collaborate or move around frequently.

The Education is in the Experience

Regarding learning a new skill or concept, people often say, “the easiest way to learn is just to do it and learn as you go.” The same is true in the case of the philosophy behind Project-Based Learning. Students have the opportunity to learn new concepts and 21st century by conducting hands-on work both inside and outside of the classroom. PBL requires students to ask questions, devise strategies and arrive at conclusions. In the end, the goal is that they’ll be better prepared to join the workforce.

Works Cited

“Why Project-based Learning Should Rule Your School!” Performing in Education. 2015. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

Larmer, John, and John R. Mergendoller. “Seven Essentials for Project-Based Learning.”

Educational Leadership:Giving Students Meaningful Work:Seven Essentials for Project-Based Learning. ASCD, Sept. 2010. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

Thomas, John W. “A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning.” Bob Pearlman, Mar. 2000. Web.

Wolpert-Gawron, Heather. “What the Heck Is Project Based Learning?” Edutopia. 2015. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

Zubrzycki, Jackie. “How a School Project Made City Planners Out of Teens.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.