Project-Based Learning to Spark a Passion for Learning

Over the past decade, the No Child Left Behind Act and Common Core have created a new era of student and teacher accountability. This asks teachers to improve student achievement and test scores across all demographic groups and income levels. According to Striving for Student Success: A Model of Shared Accountability (PDF), “[i]n the current school reform atmosphere, in which individual schools and teachers are being judged by their own students’ outcomes, this notion of ‘shared accountability’ is rare.” Accountability and ownership are two important skills teachers need to instill in their students. Luckily, teachers can do this without standardized testing, but with project-based learning!

Project-Based Learning to Spark a Passion for Learning

Spark Passion with Project-Based Learning

In an effective project-based learning classroom, instruction shifts away from the teacher to student accountability and ownership. Students practice autonomy, explore concepts of interest, and become experts in their field of study.

For example, I recently introduced a new PBL education project into my sociology class. Groups of students were asked to identify a problem in education and create a potential solution to that problem. Some research topics they identified were student tracking, drug abuse, bullying, class size, teacher tenure, and block scheduling.

Students were asked to interview three experts on their topic of choice. Some went above and beyond this assignment, and some even interviewed our district superintendent.

Teach Skills With Content

Students then selected a challenge in which they would share their knowledge with the world. Some of the options were writing a blog post for Edutopia, writing a position paper to be presented to the Board of Education, facilitating a debate, or creating a documentary video about their problem and solution.

Through all of these options, I had to develop my students’ abilities to not only self-manage but also set achievable and attainable goals. Like any skill, project-based learning teaches many skills that students need to know. Specifically, critical thinking, collaboration, and accountability skills.

PBL and Driving Questions

As a teacher using project-based learning, I put a lot of time into thoughtful planning. Planning clear driving questions and using multiple scaffolds is essential. You can also use task-specific workshops to guide learning.

For example, one workshop given by our library media specialist taught students how to properly evaluate a source. In return, students learned how to construct interview questions and conduct a successful interview. These are valuable skills students will use in the real world.

Planning your workshops with your students’s interests and the driving questions in mind is critical. According to the Buck Institute for Education’s Pervasive Management of Project-Based Learning(PDF), “effective PBL thrives in a classroom culture that values learning over performance and supports students’ self-management, self-direction, and self-assessment.”

Project-based learning takes time. Since students are working independently of the teacher, it is important to have a progress-monitoring strategy in place. Using a daily check-in form is an excellent way to gauge where students are at within the project.

For example, one group asked about using iMovie, so I ran a small-group tutorial on how to create a documentary. As students worked on their group projects, I constantly circulated throughout the room, checking in with each group and providing the necessary help. These daily informal evaluations supported my students in establishing and monitoring their own goals.

Project-Based Learning to Spark a Passion for Learning

Benchmarks in Project-Based Learning

Establishing clear and attainable benchmarks is critical to project-based learning. Setting due dates and assessing with benchmarks encourage full participation and promote accountability. Specifically, have each group accomplish a goal of the day. They can do this by researching their topic, writing their own essential question, writing interview questions, conducting interviews, or creating a rough draft of the assignment. These benchmark “mini” due dates are an essential part of the PBL process. When PBL is successful, students learn to self-manage and self-direct their own learning as well as collaborate with peers.

Student Reflection and Project-Based Learning

One essential piece of project-based learning is student reflection. Provide your students with clear guidelines and rubrics on how you will assess them. I always adapted rubrics from the BIE website.

At the end of the project, students can complete a self-evaluation. A self-evaluation allowed students to assess their individual contribution, group collaboration, and the final project before submission. You can even have each group present their problems and solutions to the entire class.

Another great skill to teach during reflection is how to be an audience. Have students who are audience members elicit feedback, suggestions, and comments about the problems and solutions. Each student’s individual presentation will be different since each can share his or her opinions. The day following the presentations, students can revisit their work using the feedback from their peers and from the teacher.

Set High Expectations

Project-based learning lessons are designed with the real world in mind. Set the bar high from the beginning. Thinking outside the typical classroom setting will help. For example, have students present their papers to the school board, or publish their blog posts.

A PBL classroom creates a clear mindset that learning extends far beyond our four walls! Setting high expectations increases students’ motivation and professionalism. Expectations also help develop the metacognitive skills necessary to evaluate their own learning.

During our PBL, students were able to learn more about our educational system and propose solutions to improve it. They were able to make inferences about their learning and create solutions to real-world problems.

One group researched the positives and negatives of teacher tenure and suggested a five-year contract, after which teachers need to demonstrate their mastery of teaching. Groups made several suggestions to prevent drug abuse. Their ideas were that more should be done to educate youth about the repercussions of a drug overdose, and pushing for the idea of a yearly assembly at which they hear from “real” families directly affected by drug abuse.

Don’t just cover content; teach with project-based learning! Help your students learn the skills needed to flourish in our world!

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