15 Mar, 2021
Many schools that value student-centered approaches to teaching and learning have embraced project-based learning (PBL). However, it’s not always clear what PBL is and how it differs from, say, just assigning a project. Likewise, it’s not always clear how to integrate PBL into the classroom in a way that feels purposeful, meaningful, and effective. This article will tackle the two most pressing questions related to PBL: what is it, and how can we do it?
Project-based learning is a student-centered pedagogy that uses real-world problems and extended assignments as the method through which students learn content and habits of mind. PBL differs from a typical school project because with PBL, the project is the vehicle through which students learn the content and eventually build on it themselves. A typical school project, by contrast, tends to be assigned as a tack-on after the teacher has covered the main content.
PBL is very process-oriented: through the act of trying to answer a complex question or remedy a multifaceted problem, students learn content as well as transferable skills such as research, collaboration, creative and critical thinking, and effective communication.
Now that we know what PBL is, we can explore several different techniques for incorporating PBL into the classroom. This is in no way an exhaustive list; it’s just a sampling of interesting iterations of PBL that can hopefully inspire teachers to customize their own PBL curriculum. Teachers should use their discretion when choosing an extended project, keeping in mind the age, prior knowledge, and needs of their individual learners.
Project-Based Learning - Sample Projects:
Devise a new form of government
Everyone has critiques of our current form of government, or of governments around the world. This project gives students the agency to envision and map out a new form of government, one that addresses the shortcomings of existing government(s). Devising a new form of government will challenge students to think about philosophical questions about human nature and humans’ relationship to society and power, and to explore history, technology, social trends, economics, international relations, and more.
Take action against cyberbullying
One of the key tenets of PBL is that learning should be real-world oriented and relevant to students. Cyberbullying (and bullying of any kind) is unfortunately a rampant issue among younger generations. In this project, teachers put the ball in students’ court and challenge them to devise innovative ways to deal with - and hopefully eradicate - this issue. To do so, students will need to explore history, technology, psychology, sociology, and other fields.
Deliver a TED Talk
TED Talks are relatively short, jam-packed-with-interesting-info prepared speeches that require great research and preparation on the part of the speaker. In the process of preparing for a TED Talk on a topic of their (or the teacher’s) choice, students must not only research their topic, select the most important concepts, and develop effectives ways of presenting that material to the audience, but also study successful TED Talks to learn about this particular speech format and strategies speakers use to engage, entertain, and wow their audience.
Plan for the future
Some day students will be responsible for their own finances. How should they go about making a budget? Saving and investing? Deciding how much debt they are comfortable taking on? This project draws on math, economics, and other social sciences to get students to understand what goes into decisions around how much money to make, spend, save, and invest.
Design an app
Designing an app requires substantial interdisciplinary work, as an app is about much more than computer code. It is first and foremost a means of solving a problem or addressing an unmet need. Students must therefore start by locating an issue they want to address--the more specific, the better. They can then conduct research on the topic, explore what other interventions have been attempted, make a budget for their app, think about user experience and app design, and if appropriate actually move forward with coding the app and making it functional.
Start a business
Similarly to creating an app, starting a business requires students to grapple with all manner of questions and considerations from different fields. In addition to drawing on skills of creativity, follow-through, careful planning, and entrepreneurship, students engage with history, economics, mathematics, art, communications, social sciences, and a host of other fields depending on the particular business.
Design a city
What would it look like to build a city on water? Under water? Underground? In the sky? In place of Manhattan? In the course of designing a city, students engage with history, architecture and design, natural resources, social sciences, mathematics, engineering, and physics, to name but a few domains!
PBL is a powerful student-centered teaching tool that uses projects not as accessories to learning, but as the main vehicle through which students learn course content and habits of mind. Possible PBL projects are nearly infinite, but the common thread among them is that they are connected to the real world, pertinent to students’ lives, and require deep, authentic, often interdisciplinary inquiry.