by Courtney Messenbaugh
Back to school. Back to books. Back to parents wondering whether or not their child is gaining the critical thinking and communication skills that he’ll need to compete in the world. Back to teachers trying to engage students—who, let’s face it, can be a tough crowd—to ensure they’re gaining necessary skills and meeting standards.
The paradox of educating children is that we not only want them to achieve and want measurements to show their achievement, but also we would love students to approach all of this achievement with a self-driven fervor. It’s a tall order, but many professionals say that project-based learning (PBL) can help.
HOW PROJECT-BASED LEARNING WORKS
Imagine a PBL lesson about endangered animals. Students pick endangered animals that interest them. The teacher provides guidance on various research tools and methods. The students research the animals and the causes for its peril, then present a multimedia report. Students might even develop a partnership with an organization that is doing conservation work. This all takes place over the course of several weeks, with the hope that students become so enthralled by their subjects that neither teachers nor parents have to do any nagging to ensure the project’s completion.
Boulder mom Jackie Frankovich, who has two boys at High Peaks Elementary in Boulder, says that when one of her sons participated in a project-based assignment last year, she was thrilled to see how excited he was about the process and end result. The project, called Night of the Notables, required her son to pick an impactful person from history, research him or her, write a report, develop a display, then dress and act like the person for a presentation.
“He always remembered on his own to bring home materials for the project and even wanted to do extra work for it, like reading and doing more research online,” Frankovich says. She also notes that the teacher was instrumental to his success in providing appropriate goals and progressive deadlines.
PROJECT-BASED LEARNING IN COLORADO
There’s evidence more teachers are using self-driven projects to instruct students than they did a decade ago, according to the article, Project Based Learning: The Pros and Cons by Keith McHugh at greatschools.org.
It’s often incorporated by teachers individually, but there are a few local schools in Colorado that focus entirely on PBL: the Olander School for Project-Based Learning in Fort Collins, Denver Green School, Colorado STEM Academy in Westminster and Odyssey School of Denver. In addition, PBL can be found at schools that follow Reggio-Emilia philosophy, including the Boulder Journey School, Children’s Garden in Denver and The Patchwork School in Louisville, among others.
WHY IT’S EFFECTIVE
PBL is all about students finding a subject in which they’re interested and researching answers to questions around that topic. Teachers see that students become more engaged when they have some control over their learning.
“As educators, we need to embrace the authentic learning that takes place when we allow students to pursue their passions,” says Michelle Eckstein, an elementary technology teacher at Peak-to-Peak Charter School in Lafayette.
Eckstein plans to have her 5th graders undertake a yearlong passion project, in which she will incorporate mini lessons on things like research, inquiry and digital citizenship. Mostly, though, she plans to get out of their way, thereby empowering them to become leaders in their own learning.
Research has shown that PBL is a viable strategy for engaging all kinds of learners. Throughout history, educators such as Aristotle, John Dewey and Maria Montessori embraced a learning-bydoing philosophy. It was adopted for teaching medicine and engineering in the 20th century and has gained popularity in 21st century K-12education, thanks to more information from cognitive scientists about how people learn.
Traditionally, PBL has worked really well for science, technology and engineering projects, which are all hands-on and inherently projectbased. It’s also useful for literacy and social studies. In any of these cases, key components for success include making sure the project’s design and scope align with students’ skills and interests, making sure criteria for success are clear and having a supportive network for the teachers.
CHALLENGES WITH PBL
According to research, one of the challenges of PBL is that it may require teachers to adopt new instructional strategies and get comfortable with a few missteps that students may take, in order to foster success. Teachers play the role of facilitator or coach, doing more modeling and less direct instruction with lectures or textbooks. Of course, PBL also puts the students into a different role than that to which they’re accustomed. Math can be tricky with PBL, especially as higher-level math is taught, and students are being tested to meet certain standards, according to a Chalkbeat Colorado article by Nicholas Garcia (co.chalkbeat. org), featuring the Denver Green School.
Susan Strauss, the TAG/Enrichment Advisor at High Peaks Elementary, has led groups of her students through PBL projects based in literacy and social studies. She says some students struggle with organization and need support organizing their materials and ideas. Additionally, students may need initial help with the inquiry and analysis process. Strauss notes that teaching with scaffolding—meaning she’s more hands-on in the beginning, then gradually makes room for students’ plans—works really well. As she works with students through the scaffolding process, they begin to take ownership.
When Eckstein’s students start their passion projects, she admits that the unique undertaking has the potential to get messy. PBL gives students more freedom, which requires more responsibility. They have to make sure they choose a project in which they have a great enough interest to stay motivated. She will likely have differences in readiness, interest and skills among her 5th graders. Her plan is to embrace those differences, meet students where they are and provide them with the tools they need to investigate, learn and create.
Courtney Messenbaugh is a Boulder-based writer and mother of three.
Edutopia.org: Find information on what works in K-12 education, including more than 1,100 resources related to PBL.
Pblu.org and bie.org: From the Buck Institute for Education, this site aims to help teachers prepare students for successful lives. It includes myriad information on PBL and examples of specific, age-appropriate projects for parents.
Pinterest.com: Search “project-based learning” and find a wealth of PBL-related pins that lead you to great ideas on other Web sites.