Did you ever wonder ‘why am I learning this?’ back in high school?
It was something I always struggled with, particularly in later year maths and science but in many other classes too. ‘Why do I have to do this?’ ‘Is this ever really going to help me?’ ‘What’s the point?’
I guess I was one of ‘those students’ who wanted to know why we were learning something and needed a reason to study. That is why I love project-based learning (PBL).
For those who don’t know, Edutopia has a great explanation of what PBL is.
Essentially it connects traditional classroom content with a class project, linking individual lessons to activities connected to the project and allowing students to see relevance in what they are learning.
Linking subject content and teaching to a larger ‘real-world’ project that the whole class is working on both as a group and individually can alter the classroom environment from a boring lecture to an engaging adventure or mission. It allows students to attend regular classes but constantly apply what they are learning to a problem that they might end up facing in real life.
During my U.S. school visits I was impressed with the way one school allowed students to negotiate their own project with their teacher as a class. The school would then work to make that project possible.
Another example is where a school would ensure that students had themed projects from the moment they began at the school. Each school term from preschool to grade 8 would present a new challenge and students would complete a task that was practical and was a real world issue.
At both schools students said to me that they loved how projects became ‘a challenge we have to work on together.’ ‘We get to participate in a problem that we might have to face later on in life and then do things while learning, that’s what makes this school cool.’
Projects can differ from school to school and class to class but so far I believe there are a few key elements to getting it right.
Firstly, students need to be involved in negotiating project development. While this may be challenging, if students are allowed to have input in the project design (at least for some) then they feel a greater ownership.
Secondly, project based learning needs to be holistic in the school. Where possible, all classes should be linked to the project and the school should imbed this style of learning throughout all of the grades/ year groups.
Thirdly, it needs to be a problem that students know is representative of a real world situation. This ensures students will know the value of what they are learning, showing how skills developed in a class can be applied to a problem.
Fourthly, projects should be celebrated. This can be done with a showcase or a display at the end of the class term, semester or year!
If you are interested in outside of the classroom project based learning, check out the incredible work of Citizen Schools. I’m hoping to see them in action in L.A. before leaving the states. Citizen Schools expands the school day by connecting a team of professional adults to a school and providing a term long program where students complete a project based on that adults passion or work experience.
I always found that classroom environments where students feel they are being forced to learn something that is irrelevant to their life can breed disengagement. PBL can help to engage students in a task and create meaning for their education.
Thanks again to the schools and teachers who have spoken to me about this topic and the U.S. State Department International Visitor Leadership Program.
I think all schools should be implementing a holistic project-based learning strategy from preschool to year 12, would be great if universities got in on the action too but I’m not holding my breath…