There I sat in math class trying to work the problems on the page. I had no idea what I was doing but I knew if I followed the steps shown in the example, I had a high probability of getting the correct answers. “How is it possible I’m pulling an A- in this class when I don’t understand the content? And when will I ever use this anyway?”
Ah, the frustration of going through the motions without knowing why. My Project-Based Learning journey began while I was still a student in middle school. Back then, I was a self-designated “hoop jumper,” someone who had learned the game of school and was quite an accomplished player. Understanding the course information was not my ultimate goal; getting good grades was. Although many educators stand by the belief that good grades indicate a high level of content understanding, I’ve worked time and again with students whose current experience is not much different from mine. On a unit test, they may be able to answer the questions correctly but may have no clue how to apply their learning to new situations. As the saying goes, just because information is taught doesn’t mean students have learned it.
So how do we change the game? I believe we actually look to the past as our guide. Back in the days when teens learned a trade, they did so by working alongside a master craftsman. The learning made sense because it had a very tangible purpose. As a middle school teacher, I’m passionate about providing context for the content I teach. How? First, I consider what has to be taught: the standards. From there, I determine “who uses this information in the “real-world,” the world outside of school?” as well as “in what context do they use it?” to try to make my lessons as relevant as possible. Second, I incorporate what the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) calls itsEight Essential Elements to connect the lessons into a cohesive PBL unit. While this requires more time and much planning on my part, the pay off comes when my students immerse themselves in the learning, care about doing quality work, and can articulate what they learned as a result.
Although PBL is not the panacea some believe it to be (for example, teachers who struggle with classroom management will still struggle with classroom management regardless of their teaching approach until the underlying issue is addressed), it is a powerful approach when done well. It changes the way school is done because it elevates learning to a higher level than just passing a test. It engages students and ignites curiosity because students understand why they are learning what they are learning, as well as how that learning will be applied in an authentic way. And it provides the opportunity for students to experience the work of professionals before, not after, they graduate. Project-based learning provides the shifts students’ focus from hoop-jumping to in-depth inquiry and learning.
If you are interested in learning more about Project-Based Learning and how to get started, check out NextLesson’s upcoming webinar, Tackling PBL.