There’s a reason many of us think of classes like art, music, drama as the happiest of our school years.
It’s the same reason that the woodwork rooms, science labs and culinary class kitchens of my school were always the most joyous, productive and memorable places…
Kids just love doing things.
If you’ve ever cleaned up wall “art” or mountains of Lego rubble from your own kid at home, you probably know this already.
Activity is a crucial part of a child’s development but is far too often neglected at school. Teachers and curriculums mostly focus on the passive intake of information, either through listening or reading.
But doing is learning. In fact, one study found that actively doing stuff in class raised overall grades by a huge 10 percentage points, proving that it’s one of the most effective ways to get students learning.
The takeaway is this – give them a project and watch them blossom.
Here’s how project-based learning works…
What is Project-Based Learning?
Project-based learning (PBL) is when a student, several groups of students or an entire class engage in a challenging, creative, achievable, supported, long-term project.
Those adjectives are emboldened because, frankly, making pipe cleaner animals when there’s 10 minutes left in textiles class doesn’t count as PBL.
For a project to qualify for PBL, it needs to be 5 things:
- Challenging: The project needs to require real thought in order to solve a problem.
- Creative: The project needs to have an open-question with no one correct answer. Students should be free (and encouraged) to express creativity and individuality in their project.
- Achievable: The project needs to be able to be completed using what students should know from your class.
- Supported: The project needs your feedback along the way. There should be milestones for the project and you should use those to see what stage the project’s at and to give advice.
- Long-term: The project has to have sufficient complexity that it lasts a decent period of time: anywhere between a few lessons to an entire semester.
There’s a reason project-based learning is also called ‘discovery learning’ and ‘experiential learning’. It’s all about the student and how they can learn through their own discovery and experience.
No wonder they love it.
Why Project-Based Learning?
Committing to any new innovative teaching method takes time, but the first step is to ask why? It’s to see the ultimate aim of the switch; what your students, their grades and you can get out of it.
Here are some of the benefits of project-based learning…
#1 – It seriously works
If you think about it, you might realise you’ve been doing project-based learning your whole life.
Learning to walk is a project, as is making friends in primary school, cooking your first edible meal and figuring out what the hell quantitative tightening is.
Right now, if you can walk, have friends, can vaguely cook and know advanced principles of economics, you can thank your own PBL for getting you there.
And you know it works.
As 99% of LinkedIn ‘influencers’ will tell you, the best teachings aren’t in books, they’re in trying, failing, trying again and succeeding.
That’s the PBL model. Students address the huge problem posed by the project in stages, with lots of little failures at each stage. Each failure helps them learn what they did wrong and what they should do to make it right.
It’s the natural process of learning reproduced in school. It’s no surprise there’s a mountain of evidence suggesting PBL is more effective than traditional teaching methods in data literacy, science, maths and English language, all with students from 2nd grade to 8th.
Project-based learning at any stage is simply effective.
#2 – It’s engaging
Much of the reason for all those positive results is the fact that kids actively enjoy learning through PBL.
Maybe that’s a bit of a sweeping statement, but consider this: as a student, if you had the choice between staring at a textbook about photons or building your own tesla coil, which do you think you would get more involved in?
The studies linked above also show how students really get into PBL. When they’re faced with a task that requires creativity, is challenging and is immediately tangible in the real world, their enthusiasm for it skyrockets.
It’s impossible to force students to be interested in memorising information for replication in an exam.
Give them something fun and the motivation will take care of itself.
#3 – It’s future-proof
A 2013 study found that half of business leaders can’t find decent job applicants because, essentially, they don’t know how to think.
These applicants are often technically skilled, but lack “basic workplace proficiencies like adaptability, communication skills and the ability to solve complex problems.”
It’s not easy to teach soft skills like these in a traditional setting, but PBL allows students to develop them adjacent to what they’re developing in terms of knowledge.
Almost as a byproduct of the project, students will learn how to work together, how to get through roadblocks, how to lead, how to listen and how to work with meaning and motivation.
For the future of your students, the benefits of project-based learning at school will become clear to them as both workers and humans.
#4 – It’s inclusive
Linda Darling-Hammond, leader of President Joe Biden’s education transition team, once said this…
“We used to restrict project-based learning to a very tiny minority of students who were in gifted-and-talented courses, and we would give them what we would call ‘thinking work’. That has exacerbated the opportunity gap in this country.”
Linda Darling-Hammond on PBL.
She added that what we really need is “project-based learning of this kind for all students”.
There are plenty of schools across the world where students suffer because of their low socieconomic status (low-SES). Students of more affluent backgrounds are provided all the opportunities and are propelled forward by them, while low-SES students are kept well and truly within the mold.
In modern times, PBL is becoming a great leveller for low-SES students. It puts everyone on the same playing field and unshackles them; it gives them full creative freedom and allows advanced and not-so-advanced students to work together on an intrinsically motivating project.
A study reported by Edutopia found that there was greater growth in low-SES schools when they switched to PBL. Students in the PBL model recorded higher scores and higher motivation than other schools using traditional teaching.
This higher motivation is crucial because this is a huge lesson for low-SES students that school can be both exciting and equal. If this is learned early, the implications of this on their future learning is phenomenal.
Project-Based Learning Examples and Ideas
The study mentioned above is a fantastic example of project-based learning.
One of the projects in that study took place in Grayson Elementary School in Michigan. There, the teacher introduced the idea of going to the playground (enthusiastically taken up by his 2nd grade class) to list all the problems they can find.
They got back to school and compiled a list of all the problems the students found. After a bit of dicsussion, the teacher suggested they write a proposal to their local council to try and get it fixed.
Lo and behold, councilman Randy Carter turned up at the school and the students presented their proposal to him as a class.
You can see the project for yourself in the video below.
So PBL was a hit in this social studies class. The students were motivated and the results they came up with were spectacular for a 2nd grade, high-poverty school.
But what does PBL look like in other subjects? Check out these project-based learning ideas for your own class…
- Make your own country – Get together in groups and come up with a brand new country, complete with location on Earth, climate, flag, culture and rules. How detailed each field is is down to the students.
- Design a tour itinerary – Pick any place in the world and design a tour itinerary that goes to all of the best stops over multiple days. Each student (or group) has a budget that they must stick to and must come up with a cost-effective tour that includes travel, hotels and food. If the place they pick for the tour is local, then they could possibly even lead the tour in real life.
- Apply for your town to host the Olympics – Make a group proposal for the town or city you’re in to host the Olympic games! Think about where people will watch the games, where they will stay, what they will eat, where the athletes will train, etc. Each project in the class has the same budget.
- Design an art gallery event – Put together a program of art for an evening, including art to be shown and any events to be held. There should be a little placard describing each piece of art and a thoughtful structure to their arrangement throughout the gallery.
- Build a nursing home for dementia sufferers – Dementia villages are on the rise. Students learn what makes a good dementia village and design one themselves, complete with all the necessary facilities to keep residents happier for a certain budget.
- Make a mini-documentary – Take a problem that needs solving and make an exploratory documentary of it, including script, talking head shots and whatever else students want to include. The ultimate aim is to phrase the problem in different lights and offer a few solutions for it.
- Design a medieval town – Research the lives of medieval villagers and design a medieval town for them. Develop the town based on existing conditions and beliefs at the time.
- Revive the dinosaurs – Make a planet for all the dinosaur species so that they can co-habit. There should be as little inter-species fighting as possible, so the planet needs to be organised to ensure maximum chances of survival.
3 Levels to Great Project-Based Learning
So you have a great idea for a project. It ticks all of the boxes and you know your students will love it.
Time to break down how your PBL will look overall, every few weeks and every lesson.
The Big Picture
This is the start – the ultimate goal for your project.
Of course, not many teachers have the freedom of choosing a random project and hoping their students learn something abstract at the end of it.
According to the standard cirruclum, by the end, students must always show understanding of the topic you’ve been teaching them.
When you’re planning the project to give to your students, keep that in mind. Make sure that the questions that arise and the milestones reached along the way are in some way related to the main aim of the project, and that the product that arrives at the end of it is a solid response to the original assignment.
It’s all too easy to forget this on the journey of discovery, and let students get a little too creative, to the point that they’ve completely mangled the main point of the project.
So remember the end goal and be clear about the rubric you’re using to mark your students. They need to know all of this for effective learning.
The Middle Ground
The middle ground is where you will have your milestones.
Peppering your project with milestones means that students are not left completely to their own devices from start to finish. Their end product will be more closely aligned with the goal because you’ve provided them with decent feedback at each stage.
Crucially, these milestone checks are often the times when students feel motivated. They can register the progress of their project, get useful feedback and take new ideas into the next stage.
So, take a look at your overall project and break it down into stages, with a milestone check at the end of each stage.
When it comes down to the nitty gritty of what students do during your actual lessons, there’s not much you need to do except remember your role.
You are the facilitator of this entire project; you want to have students making their own decisions as much as possible so they can learn independently.
With that in mind, your classes will mostly be…
- Reiterating the next milestone and the overall goal.
- Flitting between tables checking the progress of the group.
- Asking questions that help push students in the right direction.
- Praising and motivating.
- Making sure that whatever a student needs (within reason) they can have.
Making sure these 5 tasks are done puts you in a great supporting role, all while the main stars, the students, will be learning by doing.
Stepping into PBL
Done right, project-based learning can be an almighty revolution in teaching.
Studies have shown that it can significantly improve grades, but more importantly, it instills a sense of curiosity in your students, which can serve them wonderfully in their future studies.
If you’re interested in giving PBL a bash in your classroom, remember to start small.
You could do that by trying a short project (maybe just 1 lesson) as a trial and observing how your class performs. You could even give students a quick survey afterwards to ask them how they felt it went and whether or not they’d like to do it on a larger scale.
Also, see if there are any other teachers at your school who would like to try a PBL class. If so, you can sit down together and design something for each of your classes.
But most importantly, don’t underestimate your students. You might just be surprised at what they can do with the right project.