If you’re a teacher interested in implementing project-based learning, it can be difficult to know where to start. That’s why PenPal Schools spoke with our teachers from all over the world to learn how they’ve successfully transitioned to PBL. Here are four steps to get started with PBL in your classroom.
1. Make projects purposeful
“Why are we doing this?” If you hear these words from your students, that’s a sure sign that your PBL could use some improvement. It should be clear to students what they are doing and why. Real-world problems clearly define the purpose of the project. There is a lot of room for creativity here! If you want your students to create a news article, ask them to write for a real news publication. If you want your students to learn about climate change, ask them to solve a real environmental challenge facing your community.
"If you want your students to learn about climate change, ask them to solve a real environmental challenge facing your community." Click to Tweet
Another way to make your projects purposeful is to ground them in inquiry. This encourages students to investigate, research, and create solutions instead of simply performing a task that you’ve assigned. A strong question will guide students throughout their entire project, and the deliverables they create should help to answer the inquiry question. Here are some examples of engaging inquiry questions from PenPal Schools projects:
From Protecting the Planet: Are individuals, community groups, or governments responsible for protecting the environment? Are we doing enough to ensure that the next generation has a healthy planet?
From A World of Food: How can studying food help us learn about communities around the world?
From Fables, Folktales, and Mythology: What can fables, folktales, and mythology teach us about cultures and communities around the world?
From Schools Around the World: How does your school compare to schools around the world?
2. Get students excited to create
Project-based learning isn’t just about learning for the sake of learning. The goal is for students to create something original. Traditional curriculum might ask students to imagine or describe solutions to real-world problems, but project-based learning challenges students to actually build their solutions. To ensure that students give their best effort, let them know that their projects will be shared with parents, administrators, and community members.
Another great way to get students excited is to let them choose what they’ll create. You can provide students with a list of options or allow them to come up with their own ideas.
In Protecting the Planet, students choose what they’ll create from a list of options:
3. Focus on knowledge and skills as a means to help students create their projects
Many educators are concerned that project-based learning doesn’t cover the skills and content that students need to learn (and that might be required for standardized tests). However, project-based learning can incorporate the same skills and content as traditional curriculum, such as gathering information through texts, analyzing different perspectives and writing. You can help students practice these skills by engaging with authentic resources. Some ideas include interviewing experts, conducting field research, or searching for news publications.
Because students are creating something original for a clear purpose, building knowledge becomes part of the process and not simply the end goal, which leads to deeper learning. According to a 2017 study from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, gains were 63 percent higher for social studies and 23 percent higher for informational reading through project-based learning than with traditional curriculum. Another study by the George Lucas Educational Foundation found that AP Government students who participated in PBL had a 30% higher pass rate than students in traditional settings.
4. Practice frequent and multi-direction reflection
The idea that project-based learning is difficult to assess is a common misconception. Assessment and reflection are not only possible, but are a key component of project-based learning. In fact, PBL assessment is more similar to traditional curriculum than you may think.
Just like with traditional curriculum, sharing your grading rubric with students helps them to understand expectations before they begin and to reflect on their performance throughout the project. Aligning your project to standards also helps to clarify how and what to assess. Since PBL is a process, you should assess students and provide feedback early and often.
Reflection is a critical component of PBL because it helps students to recognize obstacles and identify strategies to improve. Too often student work starts with a student and ends with a teacher. Break this cycle by encouraging your students to reflect on what they learned, where they excelled, and how they can improve. In addition to self-reflection, ask students to provide constructive feedback to their project teammates. You’ll know you’re on the right track when students start asking each other for feedback and advice instead of running to you for help!
These four steps will help you get started with PBL in your classroom. If you are brand new to project based learning, be prepared to learn a lot during your first project. Just as PBL requires students to be agile, teachers also need to be able to continue learning and to adapt quickly. Below are some additional helpful links, and you can also connect with teachers in over 150 countries in the PenPal Schools global community to learn how they have successfully implemented project-based learning in their classrooms!
Getting Started With Project-Based Learning (Hint: Don’t Go Crazy)
Tips for Getting Started with Project Based Learning
Starting Small with PBL
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