By David Reese, Ed.D.
I often come across educators who are concerned with the time that project-based learning can take in their classroom. Often, shortcuts are looked for and taken, which diminish the value of the learning process. It is important to have a vision for the outcome and an understanding of how the process can benefit students.
Similarly, I often think of my favorite NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers, when discussing the length of the PBL process. After a few years of losing streaks, the 76ers leadership team claimed they had a new vision and plan for success that would take time, but the fans needed to “trust the process”.
Project-based learning uses the project/product as the vehicle for the learning, however, just creating a project does not deepen the learning. It’s the process itself that develops students higher order thinking and helps them apply content and skills.
Five aspects of the process that have great value include:
Planning: This is the first part of the process but also a strong challenge if new to PBL. The first thing that must be done is connecting the PBL to standards, domains, and/or learning goals. For the implementation, many teachers have suggested to me that the first time they followed a structured PBL framework while understanding they needed to be flexible and adapt as they went forward. They had some successes and some failures. Most importantly, they were able to take risks thanks to the support of their leadership. The following aspects should be considered when developing your plan or assessing your strategies if jumping right in.
Grouping and Collaboration: When beginning the process teachers should choose a strategy that bests meets the needs of the students in each group. Often teachers group their students by those who can get along and help each other succeed. The more the group gets along the more they will support each other and help the teacher meet the needs of all students. It can also help to minimize classroom management and distraction issues.
Research Question Development and the Research: Based on the students, teachers will need to decide whether to provide driving questions, support the development of the questions, or have student collaboratively create the questions. It will be important for the students to understand why the questions were selected and how they contribute to the task, the audience, and the product. Students need to have flexibility, but just how much is up to the teacher to decide. The same can be said for the research. Is the necessary research provided or what level of independence will the students possess? Also, will the students be using technology for research and what type of technology is accessible? This can be time-consuming but provides students with critical skills needed for learning and success in the coming years.
Ongoing Formative Assessment: As the students work through all parts of the task it will be important for teachers to continually evaluate student knowledge and understanding and their ongoing needs. Self-reflection for the students will be important as they continually evaluate their work, research, and products.
It is also important to evaluate the process itself. The process is adaptable and it will be important to continually plan and make changes as you go. The teacher will need to decide on the time allocate for each section and adjust as needed. If doing multiple products, it will be important to decide which is created first and the connections between the products. The number of products to be completed may need to be adjusted based on student work and understanding.
Product Creation: It will be important to determine the real-world products to be created to meet the needs of the audience through the task. When working in groups the teacher will want to decide if all products are created by the group or if one or more are submitted individually. This typically is a decision based on the want/need for individual grades and/or accountability. This is an individual teacher preference with many teachers having all products created by the group.
Other considerations may be the availability of technology to create products. A model or prototype is often a product considered. It will be important to think about the available materials and the time available to build. If this is too difficult a drawing and/or diagram can be a strong substitute.
Finally, how many products are appropriate? I frequently observe teachers choosing 2-3 products that are different yet connected such as a diagram, multimedia presentation and a sales pitch or television news report.
Please remember that it may not go as planned the first or second time. Practicing the process with the students can help everyone get more comfortable and structured over time. This article from the Buck Institute provides a number of scaffolding ideas that can be a big help in becoming better at the process. Hopefully, as you gain a better understanding of what to expect through the process these ideas can help make the instruction and learning more comfortable and ultimately successful.
The 76ers process seemed to last forever, but the improvement they are showing this year and wins they are achieving is proving that the process was worth the wait. Similarly, if your goal of project-based learning is to build your students 21st-century skills and prepare them for success in life, then I can assure you that the process is where you will achieve success. It’s worth the time.