“Why don’t my people get it?!” groaned the exasperated project manager at XYZ Corporation’s world headquarters. “How is it that I have a bunch of straight-A college grads who just can’t work and figure things out together?”
Okay, so that quotation and setting are fictional. But one can easily imagine it happening! The idea of young people entering the workforce while lacking the finesse to work well with others—let alone technical skills needed for the job itself—is as distasteful to educators as it is to HR departments. One solution that holds a lot of promise: Project-Based Learning (PBL).
What is PBL?
PBL is a teaching method whereby students acquire knowledge and skills by working together on a long-term project. A challenge or problem is presented to them, and they must investigate, collaborate, and come up with the solution using whatever parameters are laid out. The complexity level can vary, according to the students’ maturity or abilities. The advantages of PBL are numerous:
- Many students being hands-on learners, they want to actually dig in and try things or do They’re easily bored with lectures, but PBL engages their minds and focuses their energy.
- Kids are naturally social and will interact with each other anyway. PBL channels that zeal into a goal-focused endeavor where they are actually learning together.
- Collaboration is practically a tenet of 21st-century workplace culture in many industries. PBL introduces students to this kind of interaction, so it will come naturally to them later on.
- As on any team working together toward a common goal, PBL lets individual students hone, sharpen, and contribute their unique skills and talents to the benefit of the whole team.
So, how does it look in the classroom?
Jacqueline Hinkel, a Columbus-based K-3 teacher, attests to the benefits of PBL: “One major advantage is that the students are all involved with project based learning. They own their learning because [they] are interacting with each other, making their own discoveries and observations through the project. They are given basic guidelines from the teacher—and from there, they learn on their own.”
Kelsey Sheehy, an education writer for U.S. News and World Report’s “High School Notes,” concurs: “Project-based learning improves student engagement and prepares them for college and the workforce by incorporating 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving,” she states—even while acknowledging that the introduction of PBL to a curriculum is not always automatically accepted. “Transitioning to this teaching style requires training and support for teachers, as well as buy-in from students, parents and administrators,” she continues.
Would it actually work in MY classroom?
Suzie Boss, an Edutopia blogger and coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning, offers several superb insights into how PBL can be effectively conducted and its results measured. This “tool kit” for project assessment is organized to follow the arc of a project: planning, the hands-on work of learning, a presentation of the completed project, and finally a reflection on what was learned. The reflection phase can include strategizing for future improvement.
As the PBL movement has grown and attracted attention, so too have the resources available to support it and adapt it to the needs of diverse student populations. In a very thoughtful piece at gettingsmart.com, blogger Amber Chandler lays out ideas for supporting PBL for students from low-income families. The key there is to promote equity, and ensure that poverty—even the simple lack of access to basic supplies for school projects and homework—doesn’t adversely impact any student’s ability to learn through participation in a group project.
Clearly, Project-Based Learning is an idea whose time has arrived, and it is catching on quickly. With the right mix of project-based and more traditional pedagogic methods, students can be better prepared to face the world that awaits them.