Project-Based Teaching and Learning: Designed with Students in Mind

Project-Based Teaching and Learning: Designed with Students in Mind

To the ears of many, project-based learning is just another education buzzword laden with promise but unclear in definition. These days, the phrase is often linked with the rise of personalized approaches to learning, as exemplified in a 2018 blog post by Mike Wolking, a progressive education advocate affiliated with the nonprofit organization Buck Institute for Education. In his piece, Wolking recounted a professional development session that afforded him the opportunity to further investigate the “connections between project-based learning and personalized learning,” which he characterized as “pillars of instruction.” 

To get beyond the buzzword baggage that can be associated with project-based learning, Wolking began with a definition

In case you're unfamiliar, project-based learning is an instructional approach in which student learning within any given unit builds toward resolution of a complex, real-world problem. Project-based learning pushes teachers and students to think boldly about how work completed in class connects to the thorny and interesting world beyond school. Done well, it demands critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration among teachers, students, and community members.

In Wolking's eyes, the root of this practice is to “design learning with students, rather than simply for them.” 

Project-based learning and literacy instruction

Suzie Boss, an education writer who shares both Wolking’s passion for project-based learning and his affiliation with the Buck Institute, took the concept of project-based learning a step further by applying it directly to literacy instruction in a 2014 piece for the online resource site Edutopia.

With many educators, policymakers, and families concerned about the often stagnant rates of literacy in the United States—even as the economy continues to shift toward more knowledge-based jobs that require higher levels of reading, writing, and critical thinking—there is frequent mention in the media of a nationwide “literacy crisis” affecting adults, adolescents, and beyond. For example, in 2016, the Washington Post published a story about the significant number of adults who lack robust or even adequate literacy skills, citing research from the Literacy Foundation. 

Academic Language and School Success: Connecting Reading Research to Classroom Assessment and Instruction

Boss’s Edutopia piece zeroed in on how project-based learning (which she referred to by the shorthand PBL) can be used to give students’ literacy skills a “workout.” According to Boss, the two are a natural fit, as “many effective literacy techniques fit seamlessly into PBL [in the form of] projects that incorporate readers' theater, literature circles, and writers' workshops, to name a few.” 

Boss went on to incorporate the ideas and experiences of classroom teachers who shared their thoughts in a project-based learning Twitter chat hosted by the International Reading Association. One participant, identified as an instructional coach, further linked literacy lessons and project-based learning through this strong statement: “Asking questions, reading with a question in mind, summarizing—not sure you could do PBL without including literacy skills.” 

Using this assertion as a starting point, Boss offered examples of how other educators have applied the theory of project-based learning to their teaching practice, including a URL leading to a catalog of recent student projects at San Diego’s well-regarded High Tech High. From the looks of the school's website, the sky’s the limit, with students undertaking everything from bread-baking to sharing their thoughts on the San Diego-Tijuana border

Putting it into practice

A link to a list of “super practical project-based learning ideas” compiled by Lori Oczkus for the International Literacy Association’s website was also included in Boss's piece, along with the observation that the value of using a project-based learning framework lies in the ability to deliver the kind of 21st-century skills that most observers want all students to access, such as “critical thinking, research strategies, collaboration, communication, and literacy.” 

The list of project ideas that teachers may find inspiring includes the following:

  • Fourth-graders cruising the playground to interview students about their after-school snacks, gathering data for posters to promote healthy nibbling
  • Second-graders learning about chickens and reading books as part of a fundraising effort to provide chickens for families in other parts of the world
  • Fifth-graders working in teams to write letters to the city council, with the goal of promoting better citywide recycling
  • Kindergartners baking and wrapping healthy dog treats for a local animal shelter, and learning about taking care of animals in the process

The goal of projects like these is to create excitement and engagement that will ultimately encourage students to apply their emerging skills to work they find purposeful. This, in turn, will likely lead to another essential element of project-based learning: a sense of community and collaboration. 

Changing the culture of the classroom

Wondering how to foster a classroom environment conducive to successful project-driven student work? A sample chapter from "Project-Based Teaching"—a book penned by Boss and her colleague, John Larmer, that delves into the process of changing the culture of the classroom—is available on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s website. 

“Classroom culture is multifaceted and challenging to define, but it is essential to get right if you want all students to thrive with PBL,” the duo wrote. “Across an entire school, culture encompasses the shared values, beliefs, perceptions, rules (both written and unwritten), and relationships that govern how the institution functions.” In the authors’ view, these values and beliefs must lend support to project-based teaching, learning, and assessment, and can’t be done in isolation. As Boss and Larmer phrased it, “Building the right culture for PBL requires ongoing effort and attention by both teachers and students. Instead of being hidden, a PBL culture needs to be openly constructed, reinforced, and celebrated.”

The chapter goes on to helpfully include concrete strategies to create an ideal culture for project-based learning. From fostering an environment of “shared values” (including the power of listening and offering continuous support) to having teachers and students create lists of “shared norms,” the suggestions center on paying attention to detail, prioritizing students’ needs and experiences, and conducting an audit of one’s classroom space to see how well the sometimes-messy work of project-based learning can be accommodated. 

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