I don’t do projects all the time. But Project-Based Learning (PBL) has profoundly changed what happens in my classroom, even when I am not in the middle of a project.
For my first 10 years of teaching, I operated under the illusion that my energetic enthusiasm and sense of humor was engaging all my students. About 20 years ago, I began to get the feeling that students weren’t as engaged in their learning as I thought they were. I began to question my teaching practices. It dawned on me that I was doing almost all of the talking and my students were mostly sitting there listening. I was also the one asking most of the questions, and, in almost every case, I already knew the answer. The textbook authors and I were doing almost all of the research and making all the decisions about how this material was to be presented; my students were simply transferring the information from my notes, and the texts, onto their test papers.
It occurred to me that the person who learns the most is the one that does the talking, questioning, researching, and organizing. I was learning a lot. Something had to change.
I muddled around, sometimes successfully, with making the students more active in their learning. This wasn’t that easy—the students don’t really take to it willingly—it’s not what they are used to, and the ones that are very good at the transfer of information game, don’t like trying things outside their wheelhouse. This experimentation went on for more than 10 years, and things improved, but I knew that students could be more active and engaged in their learning.
Then I discovered Project-Based Learning. It turns out my instincts were right, I just hadn’t thought broadly enough or pushed far enough.
A project, of the PBL variety, does what we want for our students—we want them to know more, be able to do more and to have deeper understanding of themselves and their world. PBL achieves these essential goals because students are far from passive. They dig into content to answer complex questions, they make decisions, they reflect on their own work and critique the work of others, they revise and they present to real audiences. PBL helped me do what I always knew needed to be done.
The beauty of PBL is not the projects, but the culture it creates in a classroom, and even in a school.
In classes where teachers are familiar with PBL practices, you see students making decisions, not based on how to please the teacher, but on what is the most effective way to achieve their purposes. You see students taking risks, without fear, because they know from experience how much they learn from failure. Student work is regularly shared and critiqued, and students are eager for feedback from their peers, for it makes their work better. The classroom isn’t characterized by completion, but by collaboration. Students are reflecting, not only on their end-product, but on the process and their participation in collaborative ventures. You see students intrinsically motivated to learn. When I walk into another classroom, the teacher will ask a student to explain to me what they are working on. Whenever a guest enters a room, students have an opportunity to present.
Familiarity with PBL allows a teacher to experience all the elements of Project-Based Learning that so successfully engage students. Once you understand these elements, you can use them independently to create engaged learning even when you aren’t doing projects.
This is one of four CACE blog posts on Project-Based Learning. Stay tuned for the following blogs posts in this series:
A version of this article was originally published in the CACE Blog on March 27, 2017.