PBL: Key to Building Student Passions and Growth Mindsets

Project-based learning (PBL) is fairly new to me. A few years ago after attending some conferences and reading a few books, I realized that I had not been doing authentic PBL. Instead, I had been assigning projects, and only promoting student choice by offering a variety of tech tools as options for students to create their project. The choices I provided were different tech tools, which would promote student creativity and help students to develop vital technology skills as well as become responsible digital citizens.

When it comes to technology, I have long been an advocate of edtech use in the classroom, but only when implemented with purpose. Over the past two years, I have seen the benefits of technology for helping students to engage in more authentic and meaningful learning experiences, as well as the benefits of PBL for connecting them with real-world issues

Although I am rather new to PBL, I truly believe that students need opportunities to explore their passions, design their own problems or challenges, and have the time to work through the learning process. To prepare students for the future, whether college or career ready, they need to experience productive struggle, learn to reflect, revise and continue on their path of learning. We should model and promote a growth mindset for our students and serve as both facilitators and mentors for them in the process.

The concept of project-based learning has been around and the methods for implementing it in the classroom can vary. More educators have been using PBL in their courses and something that I learned, is that there are PBL schools opening which are running different programs than the traditional high school curriculum.  One school like this is Gibson EK, a public high school located in Washington. I learned about Gibson because of a new student-created educational app called Gimkit. Laura Steinbrink, a member of my PLN had been talking about Gimkit and sharing how much her students were enjoying it, and so I made a mental note to look into it. As soon as I tried it, I was immediately drawn in by the simplicity of it, and how easy it was to create a game, or “kit.” And more than the game, I have been amazed by the story behind the creation of Gimkit and how well it displays the power of PBL.

PBL: Cultivating passion and a growth mindset

In May of 2017 a high school junior at Gibson, Josh Feinsilber, was completing one of his projects when he thought back to his traditional school, where he recalled using other game-based learning tools. Josh decided that he wanted to develop his own game. He started by doing research, conducting interviews with students and teachers, learning about their impressions of the other game-based learning tools, and even logging complaints shared by the students and teachers. Addressing the most common complaints became the “problem” or the focus of his PBL, which led to the creation of Gimkit.

Josh created the first version of Gimkit last summer. He continued to work through the challenges that came up, ran a small beta test in October and officially launched Gimkit the day before Halloween. To prepare for his game creation, or PBL, Josh taught himself to code between his freshman and sophomore years and then developed GimKit over the following summer. The benefits of being involved in PBL or enrolled in a PBL school such as Gibson EK, are that students are able to pursue something that is of interest to them, in a way that prepares them for the real world. They have the chance to be in the lead, to drive their own learning, and become more reflective in their work. This authentic learning, which requires student-driven inquiry and lacks in a clear answer can be uncomfortable for some students. However, the benefits are great, as students develop the critical skills needed to be “future ready” by crafting their own learning paths and engaging in learning which is personalized.

In a PBL school such as Gibson EK, with the motto “Real World, Real Learning, Real Life’” students do not enroll in traditional courses, rather they “earn academic competencies through projects” and work with a mentor through internships, two days per week. In Josh’s case, he has a mentor that helps him to keep moving forward, provides guidance as the year and project progress. Three times per year, students present their completed work, including the design process, and their research completed through a “learning cycle” to a panel comprised of teachers, parents, mentor and other students. The presentation is the “culmination” of their cycle of work, yet not a finished product, as with PBL, there is always room to grow and iterations to be made. The school is designed on principles including “Stop learning for school, start learning for life” and “continually explore those interests and make something out of them.” For PBL, we want students to learn about the real world, to explore passions and to have authentic learning experiences.

The art of reflection

Michael Matera, author of Explore Like a Pirate, recently interviewed Josh about how he came up with the idea for Gimkit and his plans for the future. During the interview, Josh shared three truly reflective questions that he asks himself: “Am I working to improve the product every single day? Am I improving myself every single day? Am I doing something to push the product further every day?” Questions like these represent a growth mindset, the opportunity to drive his learning and set challenges for himself. These are the questions which are asked when students engage in sustained inquiry that comes through project or problem-based learning.

Feedback: Assessing the benefits of learning

Feedback is key to the learning process. For Josh, the feedback from his peers is critical to his success and growth, and continued progress in designing a beneficial game for classrooms. Project-based learning promotes student choice and leads to more authentic learning experiences for students. It can feel overwhelming to get started with it in the classroom, however, there are many resources available to guide educators along the way.

About the Author:

Rachelle Dene Poth has been teaching at Riverview High School in Pennsylvania for the past 21 years.  Rachelle currently teaches Spanish and a STEAM course What’s nExT? In Emerging Technology. Rachelle is an attorney and has a Master’s Degree in Instructional Technology. She was President-Elect of the Teacher Education Network and Communications Chair for the Mobile Learning Network and was selected as one of “20 to watch” by the NSBA and received the PAECT Outstanding Teacher of the Year for 2017. At ISTE 2017 San Antonio, Rachelle received the Presidential Silver Award for Volunteer Service to Education.  She is a regular blogger for Getting Smart and Kidblog.  Find Rachelle regularly on Twitter @Rdene915.


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